Overcoming Vicarious Trauma & Discovering Self-compassion
It’s my pleasure to share this inspiring article from one of my students, Eriemenia Mimi Eieyeh. She wrote this essay as part of her coursework for the Art Therapy Diploma Course.
Robert GrayDirector and Senior Lecturer at CECAT
Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist
MA A. Th., AThR; B. Soc. Sc. (Psych.) (Hons.), MAPS.; BA. Theol. (Hons), MA Theol.
Overcoming Vicarious Trauma & Discovering Self-compassion
I want to work in the therapy field- a field where therapists get to simultaneously have a positive impact on so many lives and work on their own personal growth. I was fascinated to read in the CECAT art therapy online certificate course modules about the various theoretical models in psychotherapy that may be applied to art therapy techniques (Coulter & Hogan,2014; Rubin, 2016; Gray, 2019). The main types of interventions being used today are psychoanalytical and psychodynamic; humanistic; cognitive-behavioural; solution-focused; narrative; developmental art therapy; and multimodal (Malchiodi, 2003 cited in Gray, 2019, p. 6).
I have found that the Jung psychoanalytical framework helpful for the purpose of writing this paper on my own trauma healing. Art-psychotherapy allows me to challenge unconscious symbolism that represents archetypes, and which express what is only partially known to us. Moreover, Miller (1990) points out therapists using this art psychotherapy technique work to unlock the door to our true childhood history in order to regain lost awareness.
Malchiodi, (2007, p. 21) describes a therapist’s role as one that helps people explore and express themselves authentically through art and how through this process, people may find relief from overwhelming emotions, crises, or trauma. Gray (2019) explains that there are two forms of art therapy based on two major components for Art ‘as’ therapy the main component is the process of drawing; whereas, for Art ‘in’ therapy the main component is to explore the deeper meaning of the content of the picture. I begin my exploration by sharing my artworks. The first illustration is a good example of using art as therapy as I have expressed the group collective traumatic process, in contrast to my second illustration, which is a response art through which I explored content alongside a therapist, and an example of art in therapy. In final part of this paper, I detail the post traumatic growth I experienced during the processes of artmaking as therapy, read through the Siegal and Solomon (2013) theories of the therapist’s therapeutic presence, and how mindfulness emerges from within to free us from the patterns of chaos and rigidity, and allowing us to discover a deeper meaning and vitality of life.
Artwork 1# oil on plywood sale signpost: The Past Home ‘Art as therapy’
Jung himself found a relief form his traumatic break with Freud in 1913 through creating a structure from stone, through which creation he rediscovers the fantasies within him (Jung, 1933). Similarly, during the global pandemic of COVID-19 overseas border restrictions, I found myself stranded in Myanmar after a students’ reunion event. For nine months I was unable to return to my son who continued to live alone in our Sydney home. Being separated from a loved one was extremely difficult and to cope with these feelings, I started a creative project with my classmates in Myanmar though which I rediscovered fantasies in my university years. I created an online version of our year group magazine (written in Burmese, the Myanmar language) and used this art piece as its cover. We called the magazine “The Past Home”. This art making process was very soothing as I was using my mother tongue (Burmese) to express myself fully, finding no barriers to my communication. Coulter and Hogan (2014, p.13) explains that art as therapy, the symbolic is significant, and the roles of metaphor and symbols are important for articulating mood states of the person because art materials can evoke feelings in them for depicting and finding meaning in their arts. This is evident as all participants explored their feelings in this group activity.
This piece depicts a historical event and the reoccurrences of collective trauma I shared with my Vet-classmates. The prodemocracy movement uprising happened when we reached our final year in 1987-88 in Myanmar, and many students had left the country by the following year, myself among them. In 2020 general election results were again found fraudulent and, consequently, a military coup reoccurred on February 1, 2021. Our friend group joined the veterinary school in 1982 and experienced the university locked down then again in present pandemic time. The creative work allowed me and my friends to go through our collective and unresolved grief. This mind-picture came into alive in real-life: the dark cave represents being jailed and locked-down; the volcano and fire represent feeling anger, rage, violence, and explosions; the cloud and moon represent the people’s rising emotional tide and political unrest; the river, as a vivid unidentifiable dream-like structure, represents feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, and the unseen threats of life’s continuity; the green palm trees represent a small hope of surviving; male and female figures represents a balance between masculine and feminine divinity; the stone represents the resilience of the Myanmar people, while the water-fall represents a cleansing and renewing of the earth (see Artwork#1).
