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3 Ways To Process Trauma With Art

Art can help victims of emotional abuse and betrayal process their trauma.

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Feeling stuck in betrayal trauma? Learn the 3 ways to process your trauma with art.

Kirsten, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community, rejoins Anne on the free BTR podcast to share how creating art has helped her to express and process the trauma that she endured after betrayal and abuse. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

Why Process My Trauma Through Art?

Emotional abuse and betrayal victims experience a wide range of painful emotions:

  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Terror
  • Loneliness
  • Numbness
  • Sorrow
  • Rage

And even more. These feelings can be overwhelming and difficult to bear if victims are not able to express them in healthy ways.

Further, abuse victims may replay abusive episodes or traumatic moments in their minds over and over, or they may come out in nightmares.

As victims give these feelings and experiences an outlet, they are able to begin the journey to healing.

Ways To Process Trauma With Art: Self-Portraiture

Kirsten shares how she frequently creates self-portraits as a way of expressing her own trauma.

Perfectionism is not required as you process your trauma with art. When victims create self-portraits, they are able to express emotions, particularly traumatic moments in time, and even the physical and sexual pain they may have endured.

Your self-portraits do not need to be professional-grade. Many victims enjoy creating self-portraits through:

  • Photography (using your phone is just fine!)
  • Drawing with pencils and crayons
  • Play-doh or clay
  • Graphic art

Ways To Process Trauma With Art: Symbolism

Perhaps approaching traumatic memories or intense feelings may feel too overwhelming to tackle head-on.

Instead, victims can use symbolism to represent the trauma they are expressing.

Kirsten shares that she uses symbolism regularly in her art; things like wedding rings, a yoke, a dirty nightgown, and even a halo are used to convey the depths of her grief and pain.

Ways To Process Trauma With Art: Use Your Dreams

Many victims experience vivid dreams, nightmares, and night terrors during and after abuse.

If you are struggling to express your trauma through art, try painting, drawing, or collaging your dreams.

When you wake up, jot a few notes about what you dreamt and then use the colors, phrases, and objects that you remember.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Helps You Process Trauma

At BTR, we understand that trauma can feel like drowning, like being lost in a dangerous place, like being completely isolated. We are here to help you process your trauma and ultimately experience the peace and joy that you deserve.

The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets daily in multiple time zones. This support group offers a safe space for victims to talk openly about their feelings, trauma, experiences, and hopes. Join today and find the sisterhood that you need as you work toward safety and healing.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

I have Kirsten back on today’s episode. If you did not hear last week’s episode, please go back and listen there first as we are continuing her conversation today.

Before we get to that, I want to give a shoutout to all of our Betrayal Trauma Recovery group members. Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is our online support group. We have multiple sessions per day in every single time zone. We built it for you. You don’t have to get childcare or set appointments. So, please check out the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group; we’d love to see you in a session today.

Support Betrayal Trauma Recovery

I love reading your reviews online and I appreciate all of you who have taken the time to go to Apple Podcast or your other podcasting apps to rate and review this podcast. Similarly, some of you have recommended us on Facebook, have recommended Trauma Mama Husband Drama, which is my picture book for adults that is available on Amazon. Every single one of your ratings on any platform and in any medium helps isolated women find us, so please take some time today to rate the podcast so that women like us don’t have to go through any more chaos and pain and they can find this free podcast to get the information that they need.

Okay, now back to the conversation with Kirsten.

Process Trauma With Art

Anne: I talked with Kirsten last week about Meatloafing, which is an awesome episode. Kirsten is a member of our community and she is also an incredible artist. I wanted her to come back on to talk about her art and how that has helped her process her trauma and heal from what she has been through.

I had the opportunity to go to her art show with my mother. We spent, I don’t know, maybe 2 hours. I was surprised that we spent so long there because every single painting was so touching to me. I read the descriptions and I just sat and pondered it. We didn’t want to leave, we just wanted to stay there. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had viewing art that really spoke to me and helped me process my own trauma, so I really appreciated it.

How Can You Process Trauma With Art?

Today can you talk about your art and what it means to you and how it’s helped you?

