The Power of Groups for Creativity

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Years ago I was assigned to take over someone else’s psychotherapy group while I was working in an outpatient clinic at Yale.  The topic wasn’t something I was thrilled about, so I decided to change it to something I was thrilled about- making art and practicing mindfulness.


My main role back then was to do intakes, I was noticing a pattern with many of my patients.  One of my favorite questions to ask was “what are some things you used to like to do, but you don’t do any more because of depression or lack of motivation?”  Time and time again I would find people saying that they used to like to make art, or scrapbook, or make jewelry, or some other type of craft.  


I also happened to have lots of art on my walls that former patients had given me, and this was a fantastic litmus test for fellow “creative types”.


I can always tell which folks are fueled by creativity because when they walk in my office they immediately comment on the art on my walls.   Since “being creative” was one of the first things to go when they became depressed, I reasoned that engaging in creative arts might be the most powerful tool to bring them back to health.   I began to tell these people that making art was going to be part of their treatment plan.


I started an “art therapy type” group (I’m not an art therapist so I wouldn’t call it that) and decided to call it Mindful Creativity.  I wanted this group to be more than just sitting around and coloring, it needed to have an extra therapeutic dimension.  Fortunately I was also studying mindfulness and DBT, (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy)  and i found that the two blend together organically.  Unfortunately many of our clients struggled so much with mindfulness that they gave up on it altogether.  What I discovered was that the excitement of making art carried their interest through to help them practice the mindfulness part.  


Over and over clients would tell me that during the group, they were “in the zone” and totally lost track of time.  They were using a mindfulness skill of one-pointed attention, not thinking about anything else they had to do later that day or what was going on somewhere else.  Although I’ve heard many people dismiss activities such as coloring mandalas as “mindless distraction”, I have learned that by adding challenges to the activity, people enter a deeper state of absorption and self-revelation.  Sometimes people just want a mindless distraction, and I think that’s fine- I’ve had dozens of people come back to me after a long weekend and tell me that coloring or collaging helped them through a craving for drugs or self harm.  When I work with creativity in groups, however, I like to add dimensions such as only allowing participants to use one color when illustrating a mandala, or only using their three least favorite colors.  We talk about attachment, aversion and non-attachment, and the suffering associated with each.  We talk about experiences growing up which caused us to be attracted to or repelled by certain colors.  We talk about problem solving and challenges, and examine the thoughts and self talk which pop up while we work.  All of this information is amplified by sharing with others in the group.  Many of the group members, although they dearly love to make art, simply don’t do it at home, so to have the protected time and space to engage in it is a relief.  There’s also something about being with other people that is uniquely gratifying and invigorating;  so many activities- exercise, work, travel, all are more meaningful when we’re in it together.   It’s no mistake that people love to gather in stitching bees, knitting groups, and all types of classes.  I think that a big part of it is the dopamine rush we get when completing something, or better yet getting a compliment on something we produced- like a child having their artwork displayed on the fridge at home.  (Be careful, however, because chasing that approval keeps us from being able to enjoy the process and let go of judgements).  


If you yourself are facing a creative slump or lack of enjoyment, I highly urge you to seek out a group (one of the best places to do it is  Harness that group energy and catapult yourself back into wellbeing, and you’ll probably be inspiring others to do the same.