Take it to the Limit, Part I
Limit testing. Most therapists have the limit-testing group client at least once in their lives. And depending on the population you serve, you’ve run into several limit-testing clients in your therapy groups. Undermining the authority of the group facilitator can take many forms, but adding a non-verbal dimension such as art to the group process also adds one more dimension of rebelliousness and subversiveness for the limit-testing group member to pursue. How do you handle it when someone is verbally compliant and cooperative yet uses the artmaking experience to perpetrate against you? And all in front of an audience?
Good question. On my first day with a group of adolescent boys in a residential treatment facility, I knew there would be limit testing. It’s the nature of that particular beast. I asked each of the boys to create an art product that was about his name; this would give me valuable information about my new clients beyond what they could reveal at the verbal level. I set out a variety of materials and invited the boys to create. Things were actually pretty smooth, given the circumstances, and no one attacked me for replacing the previous art therapist (which is something that had happened in my other initial group sessions at the RTC). As the boys worked, I got a sense of the group’s pecking order–the followers and the leaders.
And then the Leader of the Pack emerged. Tall, confident, and perhaps the oldest boy there, he leaned back in his chair, arms folded across his chest and a big smirk on his face as he saw me take note of what he was in the process of creating. The others near him were snickering about his art product too. He’d selected colored paper, crayons, and glue, and was spelling out his name in crayons—by gluing them to the paper, not writing with them.
Symbolically, this was about perpetration; he took something from me without my consent and looked for a reaction while using it for his own purposes. We both knew this amounted to the permanent retirement of the crayons, rendering them useless for others. We also both knew that he was doing exactly what had been asked of him: using the materials to create an art product that was about his name.
The snickering continued as others in the group realized that he’d invited the new art therapist to a showdown. Hmm. The Leader was waiting for me to come down on one side of the fence or the other, and he seemed prepared to find fault with my judgment either way. The other group members positioned themselves to back him. So I aimed right down the middle of his behavior and neutrally acknowledged all of it—the following of directions as well as the destruction of materials under the guise of following directions.
He didn’t challenge me, and neither did anyone else. What was there to challenge me about? Everything I’d said had been accurate yet non-judgmental. And I hadn’t asked him to stop, so there was no power struggle. The showdown was over. Everyone, including the Leader, returned to their tasks, glued-on crayons and all, and the session continued without incident. By calling the Leader on his dually cooperative and contemptuous process without condemning his art, I also avoided condemning him—which might have been a new experience in his world.
Unless harm is imminent, it’s within everyone’s best interests if a subversive art process can be separated from the resulting art product. The Leader’s art process was about his interpersonal dynamics, but his art product was him (remember, it even bore his name!). If I’d criticized it, either explicitly by pointing out that it was made with corrosive intentions or implicitly by requesting that he stop working on it, I would have set myself up to have an adversarial relationship with him and the other group members.
Instead, I accepted the art without accepting the behavior that went with it. That neutralized the situation and paved the way for the development of psychological safety—and the freedom of visual expression—within the group. Although it took a while to get to that point, I did earn enough street cred during that session to avoid further major episodes with the Leader of the Pack.
But my adventures with him weren’t over. Tune in next month and, as the Eagles would say, “take it to the limit one more time.”
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan April 2014