On the Strength of Conviction V.S. the Power of Flexibility
20th Jul 2012Posted in: Blog 0
On the Strength of Conviction V.S. the Power of Flexibility
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We all think we are right. Or at least i think that is true. Little children think they should eat whatever they want and cross the street at busy intersections while looking up at the stars. Police men and women think that the law must be upheld and that they are on the right side of it when they beat or detain us. Each one of us has felt right at some time or other about something or other. With conviction we stick to our guns and we are sometimes ''proven'' to have been correct in that particular instance about a particular thing. We may be "proven" correct by others who validate our convictions and this is correctness is absolute, even though it is intersubjective. We may be "proven" correct by circumstances which unfold as we expected them to, confirming that our position was just. This is why we say "time will tell..." The strength of conviction is so-called because we hold on to our beliefs in spite of adversity, even though people take up positions contrary to our own. We persevere in our beliefs beyond mere belief and we enter the world of conviction where we become utterly convinced of what it is that we previously had only believed. Conviction is nearly immutable and  impervious to outside influence. It is the sand of belief compressed into the rock of conviction. It withstands the judgement of others, often growing stronger in spite of it, holding fast, even in the face of contrary evidence. We take conviction  for granted and i may have painted it a scoundrel but it takes a lot of courage to hold on to what we believe when there are others expressing discord. There are very real consequences for going against the grain of dominant discourse and social norms so i want to go on record and give Kudo's to those of conviction. John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, you know the usual cast of characters.

At least i like to think so...


In the other corner, weighing in at just under no weight at all, hailing from the ability to change and bounce back in the home town of the power of flexibility. Though it is often misconceived of as weak or worse "feminine", flexibility is power too because it brings balance to the overwhelming weight of conviction. It enables us to accept difference, accommodate and integrate change into our otherwise rigid views. Flexibility allows for someone else to have the more adaptive point of view and it permits us to integrate that view point into our own. The process or psychological trait of flexibility allows us to adapt, grow and learn. Flexibility allows for multiple views to be correct either individually or simultaneously even though they may seem to be at opposite ends in an argument. Flexibility allows two warring people to find peace, empowering them how to move around conflicts towards creative alternatives. Someone once said that what does not bend must break. Those of conviction throughout history have repeatedly been put to the test and faced complete destruction by more powerful and opposite truths. Just imagine where we would be without flexibility's wider more inclusive stance.

In art therapy, the exchange between client, art and therapist will typically take place along a continuum of conviction versus flexibility. The creative process will in the same moment reinforce one, the other or both. When the creative process supports our convictions, we observe in our art, exactly what we expected to find. When the creative process is reinforcing flexibility, we find new things in our work. The exclamation: "but i can't draw!" can be evidence of defensive conviction.  Underlying negative automatic thoughts such as "i won't succeed" or "i am not capable of creativity" can initially be observed in the early stages of creative process in art therapy. These negative automatic thoughts may be difficult to circumvent, even with the help of an experienced art therapist. Yet, they must be extinguished or at least attenuated in the interests of fostering creative potential in our clients. In this particular instance, the strength of conviction is a force to be reckoned with - to be checked and gently challenged. The proclamation: "but i will give it a try" is a tell tale sign of the kind of flexibility inherent to resiliency. This is the resiliency which i am most ardently attending to as an art therapist. If i find it, I make every effort to see to it's amplification. When a client says: "but i will give it a try" there seems to be a bouncing back against the initial fears inherent to exposing ones vulnerabilities to a potential judgement from others. We are never more vulnerable than when we are creating and it is common to encounter a high level of defensive conviction around making art in a therapeutic setting. The common misconception is that the art therapist is bringing to bear some sort of judgement upon the art. Of course an art therapist never judges the creative process in the way that many seem to fear they might but still that fear persists and it is one of the first things that might need to be worked through in session.

The fear of exposing one's most vulnerable self serves to fuel a fundamental prejudice which many potential  consumers of mental health care may have against art therapy as a treatment modality. Talk therapy is somehow less threatening because we have had training in how to use verbal skills to defend ourselves. It is much easier to lie through verbal processes than it is through non verbal, visual means. This is why we can sometimes hear it said that "the body never lies". This is also why people who are keeping important secrets never write anything down which could incriminate them. Verbal processes are to the economy of expression as cash is to the economy of a nation. Very powerful and  difficult to trace. Defense mechanisms like rationalization, intellectualization and denial simply can not function without verbal means at first. If verbal means fail at producing an adequate defense, then we may develop psychosomatic symptoms of those mehchanisms. There is a wonderful CBC documentary entitled : "the truth about liars" which you can find here:

