Containers, they come in all shapes and sizes, and are made of many different materials. Glass, wood, metal, stone, and so forth, the choices are endless. Their surfaces can range from rough to smooth. The can be hand-made or machine-made. Carved, nailed, or blown, as the ones in the picture accompanying this blog post. They can be lightly closed or locked tightly. They can hold many things, from tangible objects, collectables, money, memories, reminders, the possibilities are endless.
The term “container” has been used in the world of psychotherapy since it’s inception, and was found in Freud’s writings in the early days of psychoanalysis. It means a “holding environment” with emphasis on safety, projection into a safe space. Or, it could mean holding until feeling states can be discharged in a safe way. This “holding environment” could be found in either another figure, such as a mother, or other caretaker, or in a process. In the process, the process allows discharge and holding through the creation of a product, such as an art object, a dance, writing, etc. In art therapy we use the process of art making and the finished product both as a container.
How I Work With “Containers”.
I work with the metaphor of container with clients using verbal psychotherapy and art therapy. We can discuss how the person “holds” his stress or issue or whether another person as a “container” to hold their stresses.
Each person’s ways of containment will be something that works particularly well for them as an individual. Sometimes I have people create actual containers, using a variety of materials from pre-made boxes, popsicle sticks, clay, or chicken wire and plaster and more. My goal is to offer materials that the client feels comfort with and allow the client to express a method of containment that feels congruent to what they need and require.
A container can also be used to express needed boundary work for clients who have difficulty keeping fears, worries and obsessive thoughts away, the client can be “safe’ inside their container, and use the metaphor as a tool in their daily lives to add a sense of safety and allow the client an ability to move forward. This is especially important for PTSD survivors.
A metaphor of the “container” can be used as a permanent state for the client to live with painful memories, thoughts or emotions, or it can be used temporarily to allow processing to continue for more than one session on a particular topic. Making actual, physical containers gives clients an actual piece to touch, look upon and reflect upon while they process the holding needed to stay emotionally, and sometimes physically, safe. It also expands on the concept as discussed verbally in sessions.
To get through the trying processes of daily life we often need to “contain” our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Building containers metaphorically, verbally and visually gives concrete form and allows this process to come into our everyday self-awareness, and thus strengthen it.
When an airplane gets “grounded” it usually means that something is mechanically wrong and it must stay on terra firma until the problem is fixed. Then it can fly off again, take passengers, and perform as it was designed to. “Grounded” when used in disciplining children, reflects a time period used by some parents to restrict their child’s movements until they can think about and consider an action they did that disobeyed rules that the family had set forth for the child to abide by. When one thinks of being “grounded” as an adjective to describe someone, one thinks of someone who is balanced, together, able, and realistic.
One something or someone comes along and “kicks the ground out from under us”, leaving us ungrounded, we feel unattached, unfocused, and untethered to the people and things around us that keep us centered and on target with our lives. It can be anything, from a death in our friends or family circle, to a move, change of job, feel as if we have had the air knocked out of us, unsure of where to focus next .
How do we get that center back? Our body and body awareness can give us all the clues we need to get our focus back. Listening to your body is hard to do with those with a Western orientation, in fact, we are often told not to trust our bodies.
One simple exercise that can be done is to lie flat, and simply watch your stomach rise and fall with each breath you take. Sounds simple, right? But you need to do it for a bit, perhaps 5, 10 minutes or longer, not just for a minute or less. The simple act of doing this slows down heart rate and will also change the way we look at our surroundings.
With clients using art I will sometimes have them do a technique called “contour drawing” where they will trace what surrounds them by looking at the object, and not focusing on the paper they are drawing on. This keeps their mind focused on what they are depicting and not how it appears on the paper. Of course, clients will often draw “off” the paper, or the object will most likely become unrecognizable, but that is not the point, the point is to demonstrate that one can only purely focus when one’s mind is on one thing (or object) at a time. Clients are often surprised at the dichotomy of what appears on paper and what they thought they were looking at while drawing it. This exercise, which I learned long ago as an art student, is a way to focus on the main elements of a structure or scene, and away from their own judgement of how they were depicting it. It is an excellent way to open up one’s perception and allow a ‘loosening up” and away from the rigidity of judgement.
