In our work as counselors and educators, we find that others are increasingly receptive to conversations about color preferences and interpretations during our interactions. It is as if talking about colors creates an entryway for open dialogue, mutual respect and connectivity and encourages all who are present to express authentic and insightful thoughts and opinions. Moreover, we have noticed that there is a connective alliance between these conversations and the continued, open discussions about understanding personality and issues related to mental health.
This process begins by asking a simple question: “What color or colors do you feel reflect your personality?” The individual or participants almost always pause, smile and then say, “Good question.” This practice of starting the discussion with a nonintrusive question creates a calm, safe space for everyone to become curious and explorative and engage in meaningful dialogue before delving deep into a topic about their mental health concerns.
And the answers to this seemingly simple question can be rather complex. The numerous color mixtures and hues we see — and the myriad ways in which we view colors — invokes meaning in our lives. Regardless of cultural background, influential sport teams, seasons of the year or clothing trends, colors have a way of speaking to the individual as well as the collective.
The power of colors
After witnessing the power of color in a staff training, Bryan Gere and I (Jetaun Bailey) first wrote about the psychology of colors in the 2018 Counseling Today online exclusive, “Identifying colors to create a rainbow of cohesion in the workplace for helping professionals.” Since then, we have incorporated colors into our teaching and counseling activities, including classroom discussions, group presentations and individual client sessions, as a unique way to get to know the student or client in a nonintrusive yet welcoming manner.
Recently, the authors of this article used color psychology to help the participants in a process group rewrite their own narratives by using their favorite color. We asked the participants to reconsider their past experiences through the lens of this color. The goal of this exercise was to help them discover what was preventing them from acting as their true selves in the present and to help them learn to move ahead effectively into the future. According to a 2019 article by Benjamin Hardy in Psychology Today, rewriting one’s present and future narratives requires an investigation of one’s past. A person’s outlook on their past narrative affects their present and future narratives, and in turn, their new outlook on the present and future also changes the significance they place on their past experiences.
During this group presentation, one person described her favorite color as pink. After stating this, she seemed uncomfortable and almost apologetic for her answer. And she downplayed her color by saying, “It is a color that symbolizes weakness.” When we asked her to elaborate on why she felt uncomfortable sharing that this was her favorite color, we learned that she also considered herself “weak.”
This discovery led to a deeper conversation on how she defined weakness and its relationship to the color pink. She said that pink is a “girly” color and is associated with being kind and pleasant and not speaking up for oneself. She then told us that she had been unable to advocate for herself and had remained in a broken marriage for years. She had allowed herself to be dominated during her marriage, and as a result, she had low self-esteem. By processing with the other group members, this participant began to understand not only the negative cultural and societal norms associated with the color pink (e.g., frail, timid, overly emotional disposition) but also positive traits such as compassion. This discussion and reframing allowed her to look at pink in a new way, and then she used this new perspective to reframe her thoughts about herself. What she once mistook as a representation of her personal weaknesses, she now realized represented her internal strength of compassion. Thus, her story was rewritten.
Although this color activity was part of a one-session process group, it can be modified and used in regular group therapy as well as in individual sessions. Counselors can also use this activity as a training tool for various organizations. Within a work environment, for example, the color activity would allow employees to learn more about themselves and others within the organization. This insight can be revealed in a nonintrusive fashion that others may not be aware of. I (Jetaun Bailey) once used this activity in a training with a group of university faculty members. One of the faculty members identified with the color gray and associated it with neutrality. She went on to explain how her family life was chaotic, and she found solace in remaining as neutral as possible, which is a trait she had carried over into her work life. This trait led several of her co-workers in the group to express how they had noticed she had perfected the skill of remaining neutral, and although this trait is often considered a positive quality, it sometimes meant she would avoid addressing situations to remain neutral. Asking a nonintrusive question about color allowed the faculty to gain a greater understanding about their co-worker.
Steps for implementing the color activity
The group activity of rewriting one’s narrative through colors involves four sequential steps. During these steps, participants analyze their past using their favorite color, and in doing so, they are able to determine what prevents them from being their authentic self. In turn, this helps them to function more productively in the present and move forward into their future.
