The word “mandala” means “circle” and comes from the ancient language of Sanskrit. It’s traditionally a circle that contains a symmetrical, geometrical pattern, much like a kaleidoscope design. Each mandala is unique to the person who creates it, and represents the spiritual facet of human experience. Spiritual paths such as Hinduism and Buddhism have used mandalas in healing and meditation for centuries. For example, Buddhist Monks created large, intricate mandalas with colored sand by the ocean. Each one took many hours of meticulous work. When the mandala was finished, they would let the ocean tide erase the beautiful design. Letting go of their creation reminded them that nothing on this earth is permanent: our experiences, emotions, thoughts, and of course, physical form. Knowing this truth helped them stay present and cherish each moment of life. This was the deeper message conveyed by the process of creating the mandala.
I love the idea that we can utilize an artistic process to express meaning. The mandala is the perfect tool since each one is unique to the artist, and represents something about that person. I started using mandalas in therapy sessions with clients as a way to engage them in something meaningful, tangible, and representative of their inner journey. Even clients who have initially claimed to have no artistic talent are always pleasantly surprised at their creation. It’s really not that difficult to make a mandala if you know the method and have the right supplies, such as a ruler and stencils of different shapes. In fact, it’s kind of hard to “mess it up” unless you scribble all over it or tear up the paper. If you never considered yourself to be creative, but then you create something amazing, you now have evidence that you are creative! It’s a wonderful thing to be able to experience yourself in a new way. It has been a joy to watch clients grow in confidence during this process, especially if they are totally skeptical from the start. As part of this blog, I invited two clients who had created a mandala in therapy to share how it benefited them. Names have been changed to protect confidentiality, and I’ve provided a bit of background information to help put things into context as well.
One client, Jamie, was born into a chaotic and unstable family wherein his emotional needs were completely neglected. His father was in jail for many years due to drug charges, so he barely knew him. His mother struggled with Bipolar Disorder, refusing to seek help. She would cycle between Depression and manic episodes, making her emotionally unpredictable. After repeated disappointments, Jamie learned not to trust his mother if she promised something since more often than not, she couldn’t follow through. Additionally, his mother was very young when Jamie was born and would tell him repeatedly that Jamie was a “mistake” and that she wished she had terminated the pregnancy. Jamie therefore held a core belief that if his own mother didn’t love him, that no one ever would, and that he had to be perfect in order to be worthy of love. As a result, he was very critical of himself especially at work. He was convinced that if he made a mistake, he would be seen as incompetent and would be fired. He spent a lot of mental energy trying to live up to what he thought others expected of him, but always fell short which reinforced his negative self-image. Jamie sought therapy due to very low self-esteem, chronic anxiety, and a feeling that his life was unraveling.
In Jamie’s words: “I’ve always had a hard time asking for help and accepting help in general in my life. I have been hurt by others in the past, and just don’t trust that they have good intentions. I don’t trust that they will keep their promises. I learned to be independent and do everything myself. That way, at least I know I won’t be disappointed. As far as therapy goes, initially I had a hard time even making the first appointment. I thought it was a sign of weakness to need therapy and that I should be able to handle stress on my own. And regarding the mandala, I have to say I was kind of skeptical at first. I thought I wouldn’t be any good at it since I had never done one before. I also thought that using tools like stencils and a ruler meant that I wasn’t a good artist and that I couldn’t create something unique on my own. However, once I got started, I found myself enjoying the process and not listening to the little critical voice in my head. I see now that tools can really enhance my art and give me freedom to express myself more easily. I feel empowered rather than dependent.”
Jamie had an experience in therapy that he can then translate into his life outside of sessions. He has re-framed asking for help and accepting help as acts of self-care. He is gradually becoming more comfortable with not having to do everything on his own and is learning that when someone offers to help, this doesn’t mean that he is incompetent. Rather, this means that he is human and that it’s possible that others genuinely care for him. He is starting to realize that making a mistake is actually just a learning opportunity and that we all continue to learn throughout our lives. Additionally, he is finding that some people can be trusted, one step at a time. Our therapeutic relationship feels safe, which is what he needed in childhood but did not receive from his parents. It is within this safe relationship that he is “unlearning” messages from his childhood and creating a more positive image of himself. He also feels less anxious and is less reactive to life’s day-to-day challenges.
