Gillian has an
interdisciplinary background in dance, art education, fine art,
expressive arts therapies, shamanic studies, cultural studies, art
psychotherapy, biodanza dance movement, massage therapy, cranio-sacral
therapy, and visceral manipulation. Gillian's 14 years of
Art Psychotherapy & counseling experience specialization: ... Facebook
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G- Have worked in this area for 14 years, began as a teacher in S.
Africa, but felt the need to train further at the Tate Institute in
Toronto, Canada in Art Psychotherapy, in order to facilitate the deeper
healing in my art processes for people especially during the apartheid
regime. Returned to S. Africa, working with diverse people altered
everything for me- perceptions of relationships, empathy, etc.
How can we co-create a partnership model that’s basis is rooted in
empathy- melding the complex alchemy of modern diversity?
E- How did your interest in empathy evolve from your own life to this
G- An important question, the seeds are sown of what we are in
childhood. There’s an incredible wisdom that the innocent carries. My
family moved countries frequently as a child, it was very diverse, the
only way I could survive was to really understand the cultures and
peoples that we were attempting over and over again to integrate with.
It was both different languages and also non-verbal communication, I
learnt how with an open heart you can cross bridges and potential
divides and the physical bodily boundaries that we hold can be permeable
when the heart/soul is attempting to find union.
E–any specific stories?
G–so many-classes with indigenous children. I was once a mute child. Our
family moved countries often. From an early age I had to learn to feel
what other people and cultures felt as a way to more easily assimilate.
In hindsight there was an excessive amount of change, which was
traumatic but later helped me develop resiliency in the face of
G-I have just returned from South Africa where I attended a community
dance workshop- Biodanza African Encounter. There are many changes afoot
and healing continues in South Africa because with a history of racism
the oppressor is as injured as the victim.
E–how do we build a culture of empathy through the arts?
G–I’ve bought examples today of art psychotherapy with different clients
to share with you, though I can’t show you the images because of consent
I fully support the use of the video you’re using, its richly
educational. Animation is a great way to evolve and reconstruct empathic
E–like the Jeremy Rifkin animation online. We were discussing
experimenting in this way, perhaps using metaphors of empathy and the
opposite, dialogues using art to explore the topic.
G–William Kentridge is a political activist/protest artist in South
Africa. Art has a long history as an effective vehicle for political
change, a mouthpiece for repressed emotions and feelings within the
social body politic.
G–an 11-year-old boy came to see me because of his perception of
stressful exclusion/bullying at school by other children. He created an
image of multiple metaphors, which he turned into a narrative storyboard
exploring his fear and inner conflict around repressing his authentic
feelings. His process was learning to be more empathic with himself
through the visual narrative/creative process of transformation. It was
a complex underwater world, his metaphor transmutes as he gains more
confidence and eventually makes a spiritual connection whereby he can
ask for the help he needs, he has accepted/acknowledged his own
differences and limitations.
Another 43-year-old female writer had a 23-year history of
schizophrenia. In her first session she drew a huge vivid oak tree in
full bloom with multiple branches and deep roots into the earth. It was
an interesting precursor for underlying anxiety attached to a work trip
whereby she’d have to be in the public eye and communicate and advocate
Exploring depression/critical voices she again found self-empathy was
the core value she had to creatively learn to dialogue with. She
befriended the voices in the end and acknowledged that "creativity saved
my life". She learned "to live through the critical voices" which over
time transformed "into light, courage, peace and hope". Interestingly
she commented that "I have died many deaths which took all of my life
energy, but death showed me how precious life is...everyday is a time
for me to harvest love...in knowing both darkness and light we are
blessed and enriched...because when it gets dark enough, you can see the
E–did she use the word self-empathy?
G–no, that was my framing of it.
E–There is a lack of clarity regarding the definition of empathy, my
take on it is in four steps–
1. self-empathy or self knowledge/awareness.
2. mirrored empathy, using our mirror neurons to integrate with others.
