How Visuals Can Unlock Healing
As an unapologetic health and healing “nut,” I’ve developed many practices over the years. It’s taken me decades to realize that the best of all of them predates any investments I’ve made in yoga, psychotherapy, naturopathy, or body-based therapies. The most potent practice of all I started as a very young girl: using and creating visuals.
I don’t share about this often, but my first career was as a massage therapist. Those precious years that I spent in the healing arts at the start of my work life has had a powerful, lasting influence. There are so many things I learned that I continue to carry with me, and perhaps the most important of all is my understanding and practice of what is known as “therapeutic presence.” I know how to hold non-judgmental space for others as they go through their own process of healing. Of course this is a valuable asset in my work as a visual facilitator, and it also informs how I collaborate with others. This is one example of how it is clear to me that my own path has continued to lead me to heal others.
Rather than caring for individual wounds, however, I believe I am now focused on healing collective ones, ones that are often incredibly overlooked and poorly understood — not unlike the best health practice I know of. Visuals are generally misunderstood and they are rarely utilized in situations where there is intent to heal, which is why it took so long for me to reclaim those healing powers. These oversights, both of collective healing and of the potential visuals have, are especially tragic given everything we now know about healing.
First of all, healing is, above all, social. After trying for decades to do healing work on my own, I can now see that the big leaps I’ve experienced on my journey happened when I connected with a supportive group of other individuals committed to growth. One of the world’s experts on healing trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, says his work has shown just how important relationships are:
“What’s striking to me in my profession is that there is this insistence on seeing people as individual organisms who are independent of the social environment. Even in the new diagnostic manual, DSM-5, there is virtually nothing that talks about or addresses the issue of our interdependence and how the social context in which we live has a very profound effect on how we feel, on how we see ourselves, and how we get along . . . I think that’s really one of the great lessons from learning about trauma is that when you get traumatized you think you are in the world all by yourself, but we aren’t. The more I deal with trauma the more this issue of feeling safe interiorly but being connected with other people at the same time is really the essence of healing.”
Of course not all social environments are conducive to healing. The characteristics of groups largely hinge on communication. (If you want to know more about group communication, please read my free ebook “Using Visuals to Support Collaborative Work.”) Visuals are unique forms of communication that allow us to access and explore issues at the root, where true healing must occur.
In his work, van der Kolk has also referenced frequently what he calls the “tyranny of language.” In short, he describes how people who have experienced overwhelming events (which, in my humble opinion, is just about everyone these days) essentially continue to “replay” those events in their mind over and over, preventing them from knowing a life lived fully in the present. If they seek traditional treatment for this misfortune (which of course is more advantageous but also more complicated than resorting to addictive behaviors in an attempt to cope), it is highly likely that health professionals will suggest they engage in dialogue-based therapies. However, van der Kolk’s studies have shown that their brains have been changed by traumatic events, so much so that they literally cannot put their thoughts and feelings into words. Given what remains status quo, to say this is a revolution in psychology is a gross understatement.
I know from experience that groups suffer the same predicament. We collectively become overwhelmed and stuck in the past, and the tyranny of words in groups keeps us from moving through a healing process that would enable us to move forward. In fact we are doubly stuck for social pressures also keep us from speaking up in groups, from opening a door that could lead us all to new places. Without the healing power of naming, we are helpless to integrate our experiences and grow from them.
Van der Kolk specifically recommends that if we seek to overcome trauma we should engage in artistic expressions that unlock our imaginations, offering pathways to healing (he also suggests body-based therapies, which, likewise, rely less on verbal language).
We can use the power of imagination to transform groups as well as the individuals that comprise them. Whether or not individuals choose to engage in creative making, I believe we have a responsibility to at least support them in creative thinking. Using visuals during group meetings isn’t rocket science and it could mean the difference between staying stuck in the wounds of the past or having the opportunity to experience a healing path forward.
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