Saturday, August 30, 2008

Therapy as Art

by Lawrence H. Staples

Therapists often work with creative people who are painting or sculpting or potting or writing. Therapists often envy the creative gifts of the people with whom they work. It is as if they are like the Rabbi of Krakow, who traveled around endlessly looking for the very treasure that was lying right under his church. Some therapists are sitting on a treasure and do not know it; they have not been able to give their own work the name they give to the creative work their patients do. They have been unable to say “Rumplestiltskin,” to name and become conscious of the creative treasure they themselves have.

Therapy is a kind of art in which we help broken and shattered patients do for themselves what Frida did. We help them put back together a life that has been broken and has fallen, apart. We provide a mirror that helps them see themselves and enables them to bring back the lost pieces, and then to paint them onto the canvas of their life. In this case I do not mean, necessarily, literally “painting” with a brush, although it often involves that, but painting as a metaphor for the psychological reconstruction of self. Such “painting” produces a portrait that includes what they knew themselves consciously to be as well as that of which they were unconscious. The canvas starts blank, and then begins to fill up with colors and hues of their lives that get stronger and stronger and that evolve and change as the mirroring continues. The portrait a patient “paints” of himself early in therapy is very different from and much less complete than the portraits he later paints, just as Frida’s self-portraits evolved and became fuller and richer as more and more of herself emerged onto her life’s canvas.

The therapist sees the portrait of the mirrored patient change and grow, but also sees his own portrait change and grow. It is as if two portraits are simultaneously being painted and formed and shaped by the reflected images of unconscious material coming out of both the patient and therapist. A mathematical concept provides examples of this dynamic, in which the change in one part of a relationship results in a corresponding change in another part. If we take the relationship x = y, any change in x or y makes a corresponding change in the other member of the relationship. Or take the formula for calculating distance traveled: D = ST (distance equals speed multiplied by time). Let us say: the distance = 100 miles, the speed = 50 miles per hour, and the time = 2 hours. We cannot change any of these three numbers without changing the others. Similarly, in analysis, a change in one member (i.e., the patient) causes a corresponding change in the other (i.e., the therapist). This description is somewhat oversimplified, but is fairly accurate. The change that occurs during analysis leads me to express to my patients gratitude for the opportunity that they have given me to accompany them on a portion of their journey.

For a long time, I had vague feelings about therapy as creative art. It was not until I saw the PBS documentary about Frida Kahlo that I became truly conscious of this idea. As I listened to various artists talk about Frida and her art, I realized that they speak the same language and have much the same way of talking about and expressing things, as do therapists. I asked myself why and the answer that came was: We talk about and express things the same way because we are doing the same kind of work. We just did not know it or call it that.

The creative work of the therapist is the psychological picture that slowly emerges from long mirroring of their patients and, especially, from the creative work that the patients themselves are encouraged to undertake. Patients often resist creative work initially, and it may be a long time before patients feel safe doing it. There may be many reasons for their resistance, but one source is their early experience of sharing creative work with a parent only to be deeply wounded by criticism or ridicule. The resistance stems from the fear of the opposites, opposites that burned them early in life. It is the fear of revealing something unacceptable. They hide what is unacceptable in order to avoid being hurt. Resistance to therapy and resistance to creative work come from the same source. We block, we freeze like a deer in the headlights, because we are afraid of something. We block to protect ourselves from the fearful thing.

Therapists must go about encouraging creative work gently, without leaning against the patient’s fears. As with many medications, one must start with small doses, which may not taste or feel great at first, but which may be willingly taken later as the patient feels the relief and comfort of its healing action. Unfortunately, I sometimes encounter a patient who was so badly “burned” by his early experience of parental reactions to his attempts at creative work that he simply cannot take the medicine, even in the smallest doses.

In analysis, creation takes place in the same gap where all creation occurs. It takes place in those few feet that separate the chairs of the analyst and the patient. This gap between the chairs is the “canvas” on which they both “paint.” Most Jungian Analysts do their work in more or less facing chairs spaced a few feet apart.

I am indebted to my friend and colleague Dr. Enrico Buratti for a beautiful historical image of this process. In 17th-century Italy there were troupes of actors called Commedia dell’Arte who had enormous influence on the future shape of theater. They did their work through improvisation, which took place within a generally established framework of relationships and parts that they called a “canvas.” They verbally painted their plays, and were to acting what jazz is to music. A note or word is played or spoken and there is then a spontaneous response. The result is a musical or theatrical composition that is spontaneously created on the “canvas,” in the gap that lies between them. Its resemblance to what occurs in analysis became apparent to me once Dr. Buratti shared his insight.

Associative mechanisms, like those noticed and investigated by Jung and Freud, facilitate much of the work of analysis. The mechanism attaches and coheres thoughts and feelings that arise and belong together. A word spoken either by the analyst or the patient sparks an associative response. The word spoken and the associative word or words that respond join together and give birth to a third entity that becomes part of the self-portrait that is “painted” on the canvas that lies between the analyst and the patient. This back-and-forth process is a kind of verbal intercourse. It makes no difference who speaks the first word. The word, like a sperm, enters the gap between them. It combines with the responding word or words and causes a pregnancy that creates a “third.” This “third” is added to and becomes part of the self-portrait that is emerging. What is produced in each iteration of a spoken word and a response may not be earth shaking, but it usually does lead to new insights, new perceptions, and new understandings that produce a larger and clearer portrait that contains the psychological input of both.

You have just read an excerpt of Lawrence Staples'
Guilt with a Twist.

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