Step 1: Connect colors to the client’s personality. Counselors can ask questions to help clients connect the color(s) with what it means about their personality. They can start by asking, “What color or colors do you feel reflect your personality?” While each participant answers the question, counselors should notice their body language or any spoken or unspoken explanations about the color(s), such as the previous example about the participant who closely identified with the color pink. Clinicians can then ask a gentle yet appropriate question about what they observed while the participant was identifying their favorite color. Some participants are forthcoming. For example, a Chinese American who participated in our process group easily connected the color red, which is symbolic in both Chinese and American cultures, to her own struggle with identity. She explained that she had been embracing and respecting one culture while feeling embarrassed by the other.
Step 2: Investigate negative associations with the colors. Counselors should ask group members to identify one or two negative associations with the color(s) they chose and how it relates to past experiences in their lives. In addition, clinicians can ask the other participants in the group to share the negative connotations they may have heard about the color(s). This allows every participant to stay in a neutral zone so that no one feels attacked personally, and it also offers a broader understanding of the various meanings ascribed to colors on the part of different individuals, cultures and ethnicities. As noted by Iris Bakker and colleagues in their 2015 article published in Color Research and Application, a person’s gender, age, education and personality (e.g., being technical, emotional or a team player) affect their color preferences.
Step 3: Investigate the negative associations with specific colors as potential barriers to personal growth. Next counselors can ask clients to consider how the negative connotations associated with the color could be connected to negative feelings they have about themselves as well as how it might have hindered their growth in the past. It can be helpful during this step to self-disclose. Experts say that in small doses, self-disclosure can be a very effective technique. And when used judiciously, particularly in a group environment, it can help build trust, promote empathy and improve therapeutic relationships.
To break the ice during a group session on one occasion, I (Jetaun Bailey) disclosed that red, my identified color, is associated with aggression and impulsivity and that I am a risk-taker. I noted that I often get into trouble because of my impulsivity and risk-taking nature, and that my association with risk-taking being an ill-advised trait, which I learned from my experiences as a youth, often caused me to remain silent around others. Group processing teaches people how to voice their difficulties, and I believe my self-disclosure in this case increased the bond between the group members and myself.
Self-disclosing also works well with clients who appear to be introverted. The participant who identified with the color pink in the previously mentioned example was somewhat apprehensive about sharing this color, which could imply that she may have introverted tendencies. But with the counselor’s and group’s own disclosure and encouragement, she began to express herself more freely.
Step 4: Help the client reframe the narrative. After exploring the negative connotations associated with the colors, counselors can ask each group member to think about positive qualities associated with the same color. For example, they could ask, “Now that you are aware of the negativity linked with the color(s) with which each of you have identified, how might you look at that negativity differently?” This technique, which is a form of cognitive restructuring, helps the participants reframe what they find to be negative and reflect a more positive view of the color.
Clinicians could also have the client replace the negative word associated with the color with its antonym. It may be helpful to provide an example such as how sadness, which is often associated with the color blue, can be reframed by thinking of words that mean the opposite such as hopeful and optimistic. Counselors can then ask each participant to use that antonym or positive word to reconsider how they view their professional or personal lives now as well as how they hope to view it in the future.
The person who identified with pink, for example, used the word “compassion” to reframe how she viewed herself and her marriage experience. This allowed her to see her strength amid the seeming dysfunction of her marriage, build self-awareness and help her understand that her strength lies in her compassion. In turn, the participant indicated that she would use this strength of compassion to regulate her emotions during difficult moments by using soothing, kind and supportive words or messages rather than self-criticism. She noted that decreasing self-criticism would improve her self-esteem as well as her relationships and communication skills with others.
During this step, counselors can use a variety of techniques and modalities in addition to the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing. In fact, this step is an excellent time to use the “miracle question” technique from solution-focused therapy. For example, the counselor could say, “The rainbow symbolizes many things in Western society and art such as a sign of hope and better days to come. If that were the case, what miracle would your specific color bring you and why? How would that miracle alter the negative connotations associated with your chosen color(s)?” This approach achieves the solution-focused goal of helping clients rewrite their narratives, which makes it a good substitute for the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing.
