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Art Therapy: What It Is and How It May Help You

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This post is part of a series called Art Therapy.
Art Therapy: How to Draw a Mandala

Children love creating art. They do it intuitively, just pouring their imagination out with any medium they are given. It's pure fun for them, nothing else. But for us adults, things are different. We care very much about the results, we have certain expectations, and when we fail, we feel bad. And why would we do something that makes us feel bad? So we stop creating at all, to avoid unnecessary pain.

But art can still be a great source of fun! Instead of inducing stress, it can relieve it; instead of making you depressed, it can give you confidence and a sense of success. You only need to become a child again, just in your mind and just for a moment. You can use art as a form of really affordable therapy, adjusted to your personal needs.

What Is Art Therapy?

As Wikipedia states:

Art therapy (also known as arts therapy) is a creative method of expression used as a therapeutic technique. Art therapy originated in the fields of art and psychotherapy and may vary in definition.

It's nothing new—it's been used for years in professional therapy. However, today a personal form of art therapy is gaining popularity. It's focused less on the analysis of the emotions and more on simply spending time on your own doing something creative and relaxing. You have nobody to guide you—and nobody to judge you.

There are many forms of therapeutic art activities. The most popular one currently is "coloring books for adults". The premise is as simple as in the version for children, but the patterns that are supposed to be filled with colors are much more complex and time-consuming.

adult coloring book

Another popular activity you might have heard of is drawing and coloring mandalas—intricate geometric patterns created around a circle. They have a long history in Hinduism and Buddhism, but they can be drawn outside of any spiritual connotation.

Basically, art therapy is based on any creative or artistic activity that you can focus on without pressure and judgment. You draw, paint, sculpt, or simply color as a child—focusing more on the process than on the goal.

How Art Therapy Can Help You

Professional therapists usually don't consider personal art therapy a real therapy. There's no guidance here, so you can't really solve your problems this way. A real therapy, they say, is a process, and not simply an activity that makes you feel good for a moment. However, they agree that various art activities can be therapeutic—which means they can still be very helpful in our everyday mental struggles. You just need to keep in mind that it's more of a relaxation technique than a therapy, and if you really need help, please consult a professional therapist.

So what's therapeutic about art? To understand it, first you need to change your thinking about art. You need to get rid of the limiting thoughts that stop you from grabbing a pencil again. First of all, creating is an activity like anything else. You can be bad at it, you can be decent, or you can be really good—and you can't be good without being bad first.

Being good at something is important when you're competing with others. Actually, it's the competition that gives "good" and "bad" any meaning. You're good if you're better than others, and you're bad if you're worse. But you don't always compete for a high prize. You can play basketball with friends, where having fun is more important than proving your abilities.

It's the same with creating. You can draw a cat that looks like a caterpillar with four legs, and it doesn't matter as long as you have fun! Drawing isn't reserved only for professionals; nobody is going to punish you for being bad at it. Neither does being bad at it mean you're worthless or talentless—it simply means you're not skilled at it, which is true for the majority of people. There's no need to be ashamed that you weren't born with this skill, because nobody was!

You never hear a child say, "I don't draw because I'm not good at it." Why would they? Drawing is fun regardless of your skill level, as long as you don't make a stunning end result your priority. Talented children are often praised for their beautiful drawings, so you may think that being praised is the goal, but try to see it more broadly: a talented child is praised for meeting the expectation of the adult—nothing more than that.

children drawing
Children first draw only from themselves. Only later do they discover that they can also get approval for drawing in a certain way, which affects their expectations towards their own drawings.

In personal art therapy, you eliminate that one thing that makes drawing so stressful—the observer, the judge. When you know that nobody will see your creation, you don't need to do anything to gain their approval. You can return to the times before you let the expectations of others become yours. It's only you and your tools—the very definition of "me time".

So the most therapeutic element of creating art is coming to terms with your inner critic. The inner critic is that little part of you that tells you what you're supposed to do to make others respect and like you—which wouldn't be as bad if that voice weren't so mean most of the time, scolding you for any misstep and exaggerating its consequences!

When you can safely ignore the voice of the inner critic (because there's no risk of any social judgment in these conditions), your own inner judgment can finally be heard. You can finally think "I like it" without immediately adding "but it's not good enough". And the more you listen to it, the louder it becomes, getting powerful enough to undermine the judgment of the oversensitive inner critic.

friends playing ball
Do you need to be "good enough" to play with friends? Or do you simply need to enjoy it?

This is especially useful for perfectionists, who've fallen into a habit of giving 100% to everything they do, burning themselves in the process. When creating in the peace of their own room, in the time reserved just for them, they can finally answer the "It's not good enough" with "So what?" If you drew this mandala 10% better, what would change? What consequences would it have? Is it really worth it? Taking this healthy way of thinking into the "real world" becomes natural with time.

But that's not all that art therapy has to offer. Focusing on a simple, repetitive task, like drawing a mandala or coloring a complex pattern, may work like mindfulness meditation. You can get rid of all the thoughts that have been haunting you the whole day. You hear your breath, the soft scratching of the pencil over the paper, the clock ticking in the background...

This isn't another task to complete, where you only think about what you're going to do next. Your task is about doing this task, not finishing it. You're here, in the moment, just being for the sake of being—not to achieve something for the future. You break that self-perpetuating circle of doing something just to be able to do something else, constantly, forever. You can finally be satisfied with just being, even if only for a moment.

woman meditating
Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to travel to some isolated wild place to meditate—drawing in your own room can be just as effective!

But the list of benefits of using art therapy doesn't end here. Last, but not least, enjoying an activity is crucial for our mental well-being. Our days are filled with activities that we are supposed to do, but take no pleasure in. And without having fun, we slowly die inside like a flower without sun.

There's this old saying, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," but we so often forget about it. We are grown-ups, we think; we know our responsibilities, we can take it. But the real epidemic of depression in our world today proves that it's not true. We don't really know our limits, and it's so easy for us to cross them. When life is only a struggle, a constant pursuit for something, we may ask ourselves: what's the point?

Enjoying ourselves reminds us what we really live for. It reminds us that life isn't only about fighting for something, that there are beautiful moments worth living for. And creating art just for the sake of having fun is a perfect activity, because there's no other hidden purpose, nothing to gain or lose. You simply can't do it wrong!

Conclusion

In today's world, we have so many desires and so many ways to pursue them that we don't have enough time to enjoy any of them. The media teaches us never to be satisfied, always to reach for more. And while this makes us gain so much, it also stops us from taking any pleasure from it. Indulging in simple art activities as children do, just for the sake of having fun and nothing else, can be extremely liberating and good for our mental health.

If you agree with my points, you'll be happy to hear we're starting a new series of tutorials about personal art therapy. While the premise of it is quite simple and everyone can do it on their own, some guidance can be helpful and can keep the therapy interesting. In the first tutorial of this series, for example, we'll be learning how to draw mandalas!

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