In the twentieth century, expressionism was the predominant form of new artistic movement, with the Surrealists having a great impact on the development of modern art therapy in Britain, with their preoccupation on ‘thought freed from logic and reason’ (Breton 1924, cited in Hogan 2001, p. 94). They were also becoming interested in notions of degenerative, archaic, or primitive expression, and went on to explore these ideas in their works (Coulter & Hogan, 2014); for instance, surrealist Roland Penrose was directly involved with the early British Association of Art Therapists (Hogan, 2001). Recently, I went and saw “Freda Kahlo: the life of an icon” with my son. I was moved by this Mexican surrealist painter who used art to express her own struggles with illness and pain (Malchiodi, 2007). I resonated with her “Endless Symbology” exhibit, captioned with:
Freda’s complex personality, her constant pain and desire to live, her need to seem composed outside through broken inside (literally) generates the symbolic language that defines her. In this language, skulls are a recurring element; a universal symbol of death, but passed through the sieve of Mexican tradition, in which the end is also a beginning. Nobody knew it better than she did: the artist was born from the accident that left her at death’s door. [Plaque with background information about Freda’s universe] (n.d).
Likewise, “The Past Home” is symbolic expression of endless civil wars inside Myanmar and the people of Myanmar’s unspoken words of their pains and sufferings.
Freud believed that creativity originates in conflict and that the creative process is a response to the need to solve such conflict (Case, Dally & Reddick, 2014). He considered hidden desire, such as inner wishes, frustration, or discontent, is transformed into art, poetry, or music by creative works (Case, Dally & Reddick, 2014; Coulter & Hogan, 2014; Rubin, 2016). Jung, on the other hand, believed that the creative process occurs in two modes: psychological and visionary. The reality products of art, poetry or music come from the realm of human consciousness as in psychological mode, whereas the visionary mode comes from the depth of our collective consciousness (Coulter & Hogan, 2014; Malchiodi, 2007). Furthermore, Hogan (2001) points out analytic psychology, and a quasi-religious philosophy, arose in the work of Carl Jung, illustrated in symbols existing as important aspects of the unconscious mind. Our shared collective war-victim experiences were embedded in our implicit memories more than 30 years and now was triggered and re-experienced. This was our opportunity to see our unconscious messages through spontaneous creative expression in art and poetry. I expressed myself authentically with our group’s youthful fantasies in disguise.
This creative project became a solution to an old way of being, thinking, feeling, and interacting. It opened for us an opportunity to explore and experiment with new idea as adults after rediscovering our childhood history. Our collective traumatic process provided actions for modification, alteration, improvisation, and transformation of our generational traumas those rooted in our ancestors (Malchiodi, 2007). These deeply resided in our collective unconsciousness with the pains and sufferings in our bodies (van der Kolk, 2014). The cost to society was detrimental, because we reencountered unresolved crimes against humanity that held us back from living to our full potential. Most importantly, we closed long-held collective grief in youth, and we liberated ourselves with self-acceptance.
Artwork #2: A response art: “The Rupture” art in therapy
In May last year, I painted “a response art” on canvas to depict my overwhelming emotions relating to an Internally displaced person (IDP), a young girl from Tibet at a student placement. After meeting with a placement supervisor, my emotions ran high, causing me to experience restlessness and insomnia. I felt, with feelings of suffocation, that I was trapped inside my small room. I began moving my both hands freely on the canvas through brush and acrylic paints with my eyes closed, spontaneously and censorship in Freud’s method of free association (Malchiodi, 2014). “It is a psychic processing requiring a large extent of reflections, doubts, and experiments but these are completely unknown to unconscious, instinctive mind of primitive man.” (Jung, 1933, p. 95). I was also in a primitive stage of instinctive mind at this situational crisis and was paying closer attention to my body sensation and feelings subjectively. Subjective experiences allowed me to focus on my inner world, my perspectives, wounds, awaking, shadow. “The subjective experience of feeling is shown through colour, spacing, pattern, texture, movement, tone, and images” (Quail & Peavy, 1994 cited in Gray, 20, p. 3). I was told to keep a supervision diary with a response art (Fish, 2012) to address issues that arose in placement to focus on transference and counter-transference materials. This response art-making assisted in discovering the valuable information in countertransference (Coulter & Hogan, 2014; Rubin, 2016).