The universal fear of exposing one's most vulnerable self sadly seems to bolster the strength of many a misplaced conviction. The more afraid we are, the more conviction we seem to have. This is a positive correlation. Flexibility and Conviction however may be inversely correlated cognitive traits such that an increase in one brings about a decrease in the other. The conviction that others are wrong is the kind of conviction which sometimes seeks to cover a fear of exposure. The conviction that there is a god and only one god and that this god is known to us personally and that everything this god says is true and that all those who don't believe it are condemned is a form of religious conviction which is primarily based in fear. Fear of dying, fear of annihilation, fear of living with one's beliefs alone without the validation from others, fear of the state of being sentient and having to accept responsibility for the consequences of our actions. There is a lot to be afraid of when you think about it. Freud got it right with the idea that we are driven primarily by fear and/or love even though it seems a little binary now that i think of it. Flexibility may yet save the day with its ability to consider other possibilities. Flexibility may find that we need not fear nor hate those who think differently from ourselves. Fear creates the following sequence of events: confusion from not having control, anxiety from being uncertain as to what one should do, frustration from repeated attempts to deal with the fear, anger at the externalized threat and ultimately violence in war as we seek to annihilate the perceived  threat to our own survival. If flexibility is practiced artfully however, we might avoid these things.

Children have notoriously little fear of art and the creative process because up to till just around the beginning of school, say 3-4 years of age, they have very little expectation about what art is supposed to be. Because art making is inherently pleasurable to the majority of children, the doing is good enough and anything which results from the doing, such as the final product is just an added bonus. Everything which results from the doing seems to actually be regarded with an open, albeit highly projective mind which is seeking the thrill of adventure in novel discovery. Around school age, children are exposed to the beliefs of others. When the beliefs of teachers, and all the children in the group come together, conviction emerges. Conviction moves a step past belief because it assumes that a belief is proven true beyond refutation. Conviction becomes necessary when belief is challenged repeatedly. Belief is just belief because you can be made to un-believe, but conviction is different because it does not change. Conviction can only be either assimilated or annihilated by the convictions of another.  Thus one child says to the other: "that's not how you draw a tree, all trees have leaves", What can we say to this child's comment? We can only accept it as true, in which case we are convinced or we can reject it, in which case we destroy the child's proposition with : "yes, i can draw a tree and not all trees have leaves". In this case, we have taken our own convictions with us and used them to rebuke the convictions of others. Like two rams, our convictions have knocked heads and arguments ensue. Flexibility would have said: "people draw trees differently. Some have leaves and some do not".

I never knew this kind of tree existed. No wonder we project ourselves into trees!


When an art instructor says : "boys and girls, this is how you draw a house" we see a process of inculcation which will ultimately lead to the pupils being convinced that there is a correct way to draw a house. Yet, flexibility and conviction taken together, teach us that there is both a way to draw a house and no particular way to draw a house. There is a specific and a general, a unique and a universal, a subjective and objective way to everything that we do. Housing flexibility and conviction in the same house, we are better prepared for all that we may be asked to consider.



 At some point in western civilization, every school child seems to have been convinced that a house consists of a square with an isosceles triangle sitting on top and a perfectly centered vertical rectangle sitting in the middle of that square and...oh yeah... don't forget the door knob! Belief is more flexible than conviction because even though it shapes your perception, it is not entirely closed to modification through testing.  Conviction is what happens when we feel an emotionally based need so strongly that we take it as absolute. We install that absolute like a computer program in our brains, we feel compelled to indoctrinate others in its application and that program then runs as a filter for all incoming information and sensation. It is a schema through which other information must pass and be judged.

Even though the outcomes are different, could religion and fascism have the same force of conviction behind them?


What about politics? Where does all that conviction come from and take us?

So far, it seems i am giving the strength of conviction a bad name but i just want to reiterate what i said in my opening paragraphs that it is an integral part of our thinking behind many things we consider to be good qualities. For example, conviction tells us to be kind with others and to not hurt each others feelings. If someone asks why, we don't even struggle to give them an explanation, we simply reply: "well, because it is the right thing to do!" The strength of our conviction tells us that it is morally right to be kind to others because we want them to be kind to us. We have learned this value and we have adopted it as our own and passed it on to our children and that is how the value survives. It has very little science behind it at all, but is rather a simple moral convention which survives through the strength of conviction.  Interestingly, the bibles of most religions instruct followers to be kind to others as well. That very same conviction which prompts us to cry out when we witness "immoral" acts is that conviction which enables us to fight and die in war. Without conviction, war is not possible. As i mentioned earlier, it is flexibility which enables us to avoid war, though we may never entirely avoid conflict.  Conflict seems necessary to growth. All living things including humans must struggle to grow. Unlike other animals though, we have conquered all natural threats. We no longer fear the sun, the rain, the wind or the cold. The light and the dark have been adapted to. We have evolved to a point of near immunity to all predators. We have only one challenge left. It is the same challenge we have always faced : each other. More specifically the challenge has been to live together in peace and harmony. I hold the conviction that we can do this. I hold the conviction that those who take arms are wrong and that those who find peaceful means of resolving conflict are right.

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