Frustration, anxiety, worry, and fear to fail. These were all things I experienced when participating in Zentangle, a form of art therapy that is designed to help you relax, cope, meditate, and focus. Why? Perhaps my worry of making a mistake, my expectations, or my fixation on what the end result should be, hijacked Zentangle’s process
Zentangle is one of the many activities we incorporate into our programming at Neil Kennedy Recovery Centers. We believe providing holistic addiction care, including a variety of activities and program elements is essential to an effective treatment plan. Zentangle is taught as a prevention skill, something the patients can do to help them cope with anxiety, insomnia, and cravings.
I asked to come take pictures of an upcoming class, and Cathy Johnson, our prevention specialist and Certified Zentangle Teacher, invited me to participate. To be honest, I was expecting a fun and relaxing half hour where you draw some lines and listen to calming waterfalls. While this was part of it, Zentangle proved to be challenging to me in ways I did not expect.
It is easy to forget that a lot of the things people in addiction struggle with are things all of us struggle with, just in a different context. One of the key slogans of Zentangle is “There are no mistakes. There are no expectations.” It sounds trivial, but the application of this “rule” is harder than it seems. You are given no eraser and, while you are given instructions, they are not nearly as detailed as many people, including myself, might prefer.
Draw a path
How long? How wide? Straight? Curved? What is the next step? That could alter how I draw this. What is it supposed to look like? How is the person next to me drawing theirs? No answers.
Next, fill in the edges of your path with one of the following designs.
Which design should I choose? It there one better then the other? Is this a test to see which one I pick? Is there a right or wrong answer? Do I do the same design throughout, or use multiple? How small or large do I make these?
Suddenly drawing a few lines and circles just got complicated. Why? Because I was worried about messing up, and I felt lost without knowing exactly where we were going to end up- I struggled between having the expectation of my drawing to be perfect, but at the same time was forced to have no expectation of the final result because I had never done it before. There was no perfect drawing. I clearly did not listen to the rule: There are no mistakes. There are no expectations.
Cathy spoke a lot about perfectionist tendencies, and how that plays out in recovery. Although I am not in recovery, I think I needed to hear this too. Rather than the goal being the end result, Cathy reiterated the goal is the process, what you gain along the way, not what your tile drawing ends up looking like.
She also described how often in recovery people can get stuck on needing to know what is next, or terrified to take a next step because they are afraid of messing up. These fears are faced head-on in Zentangle.
Learning to be confident in the unknown, relax, be mindful, enjoy the present, and view your life as a journey rather than a compilation of mistakes takes a lot of intentionality. This shift in perspective is at the heart of Zentangle, and at the heart of our holistic programming here at Neil Kennedy.
While this was meant to be a day to observe and take photos, I think I left learning just as much, if not more, then the patients did.