By Susan Winter Fledderus
I recently signed up for something entirely new, for me at least. I joined a pottery class last spring.
I had tried pottery informally during an evening out with a friend, when we did a drop-in workshop and had fun being helped by the instructor to make a little bowl and other ceramic crafts. It whetted my appetite for something creative, hands-on, and completely different from anything else I do.
So I signed up for a 10-week class, excited to begin to learn the craft. With my recent experiences, I felt confident that I’d have a good start to the class, since I’d actually tried throwing on the wheel before (with lots of one-on-one help, of course).
When I arrived at the first class, I learned that I was one of only two new students in a mixed class. Some of the other students were very experienced potters doing advanced training. Watching them throw pot after perfect pot was exciting, and my anticipation grew.
I had to exercise some patience when the instructor let us new potters know that we would not be using the wheel for the first few weeks, but doing some hand-building to get a feel for the clay. While that made sense to me, it was a bit deflating.
We spent the first class learning to wedge the clay to get it to a good consistency for building with, and then making pinch pots from little balls of clay, opening up the balls into some type of bowl shape. I’m afraid mine looked like something a child would make in a Grade 1 project.
The next week we graduated to coil pots: rolling out bands of clay and stacking the coils to make pots, smoothing the outside to create a more finished look. And then, once these beginner pots were bisque fired, we could experiment with adding glazes.
Eventually, we graduated to throwing pots on the wheel. For us inexperienced potters, sometimes the wheel threw the pots right back off at us. The quality of these first pots remained at a level that looked like a grade-school art project. My hands and arms sometimes ached after class as I exercised muscles in new ways.
While I quickly learned that I wasn’t going to be throwing top quality pots in just a few weeks, it was delightful! Not only did I enjoy working with my hands and creating some fun things, I also enjoyed becoming a learner again.
There was something very refreshing about having to start from the beginning to learn something new, to develop a new skill. I felt like I was exercising different parts of my brain and body to do so. It was getting me outside of my comfort zone, taking me to an area I wasn’t competent in. It made me remember the fun aspects of learning new things as a kid.
I recognize that there is a level of privilege in being able to choose to learn a new hobby in this way. Sometimes we don’t have the choice to learn something new, and the experience is quite different. When we are thrown into new, challenging or difficult situations, we are often forced to learn or grow in some way just to survive.
Of course, it is much easier to be open to learning new things when we are not under pressure or stress. And yet, it is often those times when we are under stress that we are forced to do much of our learning.
I notice this when I attend my own therapy, or when I work with clients in my role as therapist. We tend to start therapy when we are distressed about something in our lives, and often therapy involves learning new coping strategies, new ways of looking at our circumstances, new communication skills and ways of relating to others. Therapy supports us in post-traumatic growth and the development of new life skills.
We might feel like we are beginning all over again — back in Grade 1 for emotions; struggling to manage the basic skills of life when others seem to be operating at much more competent levels.
There is sometimes value in returning to the basics, learning coping strategies, or re-learning ones that we haven’t had to use for a long time. These are times when operating on autopilot is no longer working and we need to intentionally practise basic skills of emotional regulation and mindfully direct our thoughts in more helpful ways. Or perhaps we need to ratchet up our healthy bedtime routines and sleep hygiene so we manage our sleep-disrupting stressful circumstances well. It feels like exercising different parts of our brains and bodies to do so, taking us outside of our comfort zone.
But those zones, the ones outside of our comfort zones, are where we often find ourselves stretching and growing the most. And as we do so in the face of our challenges, with appropriate resources and support, we find our skills in these areas increasing, along with our resilience.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network