As a writer, I spend way too much time up in my head thinking. I spend hours sitting completely stone-faced, engineering story points to impress my employers. As a result, I occasionally struggle to access and freely express my feelings—and I feel it sometimes prevents me from fully opening up and connecting to other people.
So when I opened my Gmail to a subject line, “Wednesday Night Expressive Arts – FREE GROUP,” I was intrigued (and not just because it said free). Someone on a listserv to which I subscribed was receiving her master’s in clinical psychology with a concentration in expressive arts and she needed a group of guinea pigs to attempt tapping into their emotions by doing things like drawing, dancing, and acting out scenes, and then discussing how it made us feel. I wondered if this would help fill the emotional gap I was feeling.
Expressive arts is a therapeutic practice focused on helping you get out of your head and into your emotions. In other words, a form of art therapy that doesn’t limit itself to just painting or music, but utilizes a variety of art forms to enhance creativity and promote uninhibited self-expression. I wanted to give it a shot.
The first day of school
When I arrived at the third-floor walkup, I let myself in and took a seat in an intimate living room. The organizer, Caroline, led initial introductions and presented the six of us with poster board and a ginormous collection of markers and colored pastels. Then she calmly instructed us to draw a tree and assign words to the ground (our past), the trunk/leaves (our present), and the sky (goals for the future). Most importantly, she stressed, “there is no wrong way to do it.”
Tentative, we looked around at each other. It had been a long time since I’d done this kind of childlike art project, and initially thought it was a bit immature, even silly. But, ultimately, I wanted to be open-minded. So I (along with my fellow group members) bucked up and grabbed some supplies.
Once I got going, I surprised myself with how quickly I escaped into my own work. This is calming, I thought. And fun. And no one will judge me or make me feel bad if I do it “wrong.” An hour went by and I didn’t even notice. I was too busy expressing my insides with a yellow magic marker. A feeling of being free settled over me.
Show and tell
When it was time to share my tree with the group, I stood back and looked at it. That’s when I saw it: The words I had chosen were dark and more somber than my drawing which, visually, was bright and colorful. It was a startling disconnect, honestly. My analytical writer-brain, concerned with overthinking and “doing a good job,” was so negative. But when I was drawing, I wasn’t worried about messing up—and could be lighter and more positive. It made me see how much trying to impress other people had been holding me back.
The next week we brought in sentimental keepsakes and silently acted out what they meant to us… which felt silly at first but ended up making me feel joyful. The week after that, we free-wrote about the ways creativity first manifested in our lives.
As the weeks went on, I realized that I was starting to feel more playful and less weighed down in my everyday life. I smiled at strangers in the grocery store, asked baristas how their days were going (and cared about the answers), and offered to help my building manager take his packages upstairs. In short, I felt more present, open, and connected with others and myself. And I’m grateful for the innovative ways that group taught me to access my emotions. There was an inner three-year-old hiding inside me all along–I just had to let her out.
Do it yourself
So. How can you implement expressive arts in your daily life to take a break from your worrying brain and tap into more joy? Luckily, there are all kinds of simple and fun exercises. Just remember: don’t judge yourself, and remember to have fun
Make a list of things that are awesome
For fifteen minutes, go to town. The list can have anything from mini Oreos to environmentalism. Lists with literally anything allowed on them encourage silly and fun discoveries we may not have uncovered otherwise. And focusing on positive things always feels great.
Take a beginner dance class
Suck at dancing? All the better! The more you let loose and allow yourself to look like an idiot, the more you tap into that inner child. Kids don’t care about failing!
Create a postcard you’ll never send
Are joyful, angry, or unresolved feelings bubbling toward someone in your past or present? Draw a picture on one side and write what you’d like to say to them on the other. Knowing the other person will never see it will give you the freedom to express how you really feel.
Make a collage
Grab magazines, glitter, feathers, and more, and create a good old-fashioned collage with the prompt, “I Feel…” Answering, “how do you feel?” actually requires you to think about how you feel and rely on your own reporting. Free-associating pictures from magazines allows for more raw, honest discoveries.
Invent a recipe
Inventing things is great for accessing creativity because it involves improvisation and spontaneity. And knowing you are in the comfort of your own home means no one else will know if it ultimately tastes terrible.
Finger paint your heart
Paint things that instinctively warm your heart and things that instinctively hurt your heart. Not having to think about “why” will free you up to express untapped emotions and learn new things about yourself.