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Becoming Through Art

“I am here to live out loud.” — Emile Zola


You know that feeling?


You must, dear reader. The feeling when you finally heed the call to create and are able to translate emotion to brushstroke, to melody, to photo composition and captured light. Like finally there exists, in a beautiful and accurate way, an alignment between what is inside of you and what you express externally. There’s a shift that happens in these moments. We breathe a bit deeper and feel whole; both accomplished and like we are enough as we are, regardless of our accomplishments. Whole in a way that seems to not happen as often as we’d like.


We know now that the words spoken by Walt Whitman are true: “[we] contain multitudes.” We are made up of an unspoken number of parts that uniquely combine, conflict and (sometimes) work together to make up the self of us. The self of you, I should say. When we are able to express these various parts in safe environments and through a well-loved medium — particularly when we are able to express these parts authentically — there is a settling that happens in our nervous system. Conversely, when certain parts are held back, suppressed, not given permission to exist, it weighs on our nervous systems and increases stress on the body. This can also result in depression and anxiety as we seek to navigate the stresses of every day life while also managing the stress on our body.


I know this stress well. Growing up I learned parts of myself were not okay to express. These parts were anger that eventually developed into rage, weakness that developed into hardness, vulnerability that developed into shame. And I began silencing myself, a silencing which in turn spread like morning glory, choking out any glimpse of expression within my body, while on the surface looking harmless, even pretty. The greatest casualty of this, for me, was music. I began writing music when I was 10 years old. I remember staying up late one night in the doorway of my bedroom because the only illumination available at that hour came from the hallway light. At this time of my life my soul was afire for the Lord and I wrote a song about God creating the world in Just Six Days (hello, Grammy-winning title). I sang it for my brother and his friend in the car while we waited in a parking lot for my mom, who was running an errand. They laughed. I was confused.


This wasn’t where my journey as a songwriter and singer ended; it took at least another decade for me to internalize the message that this was not the path for me and therefore I should just give it up. There was a combination of things that led me to believe that perfection and external validation equaled worthy, and if it couldn’t be perfect and externally celebrated it couldn’t be worthy.


There was a combination of things that led me to believe that perfection and external validation equaled worthy, and if it couldn’t be perfect and externally celebrated it couldn’t be worthy.

Even with encouragement from friends I couldn’t drown out the voices that also laughed at me and made fun of me, or ignored me completely.


I pursued education instead because it was structured and safe, and it turned out I also loved school. Here I discovered a new part of myself, one that could speak confidently in front of a class and write papers asking questions I actually wanted to know the answers to. Music lingered in the back of my mind as something that my adolescent and young adult self held onto but was “no longer a part of who I am now.” I obtained a bachelor of arts in psychology with honours and decided to pursue a masters of arts in counseling psychology. This was it. I was going to write papers, maybe even a book one day, and do therapy.


[A]uthentic expression is integral to our development as a person.

And then the masters program turned my world upside down. Through this I learned about the impact silencing can have on our nervous systems and mental health, and how authentic expression is integral to our development as a person. This expression needs to happen in safe, attuned relational environments. Connection is vital to our well-being, and our brains have developed to try to “get rid of” anything that is perceived as getting in the way of maintaining connection with others. Without a safe and attuned other person who can hold the space for these parts of us to exist, we naturally attempt to “cut off” the parts of us that we perceive as “getting in the way” of connection and inclusion within a group. What results is suppressing rather than“getting rid of,” because we have a core self, and we can’t get rid of something that already exists within us. We can numb or convince ourselves that we no longer feel that type of way, but if it truly exists somewhere in our bones, it lingers on until processed. And nothing can be processed without first being witnessed.


We can numb or convince ourselves that we no longer feel that type of way, but if it truly exists somewhere in our bones, it lingers on until processed. And nothing can be processed without first being witnessed.

This suppression can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe you didn’t feel safe to speak up as a child. Maybe you experienced a trauma that resulted in a necessary separation from parts of yourself that feel vulnerable or weak or scary, in order to stay connected to some semblance of normalcy and survival. All of these things happen to every day people and more, even just culturally. We live in a culture today that emphasizes and values happiness and strength while minimizing the importance of emotions like sadness, anger, fear, even shame. Depending on the body you were born into, you may have been taught that certain emotions are more acceptable for others rather than yourself, or that you are supposed to focus on others’ well-being and neglect your own. All of that would be well and good if we didn’t have unique Selves, and if emotions didn’t serve as the medium through which our Selves express and exist.


