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Growing towards our potential: trees of life

Jung believed that the tree symbolised the urge in each of us to grow and fulfill our potential, our wholeness.

This plays out time and time again as I facilitate tree of life art therapy sessions. It’s a simple activity where participants are invited to “paint themselves as a tree”. Usually there is little other instruction given at the start – so to invite everyone’s own unique response to emerge on the canvas.

What never ceases to amaze me is the wealth of creativity adults find when only moments before having exclaimed, “but I’m not creative!”.

I work from a humanistic approach and rather than tell people what their trees indicate, I support them to explore the different features and elements as signposts to their own innate wisdom. What is so wondrous about the experience is the never-ending insights people find within their trees or parts thereof.

Often people discover aspects of their growth that relate to safety, choice/control, positive identity, connectedness, hope, meaning/purpose or present-ness.

A middle-aged woman who had moved recently to a new town was feeling lonely, vulnerable and unsure. In her painting she created a path between a forest of trees. At one point she wasn’t satisfied with it, then after gaining some distance discovered what she needed to do to finish it. She embellished the path and the trees towards the back of the path. When she put her brush down she exclaimed “I realise I am on a journey right now, it’s ok I am not completely settled, I can see that I am doing what is needed, I’m applying for jobs and things will be ok”. She left the session beaming from ear to ear saying she had never painted anything she loved so much. By reflecting on her forest of trees, she found she had a sense of control of her destiny and there was a sense of hope that hadn’t existed in her life earlier.

At a large group session, a male parent that had never painted, leapt to the task, then got a bit stuck. He called me over to ask, “so I can paint whatever I like?”. My answer was simple, yes. With that he sprung back to the task and created an amazing flourishing tree that he was part of. Through the process he found in allowing himself choices, his level of engagement and sense of purpose escalated.

More recently an elderly woman didn’t know where to begin so I invited her to start wherever it felt right to do so. She began with the sky then quickly discovered how her tree needed be positioned to reach towards the sky. As I asked her to tell me about her tree, she became teary and recounted how she had recently lost her twin sister. She could see that she was reaching towards the sky and it was now time to go on growing without her sister. That she could do so and that her sister was with her in spirit supporting this. Her renewed sense of connection to herself and her twin was palpable.

More recently, a middle aged woman painted a tree with wispy foliage, tangled roots and a firm border at the bottom. She explained that her childhood had been chaotic and stifling as evidenced in the roots, but she could see herself growing ever freer of this past, secure within the border her foliage was exactly how she felt her life had become of late, open and free.

Growing towards a better version of ourselves is critical and benefits not only us as individuals but the 298 interactions we have each day and the communities we live and work in. Supporting people to take an active role in creating their wellbeing and living well is a key feature of my art therapy practice.

Katherine Winlaw is a registered art therapist and offers one-on-one or group sessions. She is currently running workshops in a range of Moreton Bay Regional Council Libraries that are free to the public – although registration is required as the spaces are limited and fill up quickly.



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