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.



Three things I learned about therapy from studying Hoodoo Doctors

I recently wrote a book about the magical and healing practices of the Coastal Southeastern United States called, “Low Country Shamanism”. My goal in writing the book was to give readers an overview of the practices of the art of hoodoo/conjure as practiced in the low country areas of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. I researched the shamanic practices of the traditional “root doctors” and offered personal narratives from modern day authentic hoodoo/conjure practitioners and those influenced by the art. I enjoyed learning about these indigenous practices and got to meet some really interesting people.


low country

From this work I also gained insight into how to structure a good therapy session for my psychotherapy clients. Now before you think that I am going to bring out voodoo dolls and magical potions, let me assure you that these aspects of a hoodoo healing are quite practical. By adopting these ideas into your session I think you will find that you are more effective and creative.


1. The Hoodoo Doctor already assumes from the beginning that you will be healed.
The ability to project absolute confidence to your client is so important. If your client does not feel you have confidence in your ability to help them then they may feel they are unable to change. No matter what the client brings to us we need to project confidence in our abilities as therapists. Even if we do not know if we can assist them, a big part of healing is the “acting as if” we can assist the client. We are not making wild claims or offering 100 percent guarantees that clients will be healed but we are giving them hope by not giving up before we get started. People go to therapists and hoodoo doctors for hope as they have usually done everything they know how to change.


2. The Hoodoo Doctor will often insist on odd rituals to aid in the healing process.
Rituals can be a very powerful way to create change in therapy. If nothing else, it causes a shift in the patterns in which the client has been consistently using. Once this shift happens the client can see that he or she has more resources in how to respond to situations the previously thought. For example, a hoodoo doctor may ask someone who feeling depressed to carry as special amulet designed by the hoodoo doctor and walk around his or her house 15 times a night at a specific time chanting, “Spirits help move me to healing”. This simple act may be enough to alter the person’s pattern of staying inside and ruminating on all the problems in his or her life. This small change could bring about larger changes. We as therapists also can create new rituals and patterns for our clients to use for surprising results.


3. The Hoodoo Doctor is involved in the healing as much as the person seeking help.
Once the person approaches the hoodoo doctor for help, then the hoodoo doctor is an integral part of the whole healing process. They don’t do healing, they ARE healing. The hoodoo doctor is as much a part of the process as the person seeking help in that anything the hoodoo doctor does will have an effect on the person suffering. This is second order cybernetics in which the observation of the healer influences what he or she sees as the process of healing is influenced by the realities of all parties involved. If we, as therapists, recognize that we are not observers of our clients’ therapy process but are active participants in the process, what remarkable changes can we create when we begin to change ourselves? Instead of expecting therapy to move as a set model of interaction we can create marvelous new interactions that are not limited to academic theories. If the hoodoo doctor begins a spontaneous ritual to heal his or her client, this ritual will be new and unique to the client. The act of someone doing something can create change in surprising ways. Don’t wait for a set time to do a set technique. Become alive and create!


Now go do that hoodoo that you do so well…..

Using Rituals in Psychotherapy Part 2


I have received a lot of nice compliments on a previous post I wrote on Using Rituals in Psychotherapy but the most common question I have been asked about the post is, “how do you create a ritual?”.  In this post I will give you a quick idea of how I come up with rituals for my clients (when appropriate). Please feel free to share some of your ideas and concepts on this topic as you may have some great ideas of which I had not previously thought.

My goal for using rituals in psychotherapy is for the clients to have an experience that supplies them with a resource needed to create a change in their situation. The reason clients comes to therapy is they believe there is a problem that is unsolvable, which to me means clients feel they do not have the necessary resources to effectively cope and transcend a situation labeled by them as a “problem”. If by performing a specific set of actions clients are given the needed resources (or reminded of the resources they already possess), they can begin to solve their own problems which helps increase their sense of control and self-efficacy in their lives.    

Often I construct rituals based on what I pick up from the unconscious metaphors and analogies my clients use. The words a person uses tells us a tremendous amount about how they view the world. By paying attention to similar patterns in a client’s speech we can gain an enormous amount of information on what resources a client needs to access.   