Kirsten: Sure. So, sometimes we think, “I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know what was happening to me, I have all of this trauma stored up in me and I didn’t know how to process it,” but the human mind is incredibly flexible and very able to defend itself against trauma in any way that it can. For me, a way that I didn’t realize I was doing that before I even found out anything that was happening in my marriage, was through art. I was processing the things that were happening in my life through art. I initially had gone to school to be a children’s illustrator. That’s what I thought I wanted to do, and I love that still, but I kept finding myself being drawn to doing a lot of really angsty and introspective self-portraits. I laugh sometimes because I think, “Gosh, what am I, a narcissist?” You know that word gets thrown around a lot and I just keep painting myself over and over and over again.

Use Female Artists As Inspiration To Process Trauma With Art

I don’t know if you know anything about the artist Frida Kahlo, but she did a lot of self-processing through her art as well. A lot of self-portraits, and I don’t know if I would say that I’m as amazing as she was but she’s kind of my guide as far as just going ahead and doing what your heart tells you to do as an artist.

The first self-portrait that I did was right after my first divorce from my 18-month marriage, and it was surprising to me how cathartic it was to paint the feelings I was feeling and get them out onto this canvas, and that continued through my entire getting married again, being a young mother, and through a very toxic marriage. I would do these self-portraits, usually, I would have a dream and the image would be in my head when I woke up. So, then I would go through the process of doing sketches and taking pictures and preparing the work and then making it, and I would always feel better afterward. I didn’t really realize what I was doing. Now looking back and having had so much education in therapeutic modalities, especially somatic work which I am very passionate about. I’m learning more about trauma and what it does to the body and the brain. I realize that I was releasing a lot of trauma into my paintings.

Process Nightmare Trauma With Art By Expressing Your Feelings On Paper

In fact, sometimes I laugh and call my paintings Horcruxes because I feel like I’ve cut a piece of my soul out and put it into the painting, but usually, things that I leave in the painting are things that are good to be leaving. So, it’s just a really important way for me to journal my life, to express my feelings, and to get something out of my soul.

Anne: I’d like to talk about a couple of specific pieces if you don’t mind? One of them is this incredible painting of you in a nightgown with a halo in a dirty bathroom, and I really wanted to talk to you about this because I have had so many dirty bathroom dreams. Where I’m in like a stall, the toilet is overflowing, there is dirty water on the ground, the sink is overflowing, and it’s just disgusting, and I have to figure out how to go to the bathroom in there. This is a recurring dream that I have had repeatedly and when I saw this painting, I was like this is straight out of my dream, and I don’t know if this was one that you had a dream about as well? There is also, for our listeners at home we won’t show a picture of it, but there is also a chicken in it and a candle.

Share Your Pain Through Art

Kirsten: So, this was the first painting that I did after I heard all the things that had been happening in my marriage for 17 years. I had read online a call for entry to a show in which they were asking people to do theme-specific artwork and it was for a gallery that was in L.A. and the name of the show was called Water Lines. They wanted women artists to do work about water and its effect on their lives. I had never entered a show that wasn’t local. I wanted to be brave. I kind of had my fists up in a fighting mode after finding out all of these awful things.

So, I was thinking about what I could do for the show if I was going to enter it, and I had a dream that night that I was in an old dirty, and for me, it wasn’t a bathroom it was an abandoned psychiatric hospital like from a horror movie. You know, with broken tiles and the old school look of the industrials from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and drains and yucky dirty water everywhere, and that I was covered in mud with the lines from floods. You know when there is a flood it leaves a line of debris on the building or the edge of the creek or something. When it floods it leaves these lines, and each line progressively went up as it was representing different traumas that I’d been through in my life. It was as if I was there, you know. The image already existed. It had been created if you will spiritually in my head that night.

Portraying Betrayal Through Symbolic Art

So, I got up the next morning and I ran to the thrift store and I found a nightgown and I went outside and started dumping myself in mud so that I could take photos to draw from for this painting. Just the process of actually preparing the reference photos, of getting this nightgown muddy, getting my arms muddy, and taking the pictures was incredibly important to me. If anybody had filmed it, it would be considered a piece of performance art that went along with the painting, but it was a private experience and not something I wanted to be documented for everyone to see.

