MTSU Social Work Department

SW 4200: Creativity and Personal growth

The Value of Expressive Activities


Expressive activities
are those things that people do that give them a chance to express themselves. They are important to the study of creativity because it is through expression that we find out that someone is creative. It is valuable to think creatively, but it is only through expression that the world knows we are creative. Since social processes are so essential to the human experience, we often do not completely experience our creativity until it is expressed.

There is a difference between the expressive arts and expressive activities, but the difference is largely semantic. For our purposes in this course, the two mean practically the same thing. When they are used differently, the term expressive activities is usually meant to be more inclusive: anything that we do to express ourselves as unique individuals is an activity; the arts are often limited to such traditional forms as the visual arts, dance, music, and theatre. Writing is sometimes considered an art, sometimes not. It does have a good reputation as creative in most circles. Scientific research is also very likely to be recognized as creative activity.

Activities that are less apt to be generally recognized as creative are those other than the arts, writing, and science. The everyday things that we do to be productive or enrich our lives are good examples of this. We express who we are, and are often very creative when we do so, by our conversations, work, family life, and recreation. These can be considered expressive activities if they give us the chance to be ourselves, to practice the process of creating interesting and valuable lives.

What is it about expression that is so valuable? Why do we need to create and receive feedback from the world through expressive activities? These are some of the reasons.


Expression is Therapeutic

Expressive activities help people feel better about themselves. Social workers are in the business of healing, promoting growth, and helping peole reach their potential. "Therapy" or psychotherapy is often the way we think of the benefits that clients receive from social workers. This is not to suggest that all, or even most clients of social workers are emotionally disturbed and need therapy to get well. It is true, however, that all of us can benefit emotionally or psychologically from professional social work assistance. Whatever the reason for a client to be working with a social worker, that process of client expressing and worker listening and/or observing should be helpful, should be "therapeutic." If the client has an opportunity for expression, it will be. There are at least five reasons why this is true.

1. Catharsis: Self-expression is cathartic. Another way to think about catharsis is as ventilation: we all need to ventilate our feelings, to get things "off our chest" so that we are no longer carrying the weight of our concerns. If you listen to me effectively, I learn to share part of who I am with you, and I also learn that it feels good to do so. Expressive activities give people a wonderful opportunity for catharsis. We often can do a better job of "letting off steam" by getting up, moving around, and doing instead of just sitting and talking. Talk can be cathartic, but adding other activities to it so that we are acting-out as well as talking-out is usually even more so.

2. Self-esteem: The process of self-expression with a supportive audience communicates to clients that they are important, that they are valuable human beings. Social workers are especially able to be supportive because of our professional values. We are empathetic, nonjudgmental, and appreciative of diversity. Even without saying anything, our values are communicated in the way we smile, nod, or look concerned; in a thousand important non-verbal ways. Expressive activities are often done with some amount of risk. Clients are doing things that may be new, different, even scary. Our reactions to them are crucial. Our values motivate us to attend well, to observe, and to listen so that clients know that we care for them. If we care, and are supportive so that our concern is clear, clients learn to care more for themselves, to feel more important, to grow their self-esteem.

3. Relationship: Expressive activities build relationship, and help the client become aware that he or she is involved in a valuable process of relating to a professional helper. Since we listen and observe while holding those humanistic values, clients become more and more aware that they are doing what they need to do to make the changes they want in their lives. The placebo effect is very important in the work we do. Clients often feel better once they get started doing what people in our society do in order to deal with their problems. Expressive activities such as art therapy, psychodrama, and journaling are among those things that people do to improve their lives. While expressing themselves with you as a professional helper the clients feels connected to someone who is there to help. The client understands that an important relationship is being developed. The client feels less alone. The client feels better.

4. Insight: Expressive activities help clients move to more productive thoughts, to learn new ways of looking at their lives. It is almost magical the way in which being creative and having an audience helps me straighten out my thoughts, to stop going around in circles. Perhaps this is because I take what I do more seriously than when I sit and try to think my way through my problems. Perhaps it is also because the activity becomes a social process, not just a mental one. It is still a mental exercise, but it becomes more that that; I realize that you are there too, and with the benefit of catharsis, my growing self esteem, our relationship, I become better about making decisions. I become more creative. I learn while both of us are aware of my expression. I gain insight.

5. Group Process: All of these benefits are compounded when the expressive activities take place within a group. More people provide more of an audience for catharsis, more opportunities for positive feedback, a chance to feel a part of a group, and many perspectives for greater insight. Activities, including discussion, often work better in a group. It is difficult to play softball or have a quilting bee with one client and one worker. The range of possibilites grows when we use group processes. There is a greater chance that we will be able to find activities that work for more people when we expand those possibilities.

6. Magic: Expressive activities add something else to the helping process, something which really is magical. When all of the above things are happening, when we are really connected and when a client is feeling better and discovering new insights, a wonderful mystery can occur. It happens because of all of the above, but like so many things in life, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." It may not really be magic, it could be explained by the multiplicative interaction of these benefits, but it certainly feels like magic at times. Sometimes as a social worker you can be there listening and watching and realize that something very important is happening for your client. Most of the time we cannot put a name on it or account for it, but it happens. It is often hard to name feelings, especially those feelings that are expressed through actions rather than words, but you know that the feelings are there and that good things are taking place. They do because your client or clients have created new way to express themselves, new ways to discover who they are and to communicate that discovery to the world.


Expression is Valuable for Assessment

An important way in which we know about clients is through their expressive activities. It is clear from our understanding of the helping process that we cannot take action, we cannot do intervention, until we do assessment. There are many clients who cannot tell us what we need to know in order to help them, but they can express it in other ways. I have had eight-year-old clients who could not articulate their feelings with words but who were very expressive with water colors or Magic Markers. I have built relationships with adolescents on the basketball court when they were afraid to come into my office, and learned of their ability to share or their lack of self-esteem by watching them play. Even adults often find it easier to put their feelings into actions rather than words at times of crisis or around disturbing issues.

One of the ways that I conceptualize assessment is through reference to The Wizard of Oz. Remember how Dorothy travels through the woods on the way to the Emerald City? She is not really lost, because she is on "the yellow brick road," but if she were lost, a social worker might be a good traveling companion. Perhaps we could give the scarecrow a BSW after he gets his heart. Anyway, even though we do not practice in Oz, social workers need to do assessment in order to help clients them find their way out of the woods to their Emerald City.

Why is it that our clients cannot find their own way? As we start our work with them, we don't know. We don't know whether they are lost, or afraid, or not motivated enough to look; whether there are barriers which obscure their view or whether they are chained to the trees. The way we find out is to attend to their expression. If they can verbalize an account of their situation, that is good. But so often words are not enough. We also need to attend to what they do, how they express themselves through their actions. Each thing we learn is a step toward them until we are able to see the woods from their viewpoint. We move to their perspective by listening and observing. We learn their view of the world one word or one action at a time. We see who they are and what their place in the world looks like. We listen, and we watch, until we hear and see enough so we know how to be helpful.

Social workers and other professionals have traditionally used interviews that focus on talking in order to help. There is a great value in such a conversational process, but talking and listening are not for everyone. The most competent social worker is one who is able to use activities other than talking, expressive activities, in order to help clients who communicate and learn better in these ways. So it is important to use expressive activities in helping people get better, and perhaps even more valuable to help clients learn how to incorporate expressive activities into their everyday lives. The people who learn how to live, work, and play creatively and with great individal expression will be healthier, happier, more productive, and more self-actualized.

John Sanborn, 2/04

Note: This material comes in large part from my web page on Principle of Communication Skills: Listening.

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