Alas, we do have Selves, and emotions do serve the important purpose of informing us of who we are. Emotions point us towards the values and needs we have, and the boundaries we require in order to thrive (for more on this you are welcome to read an at times dense and cumbersome book titled “The Healing Power of Emotions,” edited by the incomparable Diana Fosha). In many ways, art is emotion channeled through expressive and aesthetic mediums. The same areas of the brain that are largely responsible for emotional expression and feeling emotion are also involved in artistic expression, and emotions that are present when one is engaging in art impact how artistic expression takes place. Art also helps regulate emotion through engaging in areas of the left hemisphere that support story-telling and analysis. Our internal experiences become known and then seen and regulated within the safety of our own artistic expression, whether we share it with another person or not. In this way, when engaging in art, we are coming into relationship with ourselves, attuning to ourselves, and allowing ourselves to become.


[Art] is emotion channeled through expressive and aesthetic mediums.

So I obtained a masters degree in order to learn that I needed to allow myself to engage in the artistic pursuits my body craved. I learned a lot of other things and I don’t regret a moment of it; and yet I found myself coming back to my 10-year-old self, sitting on the floor of my bedroom. I found myself coming back to my 17-year-old self, sitting on my bed writing a new song. I found myself coming back to my 20-year-old self, playing guitar and singing my heart out at the top of my lungs, discovering songs that others wrote that allowed me to express parts of myself I didn’t know were there. And then I found my anger coming back. My tears coming back. My vulnerability coming back and my weakness re-awakening in a new way that felt deep and vast and somehow strong. I also picked up water-colour painting and have found myself numerous times sobbing over paint strokes, unable to put into words what I was feeling or why. Art was

just allowing me to exist.


I don’t know what your story is. I imagine that if you are reading this, you may already know well the feeling that happens when a part of you comes up unexpectedly through a work of art you have been playing with, or even a work of art you have witnessed yourself. If you don’t know that feeling, here is an invitation to explore. Try a new medium or pick up an old one you had forgotten about, and allow yourself to just be. When we exist in safe, open, and attuned environments, parts of us blossom forward, and you may be surprised. If that happens, imagine it washing over you like a wave. There is nothing to fix, there is nothing to change. Allow yourself to be — as you are — in this moment. You are just becoming.


 

Hannah Raine is a registered clinical counsellor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors (#19415). Throughout her studies and her own experiences of being a human, she finds herself continually exploring what it means to be human, and how we become through relationship. When she isn’t thinking about this, she is loving on her labradoodle Polly, travelling with her husband, enjoying a good book, or running through the forest. You can read more from Hannah at her own substack, Wonderings & Wanderings.




Recommended Readings:


No Bad Parts by Richard C. Schwartz

Anchored: How to Befriend your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory by Deb

Dana

What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce

D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey

The Wisdom of Your Body by Hillary L. McBride


Articles I drew from:


Greenberg, L. S. (2004). Emotion-focused therapy. Clinical Psychology and

Psychotherapy, 11, 3-16. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.388

Lusebrink, V. B. (2004). Art therapy and the brain: An attempt to understand the

underlying processes of art expression in therapy. Art Therapy: Journal of the

American Art Therapy Association, 21(3), 125-135.

McLean, K. C. Shucard, H., & Syed, M. (2017). Applying the master narrative framework

to gender identity development in emerging adulthood. Emerging Adulthood, 5(2),

Perry, B. D., Hogan, L., & Marlin, S. J. (2000). Curiousity, pleasure and play: A

neurodevelopment perspective. Advocate, 9-12.

Schore, A. N. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain

development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health

0355(200101/04)22:1%3C7::AID-IMHJ2%3E3.0.CO;2-N

Siegel, D. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind:

Attachment relationships, “mindsight,” and neural integration. Infant Mental

Health Journal, 22(1-2), 67-94. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?

doi=10.1.1.584.1794&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Van der Kolk, B. (2002). Beyond the talking cure: Somatic experience, subcortical

imprints and the treatment of trauma. In F. Shapiro (Ed.), EMDR as an integrative

psychotherapy approach: Experts of diverse orientations explore the paradigm

prism (pp. 57-83). American Psychological Association.

Zaman, W., & Fivush, R. (2011). When my mom was a little girl…: Gender differences in

adolescents’ intergenerational and personal stories. Journal of Research on

Adolescence, 21(3), 703-716. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1111/j.1532-

7795.2010.00709.x

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