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Self-Box: An Art Therapy Activity

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

by Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D.

© Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D., 2019

All Rights Reserved

This is a very powerful but fun activity. If you are doing this activity on your own, it might be more helpful to also read the articles “Will the Real You...” and/or “Mirror, Mirror…” either before or after you create your “self-box.” In some ways, I feel like reading the psychology behind the activity is more powerful after you create your box but it can really work either way.

This activity may take some time, so you might want to schedule at least 2 or 3 hours for this one, or you can come back and finish it later if necessary. In this activity, you will be creating a box that describes your “self.” I had first tried doing this activity on my own, and then incorporated it into an outreach program that I had developed involving a partnership between the local art museum and one of the middle schools. The students I worked with ranged from 6-8th grade but all had been identified by the school district as being “at risk.” This is a wonderful activity for all ages but is particularly useful because art is by its very nature, non-verbal. Therefore it accesses often time non-verbal information that either cannot be expressed due to mental blocks, information that is at a deeper more subconscious level, emotional or physical trauma, or limitations due to developmental stages. The students loved this activity and some of them got really into it, so be sure to read the discussion at the very end of this article to learn about some of the creative ways students participated in this activity.

The supplies you will need for this activity include a small box (shoe box, cigar box, etc.), scissors, glue/glue sticks, markers, paint, and photos/images from magazines, the internet, old photos you can reproduce, etc. A great source of images is the Internet, and find images and words that you can print—Pinterest is a great source of images, but you can also bring in your own photos, use paint, add buttons, glitter, and other embellishments—be as creative as you want!

First, browse through the magazines (or internet) and cut out any pictures and words that appeal to you. While you are searching through the images, try to think about the person that others see you as being, or the image that you project to others—the outer self (the part of yourself that you allow people to see, or the image that you want to project to other people). You will want to place all of these pictures or words that you cut out into one pile.

Next, you will want to look for pictures or words that also describe yourself, but the more personal, inner self, that only those who are very close to you ever get to know, or perhaps parts of yourself that only you know and do not reveal to others. These images and words will be placed in a separate pile.

After you have collected as many images as feel are necessary, take the shoe box and begin gluing or pasting these on to the box. Those images that you feel represent your “outer self” or projected image will be pasted on the outside of the box (top and all sides). The images and words that you placed in the pile that represented your “inner” or more private self will be pasted on the inside of the box. Be creative! You may also want to get string , ribbon, glitter, buttons, embellishments such as knobs, stickers, etc, or rubber bands and keep the lid of the box tightly shut (suggesting that your inner self is very private and closed off to others), or you may want to cut out little holes or windows so that others may get glimpses of your inner self. The idea is to have this box be a representative of yourself and not just your outer self that others see on a daily basis, but one that represents your more private side, including your hopes, dreams, fears, etc.

Writing About Your Self Box

Once you have created your box, take time to write about it. Discuss the images you selected, why you selected these, what they mean to you, and how they represent you. After writing about the images you selected, take the time to write about the inner and outer sides of your “self-box.” What do these outer and inner sides of the box mean to you, how do they represent you and what you project outwardly, as well as how others see you. Explain the images on the inside of the box and why they are inside. What do they represent? Did you allow any openings for others to see glimpses of the inside of your self-box? Why or why not? Did this activity reveal anything to you about yourself? Explain. If you want, you can do this as a group activity, allowing each participant to give a presentation on their box, and encouraging open discussions. Sometimes group sessions of this activity are really helpful because they allow individuals to get feedback concerning others’ perceptions of one’s self.

Reactions to the Self Box Activity

All of the clients and students I have ever worked with have really enjoyed this activity. Some of the “at risk” students I worked with became very creative with their self-boxes. I remember one boy in particular, that created a very decorative exterior and then only put in a few images inside. Then he took black water color and washed over the interior of his box in a dark ink colored wash. He then took his box, placed the lid on, got black electrical tape, and proceeded to wrap the entire box tightly shut in black electrical tape. Others had very brightly decorated boxes including ribbons, feathers, glitter, and all sorts of fun embellishments on the outside. One girl cut out windows and doors for others to “peer inside” of her box, so they could get a glimpse of what she was like on the inside—her private hopes, dreams and fears. Most of the children in that group omitted any windows, doors or “peep holes” that allowed people to view what was inside. One girl took a rubber band and closed her box up so nobody could open it. When asked if they wanted to share with the others in the group what they had done, some were very reluctant to share. Others were much more open, explaining what the outside images represented—parts of their personality and what others saw in them. The inside represented their hopes, dreams, and fears, but others who did not want to share with others what the inside of their boxes revealed later told me in private that they revealed very traumatic experiences that they did not want to share with the others.


  • Pictures/Images from magazines, the Internet/Pinterest, or old reproduced photos. You will need at least 6 or 7 magazines per person to cut pictures from, so gather as many as possible.

  • Scissors

  • Glue stick, modge-podge for paper, or rubber cement

  • A small box (shoe box, old cigar box, or even an old shipping box--just make sure it has a lid

  • Magic markers, paints, & crayons

  • Ribbons, string, rubber bands, glitter, buttons, and other embellishments such as tiny knobs, old keys, etc.

  • Pen or pencil


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