G–if there’s a resonant/meaningful connection in a meeting of two people
oxytocin is released into our system, the para sympathetic body relaxes
and we feel heard, listened to and respected. In that moment we solidify
empathic, kinship bonds. That shared empathy is how you build community.
E–continuing my four step definition of empathy-
3.perspective taking/active empathy- a little like acting, cognitive and
seeing things emotionally from other’s points of view.
4.empathic action–as we’ve connected we can take action together. The
blocks to working together are removed.
The art therapy you describe relates to developing the first stage of
self-empathy. Becoming mindful and then creating dialogues between
different parts of ourselves and our various experiences, and that
becomes an inner empathic dialogue, which can give you the oxytocin
release as well! I just got that insight now.
G- do you see how you got that integration from all your previous
research? And you’ve opened this in from our dialogue to probably create
and open up a new neurological pathway. That’s what art psychotherapy
does so effectively because it's a creative learning process, so you're
constantly activating from the sensory-motor tips of the fingers as you
hold and move the medium. The different materials activate
neurologically in the brain-so there's a new neurological pathway and
integration created each time you image and then move into verbal
dialogue. Only at the end of the creative process do you dialogue with
the image which represents a feeling, emotion, thought, or question:
"what is this feeling?" or "what does this feeling mean for me in my
life at this time?" Therefore "I want to name this feeling which helps
me to own both the good and bad of this feeling."
G– another client is a female cancer survivor. Her body image pre-and
post surgery is profound in her healing process, she’s having to come to
terms with- ‘what does it mean for me to be empathic towards myself
regarding the trauma of cancer both culturally and personally?’
E–she’s being present with the emotional pain of the illness.
G–the greater the capacity to be present with the fragile and vulnerable
feelings–that will birth empathy. Empathy is not excluding discomfort,
that’s where many people don’t understand it sufficiently, or minimise
it. If you are suffering, I want to truly feel you’re suffering and
share it with you, link with it and connect with it so that you know I
value you as a human being in this moment.
E–it’s being present with and not repressing fear, alienation,
loneliness and suffering within ourselves and others. And that very
process of being present seems to release oxytocin or something which
actually helps to ameliorate those feelings and create more of a sense
of space and openness for greater creativity to happen, to problem
G-feeling "presence" means I value your "worth" in that moment, and
thereby I value your fundamental humanness... many of us from birth and
an inner child perspective have never experienced that kind of empathy.
So we carry a metaphorical emotional hole inside of us that we’re always
wanting to satiate, and feel full in the nourishment which comes through
attachment, that is initially the parental bonding, friendship, family,
fraternity. Somehow we’re not alone and we’re all in this together. A
sense of belonging to something bigger taking place on this planet.
An opening to the complexity/tapestry that underlies empathy, which is
often minimised by people and not entered into at its depth. This can be
entered through the metaphor and the value you attached to it. A
creative, imaginative, intuitive, fundamentally right brained activity,
which bridges the left brain of language ultimately–the core of it is a
process of necessity, one of silence and movement interiorly into inner
E–it’s like we’re biologically wired to need that connection and when we
don’t get ‘seen’ from childhood, etc, (repression) then we are alienated
from ourselves and others by that unseen part of us. A biological
function we have that maybe was developed for human social cohesion as
pack animals. Fundamental to human beings.
G–And this doesn’t ever stop or start, there are specific developmental
stages. I have a 75-year-old client, the empathy development is ongoing,
and it’s an eternal rebirthing process, a continuation of maturation.
The client has been a university psychologist/lecturer. He is on
dialysis at the end of his life. He’s a very creative and musical man
who has lost his partner. He has maintained links in his background with
a spiritual community and through art therapy he moved back to a sense
of communion again, gaining courage to ask for their help, since he is
fearful of dying and before it happens he’s bringing change within all
his relationships. The reason for this is because he explored a new core
of self-love, which emerges through all of the dialoguing creative
processes such as dancing, imaging, dialoguing, and voicing. The whole
cycle of life becomes enriched when we engage and participate in the
life process, we don’t fear it, we don’t fear death, this man is an
archetype of our cultural fear of death since every session we have
relates to death.
