I've had a career in music therapy for nearly 20 years and for a vast majority of those years, I've been adamant that expressive arts therapies are about the process not the product. What does that mean? For example, in music therapy, the focus should not be on the perceived beauty of the created music but on what therapy is happening in the process of creating the music. Specifically, I've frequently felt nauseous when asked (or told by an administrator) to plan a recital, program, or public performance of some kind. I'm not a music teacher, performance is not my gig. Focusing on the end product can significantly distract from the purpose of the entire process. Standardized testing resulting in teaching to the test in schools, anyone?
You're not going to change my mind on the whole standardized testing issue. Sorry, not sorry.
I've recently had an epiphany about this whole process not product approach. I've completed two therapeutic experiences recently that have significantly challenged what I once considered to be a very strong stance.
Personal epiphanies can feel like this, right?
I still believe that therapy is significantly about the process, because life is a process, not a product. Focusing completely on the end product is training yourself to feel that mental health has an endgame, a final result. It doesn't. Mental health and wellness need to be maintained and adjusted throughout life. It is a continuous process of assessing how you're doing now, how you'd like to be doing, and making adjustments to thoughts, behaviors, and interactions to help that happen.
However, there are occasional times when focusing on a result is an important part of the process. I realize this sounds contradictory. Let me explain.
For the past three years, I have been tasked with organizing the Christmas program at a local residential facility for at-risk youth. In year one and year two, I gritted my teeth and did what I was asked because it was expected and I am the "music lady," after all. I disagreed with almost every minute of it because these students come from highly unpredictable family backgrounds and a vast majority of them have significant social and generalized anxiety. If you ask these students to stand in front of an audience and sing (or otherwise perform), their anxiety is going to shoot through the roof and if anything doesn't go "perfectly," the mental berating they will give themselves will be intense. Not to mention the disappointment of not having family show up for the program, or even worse, having a family member show and tell them how disappointed they were in them for not performing perfectly. These are all very real situations I witnessed and helped manage.
This year, though, I took a different approach. Rather than telling myself to grin and bear it, I immersed myself into the program and tried to make it a full-blown, grand experience for everyone - students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and family. Holy cow, this was stressful for me. But this wasn't about me... this was about the students. We rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and had a final dress rehearsal and did some last minute rehearsing the morning of the program. The students were understandably nervous - I was expecting this and attempted to mitigate this as much as possible by warning them it was going to happen and letting them know how I would be there to support them through the whole thing. Then the program happened. And it was... amazing! These students who are generally pretty unpredictable in their behavior (swearing, emotional outbursts, and storming out of the building are regular occurrences) were so incredible. Yes, there were lots of nerves. Yes, I stood with a few students while they performed monologues. Yes, I did a LOT of reminding to breathe and look at me rather than the audience. But I have to say, this program showed what these students are truly capable of, who they really are when given the opportunity to shine and rise to the occasion. I could not be more proud of any of them.
This was totally me when I got home that day, I was so proud of them!
So the Christmas program was about the product, right? Yes! And no. So many wonderful therapeutic experiences happened during the performance of the program, I couldn't possibly list them all. However, the process of rehearsing for the performance also offered a multitude of therapeutic experiences.
This next experience is more personal than directly therapeutic, but I believe that life impacts how therapists do their work. Over the past year, my little family has suffered a significant amount of loss. For this example, the loss that I'll focus on is the loss of two of our beloved animals.
Sebastian was a cat I adopted not long after my divorce was finalized and was half of a bonded pair (I adopted the pair, of course). Many things made Sebastian special, but two of the biggest things I remember about him are the fact that he was congenitally blind and he jumped in corners. In late August, Sebastian suddenly died. It was unexpected as he was still young (5 years old). We think he suffered from a ruptured aneurysm which may have explained his blindness.
Timone (Timmy) was a dachshund that my significant other adopted 16-ish years ago and has traveled with over his many moves in the military and civilian life. Timmy was super quirky and, well, fat. He communicated with you not through barking, but through a series of snorts, sighs, sneezes, and stress yawns. He was highly attached to his humans and suffered from separation anxiety, among many other anxieties. Timmy was diagnosed with liver cancer in December 2018, so his death was not unexpected but still very difficult. He lived a happy life, eating his soft food and sleeping on the couch throughout 2019 until his health suddenly turned in late October. We were with him when he was euthanized on Halloween.
All this to say our fur babies were (and are - Napoleon and Carl) highly loved members of our family. These deaths were hard and the grief is real. I felt the need to do something with my grief. Something that would result in a tangible object. A product.
I wasn't sure I would be able to emotionally manage what I had in mind with Sebastian since his death was so sudden and unexpected. However, I was pleasantly surprised how therapeutic it was for me to make both ink and imprinted paw prints with him before we took him to the vet to be cremated. Yes, it was hard. Incredibly hard. But it gave me an opportunity to say goodbye in a way his sudden death didn't give me.
Timmy was a little different. Not because it wasn't hard - it was. He was different because he had his own things. Toys, a bed, blankets... things the cats don't really seem to emotionally connect with. Timmy had a sheet (we called it a blanket) that was in his bed. He nested in this blanket every night, digging around in it, throwing it around with his snout. I was able to take this blanket and create a teddy bear out of it. I was shocked at how therapeutic the process of creating the bear was for me. Many hours of intense focus on patterns, fabric, thread, at my sewing machine... not to mention being immersed in Timmy's smell. Even after washing it, his blanket still retained his doggie smell. Creating these bears (I actually made 2) gave me a chance to say goodbye in a different way (process). Having the bears allows the recipients to have a tangible reminder of their beloved pupper for years to come, hugging it, smelling it, crying into it whenever needed (product).
Where does this leave me in my process vs. product conflict? Well, I can now see the huge benefit of the product but also know the benefits of the process. So, I'd call therapy a process AND product experience. And for anyone that knows me, accepting both/and as an option is a big deal.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for a completely product-based therapeutic experience. There are times when focusing solely on outcome would be completely detrimental. Sometimes, it is more important to be in the moment and accept where you are and the emotions/experience you are with than trying to "fix" it to make it more palatable and "pretty" for the outside world.
But, every now and then, a therapeutic focus on product can be just as important as working on the product through the process.
(And, of course, I came to realize that writing this blog post was therapeutic for me in BOTH a process AND product oriented way. Nice way to prove my point to myself!)