Interact Journal Integrative Ideas for the Process-Oriented Psychotherapist

Categories Supervision Dialogs

On making a sandtray

He resists working in metaphors. He is intelligent but insists he has no imagination.

Think to yourself some version of, “Oh, goody, now I get to use my imagination. One thing you might try is to make a sandtray while he is talking, resisting, and insisting.

There is no sandtray available.
I have the use of a sandtray, but all the toys are too big to put in it.
I’d like to have a sandtray, but collecting all those objects seems daunting and expensive.

A literal sandtray is not necessary. A place mat on a flat surface works well. In play therapy workshops for professionals, I often provide a couple of yards of yarn or heavy string to everyone. Each person ties the two ends together and arranges the result into a circle or rectangle on the rug. In individual therapy, a contrived boundary isn’t really necessary. Use the floor and, if you like, let the boundary of your “container” be the walls of the room.

As far as sandtray-type objects go, nothing fancy is needed. I often offer only inexpensive and collected shells and stones, colored tongue depressors, and some plastic fences I picked up at a drugstore years ago. If you are in an office with virtually nothing more than two chairs, no problem. Invite the client to use the contents of their purse or pockets. You can also use pens, crayons, paper clips, torn pieces of tissue, or other found objects in the room.

Oh, okay I can do that. So now what do you mean by “make a sandtray while he’s talking?”

While he talks, arrange various objects to represent your version of what he is talking about. Every so often, stop, refer to your representation, and say,

“Is this what you mean?”

“Like this?”

Change your picture as his story changes or as the picture in your head changes. At first he may not get much involved with your representation, but after a while he may begin to respond with, “sort of,” or “no, it’s like this.” Let him re-arrange the objects as he describes how you “should” have arranged them. The moment he changes what you have arranged, he is working within his own metaphor. A physical metaphor like this is often, for some people, much easier to grasp than a language or mind-image metaphor.

If you have no surface and don’t want to sit on the floor, use the chairs and pillows in the room, draw doodles or pictures on paper or whiteboard, or sculpt your impression with globs of children’s clay or whatever materials are at hand.

Sounds hard.

It is much easier than paying focused attention to every word he says, as if you were going to take a test afterward.

Instead, quiet your mind, and say to your brain, “Okay brain, help me out here. I’d like either a metaphor, a picture, or an idea.” Then do nothing until your brain comes up with something.

Give this a try for a couple of weeks, in your personal life. Begin every conversation or response with the creative part of your mind. You’ll have a good time and the quality of therapy you offer will improve.

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