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by Karen Adler,
ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy



“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”  C. G. Jung

The creation of all life has a gestation period. As does the creation of a project or an artwork or a piece of writing - anything that one wishes to bring into the world. The moment of conception isn't always recognised as such. It's often only in hindsight that  the steps and stepping stones that have lead to the creation of something new can be identified.

This has been the case for an art therapy project working with disadvantaged youth that I've just completed. The project was cheekily called IT'S ALL ABOUT ME! with the deliberate use of capital letters to give that sense of both defiance and proclamation that's characteristic of youth, of being young and untried but of wanting, needing to claim one's place in the world. The rationale behind the project was  that young people are often accused of being self-absorbed - to turn that idea on its head and to make the title a declaration of both ownership of and responsibility for one's life.

The origins of the project go back many years and relate to my own search for identity and the establishment of a life that is in keeping with who I am, rather than one chosen seemingly at random. I once chanced upon a Time magazine article by an American college counsellor who stated that students were entering higher education with all the necessary skills for success - confidence, determination, perseverance, a plan etc. - but that they weren't happy. He attributed this to the fact that many had chosen their courses based on external measures of success such as money, prestige, status, or on what their families thought they should do. And once embarked on such a course, few had the courage to change, to go against family or societal expectations.

Twenty or thirty years later - although much earlier these days - such a person hits the brick wall of midlife crisis, recognising at last that the life she/he has lived has had little connection with who they are. Finding oneself at odds with one's life, with little connection between your private, internal world and the world you inhabit externally can and does lead to deep depression, family and marital upset, self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Far easier, more rational and more sane to build a life based on a strong sense of self way back in the beginning at that first step from adolescence into adulthood.

Adolescence is a time of shifts and changes, a period of transition. It is a time when one may be either consciously or unconsciously aware of the necessity for a new sense of self as participation in the adult world looms ahead. Many cultures retain ceremonies to confirm this coming of age and significant benefits accrue to the individual who successfully navigates this initiation from one stage of being to another. Western society offers little in the way of a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood – the closest Australian society comes to an initiatory test is an 18th birthday party where the birthday boy [although increasingly this is not the sole domain of men], may be challenged to consume a yard glass of beer. He/she is then handed their driver’s licence and permission to legally consume alcohol. Perhaps not a real clever combination.

Many social commentators believe that it is the lack of these rituals that has led our youth into drugs, sex and violence. How else can they prove their strength and independence in the 21st Century except to experience the thrill of drug and alcohol experimentation, bullying, illicit sex and carrying a gun or knife?

Individuals with a strong sense of self, of identity, of who they are and where they are going, are far more likely to be able to withstand the temptations of a society or peer group which promises easy and instant gratification. Individuals who are able to take responsibility for their lives, who have a sense of self-worth – regardless of their social or economic background – are far more likely to fulfill their potential. Individuals who build their lives on a firm base of self-knowledge and self-understanding are far more likely to live authentic lives, to have a strong inner compass, to be happy human beings, relatively immune to the plethora of chronic mental health problems which plague our society. Ultimately, they are more likely to make valuable and unique contributions to the world.

IT'S ALL ABOUT ME! participants were given a Visual Diary and a disposable camera with which to record their journey and the project culminated in an exhibition which was to serve as a rite of passage, a marking of the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  They were introduced to the concepts of self-responsibility and self-esteem, the power of the imagination, life as a journey and their own mortality, Joseph Campbell's 'follow your bliss'. Over the next 4 weeks, 6 participants dwindled down to two who ultimately exhibited their photographic collages at Compass Art Space in Newcastle. Of these two, only one actually made it to the exhibition. Professor Richard Vella, School of Drama, Fine Art and Music at Newcastle University opened the exhibition and spoke about the process of art rather than the product and how art had impacted upon his life over a career that spans 40 years.

So … for myself as initiator of this project? Much preparation, much research - much process, most of which I enjoyed immensely, as I do with just about everything connected to art therapy. And the product?  Both participants who made it through to the end have gone back to finish school - perhaps the project gave them a clearer picture of themselves and their lives, perhaps not. I hope it did. I'm reminded of the starfish story where the little boy throws starfish back into the sea as the tide goes out. I've come from a big picture, world-saving, great-expectations-and-ultimate-burn-out background. I'm happy to be back in the world of small and individual and human-size and that, hopefully, 'I made a difference for that one.'

I'm working at the beach today, writing this on my laptop in between swims. There's a surf school happening here, with kids from the local high school learning how to ride the waves. A young guy, lean and lanky, with sun-bleached hair, is the instructor. 'Nice life,' I say to him as I come out of the water. 'No complaints,' he says and grins in that understated, laconic way many Australians have. And I realise that that's pretty much all I'd wish for any kids who take part in IT'S ALL ABOUT ME! - that they end up with a nice life, one that suits them, 'no complaints' and a happy grin.

Copyright: Karen Adler 2011



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About the Author

Karen Adler, ATH Asst. Editor of Arts & Art Therapy, is a Transpersonal Art Therapist, an artist, writer and researcher. She is a firm believer in the inherent healing qualities of the Arts. She has run art therapy workshops for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, self-harming behaviour, eating disorders, for post-flood and cyclone trauma and for people seeking to bring about positive change in their lives. Karen also uses Art Therapy to help in the resolution of her own life difficulties and is continually surprised by the insight it brings. 
Contact Karen at karenadler222@gmail.com or karenadler@allthingshealing.com.






Ceremony - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceremony

Clark, Michael D. Strength-Based Practice : The ABC's of Working With Adolescents Who Don't Want To Work With You, 1999

Kilmer, Kelly. Rites of Passage in Adolescence, http://family.go.com/parenting/article-sk-19025-rites-of-passage-in-adolescence-t/

Mayer, Steven E. Building Community Capacity :  How Different Groups Contribute [Adapted from Building Community Capacity: The Potential of Community Foundations] Rainbow Research, Inc., 1995

Scerra, Natalie. Strengths-Based Practice :  The Evidence [A Discussion Paper], Research and Program Development Social Justice Unit, UnitingCare Children, Young People and Families, 2011

Tesoriero, Frank  et al. Using Strengths-Based Ways to Build Community and Contribute to Social Inclusion, Flinders University, South Australia, 2011

Toms, Michael. An Open Life : Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms.




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