If you use art in therapy, I’m sure you’ve heard these types of things…
“This is no good. I’ve never been an artist.”
“I can tell you now that this is going to look horrible.”
“I messed it up.”
“Can I throw this away?”
“It looks like a child drew this. I feel like I’m in kindergarten.”
“This is triggering my ______ (anxiety, self-criticism, perfectionism, anger, etc).”
Most artists and art therapist know that failures and imperfect art are sometimes part of the creative process. But this isn’t always easy for our clients to sit with. They may still have self-judgment that comes up, feelings of shame, or emotional distress that is hard to regulate.
Please keep in mind that I use the word “failure” here as a reflection of how clients sometimes feel about their art, not as an objective label. I’m referring to art that feels unsuccessful, messed up or ruined in some way, not good enough, not as intended, incomplete, etc. I would never use the word failure with a client in session because I don’t want to reinforce that label for them…and because I think every attempt at art-making is successful and valuable in some way!
Of course I have certainly had my own artwork that felt like a failure to me. Sometimes that “bad art” is just part of the learning process as I work on improving my skill, sometimes it’s the result of just playing around with media and more process-focused experiences, and sometimes it’s a big frustration as a piece of art doesn’t go as planned. In my own art I’ve been playing with re-visiting artwork that seemed incomplete or unsuccessful in some way (strategy #10 on the list below), so the next blog post will explore that topic in more detail.
So how can we respond in a therapeutic way to feelings of failure that come up around art-making? Our role as therapists is to create the space where a client feels most safe to engage in the art and then help them learn and grow through the creative activity. Sometimes we may want to help clients feel good about the art they are making, but sometimes we need to help them work through the uncomfortable feelings that arise.
Below are some strategies that I use to address the idea of artistic “failure” in therapy. Keep in mind that your goals and areas of focus may be different for various clients and settings, so think about which approaches are most helpful to your own clients (or your own personal art-making). I’ll share both ideas for setting up a supportive holding environment, as well as responding after the art is in process.
1. From the beginning be clear about the intention of art therapy and give permission to make bad art.
I tell all my clients that art therapy is not about making “good” art and that it doesn’t matter what the final art piece looks. The point of art therapy is to use the art to explore something, have another outlet to communicate things, practice a new skill, or express emotions. The resulting art sometimes looks good and sometimes it looks like an ugly mess. I remind clients that as long as they are engaging in the process, they are successful and have not failed.
2. Treat all artwork with respect.
This one may seem obvious to most therapists, but some may be unclear about how to actually do this in practice. For example, keeping client artwork in a safe place, like a special folder or the medical record, and reminding clients of this, shows them that we consider the artwork to be important and valuable. We not only consider it to be worth keeping, we are also protecting it from being damaged or destroyed – whether by the client or someone else. Many art therapists will even retrieve a piece of art from the trash after a client has thrown it away. We also show respect for our client’s art by observing the process, taking time to witness the final piece, and finding something to explore and discuss in every artwork. When apply the same level of witness and then safe holding of the art to every piece of art that the client makes, we are giving them nonjudgmental acceptance. If the therapist picks and chooses which art pieces seem worthy of being saved or discussed, we feed in to our client’s potential self-judgment and sense of some art as not good enough.
3. Focus on the art process and meaning, not the product.
The importance of process over product is frequently discussed in art therapy. However, many clients still express dissatisfaction with their final art product. The therapist can ask questions and make comments that shift the focus away from appearance and back to the process of creation and the artwork’s meaning. Explore what the client was expressing about their art, highlight personal choices that they made, and discuss the steps they took as they worked. If you feel the client needs reassurance about their artwork, point out how they were successful in things like conveying their personal meaning through the art, evoking an emotion, or learning to work with a new media.
4. Explore the feelings, self-talk, inner critic, and cognitive distortions that come up for the client.
When negative thoughts and feelings come up in the art therapy process, we don’t necessarily need to reassure clients or help them feel better. Sometimes we need to accept and explore those feelings. Help clients to identify and share the negative thoughts that are coming up for them around their “failed” art. Depending on your approach, you could label this as negative self-talk and work on what they want to tell themselves instead, practice identifying and challenging the cognitive distortion, or take some time to dialogue with the inner critic.
