I recently had the coincidence to attend two trainings here in Austin that involved participants creating dragons or monsters. One of these was a presentation to the Hill Country Play Therapy Association by Mary Morrison Bennett. She shared with us a book called You've Got Dragons in which the dragon is a metaphor for the child's problems or uncomfortable feelings. As a connection with the book, the therapist then all drew pictures of our own "dragons," the things that we struggle with as therapists, and then discussed how to help address these. In my other recent training, by Austin art therapist Megan Van Meter, we began the training by creating monsters out of found materials and art supplies.
Both of these trainings drew on the value of metaphor and externalizing. Using metaphor and helping our clients to externalize difficulties, symptoms, or a diagnosis can be a valuable process, and one for which art interventions are well suited. For those who are not familiar, externalizing a problem means helping the client to separate the problem from themselves. For example, helping a child (and the family) with ADHD to recognize that he is not defined by ADHD; instead ADHD is something that gives him trouble or causes problems. Or helping a teenager to herself as a person who can fight depression, as opposed to seeing herself as "a depressed person." For adults and teens, externalizing may begin by changing the way we talk about problems and ask about progress (e.g., "How has depression been impacting your life this week?" or "In what situations were you able to fight OCD?"). For children--and those adults and adolescents who are willing--externalizing can also involve giving the problem another name and imagining it as a monster or creature. Once the problem has been given a name and externalized, you can
continue the metaphor by talking about ways that the client can fight
the problem, ignore its invitations, or talk back to it. An important thing to remember is that externalizing should help to remove blame and shame, but does not remove responsibility. The client must still take responsibility for fighting back against the problem.
You can use art to help your clients to visualize the problem monster through any creative medium that they choose, drawing, painting, sculpture, playdough, found materials, legos, etc. I've even seen clients alter existing toys to represent their problem monster. Not only does the art process help in the externalizing, it can also give the client an experiential way to feel in control of the problem and fight back. If the monster is made out of clay or playdough, they can smash it in session. I paper monster can be trapped in box. Other clients will like visualizing ways they can lock up or destroy the monster. I've even seen children make movies about how they defeated the problem, using toys to act out all the parts. For some children, an added benefit of externalizing and creating a monster, is that it allows the problem to become a bit silly and not seem quite so overwhelming or horrible.
Are there other ways that you have creatively helped clients to externalize and fight problems? Have you found this to be a helpful approach for yourself or your clients?
Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT, ATR is a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas
who works with children, adolescents, and families. For more
information about individual therapy, child counseling, family therapy, and art therapy services, please visit www.therapywithcarolyn.com.