Very recently I had the pleasure of giving a seminar to some final year psychology students as part of an ‘arts and mental health’ module. Despite enormous anxiety brought on by a woeful level of under preparation on my part, I had the most wonderful time – the students were engaged, participated keenly in what was asked of them, and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.
I got to share two of my great passions (art and therapy) and talk about how they can be used together as a means of communication when words are inadequate or unavailable for therapeutic work.
During the course of the seminar, I shared some of my art work and talked about how I had used it in my personal therapeutic journey. I shared something of myself. I was shamelessly vulnerable – allowing the students to see into my inner world, asking them to comment on it even. As I spoke freely about personal struggles with mental ill health and how I’d found a way to navigate the world around me using art, I saw a group of people completely engaged, totally hanging on every word – some shocked, some surprised, most just curious. As I reflected upon this experience later, I realised that it wasn’t the content of what I was sharing that was so engaging, but the honesty of it.
When people come to therapy they’re asked to be honest, they’re asked to expose their vulnerabilities, and for the therapy to really progress, they must find a way to do that with a total stranger about whom they know very little. Of course this takes time, a therapeutic relationship must be built, yet here I was standing in front of a group of total strangers, with no therapeutic relationship in place, sharing my deeply personal art work and my deeply personal stories. I realise now that this is a deeply unusual act; that they were right to be shocked. People don’t stand in front of groups of strangers and expose their inner most struggles. People protect themselves from groups of strangers. People create elaborate psychological defence mechanisms and patterns of behaviour to AVOID exposing their inner worlds – because it feels unsafe to be so exposed, to be so outwardly vulnerable.
Yet I found a power in being so open, a strength in the shamelessness of my vulnerability and a real joy in the curiosity of the students.
In a world that discourages honesty and shies away from the ‘truth’ of how we feel, a world that views mental ill health as something to be frightened of; even in an academic world that favours the ‘truth’ of statistics and measurable data over the ‘truth’ of lived experience; to share one’s experiences of mental ill health with total honesty is an act of social defiance and it is something gratefully received by the audience and a catharsis for the speaker.
I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to be honest and deliberately vulnerable to do so shamelessly, bravely and without apology – there is such wonder to be found in these seldom explored corridors of the psyche.