A Therapist’s Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
“I’ve shown you mine, so can I see yours?” I don’t believe these are the exact words that have been spoken to me by clients time and time again, but they communicate the same sentiment: You’ve seen my art, so can I see yours?
It’s natural for clients to want to see the work of their art therapist. And even if you’re not an art therapist but you ask your clients to engage in artmaking during sessions, they’ll want to see your artwork too.
There are many reasons for this, and they typically have to do with a sense of vulnerability. People are generally able to censor themselves at the verbal level, but when visual communication comes into play, it’s much harder for them to monitor what they are revealing through their art. Most adults and adolescents have the same art skills they did when they stopped making art, which was probably at the onset of formal operational thinking. Being asked to make art in the presence of an authority figure—remember the power differential that’s inherent to the practice of therapy—can strike many as an invitation to uncloak their incompetence; a sense of incompetence is why they stopped making art in the first place. And some people with paranoid schizophrenia will see artmaking in the context of therapy as an attempt to read their minds, which leaves them vulnerable.
Anxiety about mind-reading can even occur in children if they have concerns about the information their art will accidentally convey and any actions the therapist might have to take based on the art. I was tasked with administering art-based assessments during my graduate practicum at a child and adolescent inpatient psychiatric facility, and I recall one young girl who was very guarded in her cooperation. She frequently asked about how her drawings—if she made them—would be used against her mother. Talk about feeling vulnerable.
And sometimes when people are stripped of their verbal defenses by being asked to engage in artmaking during sessions, they are confronted by visual information about themselves that not even they want to be aware of. In Resistance is Fertile, I noted the cases of two clients—one an older man and the other a younger boy—whose artwork contained elements of disturbance they were only vaguely aware of, but they resisted seeing themselves and being seen through further artmaking. Again, a sense of vulnerability prevailed.
Vulnerability typically is the driving force behind clients’ requests to see their therapist’s art, as this serves to level the playing field; if I’m going show you mine, you should show me yours. Some clinicians might view this as an acceptable arrangement, but it’s really a slippery slope. Seeing a therapist’s art offers clients the opportunity to avoid focusing on themselves while the focus shifts to the therapist. Uh-oh. And then the comparisons can begin, and the projections, and the…
It’s generally best practice to leave your personal artwork out of sessions and out of the places that clients can access. Sure, some clients are just curious about you in a harmless way. But as Napoleon Bonaparte pointed out, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When you put your artwork out there for clients to see, you have limited control over which 1,000 words they’ll infer about you.
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan July 2014