The Relationship Map: A Great Art Therapy Intervention!

The Relationship Map is very simple in structure: it is a mandala (sacred circle) drawn on a colored square piece of paper with a smaller circle inside it.

I have found it very useful to do this “intervention” with many adults patients, especially people working on their relationships with other people and learning to set better boundaries. The goal is to build/establish a balance between rigid and loose boundaries, thus “flexible” boundaries. If you imagine a barrier that feels like a brick wall, that is a rigid boundary. An overflowing puddle is an image of a loose kind of boundary, whereas a flexible boundary would be some thing that can move and tighten and loosen based on the circumstances of the here and now, so it is a balancing act, and we all have challenges working on our boundaries. The people who seem to find this exercise the most helpful and useful are those whose boundaries are too loose. They merge easily with others and have a hard time setting limits and saying no. Things like giving people money with no consideration of their own finances, overly caretaking, doing things that later make them feel resentful and upset, but caught in a bind where they feel they have to be “nice” and saying No I won’t do that, or I don’t like when you do that, or I disagree with you, feels like they are being “mean”.

We all have had challenges at crossroads in our lives where we look around and question our relationships and sometimes “weed the garden” and get rid of anything toxic, which could be very deeply rooted.

The first step is to pick a colored square piece of paper and put a paper plate about the size of a face on it and trace a circle. Right away you have a symbol of the self, a mandala. Then I invite you to write your name in the middle with the colored sharpie of your choice and put a heart or other shape around it. Then you write down qualities about yourself such as kind, creative, optimistic, good friend, compassionate original,adventurous, kind or whatever you come up with. It’s a time I will observe to my patient, “You forgot such and such” and give then additional qualities I know to be true about then that they overlooked.

Next, you draw a smaller circle with isn’t the big circle. The big circle can be conceived of as a barbed wire fence with xs in it and then the area outside it you write toxic zone. That is the area to put the people you can’t interact with at all anymore who have become poisonous. It is very therapeutic to have your therapist witness you place bad abusive people in your life in the toxic zone. I am not a proponent of the theory that forgiveness frees you. I actually believe there are people who are so damaging to you that you cannot forgive their actions unless that person realized how terrible s/he has been to you and take responsibility and apologize which, is not a frequent thing. So putting even your own parents in the toxic zone and bring supported about setting a form bound site of no longerletting them into your life is a very powerful aspect of healing.

Another dimension of this relationship map involves, what you start with, whom you put where, and whether you include your therapist herself in it. I also give people an opportunity to suggest people include dead people or animals as well with a different color or shape around them. Some of the nuance of the use of the circles is where you put the person. a person could be right on the line, meaning they are going in one direction or another soon but you’re not quite sure, or someone you just met would be appropriate to put in the outer circle. When someone puts new people in the inner circle, it provides a great opportunity to discuss their patterns of trusting right away and letting people in too quickly perhaps.

The other great thing about this relationship map is that you put the date on it, and make a new one a few months later. I usually have the patient do the whole thing and then bring out the older one and we can see what has happened, who has moved where, who has disappeared altogether, who has appeared, etc.

Below are images of an example of how to make a map like this.
Having a visual diagram is actually a very powerful way to take a good look at the relationships in your life and re evaluate what you want from others and, most importantly, who deserves to share your good qualities that you wrote in the beginning…

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