Designer Stefanie Fiore got the chance to sit down with art therapist Or Hal-Gil at our weekly Design Discussion event on December 5, 2016, to talk about perfectionism, myths of creativity, and the colouring book craze.
Stefanie Fiore (SF): Or Har-Gil is an art therapist and creative workshop facilitator who helps people tap into their natural creativity and strengths to explore new possibilities for themselves and their lives. After studying psychology, she completed her Master’s degree in Art Therapy at Concordia University in 2010. Or works with children, adolescents and adults in community mental health, long-term care, and hospital settings. In addition to having her own private practice, Or also works part-time at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Center. Please join me in welcoming Or! Or, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
Or Hal-Gil (OHG): I’ve been an art therapist for 7 years or so, and it was a bit of a winding path. I think this is something that many people can relate to, both in terms of coming to art therapy, and then graduating and realizing, “oh, there’s no full-time jobs with benefits for art therapists? Oh, I didn’t think about that at all when I chose my Master’s degree!” So yes, lots of winding paths, but I think they all guided me back to the practice that I’m doing now.
SF: So, what exactly is art therapy?
OGH: This is a good place to start, because right now with colouring books, a lot of those are being labelled as “art therapy,” which is super-annoying!
SF: So, you’re not colouring all day long, Or?
OHG: [laughs] No, definitely not! Art therapy is a healing modality. It uses the creative process as a way of helping people to uncover their thoughts and feelings, and to use not just art, but also conversation, to help people better understand themselves, their challenges, the directions they want to be headed. So, in a lot of ways, there is some overlap with talk therapy, but for me, the biggest difference is that in art therapy we use a different starting point. With art therapy, I’ll start a session saying something like, “Make something to help me get to know you, separate from the thing that is bringing you here today,” and so that different launching point for the conversation makes it a bit different. I offer art therapy one-on-one and in groups, and do workshops, which are not specifically therapy but use some of the techniques to give people the chance to use the process to learn more about themselves, but not necessarily because there’s a challenge or problem that they want to work through. It’s more about using creativity as a way of learning more about yourself.
SF: What was your Master’s program like? What sort of things did you learn and what was that experience like for you?
OHG: It was horrible! [laughs] Well, okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It wasn’t horrible. It was really challenging because the program has a few different components, one of which is the academic, where you’re learning all the theory, about art therapy, psychotherapy, abnormal psychology, and you’re also doing clinical internships, which gives you the chance to put that theory into action, work with different populations, and get hands-on experience. Plus, you’re supposed to be in your own therapy at the same time (this is a common thing in counselling or psychology programs). It’s really important to understand your own triggers, what are things that I want to understand about myself so that if someone is sharing something with me and I’m having a reaction, I can think, “Oh, that’s coming up for me because of this experience that I’ve had.” If anyone here has been through their own therapy, that is a really intense process. So, to be going through that while also having a learning curve of figuring out how to do something for the first time, plus all the academic coursework, plus I moved to a new city. It was really challenging, but most periods of growth are. While it was very hard, I feel like I got a lot out of it.
SF: How did you find the transition from student to practitioner after you completed your Master’s degree?
OHG: So, this is sort of the piece that I mentioned earlier about realizing, “Oh, there’s no full-time jobs?” I do think the program did a good job of setting expectations– that you’re not going to graduate and get jobs handed to you, and that in a lot of ways you need to be quite entrepreneurial. If you find somewhere that you want to run a group, you need to go out and talk to them and say, “Here’s what I propose doing.” Still, though, when it actually became time to actually do this now, that was pretty scary. And coming back, I had student loans, and just moved back to Toronto from Montreal and just craved stability. I had a job opportunity come up while I was still finishing my thesis. The job was to do research through interviews and focus groups to help people with different health conditions. So I thought, “Okay, this is kind of interesting. I don’t have any real jobs lined up, so let me just apply.” And I got the job, and I ended up working there for a few years, which was great at first. In hindsight, this was a fear-driven decision that was useful in some ways, but also a bit of a detour. I got to a certain point where I was realized, “What am I doing? This isn’t what I studied.” It was a turning point where I realized that I had to make a choice to commit to a career in art therapy or not. “Is this something that I really want to do? Will I enjoy it?” especially because I’ve only done this as a student. My ultimate answer was “Yes, this is what I want to be doing, and there’s a lot of different ways to do that.” It’s been fun trying to shape it the way that suits my interests and who I want to help.
SF: Has your business changed a lot over the years?
