Mindful colouring-in for adults is hugely popular. But for some, it may actually lead to rage, frustration or other ‘difficult’ emotions rather than the calm that was hoped for, suggests Rachel Ellison. What are the insights for coach and client of engaging in this or similar processes?

By Rachel Ellison

“Everyone should do something creative – something with their hands. It’s a kind of psychotherapy. It keeps you mentally healthy.”

So believes the award-winning, architecturally inspired silversmith Vicki Ambery-Smith. Her rings, boxes, bridges and broaches can be found in museums, private collections, colleges or on clients’ lapels. Her creative process involves inspiration, sketching and then making; cutting, soldering, filing and finishing.

“I prefer a satin silver finish. It would look factory-made and soulless if it was too machine perfect,” says Ambery-Smith, running her thumb over a blackened edge of metal. “And, in my view, too ego-blokey if it’s too shiny.”

On my way home from her workshop, I thought about the creative bit. I thought about the many office-based leaders, who spend their lives analysing data, leading negotiations, sitting on planes. It’s nearly all ‘head’ stuff. Apart from going to the gym, or walking the dog, many of today’s top executives work hard with their minds, but ignore the potential of their bodies, including their hands, to contribute to their success in high-level jobs.


Creative engagement

Not long after the conversation with Ambery-Smith, I find myself colouring-in a bright red tractor with my three-year-old son, and an orange superhero with my five-year-old. I remember what Vicki had said about her belief in the need for everyone to engage in something creative involving their bodies. In that moment, for me, this means eschewing a quick, not-fully-present-with-my-children, check of the iPhone under the kitchen table. And instead, plunging my right hand into a box of felt-tip pens.

The activity of doing some good old-fashioned colouring-in transported me to my own childhood. A memory of being utterly absorbed. In flow and unaware of time. What a contrast to working life and motherhood, where I am almost constantly thinking ahead. Worrying about reaching home before my childcare hours fall off a cliff, figuring out what’s for dinner, while reading a story and wishing I had a third arm to put on another load of washing.

Without ‘painting’ you an idealised version of my childhood, my summers in suburbia did not resemble any of this. I felt carefree and unpressured. After school time and weekends were about playing cricket, badminton and tennis. About climbing the crab apple tree. Growing a single onion (yes, I did achieve that!), and gazing at cloud formations as they drifted and changed. I remember noticing the gap between an exhale and the taking of my next breath.

How did all that become squeezed out by revision, homework, pressure and speed? First and second jobs, career changes and multiple economic recessions. Through it all, I grew more worldly and built a rich patchwork of experiences. Stints as a cleaning lady in the Middle East, a waitress in London, a journalist working in the UK, Europe and Central Asia, then an executive leadership coach.

When I started work, wholeness was not of much interest to employers. It isn’t always now. However, increasingly, integrated mindful leaders are viewed as assets by companies wanting sustainability, innovation and growth.


A packet of pens

And so to the gap between clients, when I recently meandered through a gift shop and bought a colouring book ‘for adults’. It was called Colouring for Mindfulness. There were lots of natural floral options, shells, wiggly mushrooms and abstracted patterns for those in need of relaxation. ‘Anti-stress art therapy for busy people’: a collection of ‘Indian Summer’ paisley patterns, ‘Colourful Mandalas’ , ‘Colour Me Calm’ and general animal themes involving frogs and elephants.

So I went for it. An experiment. A contrast. My working days are intense, energised and rewarding, but they demand deep listening, analytical input and then a dash back home for bath time. It would be a welcome change to do something artistic that didn’t involve achieving anything, nor having a goal. Just colouring-in and seeing how it went.

As my morning client grappled with the Greek crisis and the afternoon one with how to rehabilitate prisoners, I let myself go over lunchtime with a packet of pens. The physical, colourful, non- intellectual, I thought. Getting out of the cognitive rational and into the subconscious.

What a non-relaxing activity this mindful colouring turned out to be.

Despite the beautiful, elegant drawings on the page, my response was not one of calm and serenity. Instead, my heart started thumping, the adrenalin pumping; I broke out into a sweat and I felt frustrated that I couldn’t seem to stay inside the lines, nor produce anything beautiful.


Knotted emotions

My ‘70 designs to help you de-stress’ had, in fact, transported me to a state of distress. Of knotted emotions.

I was disappointed. Was I out of practice and thus, in fine motor skills terms, did I need to relearn the balance and poise of the pen? How many years have I dedicated to honing skills, other than art? Or are the designs beautiful to behold, but actually too fine to colour in? Is the art already done by the artist, leaving insufficient possibility for self-expression for the purchaser of the colouring pad? Or is there something deeper, about failure? Or failure to relax? Were my physical and emotional responses spot-on indicators of my unconscious calling for attention?

I wonder if, despite my intention to just have fun, I was still hanging on to a goal? An implicit desire to achieve a beautiful picture, and quickly? Is there something about an intention not to waste precious free time? Was I somehow resistant to ending up ‘nowhere’ in particular?

I had envisaged that colouring would be a fun method of ‘releasing patterns’ of thinking and behaving, stimulating alternative neurological pathways of travel. And with that, a vacuum into which grounded, new thinking would be welcomed. Instead, as we now know, my mind was crowded with unkempt confusion, with powerful emotional and physical responses triggered. And yet, at the same time, there was a prompt to enquire deeper and further about what makes me tick.


Time to let go

I wonder if the deeper potential of ‘mindful colouring’ is about reconnecting with our childlike state? With flushing out our ‘dis-ease’ or discomfort which we experience and notice cognitively, emotionally and bodily? Then inviting us to go past the ‘gorgeous geometricals’ and ‘can’t sleep colouring’ (yes, there really is a book for that!) to mindless colouring. Furthering our consciousness of our embedded or subconscious patterns and freeing our minds.

Perhaps it takes time to let go of time. Maybe mindful colouring and other mindful practices are calls to Mastery. Perhaps what we, and our executive clients, need to learn is to travel beyond mindfulness to a higher level of meditative reflection and thinking. To mindlessness. What could be the impact on businesses and leadership if many more did this?

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