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emotional learning cards

The stories that make us

Lyn French (A Space, Director) reflects on how we make meanings out of our experiences and the unconscious agendas that influence the stories we tell ourselves and each other. The images referred to are from our Emotional Learning Cards sets ‘What do you feel?’ and ‘How do we live well with others?’. She has also produced art-based worksheets on the same theme for use in therapy sessions, the classroom, art workshops or at home, which you can download for free via the Iniva Creative Learning website. These worksheets are based on a project part-funded by Newport Primary School entitled ‘A Place for Conversation’ which was delivered by Iniva and A Space over the summer term 2014.

We all translate our experiences into language. This may take the form of a series of on-going conversations with others about what has happened in the past or accounts of our more recent experiences. Perhaps we speak most openly with a close friend or maybe with someone trained to listen and make sense of what has – or is – happening such as a counsellor, a psychotherapist or a creative therapist. Or we might digest our experiences in short ‘bite-sized’ chunks through emails and text. Maybe we share our stories on a blog with a number of people who provide a ‘listening ear’ and  respond by telling us about their similar experiences.

In this way, and through the stories we tell, we create our world. This is not so straightforward as it seems.  As authors of our own worlds, we can edit or re-write our stories to better suit how we want to represent ourselves. We may put a positive spin on an account of our lives to better match the picture we want to project of the kind of person we ‘d like to believe we are. This ‘creative licence’ can be unconscious and comes to the fore when we are reflecting on difficult experiences. None of us like to own up to our role in situations where things have turned out badly. If, for example, a relationship breaks up because our partner is spending more time with someone else, it is easy to label the partner as ‘the bad one’ and to win our friends’ sympathy by painting ourselves as a victim. No story is this simple. All of us have parts to play in every relationship. Break-ups happen for many complex reasons, some of which we are aware of and some we will be less conscious of.

We need to take care with the stories we tell ourselves and then share with others. Whenever we repeat an account of a significant experience, we are not only telling the other about it but also reinforcing our own version of events, often distorting the reality in subtle ways. We do this because we all have a vested interest in preserving our good image. None of us wants to feel guilt or shame about our behaviour or how we’ve treated someone else. It’s more comfortable to find an angle on the story which rationalises why we did what we did or said what we said in the heat of the moment, preferably an angle which clearly puts ‘the other’ in the wrong.

‘Right / wrong’ and ‘black & white’ thinking  avoids the complexities and ambiguities of thinking in shades of grey. Polarising like this only reinforces conflict.  If we can admit to our role in a difficult encounter, a space can open up that is less confrontational. It can make us feel exposed or vulnerable but this doesn’t have to be something to be avoided. Often, vulnerability generates compassion and diffuses animosity.

All of us have an inner ‘script’ running all the time. It takes the form of a commentary that is narrating our lives. This ‘self-talk’ can support more reality-based thinking or, conversely, reinforce negative thoughts about ourselves and others. A useful way to check your self-talk is to become conscious of what you are saying to yourself when you get something wrong or make an error in judgement. What is your inner ‘voice’ telling you? Do you say to yourself, ‘How could you be so stupid! Now you’ve gone and ruined things!‘  Or perhaps your ‘self-talk’ takes a different angle, commenting along the following lines: ‘That was the wrong thing to do!  I wonder how I can remedy the situation.  Maybe I just need to admit my mistake and take it from there.’

Bani Abidi’s series of photographs, 2008 (see above) puts communication center stage. By focusing in on these ‘devices’ Abidi makes us think about how we communicate with others and who we ‘let in’. We can extend this analogy and reflect on ‘what’ we let in as well as ‘who’. What stories about others or about ourselves do we choose to take in and believe as fact? If someone seems to be critical of our accent or how we look, or what we do, do we give their opinion more status than our own? Do we then feed a negative image of ourselves? Or do we say in our thoughts, ‘I hear your view but I don’t agree. I know who I am and I know my value.’

Families often edit stories from the past.  Perhaps relatives who have done well are given ‘star billing’ while others who have struggled or have been in trouble in some way are ‘erased’ from the family narrative.  Becoming conscious of what we let into our mind, how we frame our stories about self and other and how we use language is a vital life skill.  Unconscious prejudices and assumptions about   race, gender, class and culture are perpetuated in nuanced ways if we do not manage our thoughts and question our biases. We also need to take care with our self-image so that we avoid the extremes of either inflating our own image or denigrating ourselves. Language is the primary tool we have to construct our worlds and create and sustain healthy relationships with self and other. We need to use it mindfully.

