Creating Symbolic Tasks

Have you ever worked with someone who remained stuck in the problem he or she brought to therapy despite all the great cognitive oriented applications put into practice? I have found that many times clients’ intellectual insight alone will do very little to change their emotions or behavior.  You may find that, in addition to traditional therapy work, giving your clients a unique experience can often assist them in becoming more flexible in how they deal with a specific problem or situation. I believe this may be due to how the experience is registered in their unconscious minds. We often think that if we consciously “understand” our problem, then we can rationally solve it. This can sometimes work very well, but many times we end up stuck in a loop of rumination with little access to a way out of the loop.

I discovered that designing and implementing unconscious symbolic tasks for clients can assist them in finding a way out of their rumination loop. I believe this type of tasking bypasses the rational mind and goes to the heart of the unconscious mind, which takes in information in symbolic ways. These tasks are created for the purpose of representing clients’ problems (as well as the solutions) to clients’ unconscious minds. The goal in using these tasks is to express the problem and subsequent solution in a metaphoric way. The task is something that can be experienced outside of the therapy room and can allow clients to integrate healing experiences in a way that is unique to them.

 

unconscious symbolism

 

In my exploration of other healing traditions, I have found that it is not uncommon for healing practitioners to request their clients do tasks which are out of the ordinary and represent the inner struggles the clients are going through in their lives. The tasks given are beyond the realm of left brained language and reason, but, instead, operate purely on right brain symbolism. For instance, a Mexican shaman, who worked with a woman suffering from emotional turmoil related to childhood issues with her mother, directed the woman to buy a large watermelon and tape a picture of her mother on it. She was then to carry the watermelon on a long, arduous hike through the mountains. At the end of her hike, she was then directed to look at the picture of her mother for five minutes and then smash the watermelon. She was then to bury the watermelon and write her mother a letter telling her mother how much she appreciated the good things her mother had done. After this act was finished, the woman was no longer upset about her childhood issues. The symbolic task appeared to clear up the old emotional wounds that still persisted.

I view giving clients unconscious symbolic tasks as a way to give them more flexibility and resources in working through the present issue being faced. Once the task has been completed, clients will have experienced an action which may release them from unconscious, automatic patterns of the past and help them realize that they have more options than they may have previously considered. Using strange tasks in therapy may sound a little ridiculous to our regimented, linear thinking, but to our unconscious mind, these tasks can be a gateway to different healing experiences.

 

unconsciou ssymbol 2

 

I often structure the tasks in this way:

  1. Listen closely to the metaphors and words clients use to describe their problem.
  2. Envision how the problem can be solved in a symbolic act. For example, the woman with the watermelon was able to put down the heavy watermelon (burden) after a long, tiring effort and then symbolically “destroy” the burden and reclaim her power.
  3. Have them do something that they have never done previously.  It must be an out of the ordinary action in order to interrupt unconscious patterns.
  4. Make the task something that requires some effort, but is not completely overwhelming to clients. If it is too much or too hard, most of the time clients will not do it.

 

Some examples:

-A woman experienced much apprehension when talking with her mother due to her mother’s past behavior of always verbally shutting the woman down when she was a child. Her mother was argumentative and had to always be right no matter what the topic being discussed.  Talks with the mother were often contentious and anxiety provoking. Now, as an adult, the woman attempted to avoid interactions with her mother due to her anxiety about her mother arguing and shutting her down. I directed the woman to find a doll and tie it tightly with string from its neck to its feet and then hide it in her closet for two days. After that time, she was to use scissors to cut the doll lose. The woman found a doll that her mother had given her many years ago (and strangely enough the doll resembled the woman) and performed the task. After doing so, the woman noticed she no longer was worried and apprehensive about talking to her mother.

 

-A couple were on the verge of divorce due to constant arguments related to the husband’s binge drinking and the wife’s enabling behavior. They were directed to use a cloth to wash their dishes and then to leave the cloth out on the kitchen counter for three days. They were then to take the sour smelling cloth to the back of their property late that night. The husband was to dig a three-foot by three-foot hole while the wife held a flashlight and supervised his digging. They were then to bury the cloth and sit without speaking for ten minutes while they thought about the meaning of the task given (they were not supplied with one when it was assigned). When they reported back to therapy three weeks later, the husband had begun controlling his drinking and the wife decreased her enabling behavior.  They felt their marriage had been saved by this task.

 

-A man who had been severely abused by his step mother as a young child continued to feel intense fear and panic about her, even though he had not seen her in 25 years. He stated that he believed she had spellbound him to live in fear and she wanted to cause evil in people’s lives. He was presented with an Ouija board and given a piece of paper to write down all the bad things his step mother had done to him. He had to tape the paper to the Ouija board and throw it in a fire. He then had to take the ash from the fire and use it as fertilizer for a new plant he was to put in his yard. He noticed a reduction in his fear after his task was completed.

