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, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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