The Art of Soul Transformation: Self-Psychology and Creativity

So many of us understand counseling to be an art, a marriage of knowledge and a certain ability to use that knowledge elegantly, incorporating intuition and spirituality. In my experience as a minister offering counseling and as a chaplain in a hospital, I have found that there is another dimension to the “art” of counseling: the intentional creative process coupled with the understandings of self-psychology provide a transformational template that has love and compassion at its center.

In my work as a minister and as a counselor in private practice, I make no distinction between the words soul and self. I use them interchangeably; either word connotes the “essence” of the human being. The work of the self or soul is to become whole, being born and being human already means that the essential ‘isness’ is compromised simply by being in the world.

I have found that one way to help the soul reach toward wholeness is to engage it on the slant. That is: rather that directly confront the ‘issues’, ‘wounds’ and ‘trauma’ experienced by the soul, the cut-off elements of the soul can be enticed into integration. This is possible through the use of the arts. In my particular experience, I have used the art of stone carving to illustrate that the soul can emerge from hiding in a loving, compassionate and non-pathological manner.

My work in this area has been formed by the understandings of self-psychology and my own experience in creating art as well as facilitating that process for others. I would like to articulate a simplified version of the theory of Self-psychology Then, using my student’s own experience, I will demonstrate how engaging in creating art, in this case, stone carvings, allowed them to see themselves differently and integrate the cut-off parts of themselves with love and compassion.


Self Psychology is a theory of self development founded by Heinz Kohut which provides a cogent and practical structure that explores how souls can become authentic. Self-Psychologists understand that souls grow in individual and communal environments which provide enough mirroring, positive affirmation, space, matching behavior and regard.

These are the premises for that understanding.

Each person is born equally elegant and ready to become a whole human being. The interactions with care givers, whose own behaviors are determined by their histories with caretakers, will either provide good enough mirroring for the self to develop, or will close up the space for the soul; or anything in between. The self must adapt to its environment and caretakers as best it can in order to survive.

A child who feels safe, loved, and good enough develops a healthy sense of self and is able to adapt to others without losing its identity. However, when the caretaker does not mirror the child’s own sense of self, the child’s soul has two choices:

The child can choose to abandon the caretaker; if it does so, it faces annihilation or non-being because it has no other way of existing except in relationship to others. This choice leads to self-destruction.

Or, the child can abandon itself; hide behind the false self that seems to please the caregiver. The soul withers, hides and loses ‘authenticity’; in psychological terms, the child’s adaptation to the caregiver is maladaptive albeit understandable for survival.

One of the ways that souls adapt to their environment is to use objects as transitional props. These might be literal (pacifiers, blankets, toys) or imaginary (invisible best friends who really love and understand the child.) These self-objects, as they are called, help the child both mitigate the terror of existence as well as provide something to hold on to as the child changes and grows.

While objects have the power to support a child’s growing sense of self, they are not the only tools available to the developing soul. Other people can function in roles similar to the caregivers. Relatives, teachers, pastors, friends, Sunday school teachers, or encounters with strangers can affirm and call out to the authentic self.

It only takes one person to offer the child an image that resonates with the child’s own self-image. While the contact can be personal, it is sometimes enough for the child to trust that someone would be there if needed to rescue the child’s soul from annihilation. The beauty of this self-as-transformational-object relationship is that the relationship is mutually transformative.

For example, in a class called “Arts in Ministry: Aesthetics and Creativity’ at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago. I included movement and danced for and with the students. Later, one of them commented on how she was inspired by my risk-taking to take her own risks, in her ministry and in her personal life.

Her reflection inspired me to continue to take risks and once again confirmed the efficacy of the process of transformation I have been describing. It also affirmed the psychological premise of matching behavior. She could see me because I could see her and in our mutual dance we knew one another to be trust worthy and inspirational. This process of transformation includes all of us, all of our interactions with one another and with the creative process itself.