I found my emotions and imagination were seen on the canvas as more important than how the image depicted reality. I had processed the emotional content as an example of Art ‘in’ therapy. Surrealism, with its emphasis on the unconscious and on archetypal symbols, was influenced by ideas from Freud, Jung, and Marx (Gray, 2022), and assisted the popularity of abstract art in looking for “the essence”: the emotional content in the process (Rubin, 2016). “The discipline of drawing endows the fantasy with an element of reality, thus leading it greater weight and greater driving power” (Jung, 1933, p. 69). The pattern of chaos and rigidity appeared with negative feelings as I looked. A few months later, I discussed this piece with my trauma therapist whom I see regularly for this certificate course. By looking at the movement and lines, the space, and relationship, I have more understanding about Art ‘in’ Therapy and I can see through the therapist’s lens (Gray, 2019). (See artwork #2).
Description of the main aspects: two-dimensional form and shape reveal spirituality: “to create a form” “to be whole”.
- Line: lines are multilayered, indistinct thin lines and large thick lines. They show vulnerability, are invasive and stereotypical in form soft and fragile figures.
- Colour: red and green dominated on white canvas, black and dark blue floating indistinct shadows, white highlights on standing forms.
- Movement and lines: they show “emotions and flexibility” with curvy lines, stuck in circles, short lines are in enmeshed and chaotic.
- Space and relationship: the focus is calm and free, alive, and fresh in the centre. The white represents the light; it brings in a new “self”. However, the old “self” gives the life-force, and provides energy resources as nutrients for new “self” growth. The dark green at the base relates to top a clear space where their transformative energies nurture a new ‘self”. The red fragile figure in the middle is accepting and endures all struggles with stability and warmth.
I am seeing my part of “FEAR” in this picture, this was rooted in a childhood fall accidence. I was only three, I climbed up to the high rooms and opened the window to look for my mother and, as I used my whole body with force to open the window, I fell from the two-storey house. I was unconscious for a few hours; my father assisted me to return to consciousness. According to the Internal Family System (IFS), my protecting part shows up to guard the inner child every time danger is near (Earley, 2016). I explored my different parts to reach healing to wholeness. These intense emotions have shown up in free association artwork as different parts. “The expression of psychic energy is very powerful because it gives you extensive contact with the different areas of your psyche, with tremendous ability to transcend things if you find out what is happening right now” (Earley, 2016, p. 60). I called this abstract art “The Rupture” and the images are like Allice Miller’s illustration book cover to her book, titled “The untouched key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness”.
Psychotherapists are caretakers of the psyche and psychotherapy is given by mental health clinicians to people with various forms of suffering, with psychic pain and relational distress, and clinicians are asked to help them feel better, to function better, to have a better life (Siegal & Salomon, 2013). I have been working directly with traumatised clients over a decade and, I have developed Vicarious Trauma (VT), as described in Downs (2019): physical, emotional, and cognitive trauma symptoms like those of my traumatised clients. Gray (2019) also states Vicarious Trauma and burn out can be caused by counter- transference that remain unconscious to the therapist. I was vulnerable to my unconscious inner world and impulses, consequently, I posed a danger to clients and to myself. A clinician who has symptoms of VT is unable to maintain a therapeutic relationship with clients and is putting them at risk of ongoing and unintentional harm (Downs, 2019). Conversely, I sought to develop a therapeutic presence through mindfulness practice during my learning. The following artwork is an example of how I evolved and integrated this therapeutic presence by exploring the sensory components when trauma is present. In addition to retaining the brain’s neuropathways, the mindfulness offered opportunities to evolve through pain and suffering and bring about a healing environment where PTG and VR could exist, and positive coping mechanism could thrive (Downs, 2019).