5. Explore the client’s memories of artistic ability, failure to achieve, or expectations they have for themselves.
When clients feel like they fail in the art-making, it can be helpful to explore the background and experiences that inform their feeling. I have had clients that shared stories of art teachers that told them they were no good at art or family members that compared them (negatively) to someone else in the family that was a “real artist.” Others have shared about the high expectations and perfectionism that they bring to everything in their life, and the struggle of participating in something like art that they don’t feel good at. Others may be carrying the weight of many experiences that have told them they are unsuccessful or not good enough, bringing this self-perception now to the art process. Some clients have also had success with art in the past, identifying as artists, but feel unsuccessful in their current art for some reason – the impact of mental illness and addiction, time away from practice, or frustration with the available materials in an art therapy group. Taking time to unpack their memories and experiences can help clients see how the past is continuing to impact them and work toward letting go.
6. Discuss the value of distress tolerance and participating in something challenging.
Many of us will naturally want to avoid things that we don’t feel good at. For some clients making art in therapy is going to feel really challenging and bring up distress. It is going to be hard for them to create art that they feel good about, no matter how much you reassure them. This definitely comes up at times in the art therapy groups that I facilitate. Recently some group members discussed the idea of using the art therapy activity as a way to practice facing a challenge, tolerating distress, and accepting imperfection from themselves. They did not necessarily enjoy the art-making, but they made a commitment, at least for those weeks in the group, to not avoid something just because it’s uncomfortable. Although someone may continue to feel that the art product is a “failure,” they are still practicing an important skill in facing the challenge.
7. Start over. Sometimes we have to learn from an experience and then try again.
Not everything that we do in life is going to be successful, and this certainly goes for art-making as well. Instead of assuming that we will never succeed and just giving up, we can start over and try again. Helping our clients to practice this in art therapy (and then apply to other parts of their life) can be an important lesson. Sometimes mistakes happen, sometimes we try an experiment in the art and it doesn’t turn out right, and sometimes we are still learning.
8. Focus on the process of learning something new.
Especially when I am working with kids, I remind clients that it takes many years of practice to get better at any skill, including art. They need to be aware of where they are in the learning process, focus on how practice and effort can lead to more growth, and not compare themselves to others who have had more practice. In therapy, you might help support this learning process by teaching a new technique or helping the client correct something in the art. You can help clients apply this mindset outside of the therapy office by looking at other ways they have “failed” in the process of learning something new and then ultimately got better at it. Are there other areas of their life where they currently need to have some self-compassion as they learn and allow themselves to make mistakes?
9. Provide the support they need in order to feel successful.
Sometimes therapists may want to help their clients be as successful as possible in the art project, actively taking steps to minimize the likelihood that the client is going to feel like they failed. Some examples might be a child client that you want to help have an experience that makes them feel proud of their creation, someone with an intellectual disability who is learning the steps to complete a new project, or a group of elderly patients that come to art group to experience relaxation, socialization, and creativity. If your goal it to help clients feel successful in their art, think about projects that have clear steps, offer techniques that create interesting results, and help clients if they are struggling (but don’t forget to leave room for personal choices and self-expression in the art).
10. Revisit the art later to transform it into something new.
If the art seemed like a failure at the time, maybe it can be transformed into something new later. I think that trying to transform old art is an interesting way to exercise creativity, push yourself to go further, and get yourself thinking outside the box. As a metaphor for things outside the art process, think about what it’s like to take an event that seemed like a mistake or a failure and find a way for it to become something new and beautiful. It’s also a way to practice the idea of working with what you have. If I have this piece of art in front of me, even if I don’t like it, how can I find a way to make the best of it and do something creative? I think it’s also fun and challenging to go back to pieces of art that were just experiments or ways of playing with technique and then find a way to develop them into something more.
Revisiting and transforming my unsuccessful or incomplete art is something that I’ve been playing with lately. It’s definitely been challenging but has lead to some interesting art that I otherwise would not have created and helps me break out of my creative ruts. The next blog post will explore this idea more, so be sure to keep an eye out for it in a few weeks.
Share your thoughts below! How do you approach feelings of failure in therapy or your own art?
The online course Fundamentals of Art in Therapy will be available again this fall. If you would like to be on the early notification list (and have a chance to get a discount), be sure to sign up on the Courses page.
Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT-S, ATR-BC is an art therapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, teens, and families. For more information about individual therapy, child and teen counseling, family therapy, teen group therapy, and art therapy services, please visit: www.therapywithcarolyn.com.
This blog is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health conditions. All directives, interventions, and ideas should be used by qualified individuals within the appropriate bounds of their education, training, and scope of practice. Information presented in this blog does not replace professional training in child and family therapy, art therapy, or play therapy. Art therapy requires a trained art therapist.
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