The second premise is that the creative process also changes the creator. Briefly stated, what we create, creates us. This is particularly evident with stone carving. The process of removing layers of stone, listening and engaging in the dialogue between self-as-creator and material-to-be-created, provides a non-rational experience of the self as whole, in relationship with itself through the use of the stone as a selfobject. Sometimes, as with this seminarian, the process of soul making includes healing a relationship with “God” , where the holy functions as the self-as-self-transforming other. She writes:

“Painstaking patience with the stone. Wanting to protect the stone. Listened to the stone, but the stone had little to say, besides its warm and excited colors. It occurred to me that this might be the most real times that I have ever tenderly cared for/loved myself, by caring for the me in the stone. Kind of sad to think of it.

God has a sense of humor. He (that’s how I see God) made sure that I had a harder stone I think, one that didn’t give much. It reminds me of the very slow, tedious, but careful way God has reshaped me in my life. Almost sorry I was so unbendable. [I realize that] I want to dance with God.

God is doing something wonderful and powerful in this class. I pray that it grows in power and goodness over time. And I think that God is making sure I am doing what I need to do with my stone. Care for it.

The most enjoyable moments in the process of sculpting were those when the stone (and I believe God) was participating in the formation of it.

Is all of art God’s transforming work in our lives, or does it at least all have that potential. Maybe that is what has lacked in my poetry and drawing so far. It has been expressing what was already there, rather than seeking to be a medium for changing me, being a process of transformation, instead of a finished product. If the art I create is a transformation of myself, then is the creation that God creates a transformation of God’s self. Our understanding of God is certainly transformed over time.”

And, as she completed the piece entitled “Mother and Child” we can hear the process of integration, through love and compassion for the self that was previously unloved and unaccepted.

The woman (or man) embraces the child as they move. They emerge from the stone. They also escape from the horror behind them. With more time and skill, it would be easier to see their haste, the woman’s determination, the child’s confusion. The two figures share their escape from what they have experienced. But they differ in their power to retaliate. They need each other, as if their lives depend on each other.

Holding the woman who holds the child allowed me, for the first time, to embrace the child who could not previously be forgiven for acquiescing. Now that I have begun to make peace with the child, I can see that I can also let her go. Let her die in the past. As the child I was passes away from the present, now I can see the child that I am.

When we allow our clients the opportunity to use themselves as the prime resource for healing, through the use of the creative process, (clearly it doesn’t need to be stone) then we are providing them with the most useful tool of transformation, themselves.

© Copyright 2008 by Silvia Behrend, D. Min, M.Div, APA. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Margo

    May 20th, 2008 at 10:17 AM

    I find it very profound that there are those in the counseling field who truly believe that help and healing come from within the patient and not necessarily from what they as they therapist is spouting off. I find this to be an appropriate tool for learning and growth in all stages of life, to learn from yourslef and the therapist can be your guide, not the end all and be all.

  • Sandy

    May 21st, 2008 at 4:18 AM

    It can be such a healing process to finally get to know yourself and learn exactly what you need in order to survive. I think that self therapy can be useful for so many in a multitude of different ways.

  • Silvia

    May 23rd, 2008 at 12:34 PM

    I have added more dimensions to this understanding of self-psychology, situated in jungian and theological understandings of what the soul is, what it’s purpose in becoming might be, and how to get to wholeness. I am working on another article on those premises. I agree wholeheartedly in your comments.

  • ashley

    May 24th, 2008 at 3:41 AM

    How do you get someone to that point of realizing that all they need to heal is themsleves? It seems like it would be so much more complicated than that! I am not trying to break this into simple parts but as a non therapist I am just wondering how you could take someone who is so broken and help them realize that all they need is a stronger self to put it all back together again.

  • Austin

    May 25th, 2008 at 9:24 AM

    I guess I am a little confused because I thought that the whole point of doing therapy in the first place was to become more self aware and able to work on fixing your own problems. How is this so different than that?

  • Shannon

    May 26th, 2008 at 7:43 AM

    You are right- it does seem that the major point of counseling is for us all to become more self aware and this does not seem to differ from that goal.

  • maddie

    May 27th, 2008 at 2:48 AM

    It seems like there are many in the counsleing field who more and more are relying on more creative methods for helping their patients. This author uses stone carving, while some rely on drawing and even writing. Why has this become so prevalent? I can definitely see how it would be therapeutic for some but I am not sure it would apply across the board.

