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04/06/2014 14:44 Art Therapy Spot: Happiness Group & The Art of Forgiveness

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Happiness Group & The Art of Forgiveness
To forgive is to set a
prisoner free and discover
that the prisoner was you.
~ Lewis B. Smedes
The holidays tend to bring up complex
feelings for many people. Thanksgiving,
Christmas, Hanukah, New Years, and other
holidays seem to blend together during this
time of year and there is a palpable energy
in the chilly air.
This is also a time of year when my art
therapy groups tend to get smaller for a few
weeks. The holidays are especially triggering for many of the individuals that I work with -
bringing up complex feelings and memories. I think part of what makes it challenging is a feeling
that this time of year 'should' be joyful even if it's not for everyone. Drug and alcohol relapses as
well as hospitalizations tend to increase with my clients and many other tend to isolate in their
apartments if they have no friends or relatives to be with. This is part of why I find it important
to continue the groups, even if attendance is lower. There are usually at least a few people that
make their way to the group and find some benefit and comfort in participating.
In my continuing work with veterans living in supportive housing, my co-therapist and I started
a new group called the 'Happiness Group.' One of the interesting challenges inherent in working
with individuals in permanent housing is finding ways to keep groups interesting. My past work
has focused on working with people in crisis and living in emergency transitional shelters.
Although the art therapy groups were challenging, I could expect a constantly changing group of
clients. In contrast, the groups offered in permanent housing facilities are less transient but the
risk of group repetition and lack of interest increase. With this in mind, my co-therapist and I
began to brainstorm a new group that might be of interest. Drawing from positive psychology
and our own interests, we designed a new curriculum and group called the 'Happiness Group.'
So far the residents have been drawn to our new Happiness Group and are very engaged. I
always highlight the fact that 'being happy' is not a pre-requisite for coming to the group. In
fact, the group flyers that I created include this description:
We all want more happiness in life. But how do we create happiness when there are so many
challenges and hard situations we face? This group will give you ideas and tools for creating
more happiness in your daily life, no matter what you are facing.
Our group last week focused on the theme
of forgiveness. Forgiveness and happiness
Beginning a forgiveness box with a quote
! 2014 (2)
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Group & The
Art of
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04/06/2014 14:44 Art Therapy Spot: Happiness Group & The Art of Forgiveness
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might seem like strange companions, yet
they are directly linked. Much of our
emotional and physical energy can become
tied up in feelings of anger and past
resentment. Although it's a long and
challenging process, working with
forgiveness can free up energy that can be
channeled into cultivating more happiness.
In group we spent time talking about what
forgiveness might entail and why
forgiveness does not mean forgetting or
saying that something hurtful was ok and
acceptable. Alice Miller said, "Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,"
and I think this is a good way of understanding forgiveness.
Forgiveness Boxes
Group members shared the people and experiences that they were struggling to forgive. We also
explored self-forgiveness, since sometimes we are the ones in most need of forgiveness. My co-
leader encouraged the clients to write a letter to someone they wanted to forgive. The letter
would not be mailed to the person, but could be used as a cathartic method for addressing and
processing feelings of anger, hurt, and disappointment.
For the art therapy piece of the group I set up paint trays, acrylic, brushes, collage materials,
markers, and mod podge. I then handed each person a small paper mache box. I asked the
group to decorate the boxes on the inside and outside while thinking about a person or a few
people that they would like to work on forgiving. The gold and copper paint were a popular paint
color and the metallic paint helped imbue the boxes with a certain beauty. While working on the
boxes, group members began to open up about past experiences with the people they were
working to forgive.
I reminded the group that forgiveness was a process like most everything in life. Feelings about
the person might ebb and flow like ocean waves and re-surface even after there seemed to be
some emotional resolution. For this reason I encouraged the clients to look at the box as an
object that can be opened and closed and therefore visited and put aside depending on their
The last step was writing the name of one or more people (could include self) on a small piece of
paper and placing it inside the box. The name could stay in there for a long time, or be taken out
and replaced with another name. In this way the names and the box could become part of a
small ritual. The safe containing space of the box could hold the desire to forgive and be opened
when it felt appropriate. One of the clients shared that she would place her forgiveness box on a
small altar in her apartment where she kept a beautiful candle. Her idea was to create a ritual
with her daughter of putting in names and taking them out while lighting a candle each day, as a
way of processing past family experiences and moving in the direction of forgiveness and
Further Thoughts
When working with individuals who have
experienced trauma I find the idea of objects
that can close and be opened very useful.
Working in this way can help an individual
explore past experiences slowly and avoid the
chance of emotional flooding. Altered books
(future post) are another idea along these
lines. Any material and object that creates a
containing space and can hold a smaller
object are wonderful to work with. If I could
get my hands on some nesting dolls to alter
that would be very interesting too!
Forgiveness box in progress
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Posted by Sara at 12:29 PM
Labels: Art Therapy, Art Therapy Techniques, Collaboration, Veterans
Creating art objects that can be used
repeatedly in a personal ritual adds another
opportunity for healing by engaging in the creative process. Individuals can make visual
reminders that inhabit their living space.
Check back in the coming weeks for more posts and ideas from my art therapy groups, and as
always please feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences here.
closed forgiveness box
+4 Recommend this on Google
Post a Comment
theresa said...
Beautiful article- thank you for the reflection and photo- balm to the soul.
December 15, 2013 at 9:06 PM
Angel said...
Beautiful and quite insightful article. Thank you for sharing
December 17, 2013 at 1:03 AM
Amita Patel said...
Thank you for sharing! In my life and as I work with my clients I see how powerful creative expression can
be. As they say, "You have to feel it to heal it!" I especially love the idea of creating things, like the box, that
can be opened and closed. Beautiful post!
Much love,
Amita Patel
December 19, 2013 at 7:05 PM
Sara said...
Thank you for your beautiful comments and I'm very touched that this post resonated with you!
January 16, 2014 at 2:54 PM
Hannah said...
Hi Sara,
I'm so glad I found my way back to your blog after the holidays--because the issue of trauma continues
throughout the year. Your directive on forgiveness to ourselves and to others is a beautiful one that I'm
going to take to heart and utilize here in the hospital. I'm also going to place an order for metallic paints:-)
February 5, 2014 at 11:10 AM
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