Reclaiming Our Artistry, One Session at a Time By Michael Alcee, PhD on 4/19/22 - 2:02 PM

“Who, me, an artist? But I’m not going to drop an album, release a book, or be in a movie anytime soon.”

Yes, you, an artist! Hear me out before you wave this one away, as did Irvin Yalom when I initially posed the question to him at a Psychotherapy Networker conference. I had asked him if he realized how he had taught so many therapists to be artists like himself, when he quickly demurred that he wasn’t really an artist in the way we usually think of it and in the way he admired so many artists himself. In a subsequent communication, he acknowledged the connection I had attempted to make when I posed the question to him at the conference.

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Wait, master clinician Irvin Yalom doesn’t see himself as an artist, either, at least not in the traditional sense or strict definition of the word, or the way in which I am asking you to consider in this essay? That’s right, even the best therapists out there don’t always appreciate the “artistry” in what they do. Sound familiar?

So many of us fail to see ourselves as artists, and yet it’s also crucial so we remain solidly confident and regularly inspired in our day to day work. And don’t even get me started on how it cushions against the rampant burnout happening on both sides of the couch during this pandemic.

We conduct intakes for a reason. We are implicitly asked all the time to figure out the unique music our clients are playing without even having a score or knowing the key, tempo, or composer. Imagine yourself as a jazz player reading the chord changes, making something interesting and musical out of the sadness, anxiety, fear, pride, and desire all trying to express themselves in your client’s unique pain and possibility.

Isn’t this what we do?

Every day, we summon ourselves like actors into the role of deeply imagining and empathizing what our clients are experiencing and playing it back to them, so they can vary it and try on new roles, so they can have more freedom, fulfillment, and hope.

It’s easy for us to see ourselves as authors, helping clients tell their stories more fully, switching back from present drama to flashbacks and, of course, the future dreams they only wish someone could help them see more clearly. What is it that I really wish to happen, and why, like a dream, can’t I grasp it? We write and revise with and alongside our clients, and it’s about time that we see ourselves as the artists we truly are.

Starting to get convinced? Don’t feel bad, even the high-level musicians I work with at the Manhattan School of Music don’t see themselves as artists, either. In their personal lives, that is. As a culture, we lop off our personal creativity from our artistic creativity and only reserve the term “artist” for a small subsegment of the population: painters, actors, musicians, dancers. But this is a disservice, not only to the general public but even more so to we therapists who need to lead the way, showcasing mental health as the art of living life creatively.

Therapists, like artists, make new forms out of old, familiar ones and, better yet, they take liberties and become subversive with them. Think Bansky. His punny painting Show Me the Monet reimagines and refashions Monet’s iconic Waterlilies strewn with toppled grocery carts and a jarring orange construction-site cone. It’s a tour de force commentary of the ways in which humankind pollutes the environment it wishes to glorify and how we overconsume and lose contact with what is most essential. And yet it also echoes and builds on the work of the masters, paying homage to Monet’s capacity to see the beauty in his world and challenge it with his realism. As therapists, we, too, help our clients to both connect and complicate what is both possible and real in their family stories, relationships, and unfolding selves.

We are neurologically built to be artists, as Pablo Picasso once noted when he suggested that all children start out being artists but merely forget as adults. Our right brain’s capacity for imagination, empathy, metaphor, humor, and dreams is the true maestro, to paraphrase writer Iain McGilchrist, and our left brain, the home of our vaunted logic, language, and linear view of ourselves, is the emissary. Albert Einstein once said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Nowhere is this more important and more lacking than in therapists.
We need to reclaim the notion of our work as art and take pride again in the unique music, narrative, and drama that our work produces, and how it changes us, them, and our world, one session at a time.
If not now, when?

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