I have permission to share the following story with you. It will be removed if this lovely person changes her mind, which she is perfectly entitled to do.
Before I was an art therapist, I was a counsellor who used art.
I was working with Kate (not her real name) who really wanted to do something about her obsessively rigid, black and white attitude to the world which was causing her considerable issues in relationships. Kate was determined that everything should be just right, all the time. She believed that she should justify her decisions and then be immovable. She believed that weak people made mistakes, or sat on the fence, and that she wouldn’t be liked if she wasn’t always right, and decisive. After some work in lovely soft chalky pastels, Kate wanted to soften the image off even further. As part of this act, in which she smudged and blended, Kate grated chalk dust over the image through a seive.
Within less the a minute of this process beginning, I unexpectedly sneezed. I apologized and started to wipe my hands with a wet wipe, when I sneezed again, and again, and again. After about 20 sneezes, I excused myself and went outside. I ran into the adjoining bathroom and grabbed a handful of toilet paper and I blew my nose, over and over to clean out the chalk dust and hopefully stop the sneezing. I wiped my teary eyes (from the exertion of sneezing- not because I was emotionally overwhelmed!), and returned to the consult room. I apologized again, and Kate launched back into her process, but less than a minute later I began to sneeze again. I worked hard to draw attention away from my sneezing over the following 20 minutes. We continued but went from laughing about it, to wondering if something was wrong. I went from embarrassment, annoyance, and internal fury, some of which must have shown on my face, to resignation that I’d probably never see Kate again!
Toward the end of the session, once the sneezing had finally stopped, I summarized the session. I asked Kate what her ‘take home’ message might be and she floored me with her answer. Kate told me that she realized that even though I was sneezing, which was awful and embarrassing for both of us at times, that she still ‘liked’ me. She said that she knew I was angry with myself and that we didn’t get through much in the session. While Kate was watching me struggle with the situation, it occurred to her, that sometimes things just aren’t controllable. She decided that even if things go pear shaped and embarrassing, it is possible to still be liked and even admired for surrendering to an unmanageable situation. She said that if a counsellor can really mess up a session and still be liked and successful, and even welcome the next client with confidence, (an assumption on her behalf!), then perhaps she could be a little gentler on herself. Most of all, she liked that I said “Sorry”, but didn’t blabber on about excuses for why it happened, or try to make it up to her. She said that she didn’t expect me to be perfect, so it was unrealistic and irrational to think she should be. Apparently, even though on her first impressions I looked like a second-rate counsellor, she really liked me!
I learnt something that day too. The therapeutic relationship can provide some opportunities for healing that we might never imagine.
Unfortunately, I made a little boo boo on the way out, when I offered a free session because this one had been such a disaster! She refused saying that perhaps she should pay me double seeing as I went to such lengths for her. I realized by offering a free session, I actually potentially diminished the value she’d gained, by sneezing at the power of the therapeutic relationship.
Thankfully Kate returned for several more sessions and I have not had anything like that sneezing attack since!