Laura E. Murphy
(conceptualized by my instructor)
Franklin Sims was a 21-year-old single African American man who sought treatment at a university-affiliated community mental health clinic because he felt “stressed out,” withdrawn from friends, and “worried about money.” He said he had been feeling depressed for 3 months, and he attributed the “nosedive” to two essentially concurrent events: the end of a 3-year romantic relationship and the accidental and disappointing discovery of his father’s identity.
Mr. Sims had supported himself financially since high school and was accustomed to feeling nervous about making ends meet. He had become more worried after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, so he approached a “family friend” for financial help. He was turned down and then discovered that this man was his biological father. This disappointment revived long-standing anger and sadness about not knowing his father’s identity. His roommates taunted him for “falling apart” with this discovery.
At the time of this discovery, Mr. Sims was a full-time undergraduate who also worked full-time as a midnight-shift warehouse worker. When he finished his early-morning shift, he found it hard to “slow down,” and he had trouble sleeping. He was often frustrated with his two roommates due to their messiness and frequent socializing with friends in their small apartment. His appetite was unchanged and his physical health was good. His grades had recently declined, and he had become increasingly discouraged about money and about being single. He had not previously sought any type of mental health services, but a supportive cousin suggested seeing a therapist at the student mental health clinic.
Assessment: Mr. Sims suffers from depression.
Postmodern and humanistic approaches to art therapy and counseling provide safe spaces for self-determination, strengths-based narrative therapy strategies, creative expression, unconditional positive regard, and the empowerment of clients to recognize and claim their innate goodness and expertise in their lives. Both approaches promote authentic expression, knowledge of self and personal strengths, conflict resolution, increased resilience, personal and inter-relational healing, and effective communication skills. Postmodern and humanistic approaches to therapy facilitate the construction of new reality systems; systems which promote choice, self-love, autonomy, interdependence, forgiveness, equanimity, and empowerment. The benefits of combining post-modern approaches of re-authoring personal narratives and the humanistic approach of cultivating strengths-based self-awareness are amplified when combined with art therapy techniques. This combination has the power to shift social and cultural paradigms as well. While individuals reclaim personal power by using the arts and therapeutic approaches to mediate and mitigate personal stress and pain, and as they use these platforms of support to help them engage more functionally in the world, communities are more likely to collectively rise-up and heal too (Kaplan, 2007). Consequently, such a humanistic, one person at a time-centered view, may be the only way to heal the world.
Humanistic and existential approaches to therapy mainly stem from the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow as the early pioneers of the field, and later from Natalie Rogers’ development of Person-Centered Expressive Arts Therapy. The fundamentals of the humanistic approach to therapy are rooted in basic assumptions that humans are inherently good and trustworthy, and that they can understand and solve their own problems. Furthermore, basic assumptions of humanistic approaches to therapy posit that clients are the experts on their own lives and problems. This assumption directly opposes common psychoanalytical beliefs and approaches to therapy which hold that the analyst is the expert on their clients’ avenues toward achieving mental health and appropriate behavioral changes. Finally, within the humanistic framework, it is through an egalitarian, supportive, and collaborative therapeutic alliance, where the therapist practices non-directive, unconditional positive regard and reflective listening, that clients direct and empower themselves toward self-determined standards of conflict resolution, health, happiness, success, and existential fulfillment (Corey, 2017).
According to Moon, existential emptiness is a “pervasive phenomenon in the twentieth century,” which causes individuals to lose their sense of self, their groundedness in the present and hope for the future, and their sense of connection and responsibility to themselves and to others. Moon also describes this phenomenon as one which causes a vague and illusive sense of boredom, a lack of purpose, depression, drug and alcohol dependency, juvenile delinquency, mid-life crises, and many other difficult human experiences. Existential emptiness concerns big questions and issues within the human condition such as fear, loneliness, isolation, sickness, suffering, aging, death, and others. Moon states that it is the therapist’s job to assist clients as they grapple with and perhaps learn to develop acceptance of these heavy issues and problems with living. Therapists who operate from a humanistic approach support clients in cultivating coping skills which can help clients relate more healthfully to these deep, existential aspects of life. Therapists can also support clients to make meaning of these inevitable realties and to take responsibility for their experiences and lives despite such unavoidable challenges (Moon, 2009).
Natalie Rogers extended Carl Roger’s person-centered therapy approach by including the use of various forms of the expressive arts to further stimulate human creativity, promote self-awareness, access unconscious emotional material and feel the feelings, develop a sense of one’s own essence, and improve one’s perception and manifestation of relatedness with others and in the world (Corey, 2017). McNiff discusses the relevance of and directs his clients in dialoguing with the intelligence or spirit of the artwork created by his clients within an art therapy environment. He believes that the art itself has wisdom as well as healing messages which are bubbling up from the unconsciousness of the artist, and that these wise entities should be called upon and revered by the artist and art therapist as loving guides and omniscient forces which possesses only helpful, healing intentions and information for the artist/client (McNiff, 1992). McNiff’s work rests on the basic humanistic assumptions that humans can heal themselves when they are supported by the unconditional positive regard and non-directive intentions of their therapist. Through dialoguing with the spirit of a drawing or painting, thus his inner-self, I believe Mr. Sims would tap into his own innate wisdom and capacity to heal his broken heart, which stems from the rejection he feels from his father and ex-partner.