 

I believe clients already have what is needed to create a desired change in their lives inside themselves. It may be that they just need an out of the ordinary experiential process for the change to occur.  These unconscious symbolic tasks are not stand alone therapies, but it can aid therapists who have reached the limits of what conscious understanding can do.

 

 

Intuition in the Therapy Room

The role of intuition in therapeutic work has been something that has not been examined as much as it should be in our clinical training. Intuition can be thought of as the unplanned forming of impressions and the drawing of inferences. The noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes intuition as “a non-cognitive way of knowing things.” Most every effective therapist I have met has talked about the importance of following clinical hunches and gut feelings in his or her work.

In the early days of psychotherapy, leading figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung noted the importance of using intuition in therapy. In the fast paced, emotionally charged work that therapists deal with, there may be great benefit from utilizing the quick nature of intuition. In an article entitled “Intuitive Listening” from the journal Modern Psychoanalysis, Lynne Laub discusses many different ways that intuition can appear in clinical work. She found evidence for using intuition in such areas as metaphors, dreams, symbolism, and non-verbal communication. Other researchers have found that the use of intuition can be very effective, but only if there is ample trust between client and therapist, as well as the clinician’s trust in his or her own gut feelings. Arthur Bohart, in the article “Intuition and Creativity in Psychotherapy” from the Journal of Constructivist Psychology, writes that intuition is really inspiration that just spontaneously occurs to the therapist while he or she is in the flow of the therapeutic interaction. It appears that the topic of intuition might need more exploration as it may aid the needs of our clients within the therapeutic relationship.

 

INTUITION

 

If intuition is so important in clinical work, why is there so little time spent discussing this phenomenon in psychotherapy training?  It may be that many professionals in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy have a desire to have their work strictly rooted in empiricism in order to be seen more as a science than an art. Intuition may be seen as too connected to spirituality and mystical leanings than aligned with “hard science.” Not having a set operational definition and application can make it problematic for researchers who are interested in investigating intuition in order to quantify its operation.

Since the prevalent approach to working in the clinical arena continues to be directed by empiricism and standardization of treatments, there is little space for teaching therapists to begin trusting themselves (and their intuition) more often. The employment of regimented therapeutic techniques often limits a practitioner’s access to his or her own internal wisdom. The “cookie cutter” approach to performing therapy leaves few openings to investigating our clinical hunches. Is there not a middle ground that not only gives therapists a structure in which to work, but also honor the mystery of our unconscious intelligence? I think there is, and most therapists who routinely follow their gut in the therapy room would probably concur.

Using our intuition may involve introducing odd statements and/or actions into the therapy discourse. What may not seem to make sense initially, might connect in ways our conscious minds might not at first comprehend. I have previously written about the importance of introducing the random into a therapy session and it may be that the random is preceded by an intuitive action.

One time I was working with a young woman who was in recovery from Methamphetamine addiction. She was trying to get her life back together and heal the hurts that her addiction had caused. She was not feeling good about herself and was constantly worried about falling back into her dysfunctional patterns. Our topic of the day was her learning to soothe herself when she became distraught instead of automatically turning to unhealthy men or drug use.

As we chatted, a strong image popped into my mind. I saw an image of a large number of birds flying. For some reason I felt compelled to trust this intuitive flash and ask her directly what “birds” meant to her. She stopped talking for a minute and sat with a puzzled look. She then told me that when she was a young girl, she and her grandmother would feed the birds that gathered in her grandmother’s backyard. As she talked about this time period, her eyes began to show tears. She explained that being with her grandmother were the few times in her life when she felt that she was “safe and good”. Upon hearing this information, I decided to see if she would be open to feeding the ducks who gathered at a pond across the street from my office. With a big smile, she quickly agreed to do this task.

In time, she found that she was able to reconnect with the feeling she had with her grandmother when she feed the ducks. She also decided that she would feed the ducks anytime she felt overwhelmed by life and needed to soothe herself.  By following my intuition, with what initially seemed to be an unrelated mental image, my client was able to find a positive resource to use for her healing with which she had previously lost touch.

My advice: Trust yourself. If you get a hunch, no matter how odd, follow it. See what opens up

Episode 17: Bette Freedson Interview

bettejfreedson

In this episode we interview author, psychotherapist, and speaker Bette Freedson. Bette is a clinical social worker, practicing in Southern Maine. Bette is the author of the acclaimed book, “Soul Mothers’ Wisdom: Seven Insights For The Single Mother”. Her work has appeared in The York County Coast Star,“Calgary’s Child Magazine,” “Working Mother Magazine,” and “Women’s Day Magazine,” among others.

In this interview we discuss the role of utilizing intuition in psychotherapy, the overlooked importance of relationship in therapeutic research, circularity in interaction, working with single parents, and Bette’s “S.O.L.V.E.” schema for therapeutic interventions.

For more information on Bette Freedson’s books, articles, training, and therapy services, check out her website: bettefreedson.com