Insight, Introspection, & “Stuckness”
Let’s face it; we’re therapists, and we adore insight and introspection. But many of our clients don’t. Timing is everything, and sometimes it’s just not time to shine the light of illumination onto people who aren’t ready to see the light of day. Still, it can be tempting. Some non-art therapists use artmaking with their clients in the hopes of helping their clients “express” things the clients might not actually be ready to express, let alone meet face-to-face in their art images. The urge to push insight and introspection onto clients is generally about your needs as a therapist, and it often has little to do with what your clients need. So…what do you do when a client’s image contains potentially revealing information but the client is too stuck to notice?
I remember quite clearly a session in which I had to walk that fine line. As an art therapist, my early career resulted in a resumé of ridicule and rejection by non-art therapists who dismissed my knowledge base and skill set as “not real therapy”. (It’s striking how the times have changed and non-art therapists are now jumping at the opportunity to incorporate artmaking into their work with others!) And at the time of this particular session, I provided group services to adult male inmates in a maximum-security psychiatric prison. That’s not exactly the population or setting for insight and introspection. Besides, group service provision was supposed to be psychoeducational rather than psychotherapeutic in order to (a) reduce the likelihood of creating predators and victims and (b) reduce the likelihood that taxpayers would object to funding treatment.
So in that perfect storm of low regard for my knowledge base and skill set, my desire to be taken seriously as a therapist, a disconnected population in a disconnected setting, and a directive to avoid anything other than CBT-oriented processes, there I was in one of the final sessions of this time-limited group. “Visual-Perceptual Mood Management” is what I called it, and I based the curriculum on Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The last exercise, or post-test, consisted of having the inmates draw their non-dominant hand. This took a few sessions to complete, and during this particular session one of the group members announced that he’d finished his. We were discussing his technical success when he made the observation that he’d drawn his hand larger than it actually is. Suddenly he looked up from his art and blurted, “Is that supposed to mean anything?”
You don’t know how badly I wanted to shout out “YES!” But despite the perfect storm of conditions that left me craving insight and introspection from my clients (and recognition for the ability to facilitate these things), I mustered up all my verbal impulse control and instead said, “I don’t know. What do you think?”
The man thought about it for a while and remarked, “You know, a lot of my friends have told me that I make mountains out of molehills.” He went on to compare this statement to the drawing he’d made, verbally and visually illustrating the cognitive distortion of magnification, and he concluded that perhaps his friends were right.
The discussion didn’t last much longer than that, but I had finally gotten a fix for my insight deprivation. It was one of the few introspective moments I witnessed in my 5.5 years of providing treatment there, and it was the most memorable. Best of all, it happened not when I most needed it, but when the client was most ready for it. If I’d given in to my impulse to connect the dots for him, he probably wouldn’t have truly been able to move himself beyond what I’d thought was his “stuckness”. After all, he wasn’t the one who was stuck.
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan June 2014