Art Therapy Perspectives 

An Interview Series with Expressive Arts Therapist Nicki Koethner, MA, MFT: Part-Two

Nicki Koethner, MA, MFT is the founder of Express-Explore-Expand.  She is licensed Expressive Arts Psychotherapist, Multimedia-artist, Expressive Arts consultant and a mystic who guides people through transitions and transforming trauma into empowerment.  She has a private practice in Oakland for individuals, couples, children and families in English and German, and facilitates rituals and ceremonies. She is a community organizer for the Northern California Dance Collective and Terra’s Temple. In addition, Nicki is on the Board of Body Tales.

I met Nicki through a group for expressive arts therapists on Linkedin. I was pleased when she agreed to be interviewed, as I thought it would be great to have a perspective on the related, but different, field of expressive arts therapy. Nicki works from a multi-modal approach, and uses the whole body through dance, drama, etc. Later in the series Nicki will discuss more about her approach, various challenges she has faced in the field, and inspiration.

This is part-two of a two part series with Nicki. For part-one in the series, click here.

How would you describe your style or approach as an expressive arts therapist?
My motto and the name of my business is Express-Explore-Expand. I'm honored to facilitate people's self-acceptance, growth, and living in their truth, i.e. crystallizing their essence and authenticity to live a more spontaneous and joyous life. I support people in major life transitions and managing the stress of everyday life. While pain and all emotions are part of being human, suffering can be minimized by allowing all that is inside of us to emerge (to be expressed), to be curious about it (to explore it) and find meaning, wisdom and acceptance in our experiences which allow us to have more choices and a greater repertoire of responses (expansion).

The process of Express-Explore-Expand, an inquiry into your soul, is guided by the following questions: 1) What wants to be understood? 2) What wants to be released? 3) What wants to emerge? Having a non-judgmental witness and guide in this process answers the need of people to be witnessed in their stories, move beyond stuck patterns and trauma and old wounds into empowerment.  It supports the integration of fragmented parts of our soul.

Expressive Arts Therapy invites clients to access non-verbal parts of themselves and engages the imaginal realm which essentially activates people’s resources to heal trauma and other imbalances that keep them in stuck patterns and identified with stories that are limiting.  I often use somatic inquiry as an entry point into deeper exploration of what is currently present in people’s bodies to see what wants to be understood and expressed.  From there I invite people to draw, move their bodies, write, breathe or make sounds to explore the sensations further and invite curiosity rather than attaching meaning to what messages they are receiving about themselves or a particular issue they might be working with.  Depending on the client and the moment, we might use the drawing, the sound or movement to explore contrasting experiences (such as contraction and expansion as expressed in the body), reflect and integrate the process to gain deeper consciousness through writing or talking or just allow the emotions such as grief to come forth. This process supports the expression and also the expansion to take place because it works with the inherent resources the client has but might be cut off from.  Role-plays, using puppets, sandtray, storytelling, as well as, working with images and music are other processes that clients engage in.

I also offer sacred mask making expressive arts workshops to connect people with archetypal universal energies and hidden parts of their soul.

Nicki invites you to find out more about her work in this interview describing her approach to Expressive Arts Therapy, in particular Mask-Making. And for more info regarding her underlying philosophy visit this article about free expression dance entitled, How do I enter the dance? 

What are struggles or challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
The struggles/challenges in my career reflect aspects that I had to overcome in general in my life.  One of the biggest challenges was to trust my own intuition, own voice and perceptions while being trained and still being receptive to the feedback of others.  Now, I’m much more comfortable in listening to my own intuition guiding clients to deeply listen to themselves.

Throughout my internships there were some contexts that were more challenging to work in than others. In some, I had a dual role that made it more challenging to develop a therapeutic alliance with clients.  In my internship with teenagers with severe trauma backgrounds in East Oakland, I experienced mild vicarious trauma due to the lack of support and containment of the overall agency and tensions in the team while I had supervisors that were competent and helpful.  After I left the agency and returned to my work in the jail, I saw the value of the structure of the jail (which I didn’t always appreciated while I was there) that supported our work as Theater for Change Facilitator with individuals that have experienced multiple traumas in their lives.  This experience encouraged me again to really focus on self-care, engage in my own art and also made me realize how important a strong container is for the healing of trauma.

I often would go for walks after working with the teenagers to process and digest their experiences and our interactions.  One day, I went home and wanted to do sitting meditation instead.  While I was trying to just sit still and had a hard time doing so, I saw the djembe drum that I had borrowed from a friend.  I started playing the drum without much training or skills just letting my hands respond to the sound of the drum and allowing various rhythms to emerge while also making sounds with my voice till I felt complete. I noticed a dramatic shift throughout my whole body. I felt less tense, lighter and clearer. This experience showed me the value of deeply listening to the needs of the moment rather than following a prescribed program and also the power of using both sides of the brain through the movement of the hands and sounding.

I had to do both of my licensing exams twice, failing them by one and two points.  While I would have preferred to pass them the first time around, both times, I wasn’t devastated by it, which showed me that I had progressed in my own healing.  I didn’t think that the tests really tested my abilities as a therapist but actually tested whether or not I’m a good test taker.  However, not passing the tests motivated me to ask deeper questions regarding healing and transformation again and highlighted the contrast between my expressive arts training and some of the standardized accepted models that were tested in the exam. This contrast was also sometimes highlighted with supervisors that had a different background and weren’t comfortable with the use of expressive arts in psychotherapy.  Both experiences eventually helped me in understanding on a deeper level what I appreciate about the expressive arts, (its value of integrating both hemispheres of the brain and addressing different ways of learning and being in the world) and how important and valuable it is to be congruent within myself to be an effective therapist.

I have made mixed experiences in terms of the acceptance of expressive arts therapy by people who are not in the field. Some people highly value its effectiveness, understand its value and others don’t understand it and it leaves them skeptical. Yet I have seen that more people gravitate towards it nowadays while the mainstream still doesn’t acknowledge it fully as evidenced by lack of insurance coverage.

And for more of my interview with Nicki, check back later in the week for the final installment of the series.

Originally posted December 12, 2012