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  • Writer's pictureJulia Reeve

Collage for Self-Compassion

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

In this blog post I share my experiences of using collage as a vehicle to support reflection, self-awareness and self-compassion. I also include step by step instructions in case you would like to try this mindful and multi-sensory practice at home.

Collage for self-compassion
Hello again everyone. In my teaching I have often observed the way that making things with the hands can offer a mental health boost alongside more tangible learning outcomes such as reflection, communication and critical analysis. Often the most valuable aspect of these sessions, whether using Lego bricks, collage or other materials, is the way that multi-sensory learning unlocks stories that are shared by learners. So, how to harness the positive wellbeing power of tactile learning with no-one to share the story with?

Collage for Self-Compassion

Here I have adapted the self-reflective technique of Swollage (a combination of free-association collage and SWOT analysis) into a tool for the development of individual self-awareness and self-compassion. You can read more about Swollage in this blog post about last year's Playful Learning Conference. The collage activity is also informed by my pedagogic interest in metacognition, plus my personal experiences of using Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to support my own mental wellbeing.

Swollage in action
Swollage in action

Metacognition, or knowledge and awareness of your own thinking, is a key factor in my teaching. I have discovered that visual, tactile activities such as Lego Serious Play and collage are powerful enablers of this process. In Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, mindfulness meditations are used to offer mental training aimed at providing access to inner reserves of calm, and to create a kindly acceptance of our thoughts, enabling us to step back and observe these rather than get tangled up in them. In common with MBCT, my work with learners offers a compassionate space to gain awareness of thoughts and ideas, aided by mediating objects such as Play-Doh, Lego bricks or in this case, collage.

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre has many useful resources, if you would like to find out more about MBCT. There are some excellent audio resources by Professor Mark Williams: I use these regularly myself, and find them invaluable in dealing with anxiety.

This short ‘breathing space’ meditation is a good place to start, and it may be beneficial (although not essential!) to do this before the collage activity in order to create a feeling of calm.

I’ll take you through the process step by step, and would be very interested seeing your own collages if you would like to share on Twitter!


Collage for Self-Compassion process

You will need:

  • Large sheet of paper, ideally at least A3

  • Scissors

  • Glue

  • Post-it notes

  • A variety of magazines, newspapers, flyers – whatever printed material you can find

  • Ideally you will need to set aside a couple of hours for this activity, somewhere you won’t be disturbed (I realise this may not be possible!). Some relaxing music in the background can work well.

1 Set your intention

What would you like to focus on for this activity? Future career goals? Reflection on your key strengths? Or perhaps, like me, you just want to tap into how you’re feeling right now, and gain some self-awareness?

2 Collect images

Cut or rip out images that appeal to you or that you feel a connection with - you may also find yourself drawn to certain words. Try not to overthink this process or search for specific images.

Ripped out pages

Reflection: I found the process of ripping out images quite soothing. I noticed the tactile qualities of different types of paper: glossy magazine pages feeling smooth under my fingers and newsprint feeling more fragile.

On the other hand, it was difficult not to over-think my choices: I tended to spend too long deliberating over which images to choose...tiredness or anxiety can make it hard to 'let go' and just get into Flow.

3 Cut out images

Once you have a pile of paper in front of you, either cut out or tear round your chosen images (or words).

Cut out images

Reflection: This can be quite a calming part of the activity: it feels more restful as there are no decisions to be made. The repetitive actions of cutting out images made my mind a little quieter, while screwing up and discarding the scrap paper helped to relieve tension! I tried not to analyse as I cut out, just focusing on whether edges should be cut or torn, straight or curved...

4 Stick down your images

Arrange your images on a large sheet of paper and stick them down - yours may well look completely different to mine below.

Final collage
Final collage

5 Identify any general themes suggested by your collage: label with post-it notes

Some themes may be fairly obvious, e.g. some of my images suggested holidays and relaxation, while others may surprise you. You may like to photograph your collage plus themes, then group your post-its on another sheet of paper.

Collage with general themes added
Collage with general themes added
Themes from collage

Reflection: I discovered that the general themes I had identified could be divided into three main groups: wellbeing, values and aspirations.

A useful insight that could be developed further: perhaps using this to start planning some concrete goals for the future.

6 Now look a little deeper: identify words suggested by individual images: label with post-it notes as before.

Spend a little more time on this labelling process, and remember that what's important is what the image suggests to you: someone else is likely to have a different interpretation. Again, you may wish to photograph your collage, then put the post-it notes onto another sheet of paper, dividing them into groups.

Collage with words inspired by specific images added
Collage with words inspired by specific images added
Words suggested by collage images

Reflection: The array of associations was more complex this time: I wasn't able to divide these into groups as before. There seemed to be a mixture of aspirations, memories and values here. I did though notice an overall theme coming through: this seemed to be about a need for change or escape - interesting!

7 Finally, if appropriate to your intention, consider any personal attributes, skills or strengths suggested by images within your collage: again, label these as before.

Take some time here and try to look beneath the literal surface of the images: for example, an image of a cake may simply mean that you like cake, but it may also link to attributes such as nurturing others or creativity.

Collage with attributes/skills added
Collage with attributes/skills added

So, how does collage help with self-compassion?

By encouraging a Flow state

The notion of 'Flow' to support greater wellbeing, put forward by Csikszentmihalyi, describes a state where we are completely absorbed by the task at hand, often losing track of time.

Reflection: I found that the repetitive and tactile process of creating and annotating a reflective collage provided moments of flow, giving me a mental break from anxious thoughts, if only briefly.

By reducing over-thinking

Focusing on intuitive and emotional thinking through free-association collage, can help to quieten the logical brain.

Reflection: It was quite liberating to just follow my instincts when choosing images, and although a certain amount of analysis was needed to interpret the collage, I found that the exercise did cut through my tendency to over-think to some extent.

By providing a little distance between ourselves and our thoughts

A little like the technique of naming thoughts used in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), adding a label to the imagery that we have instinctively been drawn to for our collage can help us to gain a little more perspective on our own preoccupations.

Reflection: For me, this was the most useful part of the exercise: in one way it was like being a detective, looking for clues as to what was going on in my rather overwrought brain. In another it was very calming, enabling me to step back slightly from difficult thoughts.

Although the benefits of multi-sensory activities in groups are clear, I found that there was value in following the collage exercises alone, perhaps with the addition of a different type of sharing using social media. Visualising thoughts and ideas via collage can go some way to developing a more compassionate acceptance of who we are and help us to become more self-aware, an important aspect of mental wellbeing.

A student recently described her use of Lego Serious Play at home as a way of "finding out how I'm feeling." Collage can offer us the same opportunity to develop a kindly curiosity about our own thought processes, emotions and aspirations by quite literally pinning (or gluing) them down on paper.


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