OHG: I think even thinking of it as a business is a change. I think that’s something that a lot of therapists and helping professionals don’t think of a business that way — because that’s not why we go into it. A lot of people come into this profession with more altruistic kinds of ideas about what you want to be doing. You might not necessarily think, “Oh, if I’m not able to feed myself and have a roof over my head, I’m not going to be much use to other people.” Yes, I’m doing something that I love and that I’m interested in, but the goal is to support myself, too. Having a plan, budgeting, and all of those business things are very important if I want to keep doing what I’m doing, especially if I’m not going to have a traditional full-time job to take care of those things for me.
SF: So, what kinds of people do you work with?
OHG: There’s a few different groups. The easier one is at Sunnybrook. I work there part-time and do groups at the Cancer Center — both patients and their families. It’s a unique set up. I basically have a pop-up table in the waiting room in the Cancer Center, so it’s not a private space. The waiting room is really busy, and I set up a table with materials, and basically go around and introduce myself and the program. It’s free, and the goal is to give the patients and their families something to do while they’re waiting, and also to help them work through anxiety or any other emotions they have. Sometimes people join me, sometimes people don’t. The group size really varies. But the feedback that I’ve gotten is that that they’re glad they participated, even if they were skeptical at first. Being able to make something with your hands and having the benefits of slowing down your breathing and your heart rate — plus changing your physical and mental state when you’re there — is so beneficial.
In my private practice, I’m still figuring it out. I work with adults, and my emerging niche — which has nothing to do with me and my problems — is with perfectionists. Yes, a completely random choice! [laughs] But yes, perfectionists, high-achievers, people who put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed and see it as so important to who they are as a person. I think the interesting thing that I’ve been discovering when using art therapy with that group in particular is that often there’s a lot of assumptions that they may have about wanting to make something that looks a certain way. And the frustrations that can come up — especially within the art therapy space. You don’t have your own materials and your own tools with you, so they are kind of like crude instruments. Lots of frustration can come up, “Why is this not doing the things that I want it to do?” But what’s really useful about creating that in a therapy space gives us a chance to observe that inner dialogue that happens. Beating yourself up, or “Why isn’t this good enough?”, or “Why is this taking so long?”, or whatever those thoughts are — they probably come up in other spaces, too! So, it’s about using that as a launching off point to ask, “Are there other times in your life where this kind of inner critic voice chimes in? What do you do when the inner critic voice comes up? How can we be more gentle with ourselves?”
SF: That’s so important, to be able to focus on how to be kinder to ourselves, rather than how to fix ourselves. That said, how do you respond when people say to you, “I’m not creative. This isn’t for me at all.”
OHG: That’s one of the top objections that I get, or even questions. It’s like, “Oh, cool, art therapy…that’s just for people who are creative or artists?” and it’s truly not. The confrontational answer is, “Everyone is creative! Everyone is born creative!” If you give a kid a crayon, or a pillow, or something random — they will find weird, creative things to do. We are all born that way. We don’t need to teach kids to do that stuff. It tends to get beaten out of us as we go through school, like “That’s fun to do when you’re in kindergarten, or when you’re playing, but now’s the time for serious learning where you have to be focused and rational.”
I’m not saying that stuff isn’t important — but that’s the message that we get. And people tend to get funnelled pretty early on into certain areas. “You’re good at drawing! Can you draw this for me? You’re a creative person!” and everyone else is like, “Oh, well I’m not as good at drawing as that person, so I must not be very good at being creative. I should just do something else.” From a young age, I think a lot of people go through that. I like to address this entire topic by letting people know how common that is.
I personally view creativity as a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. Creativity is not just making art. Creativity is problem solving, thinking, cooking, movement — it’s such a broad definition. And it’s something that you can develop if you make it a goal.
SF: So if everyone is creative, how can art therapy contribute to a person’s personal growth? And what holds people back from doing this kind of work on themselves?
OHG: I find that a lot of times when I’m invited to events or conferences to lead mini-workshops (where people are not coming specifically to do art therapy), afterwards people will tell me that it’s surprisingly fun, and that they didn’t think they would like it but they did. There’s often a lot of resistance at the beginning, but once people allow themselves to have fun and play, and get curious about what it is that they’re doing, they often find that it’s quite enjoyable and that keeps them coming back. I’ve had people after workshops go out and buy a sketchbook and some markers, or sign up for a course, because it sparked something in them that a lot of us are working for. When it’s not part of our lives in some way, we start to feel pretty dull without creativity in some form.
SF: Alright it’s time to talk about colouring books! How do you feel about the colouring book trend?
