What Is it to Be Witnessed?

In art therapy, the therapist witnesses you creating.

One creepy way of seeing this is that you are being watched. I felt this when I first experienced art therapy as a client and the therapist sat in her chair and "watched" me as I worked, taking notes in her notebook. When I thought of it this way, I felt uncomfortable, judged, even angry! Like, what the heck was she writing in her notebook anyway?! I went to art school for 6 years and was used to having my artwork "critiqued" by the other students and the teacher, and I didn't create art for a long time after art school. And here this stranger was, WATCHING me while I created? I thought this was supposed to be therapeutic! But then when I finished, she didn't make any comments about my work, no judgements, suggestions, advice or "critique". Only questions about my experience of creating what I'd created, questions about how parts of the artwork made me feel, and validations and more questions about these feelings. Questions that took me deeper into what I'd made and the thoughts and emotions behind it, and validations that helped me feel seen and heard. The judgement never came. In subsequent sessions I started relaxing under the art therapist's gaze as I created, feeling an acceptance and gentle curiosity radiating from her while I worked. Being witnessed, as I started to see it, was comforting, affirming, and even empowering. Showing my work and having another person see it - really see it and not on a surface level - and ask me genuine, curious questions about what different parts of it meant to me was enlightening!

In Paint Your Inner Voice, the facilitator witnesses you creating and helps you witness yourself creating.

They notice your subtle body language like hesitations, pauses, starts and quick stops, sighs, body tension, and facial expressions. The facilitator's whole purpose is to keep you painting in freedom, listening to and trusting your inner voice, and following your flow of energy. They are not looking at what you are painting but HOW you are painting. If, for example, they notice that you are standing still after much movement, they will approach you and say "I notice you stopped moving. What stopped you?" they will listen to whatever you say and help you find a question that will help you find an answer that will get you moving again. They can't actually hear your inner voice - only you can - but they can hear your inner critic when you say "I just don't know what to paint anymore" or "I don't want to wreck it" or "I don't like this part!". They will ask you questions to help you move past your inner critic like "what would you paint if you didn't have to know?" or "what if you weren't afraid of wrecking it?" or "what if you didn't have to like it? What would you paint next?" With practice and with time, you will start to notice your inner critic's voice inside you, notice when you are getting stuck, start to ask these questions to yourself, and trust the answers you hear from your inner voice.

In Paint Your Inner Voice, you witness your own painting.

Notice the difference in meaning of the words witness and judge. When you witness, you take something in as it is. You see it and allow it to be what it is. When you judge, you do not take something in but immediately put a barrier between yourself and what you are judging. You don't even see it - you only see your opinion. There's no curiosity because you've already decided you know the answers. Witnessing allows respect for what you are witnessing. No matter what it "looks like", you can acknowledge that the painting in front of you just came out of you. Where before there was a blank piece of paper, now there is colour, form, movement, feeling, meaning - a whole world, whether you "like" it or not! This deserves respect just for the fact that it came out of you alone! Witnessing allows curiosity and an openness to learning and being surprised. While you are painting you might often think you know what your painting is about. But if you can let go of this "knowing" until your inner voice tells you it is finished and then stand back and truly witness it, you will most likely be amazed by what comes up if you allow it and then journal with it. Then you bear witness to your inner voice by reading directly from your journal to the group - no explanations or disclaimers of "well this is about this weird part of my painting and I'm kinda shy and I don't really like what I painted or wrote, but....". No. Just reading directly from the words of your inner voice. We all witness it by listening.

In Paint Your Inner Voice, you witness the painting of others.

You, the other participants, and the facilitator witness in silence as one by one, participants present their paintings and then read self-selected parts from their journals. You take in, accept, and revere what is before you, because you are witnessing someone else's inner world on display. It is often touching, powerful, inspiring, and poignant as you feel parts of your own inner world reflected in the painting and words of the other participants. After witnessing someone else's inner world and inner voice, what is there to say?? What could you possibly say, other than thank you? So we say "thank you" in unison, and that is enough. Our gratitude says it all.

To be witnessed is a human need.

We all - no matter what gender, race, religion, age, ability, or political view we have - we all need to be seen and heard fully, as we truly are. Being witnessed is being seen, heard, and accepted by another human being, which is fundamental to our mental and emotional well-being. Humans are relational - no matter how individual and separate society may try to make us - we are relational. It is in relationships with others that we are wounded, so it follows that in relationships with others we are healed.

Witnessing and being witnessed are profound and radical acts. Paint Your Inner Voice offers us a chance to practice what we've almost forgotten how to do.