Like the lamps arranged on the sideboard in Francis Upritchard’s image Grandma’s Lamps 2006 (above), we all share features in common with each other but we have differences too. The way we describe these differences to ourselves in our ‘self-talk’ may need to be monitored and perhaps gently challenged.

Did you like this blog? Download the free resource to accompany it The Stories that Make Us: exploring personal histories found within the resources tab on the Iniva Creative Learning website. For more on the project developed with Newport Primary School visit the Iniva learning project page.


Visualising Emotions – Iniva Creative Learning

Each month Iniva Creative Learning post some handy tips for using the images on our Emotional Learning Cards in a variety of settings and circumstances. This month we focus on a practical exercise for using the cards as a means to better understand our emotions. 

Often our difficulty around positively dealing with emotions stems from our inability to recognise them in the first place. Contemporary art contains an almost unlimited range of unusual and emotive images. As such they can help us to articulate and visualise our emotional responses. 

Create your own Emotional Learning Card

  • Start by looking through a number of different Cards. Discuss the imagery within the Cards and think about what emotions the images evoke. 
  • What is it about the image that suggests the emotion? Think about the colours used in the image, the placing of bodies and/or objects. Is there a story or a situation that the image suggests which evokes the particular emotional response?
  • Leading on from the discussion, it’s time to create your own Emotional Learning Card. Decide on an emotion you want to represent. This decision may be governed by your particular situation (i.e. if there is an issue with anger management you might decide to explore anger as an emotion). 
  • Cut out a coloured card the same size and shape as an Emotional Learning Card.  Thinking back to the discussion you had around the Cards decide how to visually represent the chosen image. Will it be through collage, drawing and/or painting? Will it be representative or metaphorical, realistic or surreal? You may want to write text or use lyrics from a song or a poem, either embedded within the image or written on the back of each card. 
In making the card you have in effect “created” a representation” of that particular emotion. The young adult will have been given the freedom, in a positive, safe and creative environment to explore and examine the emotion and so will be able to recognise and better respond to it in the future. During the activity you will no doubt be in conversation with the young adult. Take advantage of this, asking questions and prompting them to articulate their responses through words as much as through the image-making.
Once the image is complete its important that it is kept and treasured- throwing it away will not send out a good message! You may want to put it in a scrap book or hang it on a wall and you may want to refer back to it at some point in the future.
You can buy our Emotional Learning Cards on our website, as well as download free resources that give suggestions for other practical activity. Visit our Store

Creative Learning Through Art

Iniva Creative Learning’s first blog post is written by Co-founder, Lyn French. Lyn is an art therapist, counsellor and psychoanalytic psychotherapist and Director of A Space, Hackney, East London.

How contemporary art can open up emotional exploration with young people

If they were to give it any thought at all, many young people would probably make common assumptions about why artists make art and what they draw their inspiration from. They might imagine artists have unexpected flashes of insight or that they have what we would call ‘a grand narrative’ in mind. Interest and curiosity can be sparked when young people realise that artists are simply trying to communicate what it’s like to be human, that is, their take on what it’s like to be alive to the complexities,  pleasures, issues and ambiguities of everyday life and to capture ‘felt experiences’ which might be hard to put into words.

Contemporary artists have a real advantage – they’re reflecting on, commenting about and generally de-coding or de-constructing today’s world. Even if artists choose to focus on overtly social or political themes, their personal and emotional experiences will be embedded in their work either consciously or unconsciously. It is not necessary – or even relevant – for us as viewers to know the precise feeling state of the artist. Instead, to borrow a phrase from psychoanalysis, we can look at an image, object, photograph or installation and ‘freely associate’.  The aim of free association is not to work something out through logical analysis. Instead, we let go of self-censorship or judgement or the need to ‘have the right answer’ or the ‘accepted point of view’ and allow our own associations, ideas, feelings, questions and impressions float to the surface.  Looking at art is, at its core, a relational experience. In another words, we evolve our own relationship with the work through discovering meaning in it that is particular to us.  Ideas and thoughts make a lasting impact, when we can engage with their emotional content or when we are moved or touched or agitated or stimulated in some way.   

This is just an extract, read the full article on the Iniva Creative Learning website

Find out about Iniva’s Emotional Learning Cards