Mr. Sims finds himself in the depths of an existential depression due to the pain of being rejected by his father, who he has only recently learned is his father, and due to the break-up of his relationship with his girl-friend of three years. He feels unwanted, unloved, and utterly alone in the world. In addition to these challenges, Mr. Sims is having difficulty in college because he is working too many hours and because of the emotional stress stemming from financial struggles despite his working a full-time job. While Mr. Sims is surviving these day to day challenges, and does have a place to live, I believe Cameron’s work with homeless individuals within the art therapy context would greatly benefit Mr. Sims. Cameron’s directive is usually facilitated at a drop-in center for homeless people, but her directive could also be administered by a therapist within the college’s mental health services facility where Mr. Sims attends therapy (Cameron, 1996). Mr. Sims would benefit from having the opportunity to express his fears regarding his financial life, which are inherently connected to fears regarding having basic needs such as food and shelter covered, hence, another existential dilemma he is facing.
Cameron’s directive begins with a quick initial drawing depicting the clients’ feelings upon arriving and settling in to the therapy session, is then followed by a guided mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation practice, and is then followed by a longer time-period where clients are encouraged to further express their feelings in an artistic way. Not only would Mr. Sims be able to use this directive as a cathartic and relaxing process, he would also be able to cultivate coping skills which would help him focus and self-regulate, thus become calm enough to self-direct towards solutions to his pain and problems. Mr. Sims could track his progress and the evolution of his mental states, and could develop an empowering mindfulness practice which would support him in accepting and making meaning of the existential crises he is experiencing, as well as support him in taking responsibility for the direction he wishes his life to take henceforth.
The postmodern approach to therapy and art therapy is based on the concept and field of social constructionism. Social constructionism posits that an understanding of the world is created by multiple and by often conflicting versions of truth and reality. These versions are bound to context and experience as opposed to being objective facts. Furthermore, as the world is created through and composed of different versions of truth and reality; national, cultural and familial identities, as well as individual concepts of self, are also constructed through our socially storied lives and environments (Corey, 2017). Postmodern thought concentrates on language and the use of language in socially constructed stories. Consequently, postmodern approaches to therapy focus on investigating the stories people tell themselves, especially those which are harmful, and on constructing new narratives with the therapeutic goal of healing and creating a more positive reality system. In addition, art therapy concentrates on the nonverbal, image-based construction and interpretation of previously formulated stories. It uses creative arts expressions to generate strengths-based, solution-oriented narratives which inspire, explore, and document resilience, healing, and growth (Murphy, 2017).
Tinnin & Gantt’s graphic narrative (Gantt & Greenstone, 2016) explores narrative art therapy through book-making and healing from trauma by encouraging clients to create an image-based story with a beginning, middle and end to the trauma(s) they experienced. This practice encourages clients to contextualize and contain their trauma, to emphasize the finality of the traumatic experience, to recognize personal strengths and fortitude, and to author an empowering ending which can serve as a precursor to a new chapter in life. In my view, Mr. Sim’s would benefit from collecting images from his subjective and painful experiences with his father, ex-partner, financial struggles, and struggles related to being a Man of Color during a time and place inflicted by systemic racism, so that he can design his own cathartic release while constructing his own empowering narrative where he is the hero who survives adverse challenges and emerges stronger and more whole because of his perseverance. Because Mr. Sim’s is well educated, composing a graphic novel using words and images and simple materials such as pens, markers, and a pre-bound book of blank pages, is an appropriate directive which will support him in his healing endeavors.
In addition to the graphic novel, other postmodern forms of art therapy can be utilized while working with Mr. Sims. Schroder’s Kingdom directive would benefit Mr. Sims because he would have the opportunity to envision, design, and draw out, in as great of detail as he wishes, his own personal and or shared kingdom. The art-making itself would be cathartic, relaxing, and therapeutic, but being the king of his own kingdom and having the ability to construct his kingdom as he wishes, which includes who lives in his kingdom and how he relates to them, are the other therapeutic and empowering components to this directive. Mr. Sims would be provided a large table to work at on his own and as his therapist, I would provide materials such as colored pencils, markers, pastels, acrylic paints, magazine clippings and glue, where he could construct his kingdom on a mural-sized piece of paper and then describe his piece to me. Adhering to Schroder’s suggestion, upon the near completion of Mr. Sims’ kingdom, I would add one final and optional step, which would be for Mr. Sims to add any windows, doors, bridges, portals, or connecting agents or vehicles of any kind, which he feels could assist him in collaborating with and building empowering, supportive relationships (Schroder, 2005).
