What’s your ethnicity? How do you identify? What is your cultural background? How does that impact your being here today? These are only a limited number of questions that come to mind when interviewing patients for the first time. I know for many art therapists, answers to those questions provide insight of the clinically significant distress experienced by a patient’s environmental stressors. Considering how culture impacts our daily experiences is a unique lens into how I inform my own provision of art therapy services to adolescent youth and families.
While in graduate school, I was able to have the opportunity to consider embracing a side of me that at times was forgotten because of my desire to understand human development through a basic, fundamental model. It is often difficult to set aside all of what an environment will bring to the table when raising a human being. Reflecting on the labels that society creates for each of us has been helpful to inform my own ability to gain empathy for the populations with which I currently work. I often heavily consider and rely on my countertransference to inform me how to continue approaching treatment objectives with my patients. I think about the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that occur in my office within the short time period a session will provide. The reality that I have recently come to consider in my reflections is not so much of what society labels me with as a human, but what I am not labeled as when considering the experience that my patient has as a female, straight, questioning, Caucasian, African-American, immigrant, etc.
I do not know what it feels like to be a female, a heterosexual male, a “black" teenager, an individual with criminal charges facing juvenile life, an undocumented immigrant, or a Caucasian child abandoned by society. These thoughts paint a vivid image of what misfortunes are experienced through daily lives of others impacted by their personalized cultural identity. I am fortunate enough to be comfortable in the vulnerability that my patients experience in order to capture the true essence of what is needed only to create that safe space in therapy. Thinking about my ability to provide bilingual art therapy services to individuals of diverse cultural backgrounds has inspired much self-reflection and consideration for how labels do impact cultural values and beliefs. The work that often occurs in the therapeutic space is always an intriguing one, especially when the artwork captivates the societal representation of the youth’s experiences.
Many art therapists have been trained to utilize masks as a representation of what the internal subconscious may be projecting on the outward perspective of the individual and of others. In the last year, I have been fortunate enough to utilize mask-making and doll-making processes as an intimate form of communication that an individual has between their internal and external being. It has been most helpful to view the approach to this task that an individual takes when working with these directives with their societal label as “sexually aggressive adolescent males.” The artwork has been able to captivate the individual to process personalized metaphors that influence their own subjective perspective, pathogenic beliefs, and cognitions that influence their progression through treatment.
In the coming year, I hope to continue exploring rudimentary concepts in therapy with my patients through process oriented directives. With these directives I hope to encourage individuals to gain the ability to deconstruct and reconstruct societal labels, core values, and beliefs of in order to instill values of empathy, hard work, and resiliency.
“We are never prepared for what we expect.”
- James A. Michener