A Question of Identity (Dr. Susan Ridley)

The answers to the fundamental questions of identity, meaning and purpose are essential components of psychological well-being and determining factors in the formation of coping skills and resiliency to life’s challenges. It is within this spiritual dimension [looking beyond self] that one is able to define values that include a concept of justice, respect for human rights and caring for the wellness of others (Ryś, 2009). Identity and integrity have as much to do with shadows and limits, wounds and fears, as with strengths and potentials (Palmer, 1998). It is only from a sense of continuing truths that we can draw the courage for change, even for the constant, day-to-day changes of growth and aging (Bateson, 1994). Expressive arts can be used as a tool to bridge the ethereal, philosophical world of spirituality and clarifying one’s identity which may result in beneficial effects on health and well-being, a reduction in both psychological and physical stressors, increased quality of life and fulfillment of one’s potential and purpose in life.

Site and Sample Selection
The Mirror Project was initiated to investigate the question of identity for parents and teens living in a community in Northern New Jersey. There was an open call inviting participants to join the project through open-enrollment which included but was not limited to email blasts, HSA/PTA meetings, print and internet advertisements. Participation in this project was voluntary, and participants could withdraw at any time, for any reason and without question. The study was divided into three research stages (a) expressive arts therapy groups that decorated mirrors around the question of identity, (b) an exhibition of the mirrors open to the general public, and (c) a high school freshman exhibition that highlighted specific mirrors.

Expressive Arts Therapy Group
At the beginning of the expressive arts therapy groups, an open-discussion was facilitated around the topic of identity and self-image. Participants were then encouraged to decorate a mirror while reflecting on the question, “Who am I?” These reflections included words, images and symbols. Once the mirrors were completed, participants were encouraged to share their reflections with the group and complete a post-session survey regarding their experiences during the creative process. Participants were also asked to reflect on the mirrors created during the expressive arts therapy group and to identify, if any, that resonated with them. The survey consisted of five questions; three quantitative question and two qualitative questions. The survey also included demographic information; gender, age, race or ethnicity. Three expressive arts groups were organized and included (a) parents and children, (b) middle school students, and (c) high school students. Anonymity and confidentiality was maintained throughout the process; surveys were completed with no identifying information and mirrors exhibited with no names attached.

Exhibition of Mirrors to the General Public
The mirrors were then exhibited to the general public. Often what the artist intent is not necessarily what the viewer sees. The researcher was interested in comparing and contrasting perceptions between the two groups; expressive arts therapy group and the exhibition audience. Participants were asked to reflect on the mirrors in the exhibition and to identify which, if any, that resonated with them. The survey consisted of four questions; one quantitative question and three qualitative questions. No personal identification was on the survey which collected demographic information; gender, age, race or ethnicity.<

High School Freshman Exhibition
The mirrors were then put on exhibition for one day at a high school in Northern New Jersey. During health class, freshman students toured the exhibition and were asked to reflect on specific mirrors in the exhibition and to describe what they saw when they looked into a mirror. The survey consisted of ten questions; two quantitative question and eight qualitative questions, and demographic information on gender was requested.

Data from the Mirror Project, the Exhibition survey and High School Freshman survey was aggregated to look at themes and values associated with the participants sense of identity. The purpose of this study was to see if mirrors could be used as a therapeutic tool and a meta-physical bridge to one’s inner consciousness. Revealing or clarifying ones identity is linked to values, decision-making and the ability to make positive meaning out of negative experiences.

Although participants in the expressive arts therapy group had mixed feelings regarding the process of reflection and (re)discovering something new about themselves, 94% of participants viewing the exhibition found that reflecting on the question of identity in the exhibition helpful. Thirty-nine per cent of all participants in the expressive arts therapy group did not feel that any of the mirrors resonated with them (except their own), while 98% of those viewing the mirrors found connections to the images and/or words on display. The results indicated that although the value of using mirrors as a therapeutic tool was limited for those in the expressive arts therapy intervention group, those viewing the exhibition found them to be a useful bridge, and an opportunity to reflect on identity and connect with others.

Often what an artist creates is not necessarily what others see, so it was interesting to note the diverse responses by freshman high school students to specific mirrors. The comments that were elicited from the survey process indicated that students resonated with the mirrors on display. The data indicated that connections were made between students on sensitive issues, concerns, and question of identity, and that students took the opportunity to reflect on their own identity, values, meaning and purpose of life. For both the public exhibition and high school freshman exhibition, the majority of participants saw only their own reflection, thoughts, and ideas as they looked into the mirror. This moment of clarity was an opportunity to pause in the busy activities of daily life, and to reflect on ones identity.

Conference Presentations
Ridley, Susan (2014). Pilot Study: A reflection of identity. Paper presented at the International Conference on Education in Hawaii, HI.

Wellik, J., Kaemek, F., Ridley, S., Pinney, K, and Young, A. (2013). Phoetry: Telling stories and thriving with poetry and pictures. Panel presentation at the Survive and Thrive Medical Humanities Conference in Minnesota, MN.

Ridley, Susan (2013). Reflections in a broken mirror: An arts-based research. Paper presented at the International Art Therapy Conference in London, UK.

Ridley, Susan (2011). Pilot study: A reflection of identity. Paper presented at the Canadian Art Therapy Association Conference in Ontario, Canada.

Ridley, Susan (2011). Pilot study: A reflection of identity. Poster presented at the American Psychological Association Conference in Washington, DC.

Ridley, Susan (2009). Expressive arts: A spiritual connection. Paper presented at the Arts in Prevention Conference in New Jersey.

Ridley, Susan (2006). Creative approaches to wellness. Paper presented at the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (NJPRA) Conference in New Jersey.

Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Ryś, E. (2009). The sense of life as a subjective spiritual human experience. Existential Analysis, 20(1), 50-68. Retrieved from http://www.existentialanalysis.co.uk/page22.html