E–so you are helping to develop his ability to be present in his fear of
death, to empathise with his own fear?
G–so that he doesn’t criticise himself and his fear and his feelings of
vulnerability around it, it’s the same for all of us.
E–or of avoidance and alienation too?
G–in that denial you cannot grieve prior to death, which denies you
dignity, you can’t have that without this opportunity to grieve all the
losses we’ve experienced in our lives. You have to return to a place of
self-kindness, he is learning to love himself again rather than the
excessive caretaking of others, which he’s done all his life and had
become imbalanced. Never receiving from others had depleted him
E–Two parts to this process?
1.Self work, self-compassion–being present with one’s own fear and
vulnerability. Has a nurturing quality.
2.Then in conjunction with you as therapist, you bring your presence and
empathy to the relationship to benefit him.
G–That is the most therapeutic relationship, in which we are trained.
It’s the empathic connection. A presence with the other, with no
judgement, otherwise an injury can be caused immediately, a
disconnection. And the client no longer feels safe.
E–are there other blocks to empathy apart from judgement?
G–empathy is energy, a non-verbal body language, an electromagnetic
energy field, emitting frequencies/vibrations and resonances constantly
through our voice. If we aren’t aware of our own energy, we can
unwittingly impact another sometimes brutally through insensitivity-
lack of empathy/resonance and lack of capacity to accept what the other
is showing us in that moment, which may trigger a deep, inarticulable
fear in us, in that moment. If we honour that and share our mutual
vulnerability you can bridge and build trust.
E–like the 75-year-old client who had been unable to share his
vulnerability, he was detached?
G–many years of this pattern of disconnection is reinforced
neurologically. Depression is the result. This client had suffered very
much from depression and had sought many forms of psychological
intervention over the years, but he hadn’t been able to shift it. Yet
the creative process was able to touch his heart and make him vulnerable
through seeing and feeling the creative metaphor of his own energy.
E–your movement, which I like, on this monitor is making you go in and
out of focus, it’s like a creative metaphor for life!
G– I’m very kinaesthetic, that’s my inner child. For me, engagement of
necessity is about expressivity. I’m an expressive arts therapist
because I dance as well. I use my body to communicate sometimes when I
cannot find the appropriate word to express or articulate a feeling....
E–I’m like that as well. I’m excited about working more with the
animation, drawing and dialogue for empathy. Do you have any final
G–as we both deepen our personal connection and explore in our different
ways, in our different countries this will deepen and enrich our
understanding of empathy and what constitutes empathy. The magic
ingredients, the specificity that is missing in the present
literature–it’s difficult to find any real articulation of what we are
discussing. That’s why I value what you are doing because you’re doing
it in an educative way, opening it up. I’m so grateful to you for this.
There is a book that myself and many art psychotherapists
internationally have put together for furthering empathy through
healing. It comes out today and it’s called-
‘Art therapy and post-modernism–creative healing through a prism’. In
England it is published by Jessica Kingsley and represented in Canada by
the UBC press, available at Caversham bookstores.
E–it’d be great for Art psychotherapist to get together and write a book
specifically about “empathy in art therapy”. To get a community dialogue
going in depth and have some real activities we could do around this.
For instance what is your metaphor of empathy? Mine is of a
“cornucopia”–the awareness of all our internal feelings and the ability
to share that with others too, each of us has their own special
G- my metaphor is "spring water flowing over parched land which
resuscitates the life blood of the land".
E-Another exercise is to draw two separate drawings, which then have a
dialogue: one represents "empathy" and the other represents "lack of
empathy". Then draw a third drawing of melding and dissolving the two
together. What is created through this relationship, differentiation,
and synthesis? It can be very insightful.
G–it is very exciting that we are embarking on this new creative process
together. I’m going to start documenting empathy specifically with all
my clients now. I want to pursue this in my own writing. Thank you for
bringing me this important focus and clarity.