Resistance is Fertile


Resistance is Fertile

Therapists who attend art-based workshops seem to be pretty gung-ho about learning new methods they can use with their clients.  Their excitement is exciting!  But it also may be blind to an important detail of clinical practice: clients might not be very excited about making art in a therapy session.  Uh-oh.


Think about it: most people stop voluntarily making art as they reach formal operational thinking and can begin to compare their artistic endeavors to those of their peers and make decisions about whose is the “best”.  They’re no longer producing images for the sake of creating and communicating, they’re in it for technical skills and success.  They’ve shifted the focus from the importance of process to the importance of product.  Once they’ve reached the conclusion that they aren’t artistic, they generally don’t want to be reminded of the disappointment and embarrassment of not being as good as their artistic peers.  They learn to downplay the significance of artmaking in general—and usually life does not ever again ask them to draw anything, so it all works out; their secret is safe.


But when their therapist pushes that button with a request for in-session artmaking, the disappointment and embarrassment they felt back in middle school (roughly speaking; the onset of formal operational thinking is different for everyone) comes creeping back in.  Because they haven’t made art since the days of concrete operational thinking, their art skills have remained in a state of arrested development.  This results in the creation of child-like images that reinforce clients’ negative ideas about their overall competence.  Adolescents and adults alike are susceptible to this quick trip to the aches and pains of a child who desperately wants to be seen as capable but instead has been exposed as inept.


Usually children themselves do not reject artmaking.  Those who do are often the victims of critical older siblings who have rejected artmaking themselves, so the children stop making art because of the pain they’ve learned to associate with it.  Another reason children (and some adolescents and adults) reject artmaking is because they may be guarded against letting adults have access to their thoughts and feelings, perhaps because these things have been used against them in the past.  People of all ages know how to censor their thoughts and feelings at the verbal level, but they typically lack this savvy when it comes to their visual products.  The solution?  They don’t make art at all, especially when an authority figure asks them to.


And then there’s a rather delicate reason why clients could be disinterested in artmaking; their art products might reveal something about themselves that they don’t want to look at.  I used to work at a men’s maximum-security psychiatric prison, and an older inmate there griped and grumbled when he was put in one of my art therapy groups.  When I saw his artwork, I knew what the problem was; he had a neurodegenerative condition that had not yet manifested itself in other ways, but it came through in his visual products.  I dropped him from the group at his request and talked to the treatment team about my concerns.  He was moved to a ward for vulnerable inmates, where he subsequently began to demonstrate further signs of decline (and then he asked to be put back into my art therapy group!)  Now I work for a school district, and a fifth-grade boy I’ve been providing services to for two years is reluctant to make art in our sessions.  And who can blame him; although he problem solves in a gifted/talented, outside-the-box fashion, his art products look very characteristic of someone with an intellectual disability.  So we operate at an embodied metaphorical level, acting out and re-working the symbolic stories he’s drawn to rather than exploring these through artwork.


Resistance is fertile.  It provides information about what may lie just beyond the final frontier of a client’s comfort zone, offers suggestions about where the client can do the most growing, and helps the clinician develop appropriate strategies for honoring barriers.  If this resistance is triggered by artmaking, be prepared to accept the client’s apprehension.  Depending on the client’s reason for resistance, she or he may benefit from reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (©2006, Random House)—especially chapter 3, “The Truth About Ability and Accomplishment”, which challenges the idea that artistic talent is a gift some people have and some people don’t.  Regardless of the rationale behind resistance, it’s important to encourage the client’s efforts toward artmaking rather than to praise her or his abilities.  Emphasize that the art process is more important than the client’s art products.


And if the client still won’t make art in therapy?  Continue to sow the seeds of empathy and move on.  Resistance isn’t futile; it’s fertile and can propagate the development of a therapeutic relationship that’s based on reverence and respect.  Beyond the act of artmaking lies the crux of creativity that’s central to the therapeutic journey anyhow, so even a client who rejects artistic endeavors will inadvertently become her or his own masterpiece as a result of the transformative work you do together.


With appreciation for the important work you do,

Megan May 2012

About the Image on This Page

This is a thumbnail of Abstract, posted to The Public Domain website by Mitch Featherston in 2012. Click here for more information.