As both an art therapist and a marriage and family therapist, I believe that vulnerability, doubt, fear, and uncertainty—feelings most people try to avoid—are essential to getting unstuck in life and engaging in creative problem solving. I try to guide clients to find new approaches to old problems by teaching them how to move beyond “artist’s block,” a state of being joylessly trapped in repetitive patterns and rigid expectations, and how to welcome the type of anxiety around the unknown that creativity invites.
I used this approach with Pam, who, frustrated by her previous inability to get out of her head in therapy, was intrigued by my alternative, more experiential approach. She told me she was seeking therapy because she felt her “inner slave driver,” which had once helped her succeed in managing her career and three children, had begun to dominate her life.
To start, I asked Pam where she thought her inner slave driver came from. She described being 7 years old and having to care for the household and her younger brother after her mother abandoned the family and her father had immersed himself in work. She’d learned how to manage her life with great order and precision, dedicated to the belief that no one could do anything for her that she couldn’t do for herself.
But recently she’d begun to question this stance and note the problems it was causing for her, particularly with her children. Instead of offering parenting strategies, I told Pam that I wanted to spend our time looking at new ways to behave when her inner slave driver was keeping her stuck in old, rigid patterns, blocking her from other creative possibilities for responding.
Early in therapy, I try to introduce the idea of flow as a reference point for clients who, like Pam, complain of feeling stuck and blocked. Flow happens in moments when time feels unimportant, connection to self and others feels meaningful, or life feels vibrant with newness. To help clients find flow, I tell them about the five stages of creativity—incubating, initial idea, diving in, flexible commitment, and flow—and how each requires tolerating unpleasant experiences of doubt, fear, and anxiety.
Pam still had doubts about her ability to change. In response, I told her that sitting with doubt was one of the most creative things she could do right now.
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creativity in counseling