OHG: While in the beginning I said how I was opposed to how they’ve been labelled and marketed (which I am), I do appreciate that they have been making creativity in any form more accessible to people who may not have otherwise seen themselves as creative. There’s so many people I run into who are really the full spectrum: there’s older women who come in and are like, “My granddaughter bought it for me and I’ve been loving it!” and then dudes will come in and be like, “I love my colouring books!” so the fact that colouring books are exposing a broader group of people to making things with their hands, and using colour, and being creative in some way is great! I hope that it will be the gateway drug for people to continue to explore.
I think for me some of the challenges are that it’s so constraining. It’s also a bit like those “paint nights,” where you’re asked to make an accurate representation of this thing, and everyone is painting the same thing, which to me is just setting people up for failure, or to feel bad about themselves, and to confirm their assumptions (which they may already have going into it) that they’re not creative, they’re not good enough, other people are better, etc. With colouring books, it is a bit of “Stay within the lines! Make it look a certain way!” So while I do appreciate it being sort of an entryway, I think ideally, for me, I’d like to give people more opportunities to do things that are a bit more self-directed (within some frame, because that can be really intimidating for some people). But having a bit more choice in terms of form, and colour, and composition…
SF: Colouring books are the gateway drug. You heard it here! That’s what we hope for! [laughs] But talking about creativity has become a lot more mainstream. In the last 10 years, there’s been a ton of books published about creativity, whether it’s in the self-help genre, or business, or biographies, but it’s getting a lot of buzz. I’ve picked out a few quotes from some influential books on creativity and would love to hear your opinion on them.
Here’s the first one. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray Love, published a second book called Big Magic where she writes about creativity and spirituality.
Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.
-Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
OHG: I read Big Magic and I do like some of Liz Gilbert’s thoughts. There was some stuff in the book that I could relate to. She talks a lot about fear and the role that fear plays in creativity, which I agree with more. When I got to this part of the book, I almost put it down. I thought, “This is so ridiculous, in my view. This idea that ideas float around and finds a home. I think a lot of people encountered this question with scientific development, and say “Oh, how is it that before there was the internet, people in two different points of the world, people came to the same scientific discovery at the same time?” And I think the generally acceptable view is this body of knowledge develops and builds on one another, and reaches a certain point where certain ideas are within reach, so to me that’s the more reasonable explanation for why something like that might happen. It seems like a pretty weird coincidence. And I’m not that spiritual of a person, so others may have different explanations for it.
But I think it can be harmful to think about ideas in this way depending on what you choose to do with it. So I don’t think it’s a bad idea if it instills a sense of urgency, and I think with some ideas, there are points in our lives that have led us to where we are, and make that thing really interesting to us. And yeah, if we don’t act on it for years, we’ll probably move on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only harmful if it leads people to feel dejected about pursuing an idea because if they’re like, “Oh, if I don’t pursue it then it will fly away to someone else, more deserving…”
SF: Then it’s another opportunity to feel bad about yourself!
OHG: Yeah! And I’m all for minimizing opportunities to feel bad about yourself.
SF: Okay, our next quote has quite an opposite viewpoint on creativity and finding inspiration. In Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for life, she insists that no one is born creative. And it’s not a black or white thing, it’s not like there’s people who are absolutely creative and absolutely not creative. Creativity is a muscle that you have to train.
In order to be creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative.
-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life
OHG: I love this book and I really recommend it. If you’re not familiar with her writing, she talks about creativity as almost a mechanical process. That might turn people off if they think that creativity is this exciting, elusive thing. I think that considering creativity in this way is a bit of a trap: that you can just sit and wait for creativity to strike and say “I’ll get to it when I’m in the mood.” I think the issue with that is that it’s really easy for distractions to get in the way. Giving yourself the framework to be creative is half the challenge. That’s why workshops or courses can be really good, because once you sign up, you’re committed. There’s no opportunity to get distracted by Netflix, or social media, or your dog, or whatever it is. [laughs] Those are my top distractions, by the way!
So I would just advise to set a regular time aside for your creative practice, whether it’s alone or in a group. It can be useful to have that sort of accountability. That’s why this space (The Station) is great.
SF: Yes, we’re all about accountability here! Our next quote is from Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential within us all.
The first step toward a great answer is to reframe the question.
