• Engaging in creative exercises can have huge mental health benefits, from providing a mindful moment, to giving us a sense of achievement

  • Counsellor J Anthony Welsh explores how creativity can also help us become less self-critical and more self-compassionate

  • Creativity can also be part of therapy – whether art, music, movement, dream work or writing – find your counsellor or therapist here


Engaging in creative activities has the potential to create a different way of seeing both ourselves and our situation, thereby providing a real opportunity for genuine momentum in terms of our mental health. More specifically, when it comes to overcoming self-criticism, an open, more free approach to creativity brings the possibility of not only unlocking a kinder, more generous feeling in relation to ourselves (and maybe even to those around us), while also improving our level of resilience, but also, in turn, of generating a greater sense of self-esteem. So, let us now look at these points in greater detail.


A fresh pair of eyes

As any artist knows only too well, a creative venture is often a journey into the unknown, both in terms of where it might lead, and what may come up emotionally or mentally. Anyone wishing to engage in the creative process – with the many forms available, and our universal ability to think, reflect, and feel emotions – can do so. You do not have to be ‘an artist’ to have a go. Whether it be a poem, a painting, or even a story or script – by engaging with our creativity, we allow for different angles or vantage points to enter our awareness, and in so doing we have the opportunity to see things with a fresh pair of eyes.  


A kinder, more generous feeling

With any creativity, there will always be a great deal of introspection, reflection, and soul-searching. The act itself – and those vast, open spaces – has the potential to generate a kinder, more generous feeling towards ourselves (and others), simply by leaving us more territory to run into. Of course, as with any therapeutic process – as I also ponder an artist’s often tortured existence – this journey is rarely (if ever) easy. Nonetheless, the creative act certainly has a tendency to open up a softer feeling and it can be a genuine ally when it comes to overcoming self-criticism.


Resilience

Along with momentum, resilience may be my favourite word as a therapist; after all, in a world where no counsellor will ever possess a magic wand, they are undoubtedly the two most important things to look for in clients. Any time you see a growing resilience alongside a genuine sense of momentum, you can feel very happy with the progress being made in counselling.

In terms of that creative space, there is always an opportunity to tap into those parts of ourselves that are more resilient; as we run into those open spaces, subsequently finding more tools at our disposal than we ever thought possible. In addition, there is something about the artistic process that demands a greater buoyancy, if only to keep going; although, again, it would be wrong to suggest such a process will ever be easy.

And on that note, I am reminded of certain songs, like R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts, or U2’s One; movies like The Wrestler or Still Alice; poems like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, where we invariably find examples of humanity falling down or simply struggling in the face of adversity, and yet, somehow, it survives ... or at least, tries to. In other words, the place where true art so often exists, also reflects the client’s world at any given time, and there will always be the potential to achieve great things when these two elements come together.


Strong support

Before we finish, it is also worth mentioning the likes of Lee et al. (2017) and Bisseker Barr (2018), who both cite a deeper self-understanding and an easier connection to real feelings as being key benefits of the artistic approach. In the field of photo-art therapy, Kopytin (2018) refers to ‘personal self-realisation, inner harmony, and an embodied sense of self’; and finally, Gray and Young (2018), who describe digital storytelling and narrative therapy as a way of combining different mediums, thereby allowing clients to work fluently with their stories, leading to an ongoing, shifting narrative.

Whenever a client manages to see the world with a fresh pair of eyes, find a more generous feeling towards themselves (and others) and a greater resilience, invariably the effect on their self-esteem will more than likely be a positive one; and thus, the tendency to be self-critical will also move further away.

J Anthony Welsh is a verified welldoing.org counsellor in Hertfordshire and online


Further reading

4 ways we block our creativity

How creativity boosts your mental health

How I turned my anxiety into creativity

Why art and therapy complement one another


References

Bisseker Barr, J. (2018) ‘Writing your Mind’, Therapy Today 29 (5): 34-37.

Gray, B. and Young, A. (2018) ‘Digital Storytelling and Narrative Therapy’. In: Malchiodi, C. (ed.) The Handbook of Art Therapy and Digital Technology, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kopytin, A. (2018) ‘Photo-Art Therapy’. In: Malchiodi, C. (ed.) The Handbook of Art Therapy and Digital Technology, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Lee, K. L., Mustaffa, M. S. and Tan, S. Y. (2017) ‘Visual arts in counselling adults with depressive disorders’ British Journal of Guidance and Counselling 45 (1): 56-71.