• Marilyn Hagar

What is Expressive Arts Therapy? A tool for healing or a way of being?




I stumbled into the practice of Expressive Arts Therapy as a teenager, long before those words to describe it even existed. Completely on my own, I turned to the arts as a way of figuring out what was going on inside of me. With absolutely no skill or training in the arts, I painted my heart out trying to express what I felt inside. I danced wildly to classical music, expressing the feelings triggered by the sound with my body, and words would just come, nagging me until I wrote them down in a poem. I recently came upon one of those early poems. It expressed the rage I felt when I first became conscious of the fact that people didn't always act like who they said they were. Because of my overwhelming fascination with introspection, my deep curiosity about what was going on inside others, plus my practice of using the arts to explore all of that, it is really no surprise that as an adult, I found my calling in expressive arts therapy.


People often imagine that you need to excel in the arts to be an Expressive Arts Therapist and certainly, many in my field are gifted poets, artists, dancers and musicians, but that wasn't how I found my way to this profession. I'm not particularly gifted in any of the arts. I came to this work because somehow, in a culture that was bound and determined to convince me otherwise, I was able to convince myself that that didn't matter. I had discovered early on what it felt like to paint even if I wasn't an artist, to move from the inside even if I wasn't a dancer, to make music even if I wasn't a musician and yes, to write, even if I wasn't what other people would call a writer. Doing it anyway was my gift. I hoped that in not being one of the gifted few, I could help others like me overcome the shame that keeps so many of us from expressing ourselves creatively.


When I became a participant in the arts rather than an observer, it was like finding a hidden treasure chest at the bottom of the ocean. When I opened it, I found so much beauty it took my breath away. When I first became an expressive arts therapist I wanted to share that treasure chest with others so they could see the beauty in those jewels and like I had, find healing in their own lives. I had come to know the power in the arts and I wanted to use them as a tool to help myself and others find the wisdom beneath the surface stories we tell about ours lives.


All these years later, I realize that what I had actually found was not a treasure at the bottom of the ocean, but rather a hidden treasure deep inside of me. I had found the wild landscape of my imagination, and the untamed power of the creative essence at the core of my being. It had been there all along. It was as if it had just been waiting for me to discover it.


Some 70 years later now, I understand that my participation in the arts was just my entryway to understanding that as a fully alive human being, I am called to live my whole life creatively, to form and reform myself over and over again in my lifetime. I'm called to be a like a hunk of clay with endless possibilities, shaped this way and that, then wadded up and rebuilt into something new. The arts helped me learn listen to that voice from my own wild essence, the part of me that flows like a river with all the changes life requires. I've come to trust my wild self as my guide. I am so grateful to have her with me in these Covid times when everything old is falling away and everything new is just waiting to be born.


Yes, expressive arts therapy is a tool, a marvelous one and it is used in so many helpful and creative ways but if we ever forget the root of its power in the very essence of who we are as human beings we will have lost our connections to its life blood and its deepest message.


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