April 10, 2021

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Michael Alcée, Ph.D.

Reclaiming Our Artistry, One Session at a Time

So many of us clinicians fail to see ourselves as artists, and yet it's essential for transforming our clients and helping them find their voice. It's also crucial so we remain solidly confident and regularly inspired in our day-to-day work. And don't even get me started on how it cushions against the rampant burnout happening during this pandemic. 

Who me, an artist? You may ask. But I'm not going to drop an album, release a book, or be in a movie any time soon.

Yes you, an artist.   Hear me out before you wave this away, as Irvin Yalom once did when I mentioned it to him. 

Wait, master clinician Irvin Yalom doesn't see himself as an artist either? That's right. It's a little bit of a problem for therapists to take up our own worth. Sound familiar? 

So many of us fail to see ourselves as artists, and yet it's essential for transforming our clients and helping them find their voice. It's also crucial so we remain solidly confident and regularly inspired in our day-to-day work. And don't even get me started on how it cushions against the rampant burnout happening during this pandemic. 

We conduct intakes for a reason. We are implicitly asked all the time to figure out the unique music our clients are playing without knowing the key, tempo, score, or composer. Imagine yourself as a jazz player reading the changes, making something interesting and musical out of the sadness, anxiety, fear, pride, and desire all trying to express themselves in your client's unique pain and possibility. 

Isn't this what we do?  

Every day, we summon ourselves like actors into the role of deeply imagining and empathizing what our clients are experiencing and playing it back to them so they can vary it and try on new roles, and thus have more freedom, fulfillment, and hope. 

It's easy for us to see ourselves as authors, helping clients tell their stories more fully, switching back from present drama to flashbacks and of course, the future dreams they only wish someone could help them see more clearly. What is it that I really wish to happen, and why, like a dream, can't I grasp it? We write and revise with and alongside our clients, and it's about time that we see ourselves as the artists we truly are.  

Starting to get convinced? Don't feel bad, even the high-level musicians I work with at Manhattan School of Music don't see themselves as artists. In their personal lives, that is.  As a culture, we lop off our personal creativity from our artistic creativity, and only reserve the term artist for a small subsegment of the population: painters, actors, musicians, and dancers. But this is a disservice to the general public and even more so to us therapists who need to lead the way, showcasing mental health as the art of living life creatively.     

Therapists, like artists, make new forms out of old, familiar ones. Better yet, they take liberties and become subversive with them. Think Bansky. His punny painting "Show Me the Monet" reimagines and refashions Monet's iconic Waterlilies strewn with toppled grocery carts and a jarring orange construction site cone. It's a tour de force commentary on the ways in which humankind pollutes the environment it wishes to glorify and how we overconsume and lose contact with what is most essential. And yet, it also echoes and builds on the work of the masters, paying homage to Monet's capacity to see the beauty in his world and challenge it with his realism. As therapists, we too help our clients to both connect and complicate what is both possible and real in their family stories, relationships, and unfolding selves.        

We are neurologically built to be artists. As Pablo Picasso noted, all children start out being artists but merely forget as adults. Our right brain capacity for imagination, empathy, metaphor, humor, and dreams is the true maestro – to paraphrase writer Iain McGilchrist – and our left brain, the home of our vaunted logic, language, and linear view of ourselves, is the emissary.  Albert Einstein once said,  "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." Nowhere is this more important and more lacking than in therapists ourselves.  

We need to reclaim the notion of our work as art. We need to take pride again in the unique music, narrative, and drama that our work produces, and how it changes us, them, and our world, one session at a time.  

If not now, when?  

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About the author

Michael Alcée, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Tarrytown, NY and Mental Health Educator at Manhattan School of Music. He specializes in the psychology of artists and everyday creativity and the professional development of therapists. His contributions have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, NPR, The New York Post, Salon.com, and on the TEDx stage. His forthcoming book from Norton entitled Therapeutic Improvisation: How to Stop Winging It and Own It as a Therapist will be out in May 2022.