Letting go of things can be hard. Whether it’s past trauma, a loss we are grieving, unhealthy relationships, or destructive thinking, it can be challenging to find the balance between honoring what we have been through but no longer letting it define us.
One of the valuable aspects of art therapy is the experiential nature. Beyond talking about something and even visually representing it in the art piece, we can also benefit from the symbolic experience in the creative process. This art therapy directive draws on that experiential process to help clients with letting go of things that they are ready to leave behind.
- Provide sheets of colored paper, as well as additional papers like tissue paper, textured papers, and small paper scraps. You can also offer drawing and painting media for mixed media.
- Have the client choose a few papers that they are drawn to, instructing them to choose at least one that they are able to journal on.
- Ask the client to spend some time writing about something that they are wanting to lot go of or move on from. In an individual session, you may target your directions toward something the client is currently working on. In art therapy groups, I suggest to clients that this may be past trauma, negative people, unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, or destructive behaviors. The writing can be as simple as words and phrases or it can be more detailed journaling.
- Direct the client to tear up their page of writing and then use the pieces to create a work of art. The additional papers provided can be incorporated to create a torn paper collage or mosaic type work. Drawing and painting supplies can be provided for a mixed media creation (oil pastels and acrylic or tempera paint both work well to add to a torn paper collage).
Note – I let client know all the steps in advance so that they will be prepared for the idea of tearing up their writing when it is done
I recently started doing more art therapy groups in an adolescent program and needed to expand my go-to group directives. When I think about what directives to use in groups, I try to offer a variety of directives that will allow clients to experience different media and varying components of the Expressive Therapies Continuum throughout their weeks in group. I also try to be mindful of balancing the structure and direction that some clients need in order to feel safe to do the art with enough space for personal expression and creative ideas.
This art activity draws on different levels of the ETC to help clients have a more creative, integrative experience, as well as allowing each group member to engage in their own way. The initial piece of the activity – writing – activate the client’s cognitive mind. In tearing up the paper, they are given a kinesthetic outlet for the energy and emotions that are stirred up by the writing (as well as the symbolic action of destroying the past/negative things). Assembling the torn pieces into an image moves the client into the perceptual and then symbolic levels.
In addition to processing the artistic expression, be sure to explore what the art process and various steps felt like for the client. Some of the themes and experiences that have come up in groups have included the idea of integrating past experiences instead of denying them, rising up and become stronger through post-traumatic growth, rewriting negative messages and self-talk into something more positive, and replacing unhelpful things in life with something new.
The variety of ways clients use their torn paper has been interesting to see. Some take the approach of blackout poetry, clearly incorporating words from the writing into a new message; others focus on the imagery and allow the words to fade into the background and texture of the new artwork. Many have created powerful images of healing, strength, and new growth. Although this activity has not resonated with every client and group member, many of shared that it helped them to have the feeling of letting go of something, process something from the past, or see things in a new way.
Below is my own artwork created with this directive. I decided to create mine in my altered book journal. The angel/goddess figure was already on the page, and I decided to leave her as she fit so well in the landscape I was creating. Although the page was chosen at random, the heading “Myths and Legends” on the left page ended up being perfect for an art piece that lead me to reflect on the unhelpful beliefs and mindsets I wish to let go of.
Thoughts on this activity or post? I’d love to hear in the comments below.
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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I love this! Letting go is so hard, even if what we’re hanging onto is weighing us down. I look forward to trying this with the teens I work with and hearing their take aways.
I love this activity and am planning on using it as part of our survivor healing retreat!
This seems interesting. I’m going to try this with my some of my clients.
I love this idea for letting go of the past. I plan to use it with clients. Thank you.
What do you use as some good processing questions during this session? Love this idea of repurposing and reframing.
Carolyn Mehlomakulu says
Here are some questions that you might ask:
– What did you notice about how you felt during each phase of the activity? In particular, what did it feel like as you ripped up the things that you wanted to let go of?
– What were the things that you want to let go of?
– What was your process like in creating a new image? How did you decide what to create and does your new image hold meaning for you?
– How much does the client allow the writing to show through in the final piece or how much did they try to cover it up?
– What meaning do you take from having the original material still included in the art? How do you want to view your past experiences as still part of you and your life?
Loved this idea! Wanted to check if this activity can be used to teach the art of taking risk or management. Or any other activity that you recommend?
Carolyn Mehlomakulu says
That’s an interesting thought. I’m not quite sure how I’d use it to explore taking risks.
Thank you for your sharing. I love this idea when tore up the papers (past things) but I am still not sure the purpose of the assembling the torn pieces?
Carolyn Mehlomakulu says
Hi Michelle – The purpose of assembling the pieces into something new is to help explore the idea of growth and transformation that can come from past experiences. We can never really get rid of or just “throw away” the things that have happened to us or that we have had in our lives. But we can take those parts of our lives, find a way to integrate them, and make something new from them.
Lisa Ginty says
I’m totally new to your site and am excited to have found you and all that you do. I totally love how your angel and the title were waiting for you on that random page in your altered book journal.
I once made a piece like this based on a dramatic dream I’d had. The dream, and the art that came of it, were instrumental to me making huge, helpful changes in my life. In it, a child had come to me right as I was tethered to everything (actually, everyone) that was unhealthy for me. I was desperately holding on by my fingertips and didn’t know what to do any more.
The child invited to me to go with them for a moment. While I was sure I couldn’t leave the people in my dream, and they were certainly sure of it too, I took the child’s hand. As we crested a hill together, I realised this was my angel, and on the other side of the slope I was greeted by a technicolour, stunningly beautiful and happy world filled with everything my creative heart could wish for. Oh, was I ecstatic.
When I asked my angel when the others would come, they replied, “They aren’t. This is all for you.”
Is it a literal angel or a figurative angel? Interesting concept.
Carolyn Mehlomakulu says
That would probably depend on the client! But more me it stands in as an archetype in this art piece.