-Tom and David Kelley, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All
OHG: I totally agree. I think this is something that I do in my work a lot, because people will come in asking questions that are not always the most useful questions to ask. They can be questions that are inherently self-defeating, like “Why am I not where I thought I’d be at this point?” So, rather than starting with that question as a starting point, maybe reframe it to say, “What are some of the hopes or intentions that you have for yourself?” Just taking some of the blame out of the question. I think that’s one way. And I also think that other people can bring different perspectives. So if I’m seeing something a certain way, whether it’s a question or a challenge, sometimes bringing someone else in whose completely unrelated to the issue can help poke holes in it and help provide a new perspective. It’s a different starting point, a different opening.
SF: Never underestimate the power of a fresh perspective! Here’s a different perspective for you. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist who has a unique perspective on stress. In 2013, she gave a TED Talk called “How To Make Stress Your Friend” and she speaks about not seeing stress as harmful and harnessing it to your advantage. Do you agree?
OHG: Yeah, I think there’s sort of this bell curve theory of stress, where there’s an optimal zone. So, stress can be constructive because it does, physically, get your heart racing a bit and it stimulates your brain. Too little stress and you’re bored and unengaged. Too much stress and you’re freaking out and shutting down, because you can’t think clearly, let alone creatively. So I think as long as you keep it at a healthy level, it’s a good thing. But knowing how to self-regulate stress, and knowing when you’re getting to the point of just freaking out, is very important. You also need to know how to de-stress, and which method is best for you. Breathing — just grounding your feet, sitting in a position that is really solid and stable — and taking some breaths.
There’s a technique that I recently learned that helps with stress and anxiety. You start by breathing out all the air that’s in your lungs. And then just let your body breathe in naturally — don’t do that forced big yoga breath thing, where you feel forced to have to take this big, expansive breath. That can actually be more stress-inducing. If you let your body just take a natural inhalation, take it and hold it for a couple of seconds, and then breathe out all the air. And repeat. It’s very calming.
So, I think breath and posture can be very useful for stress. I also think asking for help is so important. Whether it’s for a fresh perspective, or even just to cook dinner if you’re feeling too stressed to do it yourself! Just take some things off your plate. We don’t do that enough, and I think we should give ourselves permission to do that more.
SF: I’m glad you mentioned anxiety, because I was doing research to prep for this interview and there’s lots of talk out there about how anxiety powers creativity. Do you see it that way?
OHG: I don’t know about “powering” it. I think there’s so much anxiety in our lives and it’s already sort of built-in, and certainly part of what drew me into art therapy was my own use of creativity as an outlet for that stress and anxiety. For me, it was always art-journaling, or through making things that were reactions to how I was feeling in the moment. Very expressive, not very representational, these were the sorts of things that helped me get through it. So, I think if you can use your art as an outlet for helping you to slow down and better understand what’s going on, then it can be very useful. When we’re deep in an anxious spiral, sometimes we don’t even truly know what it’s about. But if you stop and notice, or write, or use art as a way to help you get in touch with your feelings, then it can be very useful. Studies have shown that creative people don’t have more mental health challenges than the general population.
SF: Perfectionism is another thing that comes up a lot when thinking about creativity. Brene Brown, an author and research professor, writes a lot about this. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.
Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.
-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
OHG: This is kind of my whole niche. And I got into this whole niche because of my own experiences with perfectionism, and noticing the times in my life when it was really paralyzing. So I think that understanding that balance for myself, in times where perfectionism really hasn’t served me well, has brought me here. The phrases “Done is better than perfect” or “Perfect is the enemy of good” are really true, because in our striving to make something perfect, there’s often such a gap between where we are and this beautiful, perfect vision in our heads of what we want the thing to look like. That gap can often feel really daunting for people.
So, if you break it down to say, “your job right now is not actually to make the perfect, final draft of the thing you’re working towards, your job is just to make a shitty first draft!” I think there’s this myth that you can go from nothing to perfect without any of that messy, gray-zone, in between, and that is absolutely false. So, you have to go through that phase one way or another, so I think that giving yourself explicit permission to say, “my job right now is not to make the perfect thing, my job is just to create this sketch of an idea. Or the outline of this essay. Or just to jot down all the jumbled ideas in my head.” Or whatever the thing is! Our brains can’t actually brainstorm, be creative and generative, AND edit and prune at the same time. These are different mental processes that can’t happen at the same time. But for some reason we all like to pretend that they CAN happen all at the same time if you’re good enough, or talented enough, or smart enough. Which is, of course, a recipe for setting yourself up to feel stuck and frustrated.
SF: Oh, I’m so glad that you said that. I’m so glad that we’re recording this and that we’re posting the transcript online so I can read it over and over! [laughs] I think this really resonates with a lot of people, especially a room full of creative entrepreneurs and freelancers. Thank you for your insights!