Become an Artist of Your Life: How Girls Discover, Honor and Express Themselves Through the Arts

In working with adolescent girls I often hear them speak about the high level of stress, pressure and overwhelm they are facing during a pivotal time in their development. Girls are overwhelmed by the expectations of others as well as by the expectations they have internalized. They are narrowly focused on investing in their appearance, being accepted by their peers and achieving success. Expectations, peer pressure and the lack of a meaningful direction increase the probability that girls will sacrifice what is personally important to them.

I have found that many girls do not have the time or the support to feel their emotions or process their experiences. Empowering girls to connect to their internal world can help them remain focused on what is most important to each one of them and discover their own way in the midst all the expectations and pressures. Girls need guidance to step into the internal world in order discover who they are at their core and to locate the inherent wisdom that is available to them at all times. Encouraging girls to take time to explore, discover and reflect on who they are in the present moment and who they are becoming provides them with authentic and meaningful direction. It is also important for girls to be given the chance to get to know themselves and to access their own internal compass, so they can navigate the challenges, transitions and many questions that naturally arise during their adolescence.

Self exploration and expression through the arts such as movement/dance and drawing is an effective and powerful way to express what is going on inside of us and make it visible on the outside. Improvisational movement or the act of creating and reflecting on an image allows us to get in touch with our inner self and helps us communicate our thoughts and feelings. Using various art mediums that allow us to access intuition, expand self-awareness and expression is especially important for adolescent girls. Parents often hear their daughters say, “ I don’t want to talk about it.” This can leave them without internal or external guidance. Expressive Arts provides girls with opportunities to express what they are often reluctant to share and what they may not even have language for.

The Tamalpa Life/Art Process or TLAP is “a movement-based expressive arts approach that integrates movement/dance, visual arts, performance techniques and therapeutic practices” (Tamalpa Institute, 2011). The method was developed by Anna Halprin and her daughter Daria Halprin. The intention of the TLAP is to develop awareness, creativity and embodied (giving tangible, bodily or visible form to an idea, quality or feeling) expression. In my Life Coaching practice I offer girls, individually and in groups, opportunities for personal growth, exploration and embodied expression using the TLAP. The process helps girls bridge their internal experiences with the external world. Girls are able to chart and reflect on their life journey as they experience it, helping them see and understand where they have been and how far they have come. One 14-year-old client reflected on her expressive arts coaching session and shared, “Life is like a big, long colorful flag that flies past you all the time. This (TLAP) allows me to pin down parts of the flag so I can see what is really happening.” My intentions for working with adolescent girls are to assist them in increasing self-awareness and confidence, gain communication skills, access their intuition and ultimately help them become leaders of their own lives. In my groups and with individual clients I have witnessed that when girls express themselves authentically and artistically they tap into their true nature and make life-enhancing choices that are in alignment with their own inner truth.  One 13 year old shared at the end of an expressive arts group series, “As a result of participating in this group I have more value for myself and I have made more time for myself to do things I love, like painting and taking long walks alone. I learned that I know myself best. I see myself for who I really am and I do not care as much about what other people think of me or what they want me to do. I see myself from a different perspective and now I try to be completely myself.”

In the expressive arts groups and sessions I facilitate, I use a few of the methods in TLAP: the Three Levels of Awareness and Response (Halprin, 2003, p. 104) and the Psyhcokinetic Imagery Process (Halprin, 2003, p. 130). I use the Three Levels of Awareness and Response to assist girls to check-in with themselves in the present moment on all three levels: physical, emotional, mental/imaginal. I lead girls through this check-in by having them explore and express how they are in each level. This allows for interplay between body, feeling and imagination. I encourage them to respond to what emerges using the Psychokinetic Imagery Process: through movement, creative writing and or drawing. Each medium activates one or all three levels or realms of the self- the physical, emotional and/or mental. This allows for their subconscious or their inner knowing to respond along with the more logical and linear part of themselves.

The foundational theme of my work with girls is self-awareness. The Three Levels of Awareness and Response supports girls in gaining the ability to track and connect to themselves, which leads to an expanded awareness of the self. I typically introduce the concept of self-awareness through this process during the first session of a series. I begin by educating the girls about awareness. I explain,” When you check-in and become more aware of yourself it helps you better understand what is happening inside of you. When you become more aware of your body, feelings and thoughts it can enhance your ability to track and express yourself authentically. Awareness helps you become a confident leader of your own life. Most of the time we are not that aware of what is happening within us …” I have the girls check into one level at a time using the breath as a doorway into themselves. I guide them to ask themselves “How am I physically or mentally or emotionally right now?’  I give them a few minutes to allow for whatever wants to emerge to surface into their awareness. I then ask them reflect on what they notice and respond to the question through drawing. I encourage them not to answer the question but to rather explore and express the question through drawing. Once they finish their image I ask them to give their drawing a simple title. The title can be an entry point or help further an exploration of the image’s meaning and or message. I go through the same sequence for all three levels. At the end of the check-in each girl has three-titled images- one for each level.

Near the end of the session we gather together in a circle on the floor and have a “group gallery”. Each girl shares her three drawings without analyzing or interpreting them. I use The Three Levels of Awareness and Response communication model as a structure to help them say what they see, feel and imagine as they view their drawings. I also use this model in combination with the Psychokinetic Imagery Model (Halprin, 2003) to invite a further exploration of the image in which I then invite each girl to do a movement response to the one image that is most potent for her. They take a turn standing in front of their witnesses and chosen image. As they look at their drawing I ask them to choose a “key”: a shape, color, symbol, line or texture from their drawing. Once they have chosen their key I invite them to move as if they were the key. They then bring their movement response to closure with a posture or gesture, creating a sculpture with their body. Then I ask,  “If this posture could speak what would it say?” Responding to their image through movement and voice allows them to further embody their experience.

Finally I coach the witnesses to use the communication model “I see, I feel, I imagine” to provide aesthetic feedback to the mover (this communication model develops out of the Three Levels of Awareness).  Each girl gets a chance to be seen and heard and has the opportunity to experience herself in different ways. When they are in the role of being a witness they have the opportunity to practice this form of communication that is non-judgmental, authentic and engages the heart, mind and imagination. The feedback   provides information to the mover about herself that she may not have been aware of previously. When girls stay interested in what emerges through their creative expression it helps them establish new ways of thinking and being that is in alignment with their inner knowing.

Integrating the TLAP into my Life Coaching practice has assisted girls in cultivating and developing their ability to creatively express their thoughts, feeling and dreams along with their experiences and perception of themselves and the world.  In this way girls are able to increase their awareness, connect to themselves, develop an embodied sense of self and authentically share their experiences with others. I witness girls discover who they are and who they are becoming as they blossom into young women who value personal exploration, expression and reflection. The girls who come to my practice are learning to honor themselves, stay true to what is most important to them and become leaders of their own lives.

Halprin, D. (2003). The expressive body in life, art and therapy: Working with movement, metaphor, and meaning. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Tamalpa Institute, (2011.). About Tamalpa. Retrieved from

© 2015 Charlotte James