Artwork#3: “Social wave”, Oil on canvas with printed pink flowers
Recently, I was tested with a challenging client who has a problem with fixation on his moral and social defeat. I am helping this client, who had become aware of the unsoundness of his position with respect to the clinician when this was traced back to his dark origin: his relationship with this dominant mother. Jung (1933) pointed out a problem of psychotherapy with pleasure principal method. He stated, on average, those who easily achieve social adaptation and social position are better accounted for by the pleasure principle than whose are not able to adapt social shortcomings, which leaves them with a craving for power and importance (Jung, 1933; Case, Dally & Reddick, 2014). Egan (1975) also observed in repressed and socially unsuccessful people passion for self-assertion and neurosis. As my client is stuck at this stage, I created this art piece as solution to focus on this problem as Malchiodi (2007) observes that creative people can live with emotional distress and can transform it into creative work. I pushed limits on how I used materials in my artwork and explored a new way of working with already existing images on the canvas to overcome difficulty of developing positive behavioural change in this client.
In the relationship between clinician and client, we meet the transformative force that cannot be precisely determined. In these mutual exchanges, stages of transformation are decided by the one who has a stronger personality (Jung, 1933); in this case, my client proved stronger than me. Freud and Jung both agreed upon the importance of the analyst being analysed. This piece of art is self-analytical on my own psychic construction. It is a lifetime to reconstruct my fragile “ego” that was built with experiences relating to “self” “the environment” and “my family of origin”, with acceptance, transcendence, and inclusion (Gray, 2019). Reflecting with these artworks gave me insights on “self-compassion”, which is the key to unlock my childhood traumas history with creativity in order to release destructiveness in a safe space (Miller, 1990). This led me to have self-compassion, with an awareness of own suffering, the will to alleviate the pain, and to respond wisely (Siegal & Salomon, 2013). Also, I took the risks; breaking boundaries by pushing limits and inventing new ideas to led me to insight, self-awareness, and transformation. (See artwork#3)
I used predominantly yellow colour associations with sun, light, warmth, wisdom, intuition, hope, expectation, energy, riches, and masculinity (Malchoidi, 2007, p.158). A mother represents my moral principles for adaptation of social shortcomings. I became engrossed in this activity and lost track of time as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of his own experience as “flow”, a unique state of concentration when I felt positive and energised, focused, and totally absorbed in the present moment (Malchiodi, 2007, p.75). Malchiodi(2007) further explains, that flow is emotional intelligence at its best and he believes that it is essential for creativity and is an ability one can cultivate through being in flow. Everything flows in “Social waves”: the water flow, the rocks, and even the flower petals visible in them interacting and composing in flow.
I saw the waves in the flower petals and engaged with my sense of play, I morphed the petals into solid rock and the ocean waves. I encountered myself in the process as an infantile self undergoing developmental process and taking responsibility for transformation (Jung, 1933; Rubin, 2016). This piece of artwork involves exploring, modifying, and creating images, working from my own imagination into the unknown (Malchiodi, 2007). A mother sitting on the rock at the beach is a wearing yellow dress, and her blue top represents a connection between every image: the rock and ocean water, the white wave, tree branches are at oneness with her. With this art piece I experienced both psychological mode and a visionary mode at once. This is my own consciousness combined with the depth of our collective consciousness of the client; I am focused, calmed and self-satisfied. I painted the “Social wave” for my son.
In conclusion, it seemed that I gained the Vicarious Post Traumatic Growth (VPTG), and the Vicarious Resilience (VR), through the art-making tasks, for example, Jungian self -box particularly revealed self-rejected parts and I gained insights that allowed me to embrace all parts of self, and to be whole. Browns, 2019 explains,
When those who have experienced VT create artwork in isolation can be benefit, however, it is limited in scope to the therapeutic aspects of sharing and exploring with skilled art therapy experts and in group art therapy sessions. Van der Kolk declared that “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health: safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” (van der Kolk, 2014, cited in Browns, 2019, p.79)
I have been given the opportunity to overcome vicarious trauma through finding self-compassion within therapeutic presence by engaging in art therapy course works and building resilience (Earley, 2016). I am now looking forward to participating in workshops for the course for being in relation with others trainee art therapists for synergic therapeutic effect.
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[Plaque with background information about Freda’s universe]. (n.d.). The Cutaway, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
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van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Viking.
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