Saints and sinners: Breaking the cycle of painful relationships with Fairbairn & creative approaches

 Saints and sinners: Breaking the cycle of painful relationships with Fairbairn & creative approaches

 Many people feel curious about why they continue to repeat the same relational patterns that they consciously know make them suffer and find themselves attracted to in relationships with people who in the end make them suffer. This blog aims to explore how this profoundly painful dynamic develops and how it can be healed and lead to a potentially more fulfilling and creative life, predominantly using the theories of Scottish psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn.

What is Art therapy anyway?

There are many myths and misconceptions about what art therapy actually is and here I set out to explain what it is and how it can help you. 

What kind of things does it help with?

Art therapy can help provide relief from a range of issues including addiction, relationship problems (to oneself and others) life changes, grief/ bereavement, anxiety, depression, trauma and a range of other factors which may be impacting on your feeling of well-being. It can also help people with learning disabilities and ASD to express themselves in a neurotypically dominated world.

Attachment research points to our earliest, pre-verbal experiences as the source of many relational difficulties and mental health issues which develop later in life. Art offers us a gentle and indirect way of exploring these early experiences in a safe, confidential and contained setting, with an art therapist who is trained to help you digest and make sense of your experience.

Why not just talk about what’s affecting me?

Talking can work well and certainly some of each session may be spent just doing that, depending on your needs. However, art therapy enables you to access parts of yourself you may not otherwise have been conscious of. It also provides a means of accessing the ‘felt sense’ of your experience and emotions, rather than searching for words to describe them: when you consider how unique all of our experiences are, that’s pretty important. It is also sometimes rather difficult for many of us to describe with words how we feel at the best of times so working with non-verbal media can therefore help us to gently express ourselves in less direct or intimidating ways. Once we have expressed ourselves through non-verbal means, we can then work with the therapist to help us to think about our emotions, sensations or images and then use words to make meaning of our experience. 

Do I need to be able to draw or paint?

Absolutely not: technical skills in the arts are not at all important. It is very much about experiencing the process rather than the finished product. People who have attended art therapy often find that they have been brought up and schooled to think in the opposite way. Not having to worry about what something looks like and just being able to play with the art materials without being judged in this way can feel pretty liberating. This said, drawing & painting may not be for you and there are plenty of other creative forms of expression available during the session.  Some arts psychotherapists with an integrative training may also work with bodywork/ movement, clay, poetry, storytelling and music. This way of working then frees you up to find medium(s) that you feel most comfortable with using.

But I’m not really a creative person!

Many of us when we get to the point we are adults and come in to therapy have lost our connection with our natural ability to play and hence the creative parts of ourselves. The innate creativity of the child inside us gets lost along the way; in many cases, from well intentioned, yet misguided adults who have given us the wrong kind of criticism. As Picasso famously put it: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once s/he grows up.’

Using the arts in therapy helps us to rediscover our child again, where the world of the imagination continues to live inside us and there is endless possibility. By slowly reconnecting with the imaginative world of their child selves, clients sometimes find that this then becomes mirrored in their adult lives too: new options start to make themselves available and offer fresh perspectives on life. This can be remarkable to witness.

Why work with a therapist? Why not just make art on my own?

This is a very valid question as art is very much a therapeutic tool in itself and for some people making art is already enough. Art making alone can really help to regulate anxiety and ease the stresses of daily life. Yet there is also something important about not only the making of art, but also speaking to someone who is trained to help you make sense of it in relation to your unique life experience.

‘Art therapist’ is a state protected title and art therapists are required to have in-depth and rigorous Masters’ level training including many years personal therapy. They also have regular supervision and are required to work in the NHS as part of their training. They must be registered with the HCPC (Health care and professions council) to use the title and whose primary remit is to protect the public.

To find out more about arts therapies check out the links below:

The British Association of Art Therapists

The Institute for Art and Therapy in Education

Capacchione, Lucia. Recovery Of Your Inner Child. 1st ed. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 1991. Print.

Finding flow: A highly effective and free treatment for anxiety

Anxiety can manifest in many different ways and there are a wide range of reasons to feel anxious if we think about it. Yet anxiety is essentially a survival mechanism and it is experienced by everyone to some degree as we are biologically programmed to do so in order to survive. When it alerts us to danger anxiety therefore is perhaps a rational response to an irrational world. Moreover, anxiety is often about inner conflict, where opposing thoughts collide as we ruminate and try to find ‘solutions’ and ‘answers’ to ‘get rid’ of anxiety. Theodore Roethke captured this feeling of dread and helplessness in his poem ‘The Lost Son’:

‘Tell me:
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?’

Anxiety ranges from an optimal level where we feel alert yet are still in control (perhaps before a job interview or an important meeting) to an unpleasant nagging, through to engulfing panic attacks with overwhelming bodily responses as the sympathetic autonomic nervous system is activated. The resulting symptoms include increased heart rate and sweaty palms, with elevated production of the stress hormone, cortisol. When we are in the throes of acute anxiety, the right part of our brains floods the thinking, analytical left-brain with a stream of fragmented images and sensations, which render us in the kind of freeze state which Roethke so evocatively captures. This is why we may have panic attacks, or want to get out of that ‘door’ as soon as possible.

However, it is perhaps the ‘to whom do I go’ in the stanza which is more relevant here, as it may allude both to the anxiety that separation from loved ones leads to, and to our inner wisdom that the best antidote to this is within the company of someone with whom we feel safe, learned in the days before we knew any words at all.  In this feeling of safety we release the hormone oxytocin, which is what soothes the distress.

When we are in a panic state, ‘time’, as David Bowie put it, ‘will crawl’, an agonizing state of stasis. However, when we are with those we love, or in a situation we enjoy or are immersed in, time seems to pass so much more quickly. This phenomenon of 'time flying when we are having fun’ has been associated with the quickening release of the hormone dopamine. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi called this experience ‘flow’, when we are ‘in the moment’ or we ‘forget ourselves.’

 Psychotherapy and Counselling in London 

This ‘flow’ state can be activated in myriad ways spent alone, or with others. These include swimming, walking in nature, laughing with friends, in devotional or religious practice, or laying in a field watching the clouds pass in the sky.

The arts can also be a path to ‘flow’, for as we engage more with the world of the right brain and we are not thinking so much, it becomes less alien and scary to us. This includes creating art, getting lost in a painting at a gallery, making music or listening to some, dancing, or watching people dance. Don’t forget play too: by watching a child playing we can remember how lost in the moment we can be when we play and thinking takes a back seat.


Bowie, David. David Bowie Time Will Crawl. 1987. Audio Recording.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow. New York: Harper and Row.

Panksepp, J. and Biven, L. (2012) The archaeology of mind. New York: W.W Norton.

Roethke, Theodore. The Lost Son. 1st ed. 2017. Print.

The Painful Nature of Uncertainty in the era of Brexit and Trump.

In the current socio-political climate it feels easier than ever to have our opinions validated by others. We can have our earliest narcissistic needs met as we increasingly operate in social media bubbles with those who share similar opinions to ourselves along with articles from the same newspapers we like to read. Yet although social media gives us a much greater means to express ourselves, we are equally more than ever at odds with those we don’t agree with. 

Recent events such as Brexit and the US election have polarised us from one another more than ever, between the ‘good’ (us) and the ‘bad’ (them). Journalists sometimes foster this split with seductive headlines, which magnetically appeal to the very earliest parts of ourselves; those parts which crave certainty, and like to be told what the answer is.

The problem is that between these opposites a void can appear which we may experience as emptiness, or an inner conflict as we try to wrestle with and then attach ourselves to the rigidity of ‘truth.’  And as soon as others challenge our ‘truths’, it can cause us great pain as we are reminded of how uncertain our world is and how vulnerable we are behind our rigid perspectives. 

 Psychotherapy and Counselling in London 

Perhaps then it can be helpful to experiment with allowing some curiosity to replace certainty and introduce some flexibility to our rigidity. Also by practising loving kindness and exercising compassion for ourselves, we can become more accepting of the opposites within us. We can all be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ’stupid’ or ‘clever’. So perhaps there is a need to soften our perspective when we encounter opinions that are different from our own.  

By practising activities that enable us to reflect and be in the flow of the moment, we can then gently get to know what that void feels like and perhaps grow less afraid of it. This might mean cooking a nourishing meal, spending time with good friends, going for a run, or meditating. And once we have been kinder to ourselves and allowed some space to breathe, we might find not only less anxiety and conflict inside ourselves and with others, but discover a greater sense of wellbeing in a world where uncertainty isn’t so bad after all.