Process Your Healing Journey Through Art

Then, when I started putting the imagery together, I had to include a chicken because I love chickens and they are my girls. They’re like my spirit animal, and I don’t know why. So, don’t try and ask me to explain it, but she is like my spirit guide. That was one of my hens, Henny. She was in the painting and then I also included a prayer candle like you would find in a Catholic church at the altar. I like to use a lot of old renaissance imagery in my artwork. I just like it. I put a halo around myself because I felt like, not to toot my own horn or anything, but sometimes when you go through really traumatic experiences especially when they last a long time, it changes you and those experiences can be sanctified by your healing. You kind of feel like these old saints. You know, there is a saint for everything in the Catholic church. A saint for moving, a saint for people who drown in water, a saint for being killed by an arrow on the back of a wagon. I mean anything that you can think of, and I’m like I feel like I’m the saint for toxic marriages or something, so that’s why I included that imagery and it just came pouring out of me. I got that painting done really quickly and sent it to the show. I did very well there. I’ve won several awards with it, and it’s just kind of like an icon for me.

Anne: Saint Kirsten.

Kirsten: Yeah, right.

Process Trauma Through Art By Using Symbolism

Anne: It was very, I don’t know if shocking is the right word that I would use for me, but because it just spoke to me so deeply with the imagery that I had experienced in my dreams. It’s interesting that the experience of this type of abuse, the details are all different for every woman, but this feeling of we’ve been almost drowned in someone else’s filth in a place where we should be safe. Like, yours was a psychiatric hospital, that’s a place where someone should be helping you. You know technically, and in a bathroom, it should be somewhere where you feel safe enough to just relax, but instead of that you’re getting someone else’s filth all over you. It is kind of a sanctifying experience.

Kirsten: It leaves marks on you, and those marks don’t go away. They can be transformed, but they don’t go away.

Share Your Trauma Through Art

Anne: The title is called Flood Damaged, and it really looks like that. It is amazing. There were so many great paintings. Every single one I could talk about, especially your Japanese ones where you put yourself back together with gold. What are they called? Kintsugi. Those really spoke to me too, but the second one that I’d really like to focus on is called Unequally Yoked.

So, this is a painting of Kirsten with a yoke and she is yoked on one side.

Kirsten: Yes, I have my neck in one side of the double yoke.

Anne: Okay, and the other one is just empty, and she is pulling this by herself. This one too, well, every one of your paintings just hit me at my core, but this one I spent so much time just observing and thinking about and processing my own things. Can you talk about this one a little bit?

Use Art To Document Your Healing Process

Kirsten: I did this painting, it’s probably my favorite painting that I’ve ever done by the way; it just really speaks to me still, in 2018. I was divorced and just starting to get back into trying to date. It was a vulnerable time for me. There was a lot of heaviness and loneliness at that time, and again I’m not quite sure why this happens but I had a dream about this painting and woke up with the image in my head already. So, I couldn’t find a yoke to make the painting. When I did the reference photos, I put a very heavy beam of wood over my shoulders so that I could get that sense of weight and heaviness.

Express Your Grief Through Art

I just had so much grief over the fact that I’ve had two partners who were supposed to be my forever companion in which that didn’t happen, and not only did it not happen but I carry the brunt of the emotional work. I carried their shame for them instead of letting them do their own work, and now I’m carrying the weight of being a single mom and trying to deal with the damage that’s been done to my children, and I just felt it so heavily. I think that it just needs to come out of this image. In the scriptures, Jesus talks about a yoke, and he says that his yoke is the easiest burden in his life and that if you’ll yoke yourself to him then you can make it through the things in life, but the yoke also notes being tied to something. When you yoke yourself to something, that double yoke of an oxen team, you can’t move unless they are moving, and if they don’t move you have to drag them. So, there were a lot of feelings and symbolism in that for me.

Trauma Conveyed In Art Helps Other Victims Process Pain

Then I put fig leaves around through the background to kind of represent some things that I feel about partnership. That Garden of Eden and that story of creation. I also added a wedding ring in the background. So, I had a ton of feelings come out while I was painting this painting. I actually had this thought several times and put it away because I would just start crying and I couldn’t see the panel I was working on and so I just had to put it away, but I think you can feel that when you look at the painting.

One of the cool things when seeing the artwork in life as opposed to just a picture online is you kind of really feel the feelings that were poured into a piece.

Find Sisterhood With Other Victims of Betrayal And Emotional Abuse

Anne: That is what is incredible about excellent art. Obviously, you painted it and put in the work but it felt like it was painted just for me, and just for all the members of our community who can imagine that feeling of being unequally yoked and then having to carry the burden of the lack of a partner. I really appreciate your art and your talent. So many women have gone through this and they are so incredibly talented, and you are one of those amazing talented women.

