FOURTEEN The Therapist’s Container

  • 1 draw pictures about my clients for many reasons. Sometimes I just need to release the images, purging myself of my clients’ stories. At those times I do not need feedback; I just need to let go of images and stories that are disturbing. Figure 14.1 is such a picture. It is about a highly sexualized, emotionally hurt little 5-year-old girl and a foster mother who was ready to adopt her. However, before adoption could take place, a grandmother, who had been absent from the child’s life almost since birth, emerged and wanted to have her. I was angry at everyone: the protective services system, the grandmother, the mother, the foster family. I wanted to scream in frustration that
  • 2 years of really good foster parenting could be so quickly destroyed.

I used this picture to vent my frustration and anger. I did not need to dwell on this piece of art; I just needed to create it.

It is useful, in this sense, to think of the art as a container (Allen, 1988). Having that witness, which Allen (1995) described as necessary to images, helps the therapist see feelings without the censorship that is so easy when using only words. Looking to the images for meaning helps the therapist understand his or her clients better, through understanding countertransference and projective identifications.

Fish (2012, 2016) defined “response art” as being artwork created to process material arising in art therapy work. Included in her definition are many uses of art: to support empathic engagement with the client, examine

The author's painting of a client's family dynamics

Figure 14.1. The author's painting of a client's family dynamics

count ertransference, promote self-care, explore meanings, transition from work, provide a focus for supervision, contend with personal or professional issues, or simply capture a feeling in a given moment.

This should not be confused with “art” art, which is a personal art practice that we do for ourselves. “Art” art should have nothing to do with our work as therapists. Kramer, one of the founders of art therapy, insisted that art therapists stay engaged in an active art practice (Kramer, 1996; Kramer, Drachnik, Anderson, Landgarten, Levick, & Riley, 1994) and may have even gone so far as to say it is amoral to do otherwise (Wix, 1998). Moon described art making as a matter of professional authenticity and provided art therapists a permission slip to do art: “You can, you should, make the time to, make art. Painting, drawing, sculpting—is powerful stuff, like magic . . . the bread of life. The bread is within your reach. So eat” (Moon, B., 2002a, p. xi).

The art therapist engaged in a creative practice himself or herself will know what it feels like to make a cathartic discharge with paint, will know the satisfaction that happens during sublimation, and will have experienced moments when feelings that have not yet been consciously spoken appear in art. Aside from being a way to keep one’s own house in order, an art practice teaches the therapist to experience kinesthetic empathy. When an angry, gut-wrenching picture is created, the art therapist will recognize it on a visceral level. This is why training in art is an important part of the training of an art therapist.

A personal art practice is an escape from work; the work described in this chapter is about the work. They should be two different kinds of practices and, if possible, created in different spaces. The rest of this chapter will focus on art that is done in the service of work as a therapist, not as a personal art practice.

Work with children who have experienced early trauma is difficult and challenges the therapist on many levels. Countertransference reactions that are unique to this kind of work are experienced and include denial, detachment, enmeshment, overcommitment, rescuer activities, withdrawal, and codependent relations (Wilson & Lindy, 1994; Wilson, Lindy, & Raphael, 1994).

Supervision, even for seasoned therapists, is vitally important. Supervision provides the distance that the therapist needs to look at cases objectively. Because these stories are emotionally laden, the therapist must also find some way of containing the client’s pain so that it does not overwhelm the therapist.

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