Imagery used in counseling/psychotherapy work at LifeBalance offers clients a chance to visualize goals, meanings, safe or calm places, ideals, and generally what is difficult to put into words for clients, some of whom have never experienced therapy before, and maybe intimidated by talking to a therapist.
Some examples include children and adolescents who are resistant to coming to therapy, and for whom the idea of talking to some random adult about their issues “grosses them out”. Taking the pressure off for these clients, yet allowing for the free exchange of ideas, communication, and utilizing their creative energy to express themselves with tools that may allow them to do so much better than with just words.
I also use imagery in preparation Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) with all ages. This allows client to think of tools they can use while processing that can aid them tremendously as the process a trauma using EMDR. Many will at first say they cannot think of what to depict, but will think about it over the period of a week or more and then be ready to depict their tools using various visual means at their disposal.
Many come in apologetic about their “lack” of art skills. But in our work together it is not about being proficient in art making (although I can assist you in learning some art skills if you want to), but about expressing yourself in the fullest way possible. Non verbal means of expression such as art therapy allow a client to express themselves fully, as well as regenerate creative juices that may have either been dormant or non-existent in their lives previously.
The issues of dealing with anger in children are a growing issue, an issue that can spill over into our daily lives through tragic events such as school shootings, abuse, general recklessness and other crime issues that are prevalent in our society. Trying to solve these issues verbally can have it’s limitations. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, combined with anger management interventions, may work for many children, but there is a segment of children, many of whom who have been through past programs based on behavioral therapies,on a multiple times basis in a long course of treatment, who won’t be changed, touched or altered by CBT interventions for anger management. This is because their anger is rooted in the past witnessing of violence, and the trauma that ensues after that, which is called “complex trauma”, and the intense shame they feel at their own anger, which results in them acting out more and more, with the anger/shame component sliding down the hill like a snowball going out of control, and growing larger with each episode of anger and acting out either verbally or physically against caregivers and/or others in a position of authority. These children may still be exposed to ongoing violence, whether physical or verbal, on a daily basis which can continue to be a negative influence on them.
Art making, especially with three-dimensional materials, acts as a great “subliminator” or way to take these intense feelings and emotions and put them into an art material and finished, or unfinished, piece. The relationship is key, both with and without art materials. Art making also aids in communication between the therapist and child client, and can signal to the therapist in a non-verbal way things that the child needs to communicate, or brings about, in the relationship and through it, open communication on the reasons why anger is exhibited by such an extent. A trained art therapist makes all the difference in allowing the art materials and relationship with the child develop to allow the child to gradually build up coping and communication skills which will lessen their anger outbursts against others, and allow them to express their emotions in a way that others can understand, react to appropriately, and have the client feel validated and understood.
Working with a child with a “short fuse” needs to be done slowly, and allowance for the relationship to build and trust to be formed, and repaired if need be. While clinical boundaries are of course important, asking an angry child to “toe the line”, will only result in a trigger being set off. Allowing the relationship to build up slowly, but genuinely, will aid the child, help them feel supported, and have a better outcome. It can be the dawn of a new day for not only the therapy with the child, but the family’s relationship with them as well.
Your Childhood Does Not Define You.
Some allow whom they were pigeonholed with as an identity when they were children in their family to define their entire lives.
Witness a middle aged man I know, who has built a successful career as a behavioral health professional, but who as a child, had to deal with a family where put downs and being told “You don’t have what it takes” were often heard, What these adults told him did resonate in his head for a long time. As a young man going through college, he stopped and almost didn’t complete his degree, thinking to himself “What would it matter anyway”, and hearing his family’s voices in his head, thinking he would just be another overeducated professional with no skills to find a job. But what got him beyond this to build a successful career as a behavioral health professional that he has today?
