“Let Fredom be Free!”
Generally speaking, therapists strive to allow their clients the opportunity to express themselves without constraints. However, this might not be the case in, say, groups for people with substance abuse issues, groups for individuals who’ve committed a sexual offense, or groups for survivors of suicide. In short, groups impose a few expressive limitations that are not present in individual work. Anyone who’s ever facilitated a group for adolescents in residential treatment knows that limits are important for preserving the psychological safety of all group members.
So there I was, facilitating a group art therapy session for adolescents in residential treatment. It was an all-girls group, and the level of cohesiveness was fairly high. One of the girls had been in a euphoric state for a week or two, and she preached the gospel of liberty, autonomy, and independence to anyone who would listen. She wanted to use the session for creating a poster that would be hung somewhere in the facility, as she believed her campaign needed some visual aids. The other girls in the group were neither impressed nor irritated with her intentions; they were indifferent. She took this as an endorsement and quickly engaged in the creative process.
The end result was a poster that said…”Let Fredom Be Free!” Hmm. She was so proud of it and nearly sang the words as she discussed her art. None of the other girls seemed to notice the typo. They gave her fairly generic feedback, perhaps tired of her excessive enthusiasm and apparent inability to gauge their responses to her. But the mental health worker in the group and I noticed the error. The session ended, and the girl lingered behind with her poster, waxing lyrically about its message and pondering where in the facility it would receive the most views.
“Let Fredom Be Free!” within the context of a group session—particularly a group whose members don’t appear to notice or care about spelling errors—isn’t something that would normally be fodder for clinical intervention. But since this typo was en route to a larger audience, did I have an obligation to let the artist know that others might focus on her mistake rather than on her message? In the end, I decided no. The mental health worker must have decided the same thing, because he kept his mouth shut as well. The girl took her poster and left, bound for the lights of Broadway.
In art therapy, process is almost always more important than product. So I used that as my guiding light and avoided coming across to the girl as a critic rather than as a source of support. Her message was not toxic to the group in any way and thus did not need to be addressed, and her mistake did not affect the group either. I did have to manage my own fear of looking stupid in front of others, which manifested as countertransference in this situation.
Did I make the right decision? Well, I never heard about the poster again. The girl energetically participated in many other art therapy group sessions and never accused me of letting her make a fool of herself. She seemed to benefit from having the fredom (typo intended) to express herself without needing to worry about someone else’s version of perfection.
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan September 2014