Anne: I would really encourage you to go take a look at her artwork, and hopefully it will speak to you as it spoke to me.

So, to conclude, can you talk a little bit about how a community of sisters like the BTR community and the community of sheros that you are connected with online and in real life has helped you to heal?

The BTR Community Can Help You Process Your Trauma

Kirsten: Absolutely. This community, this idea of community and sisterhood, is one of the things, and I’m not exaggerating, that I say actually saved my life and my sanity. It started for me when, I don’t actually know how this happened, I wasn’t looking for it. I was just online and then all of a sudden it was there in front of me. I just consider it tender mercy from God. There was a list of meetings for wives of porn addicts sponsored by my church, and at this time I didn’t actually know whether my then-husband was actually a porn addict or not. I just knew something was wrong, and I drove to that meeting shaking in the blandest clothes I could find.

I sat outside in my car watching people go into this meeting and was absolutely terrified. I don’t know how I made myself go into that room but when I did, I was met with loving compassion because they all knew exactly what I was going through. I didn’t have to say anything or do anything I was just enfolded in love, and from those groups came some of the best and truest friends that I have ever had in my life. They saved me, they walked with me through horrendous things and I’ve been able to be there for them too.

Victims of Betrayal and Abuse Are Not Alone

Through this process, I found a larger community online of other women who have also been through this similar type of thing. I’m finding that it filled so many holes in my heart because I didn’t feel like a freak anymore. I didn’t feel alone. There was at least one woman whose story was so similar to mine that I knew, okay, this isn’t just because of me, this isn’t just because of how broken I am. This is happening to other people too, and it was such a relief to me. Not that you would ever want anybody to go through that like we did, but just to know that it’s not because of you.

BTR Is Here For You

I was part of this community until it transitioned and changed into the BTR community, which I actually ended up leaving for a year or so just because of where I was in my healing process. I didn’t really want to be reminded of being in the thick of trauma at that particular time, but I felt like I had received so much healing in my life from other women who had been there before me. I felt like this was something that I could do, so I was grateful to come back to be back as part of the community actively again, and I’m always so grateful when anything that I’ve gone through can help somebody else because that is part of that sanctifying process that I was talking about earlier where something horrible is turned into something holy.

BTR Adapts To Your Needs

Anne: Yeah, it’s amazing how much our shero community has evolved over the years because that’s how I started out too 10 years ago or however long ago. When we were all really on the how can I support my addict husband train, and we’ve all evolved together to be like, that didn’t work. Like, oh, and he may be an addict, there is no question about that, but for us what we were experiencing the entire time was abuse. We didn’t know that back then, and it’s so nice to come out of the fog and be able to define it and help other women so that they don’t have to go through the 10, 20, 7-year process or however long it was of figuring that out.

Kirsten: Oh, my goodness, and thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of therapy and agony.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Advocates For YOUR Safety

Anne: And the cool thing is because we are all together now and because we’re continuing our healing journey together, we are still evolving. We still don’t know what we don’t know, right. We still are there for each other and when one of us has an epiphany all of us have an epiphany. It’s like oh, why didn’t we think of that before?! So, it’s a really amazing community to be a part of and to see it evolve because our true desire is for safety and truth, and peace. We are evolving to be gentler with each other and more kind and more understanding and yet also fiercer in our boundaries and fiercer in our belief in ourselves and what we deserve and that we are worth it. So, it’s a mix of amazing bravery and also this incredible vulnerability at the same time. To me, it’s the most amazing army of healthy women who can help bring other women out of the fog of abuse.

A Community of Victims Brings Multi-Dimensional Support

Kirsten: Absolutely. You know none of us are perfect. We’re all still learning, and we learn from each other every day. There are so many people that have so many different opinions about everything, but still, we are glued together to try and clear everybody’s mind and come out healed. It can happen and it does happen every day.

Anne: Thank you for sharing parts of your story and some of your talent, especially with your Meatloaf metaphors. You are amazing Kirsten. Thank you so much for coming on today’s episode.

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Many women are interested in books that they can read about this. Here is a curated list of all the books we recommend. So, please go there and check that out. Until next week, stay safe out there.


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