  • Silvia

    May 28th, 2008 at 11:47 AM

    I agree that it doesn’t work across the board, the stone carving was used as the metaphor for being able to access parts of the self that had to deeply hide. It is another tool to use with clients who are open to exploring their sense of wholeness with the added dimension of creativity. And to clarify, it is not that the client can heal her/him self by themselves, it is a mutually affective process which re-enforces that authenticity. Using creativity is one way of approaching the hidden soul on the slant so it can emerge at its own pace.

  • R. Bristow

    December 23rd, 2008 at 5:05 AM

    Very good insght into healing the whole person

  • Jessica

    April 25th, 2009 at 8:42 PM

    Wow! I loved the insight from the student’s reflection. Truly, we are in a process our whole lives and have never “arrived” where everything’s fixed and all ok. It’s in learning to accept ourselves just as God made us and follow the flow of what he’s doing in our lives, will we really change. I struggled a long time with art making, feeling it lacked depth and that I didn’t really know what to express. Yet, whenever I look at life, the material is all around me. I think God has been definately opening my eyes to inspiration everywhere. As a current art therapy student, the road to self awareness has NOT been easy…one of the hardest journey’s I have and am taking, but worth it. To see me, with all my flaws, and not focus on them, but accept myself as an ‘imperfect’ person and know that God accepts me JUST AS I AM….is truly liberating!! Art therapy is such a great tool to express when you just don’t quite have the words to say!

  • tom jacquet

    January 13th, 2010 at 8:21 AM

    You are correct- A good counseling can help changes or turn your life around, Remember that a counsel is not, an enemy or someone who will condemn you nor lecture you to death.

  • Gary

    June 6th, 2010 at 10:14 AM

    It is critical to dispute information that is clearly false and claims of “truth” based on non-scientific sources of perception, mainly a person making stuff up. More precisely, a personal philosophy or religious belief is not the methodological and scientific application of mental health care. Most importantly, it is in no way a therapy or treatment. Its opinion and philosophy. What is said here about “Self Psychology” rings loudly as snake oil. Let me point out just three examples

    The article says :“ Each person is born equally elegant and ready to become a whole human being.”

    Really? That does not explain the vast diversity in ability, accomplishment and performance in cognitive activities across the lifespan. One huge example: a person born with autism and one not. Those two people are not ”equally” born to be “whole”.
    The article says: “A child who feels safe, loved, and good enough develops a healthy sense of self and is able to adapt to others without losing its identity.”

    Really? How do we reconcile that many proven and long standing scientific observations of human development clearly point to the fact that the sense of security in humans that develop throughout childhood come FROM the environment and not from an internal sense of security of any kind that a child is born with. Identity comes FROM the environment and does not evolve from an internal schema or design. There are no pre-designs. The environment shapes identity.

    The article says: “The child can choose to abandon the caretaker; if it does so, it faces annihilation or non-being because it has no other way of existing except in relationship to others. This choice leads to self-destruction.”

    Really? It is difficult for a child to abandon its caregiver, physically or emotionally. The caregiver is the life support system for the person and abandonment of life support is simply not conceivable by children. The simply know nothing else – how can choose something different or better? It is difficult to even conceive something better for many children. Children do not abandon caregivers, they improvise, adapt and eventually overcome. However, they never really forget anything.

    Lastly, let’s make sure we separate the difference between true, effective mental health care and philosophic musings(“creative” or not) embedded in our own personal interests or religious beliefs. Doing so is honest, doing less is clearly not – or perhaps even dangerous.

  • selfhelp

    July 25th, 2010 at 4:20 AM

    Many people who seek selfhelp or healing from a counsellor are totally reliant on that persons skills and training, plus they have to believe in their ability to solve the issues they are experiencing as the “patient”
    What many do not realise is that there are other online resourses available, if they just knew where to look.

  • Wendy Perkins

    May 23rd, 2011 at 4:51 AM

    I found the article interesting and Gary’s reply to original article, also very interesting. I’m coming from a different perspective in that I was abandoned as a 4-1/2 year old child and my caregivers were black crows (nuns) with a sadistic sense of power. I’m now 67 years old and an addiction counsellor, learning from my own years of alcohol addiction trying to cope with growing up in an “unloving” environment. So yes, environment does play an integral part in a child’s mental and emotional journey into adulthood.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.