The Practice

What is the purpose of doing art therapy? Ask any art therapist this question and you’ll get a laundry list of compelling reasons why art heals but one that isn’t talked about a lot is that making art is a way to practice how you want to feel so you can bring those qualities to other parts of your life. 

Let’s say you are a thinker, a planner, someone who’s analytical. But it bothers you to always “be in your head” and you think yourself in circles, doubting yourself and your intuition. Making art would serve as practice in being spontaneous, not having a plan for what you’re going to make, and for not knowing what your art is about. Maybe I’d challenge you by having you to start painting and then halfway through ask you to turn the page and keep going or tear up the image and make a collage from the pieces.

Let’s say you have low self-esteem, feel like you can’t do anything right, and feel hopeless a lot of the time. Making art would both mirror these feelings (meaning you probably don’t like your art either) and would be a way to practice self-compassion, gratitude, and enjoyment for the art-making process. Maybe I’d invite you to make a large sculpture or collage that takes several weeks so you feel a sense of pride and mastery for working through challenges and completing something you set your mind and heart to doing.

The reality is that the art you make in art therapy doesn’t have to mean anything. It can be about practicing how you want to feel and then translating those skills to other parts of your life. 

The woman who thinks herself in circles practices and learns to trust herself. When she catches herself ruminating about a conflict at work she has tools she learned in art therapy to calm her mind, check-in with how she’s feeling, and tune into her role in the conflict without letting it spiral into a sleepless night.

The man who feels hopeless practices and learns he has value. When he goes on a nervous first date he has the embodied experience of working through challenges, looking for joy, and investing himself in something worthwhile.

Art therapy is a way to “try on” how you want to feel so you can bring those qualities into your life. It’s a novel and transformative way to make art that takes the pressure off the art itself. As you make art this month, make your intention to feel a certain way and use the art to practice the feeling. If your intention is to feel more grounded, let that feeling guide what you make, what material you use, and what your process is and then watch how the feeling stays with you long after you finish your art.

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