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Boundaries in Art Therapy: Exploring Your ‘Walls’

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Your personal boundaries are the limits you set for yourself in order to maintain your sense of self and protect yourself from emotional or physical harm. They can be physical boundaries, like the distance you keep from someone who makes you feel uncomfortable, or emotional boundaries, like the amount of stress you're willing to tolerate. In art therapy, we are able to explore and creatively engage with our understanding and experience of boundaries through symbolism.

When we think of emotional walls, we might consider ways in which we self-sabotage, block out others or ‘shut down’ as a way to protect ourselves. We all have ‘walls’ to some extent and they all stem from a similar originating function, which was and may still be to protect us. They can be physical walls, emotional walls, or psychological walls. We put them up for many reasons: to protect ourselves, to hide our vulnerabilities, or to keep others out.

The symbol of the ‘wall’ is an essential image through which we can project our feelings, thoughts and behavioral urges and responses to unfamiliar, uncomfortable or challenging experiences. When working with this symbol, you may consider drawing or sculpting a representational image of what you consider your walls to be or to look like- both inner and outer ones. Here is an example of a directive that one might explore in an art therapy session:

Take a deep breath in and exhale out. You may decide to close your eyes or direct them to the floor. Imagine for a moment that you are standing in front of a wall. Note your immediate sensations, thoughts and emotional state. Observe the qualities and characteristics of the wall.

Questions you might consider as you continue to visualize yourself encountering this wall:

What is the wall made out of? What colors and/or textures do you notice? Would you describe the wall as old or new or somewhere in between? What visually stands out about the wall to you? Are there any openings to the wall, such as cracks, missing pieces, windows, doors)? If so, are you able to see inside or have a desire to know what is on the other side of the wall? How small or large is the wall? Does it have defined edges or sides? Is it wider or taller in its appearance? Do you notice any way of getting through, around or over the wall?

Begin to take in the environment surrounding your wall. Where are you in relation to the wall? What type of location are you in (are you along a country road, the forest, side of the road, in the middle of a city, along the shoreline, on the beach, up high on a mountain, underground)? Is this location familiar to you or completely imagined? Is there a road or pathway that you see leading to your wall?

Take notice of your emotional experience. As you imagine yourself standing by this wall, what are you feeling (stress, anxiety, curiosity, excitement, fear, frustration)? What is your urge? Do you want to explore the wall, walk around, leave, look for a way to get through it or over the wall?

After you have taken time to visualize this wall in front of you, invite yourself to draw a representational image of your wall. Add in as many details as you like and consider for yourself what you might place behind this wall- you can visually record this on the same side of the paper or you can draw on the back as a way to protect the material from immediate viewing.

Consider writing in a journal and self-reflecting on what walls represent for you, and what they keep out (or in). This can be a powerful way to explore personal boundaries, and to see how they are related to our experiences of safety and security, anxiety and fear.

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