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Creativity and Trauma - 5/5

Creativity is an energy that is available to all of us. Making room for a song, poem or image in a session can help us out of therapeutic ruts, turbo-boost clinical work, and gently assist traumatised clients to unfreeze their unconscious. So, asks Sarah Van Gogh in the final part of her blog series on creativity and trauma – wouldn’t we be foolish not to invite its healing power into the consulting room, whatever our therapeutic modality?


The healing and energising power of creativity in the form of music or poetry does not have to be something that comes into the consulting room in ways that are dramatic or specialised. They can enter in small and subtle ways, and still be potent and transformative.

Al was a straight, white guy in his mid 30s, working for a PR company in a job he found boring. He came to sessions for help with his insomnia, and addiction to online porn and gaming. He tended to spend each appointment in a state of simmering resentment and gloomy martyrdom. The work went nowhere, as he fended off every attempt I made to get to know him better and explore what might lie beneath the surface of his endless complaints and helpless hopelessness.

In one session, I asked him what kept him going – what brought him pleasure, apart from the porn and gaming? He looked more than usually cautious, paused and then uttered one word, in a low tone of voice. I repeated it questioningly as I hadn’t understood, and he testily repeated it, and then explained, “They’re a band I like”.

I expressed an interest and, after a few more exchanges about this band, I took a risk and invited him to play me a track. After some dubious questioning, Al seemed able to accept that I was asking to hear some of the music he liked in a spirit of seeing his mention of his band as an unconscious but nevertheless generous offering to me. He was, in effect, daring to let his defences down in order to give me a chance to know him just a little better.

After we had listened to a heavy, grungey track on his smart phone (with him using one of his wireless earphones, and me using the other), I told him how the music had struck me: as a cry of angry protest against the sort of thoughtless, shallow, suburban existence which values only outward respectability and material wealth. I repeated back a few lines from the song which had stood out for me, as biting, acerbic critiques of lives that were, in effect, unlived.

Sarah: “They reminded me of lines by someone like Swift or Pope, when they were wittily terse – the same way they could satirise whole societies in a few scathing couplets.”

Al shot me a look from under his brows, which was a bit different from his usual look of guarded contempt. He seemed somewhat taken aback, and I thought I saw a sheen of tears suddenly appear in his eyes.

Al: “Well, that’s weird.”

Sarah: “In what way?”

Al: “You mentioning Swift and Pope. They were… I mean, I was really into satirical writers when I was at school. And they were two I liked.”

Sarah: “Were they?”

Al: “Yeah. Everyone else was into, like, modern stuff. But I really liked Pope and Swift, and then the later war poets, like Sassoon and Robert Graves.”

Al had never before been so open and engaged, giving me glimpses into both his past and his inner world. Sharing the band’s track seemed to have enabled him to feel safer in the session, because I was being interested in and respectful towards music that mattered so much to him.

Sarah: “Right. And no one else seemed to share your tastes?”

Al: (His expression darkening again) “No. Like I said, everyone thought what I liked was a pile of shit. They were… well, anyway. No. No one did.”

Sarah: “Mmm. Sounds like school could have been tough around then.”

Al began to describe how he had been badly bullied and scapegoated at secondary school, which had traumatised his social-self and crushed his self-esteem. He also shared how he had kept his misery and humiliation hidden from his teachers and parents, so as to preserve at least some sense of dignity and pride. In the end, he had felt as if he had to turn inwards to truly live. His own, closed-off fantasy worlds became the only places he felt safe.

Perhaps Al would have been able to become more vulnerable and available for a connection with me without the music and poetry he had loved. But I think it would have taken a lot longer without them. It has been my repeated clinical experience that we can boost the therapeutic process along considerably by making some explicit space, even in only small ways, for:

· Listening to or making music

· Sharing poems or passages from books

· Sharing images that have mattered

· Drawing or making things while in the session

Creativity is an energy that is available to all of us, even those of us who can’t sing or dance impressively, and who couldn’t paint a portrait to save our lives. It is an energy that is profoundly linked to a sense of hope, connection and life-force, (or elan vital, or chi, or prana, or whatever name you favour for that surge of energy, aliveness and connection you feel whenever you are touched by art, or dare to create something yourself).

In concluding this series, I would like to suggest that, as therapists of any modality, we would be missing a trick not to invite this healing power into the consulting room from time to time. Creativity gives a turbo-boost to our clinical work, and allows traumatised clients to gently thaw out experiences that they have had to put into the deep freeze of unconsciousness in order to survive.


Sarah Van Gogh

Before training as a counsellor 20 years ago, Sarah worked in the fields of Theatre-in-Education and community health outreach. She now works in private practice, and is one of the trainers on the counselling diploma at the Re-Vision Centre in London.

She also worked for 7 years as a counsellor and trainer at Survivors UK, a service for men who have experienced sexual violation. Her book Helping Male Survivors of Sexual Violation to Recover – Stories From Therapy was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2018. She is the co-editor with Chris Robertson of Transformation in Troubled Times published by TransPersonal Press in 2018. She writes a regular column for the BACP Private Practice Journal.

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