Finally, within the context of postmodern approaches which use language and narrative to construct reality systems, I would encourage Mr. Sims to work with clay. According to Allen, the use of clay promotes affective health and wellbeing through the expression and release of suppressed feelings, tension, and energy. Working with clay is a sensorial art-making method which activates a calming response through in-put and out-put stimulation, whether the artist intends to create a specific form or if the artist aimlessly kneads the clay medium with no intention to create a specific result. In addition, the time and space to calm one’s self, as well as to sculpt various forms, functions as a postmodern narrative art therapy technique, as Mr. Sims would be encouraged to shape the clay into representational or abstract aspects of an empowering narrative if he so desires.
For me, it is the empowering aspects and self-determination of postmodern and humanistic therapies that make them so transformative. I believe that these approaches as well as existential worldviews, philosophies, and styles of therapy, fall under the same humanistic, client-centered umbrella. Each genre acknowledges the inherent qualities which make humans human. They each explore concepts such as the inherent fluidity, goodness, and the creativity of humans. Each explore and encourage human ability to solve problems and heal through the transformation of relationships and environments, as well as through humor, acceptance, resilience, and self-transcendence. Each genre is also founded on the premise that humans are curious about cause and effect patterns and that we seek to make meaning of the events which occur in our lives and world, even trauma and tragedy (Corey, 2017). These fundamental aspects of human nature enable us to be cooperative and resourceful creatures, but we are nonetheless vulnerable to a vast array of elemental forces beyond our control, and each of these forces come with their own stories (Murphy, 2017).
Both postmodern and humanistic approaches to therapy and to the arts as agents of change and healing, encourage clients to be more conscious advocates for the greater good within their own lives as well as within social contexts. As an art therapist, I would support Mr. Sims by facilitating directives such as Schroder’s designing of a personal and shared kingdom (2005); Cameron’s art therapy and mindfulness work with homeless people (1996); Allen’s work which uses clay in order to release tension and to use the clay to form new personal narratives (1995); Moon’s art therapy work incorporating existential philosophical approaches to making meanings of the human condition (2009); Gantt & Greenstone’s narrative art therapy via the creation of a graphic novel which transforms trauma (2016); and McNiff’s humanistic work which engages the artist in a dialogue with the omniscient spirit of the art piece which they created (1992).
I view the combination of these directives and approaches to be empowering psychoeducational shifters of personal and social paradigms. From my perspective, Mr. Sims displays fortitude, mental stability, emotional resilience, and effective life-skills which have helped him survive and even thrive on his own despite the challenges and disparities he faces as an African American working-class man and student. Mr. Sim’s depression is completely normal and founded given the hardships he has endured and is currently enduring regarding his relationships with his father and ex-partner. My goal in collaborating with Mr. Sim’s is to facilitate a strengths-based therapeutic alliance which will continually shine a light on his goodness and ability to thrive, so he may see and feel proud of his successes. My work is to encourage Mr. Sims to author personal narratives which are solution- and goal-oriented, and which help him manifest the life he wishes to live.
In conclusion, postmodern and humanistic approaches to art therapy and counseling will provide a safe space for self-determined, strengths-based, verbal and nonverbal creative expression, which supports clients by recognizing their own expertise on their lives and problems. In this space, spontaneous expression, problem solving, increased resilience, improved self-image, developed inter-personal skills, and healing, may arise. Such improvements can result in the differentiation and integration of past experiences and the construction of new reality systems which promote choice, self-love, forgiveness, autonomy, equanimity, and empowerment. It is through the post-modern approach of re-authoring personal narratives and the humanistic approach of the recognition and cultivation of personal strengths and goodness, that social action can transform lives and communities. Unconditional positive regard, the foundation of the humanistic approach normally transmitted by the therapist to the client, is also the goal for how clients may treat themselves. Loving-kindness instigates the unfolding and flowering of empowering paradigms, which can foster hope, change, and social creativity. A peaceful future is contingent on a peaceful present.
Allen, P.B. (1995). Art is a way of knowing: A guide to self-knowledge and spiritual fulfillment through creativity. Boston & London: Shambhala
Cameron, D. (1996). Conflict resolution through art with homeless people. In M. Liebmann (Ed.), Arts Approaches to Conflict. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Corey, G. (2017). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (10th ed.)
Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Gantt, L., & Greenstone, L. (2016). Narrative art therapy in trauma treatment. In J. A. Rubin (Ed.), Approaches to art therapy: Theory and technique. (353-370). New York, NY: Routledge.
Kaplan, F. (2007). Art and conflict resolution. In F. Kaplan (Ed.). Art therapy and social action: Treating the world's wounds. London. England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
McNiff, S. (1992). Art as medicine: Creating a therapy of the imagination. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Moon, B.L. (2009). Existential art therapy: The canvas mirror. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher
Murphy, L. E. (2017). Postmodern approach to art therapy: Healing through constructivism.
Schroder, D. (2005). Little windows into art therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers