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The Joy of Sublimation

Express Yourself: Creative Expression and Connection

I write a lot about the importance of feeling our feelings. I understand that this can be a tall order and that sometimes, we need some help in the matter. One thing I often suggest to my clients is experimenting with creative expression. If the words "creative expression" have already sent you packing, I beg you to hang in there a bit longer. Can you remember when you were young? Art projects and make believe ... there is a reason that these are the very vehicles in which child therapy is conducted. Children work through difficult emotions and challenging concepts through their imagination and play. Creativity is the perfect conduit for emotion. Freud called this sublimation.

I don't believe that the genius of creativity as a mode of expression diminishes when we turn 10. In fact, for many people, channeling their internal world through a "project" gives them something to do, which makes their feelings more manageable, and provides the experience of moving through something. Much of creative expression is also non-verbal, so you don't have to know what you are feeling. You can let the clay, paint, or crayons take you wherever they want to go. There is nothing to figure out, no destination to reach, just the process of expression and connection.

I often tell people to let themselves play. Go to the drug store and buy the kiddie watercolors and construction paper. Don't put any pressure on yourself to make a masterpiece. Don't feel like you have to use the materials sparingly or delicately. Let yourself go! Break out the supplies, and just begin.

Try your hand at collage with cut up magazines. It is interesting to see what the subconscious is drawn to when you give it permission to tear out whatever it wants. Use the random words from the pages to create a poem, start a short story, or paint them into a picture.

Knitting, papier-mâché, clay sculpture, sidewalk chalk, photography... when was the last time you let yourself create just for the sake of expression? All of these are perfect ways to be present to yourself and what you are feeling, without trying to change it. I encourage you to let your inner-eight-year-old come out to play.

We can also enjoy the creativity of others as a way of tapping into ourselves. Listening to music is a powerful way to express and feel your feelings. A song can make you feel like you're not alone by the sheer fact that someone wrote something that speaks so precisely to your situation. You can sing at the top of your lungs or dance in your living room. Watching a sad movie can also be a great way to let go of pent up emotion. The story line gives you permission to release, and the movie has a beginning and an end, which makes it feel safer to let go.

We don't have to be Picasso to take advantage of the benefits of sublimation. No one ever has to see your finished product and you don't even have to keep it when you are through. Just notice what you experience as you become a channel for creativity. See what it's like when you are in it, and when you are done. Open up to the process. I suspect that you will not be sorry that you did.

Copyright by Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D., 2011. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include links to the original on Psychology Today.