Another client, Elizabeth, had always excelled in academics as well as cello, track and field, and art. Her parents held top security clearance jobs through the military and had very high expectations of her. Growing up, Elizabeth received praised and rewards for her accomplishments. However, what was lacking was a basic appreciation for who she was as a person, and being given permission to make mistakes. Elizabeth also felt that her parents compared her to her sister, who struggled in school due to a learning disability. She felt pressured to live up to her parents’ standards, and on some level felt that their love was contingent upon her successes.
Underneath Elizabeth’s perfectionism was a core belief that she wasn’t a good person; she felt there was something wrong with her, though she had trouble verbalizing the reason. It makes sense that she felt the need to put up an emotional barrier so others wouldn’t see that she was damaged. She believed that if others saw what was wrong with her, that they would reject her. This fear of rejection fueled constant negative self-talk and self-judgment in efforts to be perfect in every area of her life, including school, friendships, and physical appearance. She spent a lot of time and emotional energy worrying about a small comment she had made, her running time during a race, or about how her stomach looked when wearing a particular outfit. Her mind would fixate on a particular thing for hours, increasing her feelings of anxiety and shame to unbearable levels. At times, her feelings toward herself would become so intense that she would cut her arms as punishment for not being perfect. Elizabeth convinced herself that she was inherently unlovable. By focusing on what she viewed as imperfections, she was blind to her positive qualities such as her wonderful sense of humor, kindness toward others, and sincere interest in making the world a more peaceful place. Ironically, she was unable to direct her generosity and caring toward herself.
Here’s what Elizabeth had to say regarding creating a mandala in therapy: “It was soothing and comforting to be able to draw during the session rather than just talk. I really liked the process of making a symmetrical design because it felt like each shape had a purpose; each one was part of the whole. It also showed me that it’s okay to not be perfect. Even if one part of the drawing didn’t match up exactly, it didn’t change the fact that the design as a whole was amazing. It allowed me to be more accepting of imperfections and not get so upset about them. Once I could take a step back and see the entire thing, I realized that it didn’t matter if one part was a little off-center or not absolutely in alignment. I love looking at my mandala. I have it on my wall and see it every morning when I wake up. It reminds me of what’s really important and calms me down.”
Over the past year, Elizabeth has learned how to see herself more clearly, from a larger perspective. She has learned to recognize more quickly when her cognitions are distorted, and has not engaged in any self-harming behaviors since starting therapy. She rarely thinks about hurting herself, and practices healthy ways to regulate her emotions such as writing in her journal, talking to friends, and exercising. Additionally, she is able to find humor in situations that would have caused a lot of mental anguish for her in the past. In therapy, we continue to work on acknowledging all of the things that Elizabeth can appreciate about herself as a person rather than focusing on her skills and accomplishments.
Since we are human, it’s impossible to be perfect. Many people struggle with the desire to be perfect and will go to many lengths to try to achieve this goal. Often, this anxiety about being imperfect manifests as extremely negative self-image, self-destructive behaviors, or even Body Dysmorphic Disorder, wherein a person’s perception of their physical appearance, or a particular body part, is very distorted. These distortions then negatively impact a person’s self-esteem, interactions with others, and overall quality of life. If we feel ashamed of how we look or who we are, we are too distracted to participate and enjoy life, and often we will emotionally withdraw and isolate to feel safer, or self-medicate with unhealthy behaviors.
In my clinical experience, I’ve found what both Jamie and Elizabeth said to be true: creating a mandala helps challenge mental distortions in a visible way, and allows for more acceptance of imperfections. Inevitably the mandala won’t be perfectly symmetrical, even when using measuring tools and stencils. However, when the a client can see the design as a whole, rather than focusing on minute individual parts, he or she finally realizes that something can be spectacular without being perfect. And of course, this message can then be generalized to every human being, including one’s personality, physical appearance, and way of being in the world. When we can learn to accept all parts of ourselves including the parts we see as “imperfect,” then we feel more at peace with ourselves, we are better able to connect with others since we don’t feel the need to hide, and we don’t want to engage in self-destructive behaviors. Instead, we want to engage fully in life. We can let our spirit shine and let others see that we are unique and amazing exactly as we are.
~ This blog was contributed by Stacey Rempert, one of the therapists at Blake Psychotherapy & Associates. You can learn more about Ms. Rempert by clicking here.