A mindful approach
This creative approach to rewriting one’s narrative offers inspiration and excitement because it can trigger a child-like curiosity and exploration and disarm tension and the expectation of a stereotypical psychoanalysis. The simple question of “what color(s) best reflects your personality” invites clients to express feeling, emotion and vision, which helps clients break down and deconstruct information into smaller, more manageable categories. Thus, counselors can easily incorporate the mindfulness method throughout this group process.
This question also causes many people to pause and reflect before answering, as though they are engaged entirely in their own mental imagery. The reliance on mental imagery is similar to guided therapeutic imagery, a relaxation technique closely associated with mindfulness. Asking what colors reflect their personality rather than simply asking what their favorite color is requires participants to use an inner sense or senses to elicit sensations associated with the color(s) and consider which color is most closely linked to their personality.
The participants in our process group transitioned into a state of peace and tranquility the instant the question was posed, coinciding with the mindfulness approach of being fully present. In expressing their colors, they contributed to a sense of belonging created by the shared warmth, friendliness and evident understanding of the issue. The participants continued to work with this prompt in the present moment, completely involved in their own and each other’s experiences of the way their colors were manifesting.
Throughout the four steps of this approach, the counselor holds space for mindful listening. They must listen deeply and ask open-ended questions to allow everyone to express their authenticity through their colors, while gaining clarity and knowledge. And they also need to pay attention to verbal and nonverbal communication, especially to each individual’s breathing and physiological expressions. Clinicians should document clients’ comments and suppress clients’ negative self-talk.
Effective mindful listening eventually creates an atmosphere of collective communication, resulting in each participant rewriting their narrative from self-reflection and collective sharing by way of mindful listening. The participant who identified with pink provides a great example of this. She communicated through both verbal and nonverbal expressions that the color pink caused her some uncomfortable feelings, and the other participants were able to help her see the beauty in her color and connect it to her own compassion. The participant was then able to self-reflect and reshape her narrative.
Because each group member brings their own cultural understanding of colors as well as their own color norms and practices with them, the group also gains a comprehensive richness that infuses components of cultural awareness in this activity of rewriting their narratives through colors. Each participant demonstrates cultural understanding by attentively listening to each other’s relationship with a color(s) and indicating how the connections are similar and different from their own. This cultural awareness creates a collective cohesive and appreciation for one another. As a result of this collective communication, a shared sense of culture emerges; the shared experience of discussing their own colors helps them form a community while still embracing each other’s individual identities and unique cultures.
Choosing one’s identifying color and the accurate attributes it holds, as well as the feelings and emotions associated with the thoughts, becomes rich material to work with in the therapeutic setting. Having clients consider the basic question — “Which color(s) do you feel reflect your personality?” — prompts a diverse range of responses and often results in enlightenment. It’s as if sharing colors has some magical or unexplainable way of shifting the discourse or topic in the group’s or individual’s favor. We are often oblivious of the way colors influence our moods, sensations and perceptions. Rewriting our narratives by looking at our interactions with colors from a cultural, personal and biological perspective can teach us something about ourselves, of which we are often unaware.
Jetaun Bailey holds a doctorate in professional counseling and supervision and is a licensed professional counselor with supervision status. She is also a college professor and a certified school counselor. Contact her at BaileyJetaun@hotmail.com.
Heather Hodge is a graduate student in the mindfulness-based transpersonal counseling program at Naropa University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beverly Andes is a graduate student in the mindfulness-based transpersonal counseling program at Naropa University. Contact her at email@example.com.
Bryan Gere holds a doctorate in rehabilitation counseling and is an associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He is also a certified rehabilitation counselor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CharMayne Jackson is a registered mental health counselor intern in Florida and holds a master’s in counseling psychology with a concentration in clinical psychology and a bachelor’s in psychology. Contact her at email@example.com.
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