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An Interview with Natalie Rogers, Ph.D. on Expressive Arts Therapy

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

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Natalie Rogers, Ph.D.In this episode of Wise Counsel, Dr. Van Nuys talks with psychologist and psychotherapist Natalie Rogers, Ph.D., a leader in the field of Expressive Arts Therapy which is a form of psychotherapy integrating a variety of artistic and creative modalities and techniques including movement, sound, drawing, drama and language so as to encourage client's self-expression, insight and personal growth. Though individual art therapies have been around for many years, including music, art (painting and drawing), dance, and psychodrama therapies, Expressive Arts Therapy represents a newer effort to coherently integrate these various techniques. Art therapies are particularly useful for people who are feeling stuck, overwhelmed or otherwise unable to express themselves or move forward in their lives. Expressive arts therapy offers such clients multiple non-verbal, and experiential ways to come to understand what it is that is blocking their progress, which can lead to increased self-understanding and to better decision making.

Dr. Rogers work as a creative arts therapist reflects her family background. Her mother was an artist and painter, and her father was the influential humanistic psychotherapist, Dr. Carl Rogers. It has come naturally to her to use art as a means of helping her psychotherapy patients to express themselves. Carl Roger's client-centered approach guides her work as an arts therapist. Though she facilitates clients' self-expression through the means of art, she does not do a lot of interpretation of the result. In true person-centered style, a core assumption of expressive arts therapy is that the client will find their own answers once they are in the right sort of therapeutic and creative environment. An activist therapist who was trying to diagnose the meaning of clients' output and provide strategy and advice would only get in the way of progress.

Dr. Rogers sees her approach as extending and enhancing the foundational client-centered work her father pioneered. Whereas Carl Rogers encouraged people to talk about their internal conflicts and issues in their own words, Natalie Rogers extends this by offering clients additional non-verbal experiential means to act out their issues. Because many of these techniques are nonverbal, they help clients who do not have words to express their pain, and those who are not in touch with or do not understand their issues sufficiently to articulate them verbally. People quickly make connections to emotional issues they are dealing with in their lives through this expressive process, which is not unlike that pursued by the Gestalt Psychotherapists of the 1960s. Acting out unconscious issues helps to make them conscious for clients and the accepting nature of the therapeutic environment promotes clients' self-acceptance.

As an example of an Expressive Arts Therapy technique, Dr. Rogers talks about her use of movement and imagery. She sometimes will ask clients to imagine they are in a museum and to take the pose of a statue they find there which expresses how they feel. She may then ask them to take on the posture of how they'd like to feel, and then to move between the different postures to start to develop an experiential knowledge of how they are different. From movement she will generally progress to other creative modalities such as clay, paints or journal writing.

Dr. Van Nuys comments that there are aspects of Carl Jung's work in Expressive Arts Therapy, and Dr. Rogers agrees. She is particularly drawn to the Jungian idea of the "shadow", embodying rejected and disowned aspects of the self. She believes that the arts and other creative activities can help people become more aware of their rejected impulses and therefore more able to channel them into productive actions (what the Freudians would call Sublimation). People who remain out of touch with their rejected impulses are more prone to have trouble with them because disowned parts of the self tend to get projected outwards onto other people who then seem to be more threatening than they may actually be.

Dr. Van Nuys closes the interview by asking Dr. Rogers if she has any final thoughts. Her response is to emphasize the importance of keeping alive and vital one's connection to creativity. When creative expressions of the self are shut down (as so often happens today in the increasingly rigid and test-focused educational system), people's vital connection to life as an enjoyable process shuts down too. The creative process is our vital force, she says. When it becomes blocked, people feel deadened inside.

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About Natalie Rogers, Ph.D.

Natalie Rogers, Ph.D.Natalie Rogers, Ph.D. is founder and co-director of a certificate program in the expressive arts at the Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, California. She is author of the 2003 book, The Creative Connection: Expressive Arts as Healing. A psychologist, group facilitator, artist, mother of three daughters, and grandmother of four, her mission for the past 30 years has been to bring creativity, soul, and spirit into our lives, to empower ourselves as activists in this troubled world. As an expressive arts therapist and the daughter of Carl Rogers, the foundation of her work is based on her father's philosophy: "Each individual has worth, dignity and the capacity for self-direction if given an empathic, non-judgmental, supportive environment." The philosophy and values of the person-centered approach inform all of her work in group facilitation, psychotherapist training, personal growth, and communication.