All it took was one person.
Yes, you heard me right, one person. This person believed in him, saw talent and potential based on his gifts and gave him through positive statements and other support the strength to move ahead towards his goals by finishing his education, finishing his internships and eventually getting hired at one of his internship sites at his first job. He is now using his experience to help others move ahead with their lives.
We tend to think that we need a multitude of resources to get “past our past” but the opposite is true. There have been cases of children who have lived through abuse, neglect and other horrible childhood circumstances that had one person, yes one person, a friend, a neighbor, a particularly sensitive relative, who saw what was going on in a dysfunctional family and was able to reach out and help that child enough so that they would have the confidence to move forward.
I could list here many resources, particularly in the Internet age, of support groups, organizations, etc. that help adults who have lived through horrible circumstances be able to succeed. There are many out there and they aren’t hard to find. But all it really takes is one person, one spark of confidence, a few genuine positive remarks…to give someone going through either a tormented present or thinking about their traumatic past to move ahead, and the confidence to achieve their goals. It is like being given a thin lifeline, when someone is overboard and drifting in the ocean, you grab onto it, and it pulls you back up on the boat and gets you to your destination.
So we don’t really need a multitude of resources. The resiliency within us wants us to heal and be strong. Just like a cut of our skin has a scab grow over it to aid it’s healing, we have the inner resources in each one of us that with at least one positive person in our lives, can pull us through. Of course resources such as online in real-time support groups as well as our own personal therapy can strengthen us and aid us in this quest, and should be used to help us go further down the line of emotional recovery.
Neuroscience is proving how our brains, like the rest of our bodies, are largely programmed for self-healing. Expressing ourselves through our own creativity aids this tremendously, and allows us to put our past out there in a non-verbal manner, which allows us to digest whatever painful past we are dealing with and be able to integrate it and allow distance ourselves from it. Are you dealing with some sort of pain in your life? Find your own creative way to express it, this will not only allow you to put out there whatever happened and move on, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see that others will see or hear what you have created and be able to relate, so it is a way of joining a community out there of other people who have experienced similar issues in their own childhoods. Find a mentor or therapist who supports your creative expression, in whatever form it takes, art, blogging, music, or anything where you feel you are expressing yourself in your truest form. You can be proactive and be a partner in your own self-healing,
Recently, at a national conference I attended, I went to an excellent presentation on social media and its impact on clients and their course of psychotherapy. In my practice, I have seen this related to issues my clients face with break-ups, and relationship ups and downs, as well as conflict between family members, as communicated through social media in all of its forms.
Often, after a break up, clients need space and distance from their “ex’s” in order to heal fully. I encourage people to allow time for distance through either using “not following” features on Facebook, for example, or blocking if necessary. Also editing “friends lists” to those who you truly communicate with, had a relationship with in “real” life at one time or another. With art work done in sessions, with me as an art therapist, I tell clients not to share at all, as this is a part of their treatment record, exactly like a therapist’s note would be.
While the open communication of social media definitely has its upsides, the downsides and risk to confidentiality are great. Also, outside of the therapy room, clients need to set boundaries and not leave themselves open to hurt and pain that can be gained from seeing the wrong post at the wrong time. Starting to doing this online can be a good beginning for clients who also need to do this in “real-time” in their “offline” world with face to face interactions.
In short, having respect for oneself, allowing time for healing by limiting or removing visual stimuli or interaction that can be exacerbation of pain, excessive and disturbing, and concentrating on elements that can enhance your life for the positive, be calming, and allow you to focus on the here and now instead of having your head in what others may or may not be doing or saying, are essential to healing. This issue is becoming a growing problem. Please give yourself the gift of healthy internet boundaries, which will translate into healthy boundaries in your day-to-day life.