The Art of Compassionate Self Care

Lanie Smith, MPS, ATR  provides individual and group Eco-Art Therapy as well as workshops, trainings, and supervision to support the prevention of burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma in helping professionals. When not working, she also enjoys spending quality time with her significant other and their dog, Maddy. Lanie is also an artist who loves painting and building with found objects drawing inspiration from her environment and using natural materials for impermanent sculptures and mandalas.

 
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My hand grabs the brush, dips the wet bristles into the fresh white paint and delights as the color is smudged across a sea of deep pthalo blue bleeding into aquamarine. This practice is what fuels my love for Abstract Expressionism. It’s the raw sensory satisfaction, so expressive that it doesn’t need shape or clear form to communicate. Color and texture capture the essence.

As an art therapist I see the world, my clients, and their healing through an artist’s lens and use art with the creative process to help clients reconnect with parts of themselves previously disowned, forgotten, or undiscovered.

Just the basic element of color can help me connect to my clients and their creative choices. When they pass me a sheet of watercolor paper, so weighted by materials, I can physically feel the load they have been carrying. I can see how trapped they might feel when they bind found objects. Even when words are too tangled to share, the materials speak.

I know this, not just from my training on the therapeutic use of art media and the neuroscience to support it, but because I discovered the value of artmaking when life was overwhelming for me. Before learning anything about Art Therapy, I sought safety through paint and large installations that could contain my vast emotion.  

Looking back, I see how much more comfortable it  was to paint maniacally than it was to experience the feelings in my body. I was adept at distracting myself from the discomfort of grief and pain.  

It took a physical diagnosis to fully tune me into the wisdom of my body. Because I was struggling with mounting fatigue, I had to quit making art at the rapid pace I once celebrated. Eventually, I  took a complete sabbatical from artmaking while learning to manage my health.  I granted myself permission to rest and be an art therapist who was NOT always making art.

Whoa...fraud alert...who the eff does that?! What decent art therapist stops making art?!’  

I was terrified someone would figure out I was a complete impostor or a fake wannabe artist turned art therapist. Even scarier: would I start to feel the pain that my art helped me manage?

Truth is, I did feel the pain when I stopped creating with such blind fervor. I still do sometimes. Fortunately, getting still allows me to heal more deeply than frantic painting ever did.  

Now, I let myself admit fear and feel loss, disappointment, rejection, or abandonment that used to terrify me. I am focused on inviting healing through gentle self compassion to comfort the child within and respect the limitations of my body.  

The rewards have been huge as I’ve learned to pay attention to my body  - including my heart. This is true self care.

A shift in my art practice: no more obligatory anything

Improving self care means doing what feels good, but it’s more than getting a massage or taking a vacation to manage stress. It’s also about looking at the source of the stress and evaluating ways to eradicate unnecessary stressors while increasing activities that make your heart dance.  Self care is an act of compassion that permits you to let go of obligatory tasks and commitments in order to follow your desire.  

When you have satisfied your own needs and desires you can give out of love rather than obligation. In my case, I have quit making art for anyone other than myself. Even if I am making hand painted cards for loved ones, I’m doing it is because I want and love to paint.  

After years of practice I am able to let go of the need to impress others. When I am creating art or moving through other aspects of life I grant myself permission to enjoy the process without concern for outcome.  This is the very invitation I offer my clients before every group, on every consultation call, and in each intake session. Now that I offer myself the same compassion as I extend my clients, I find myself less and less interested in collecting traditional art materials, creating a final product, or archiving its existence through photography and social media to prove I made something or to show others that I am still creative.

A shift in my daily practice: slow down

There are some days that are slow and quiet. Those days feel like a slice of heaven to my highly sensitive nervous system. Others are loud and busy with incoming calls, messages, and requests for my attention. It can feel like too much if I try to keep up, so I move slowly… slower than I have ever moved before. Literally, the more hectic things get, the slower I move.

One. Breath. At. A. Time.  And not short or shallow breaths but deep, wide, expansive breaths that create an almost trance-like state that enable you to observe automatic thoughts and feelings. Such mindfulness is instrumental in tuning into the present, tuning out unhelpful messages (both my inner judge and any external critics), and tuning up my ability to discover joy.  

I grant myself and my clients permission to do less. This means taking time to explore without pressure to achieve anything. Ironically, we often have the most creative ideas during this time because play is the antithesis of fear which cuts off the flow of imagination and problem-solving.

A shift in my private practice: connect with nature

For months after the autoimmune diagnosis that would change the way I approached all aspects of my life, all I wanted to do was stare at trees. The tears would flow as I allowed myself to just sit. Over time I discovered the tears wouldn’t last forever and I found joy on the other side of my sadness.

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More and more since I began this journey of living with chronic illness I have found that listening to the heart and following the desire to do what feels good often leads me and my clients outdoors more. Nature is healing and allows us to connect to our own natural selves free of our mind’s propensity for worry.

Nature has become my co-therapist too. I’ve moved my office into the mountains to help my clients - and myself - take advantage of the beautiful desert landscapes. It has also been necessary to change my business model to continually ensure I have the downtime I need to rest, read, write, play, and heal.  

Playing outdoors with natural media is rather simple. It doesn’t require any special knowledge of materials, but it allows me to feel like a child who is safe enough to explore. I can arrange flowers, rocks, or leaves between clients. I can take clients to do the same. We can stop in the mountains on a hike and form a cairn of stones. This has reinforced the practice of impermanence, non-attachment, and love since we can leave ephemeral works of art in their natural setting as a gift for others to enjoy as they pass.

Simplifying life and keeping it that way.

Chronic illness has become my biggest teacher with a lesson in simplifying my life. I’ve learned that the lower my stress load, the better I feel. The more white space I create; the more joy I experience by following my desire. I can be spontaneous and take inspired action. I aim to follow my heart instead of the fear in my gut.

Keeping things simple requires a commitment to simplicity as self-care. I say no to others more often now, so that I can say yes to myself. Saying no to opportunities that, while attractive and flattering, just don’t fuel me has led to a greater sense of peace and calm. I’ve learned to follow my passion by following what gives me energy rather than drains it. You can do the same. The more skilled you become at tuning in, the easier tuning out and tuning up can become.  

I’m still working toward remission, practicing greater self-­care, and being more compassionate with myself and others. I am slowly accepting my limitations and following my bliss.  

Ultimately, health and well-being stem from applying less pressure and more love. I gently strive to replace harsh, critical judgment of myself with gentle acceptance of what my heart is longing for. My passion is to guide others to do the same.

How do you apply less pressure and more love?

Whatever is calling to you... listen and respond. Use your desires as a compass that guides you toward joy and bliss.  

Get quiet and respect the whispers of your heart. I call this practice of trusting your body and your desires “tuning in, tuning out, and tuning up.”  It’s a process of stretching your intuitive muscles in order to find what makes you healthy and whole.  There are so many rewards inherent in this practice, but I must warn you that it also requires courage to step away from what you think you ‘should’ be doing and instead move toward what you actually want to do.

So, what do you long for and what could use more attention from you? How are you listening to your body? Are you tuning in regularly? What about tuning out unhelpful material and tuning up activities that bring you joy and bliss?

I'd love to hear where you are at in this journey, where you succeed, and where you might find yourself struggling a bit or in need of some help. Remember, practice makes progress, so please leave a comment and let us know how your practice of tuning in, out, and up is going!

From the editors: Did Lanie’s perspective on the art of self compassion shift the way you look at tuning in, tuning out and tuning up? If it resonated with you, please share this post with your family, friends, and community.