For example, an older man came to therapy who complained of feeling depressed. He had lost his wife a year previously and he had moved into a new neighborhood where he did not quite feel at home yet. In the discussion he says the following: “You know, I just feel like a fish out of water here. I don’t know if I fit in. It is has been a struggle to get moved in and in getting to know the other people in the neighborhood. I am afraid that I am a little different from many of the folks here. I don’t want to come into a new community and rock the boat too much. There is a lot to do in getting set up in a new place and it can be overwhelming to me. Sometimes I feel like I am swimming upstream. I don’t feel like I can catch a break these days.” 

You can easily see a metaphor pattern involving the following:

Fish out of water

Rock the boat

Swimming upstream

Catch a break

The ritual given to him was to go to a special store for fishing enthusiasts, buy a rod and reel and begin to practice fishing in his backyard for 15 minutes a day. As silly as it sounds, he reports back that the practice allowed him some quiet time to reflect on emotional things he had been avoiding (including beginning to let go of some of the grief associated with losing his wife). He noticed also had begun to relax more in his new neighborhood and even invited a new friend he had met to go fishing with him.

Another example of designing a ritual based on metaphors involves a woman seeking counseling for high stress levels associated with her work. She states: “I am just so damn knotted up all the time. I am overwhelmed. I desperately want to be able to relax but this job ties me down to such a tight schedule. I am still hoping to advance with this company but lately I am afraid they are stringing me along and the thought of that makes me even more stressed.”

Key phrases:

knotted up

Ties me down

Stringing me along

This client told me exactly what she needs. She needs to be released from the ropes of her stress. Her ritual was based on what she unconsciously told me. She was directed to go to an old thrift store in her town and be on the lookout for an old doll. She was told she would instantly know which doll was the right doll when she saw it. She was to purchase the doll, take it home and clean it up from the dust and grime of the thrift shop. She was then to name the doll a name that she liked. After this she was to get 3 different kinds of yarn and wrap the yarn tightly around the doll from top to bottom. After she tied up the doll she was to put it in a dark closet for 8 hours. When she came back to the doll, she was to then cut off all the tight yarn off the doll and place it at a seat of honor at the dining room table for one night (she lived alone so she did not have to explain this ritual to anyone).

Again, this was a very ridiculous task but the client returns to the next session and states she has for some strange reason been able to relax and breathe easier as of late. She ended up working on the doll’s dress with material she had left over from another craft project and then gave it to her young niece. She discovered that she enjoyed sewing and found a new hobby to help her stress levels.

 In both of these examples the clients needed to gain certain resources to solve their problem. From the therapist’s perspective they already had exactly what they needed but just needed an experiential process to be reminded they already had all the resources necessary to change. By listening to the underlying messages outside of the client’s awareness, the therapist can create rituals that may seem odd to the conscious mind but give the unconscious just what it needs to heal.

Have fun with the process. It will make your session become more alive and enhance your ability to listen and communicate at multiple levels.

Using Rituals in Psychotherapy


The term “ritual” can bring to mind many different images and preconceptions. Rituals are powerful actions that are all around us in both religious and secular settings. One can consider standing for the national anthem as a ritual. Having a funeral after a loved one passes is a ritual. Weddings and graduation ceremonies can be considered rituals.

According to many researchers the use of rituals is designed to cause a shift in one’s consciousness. It is a method to open up to other ways of being in the world. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that rituals can put one in direct touch with mythic reality. Rituals can, if done correctly, be powerful methods of setting intention in one’s life. Rituals can also be used to facilitate healing, mark important transitions in one’s emotional development and signal new beginnings in one’s life journey.

From the psychotherapy perspective rituals can be very effective at assisting individuals (and families) in creating new patterns of responding to and interacting with the environment. Many times people feel stuck in a certain pattern and not sure how to change it. In his book “Rituals in Psychotherapy: Transition and Continuity”, psychotraumatologist Onno Van Der Hart writes that he feels the use of rituals to work through significant psychological distresses can result in major shifts in ones’ cognitions and emotional patterns. He feels rituals can create the process of healing in a manner that few other interventions can demonstrate.

The field of family therapy is full of great case studies of therapists giving clients odd rituals to perform that indirectly creates a change in the previous patterns the family exhibited. In other cases families may need to hold on to their rituals during difficult times to ensure their connection to each other. I read an article recently in the New York Times that cited the importance of the family dinner as a ritual in preserving the emotional health of the family.

When a therapist gives a client a ritual to perform it is often geared toward giving the client more flexibility and resources in working through the present issue being faced. If a client feels stuck he or she is merely lacking experience of a new action to take. Once the action has been taken in the form of a ritual the client will now know (at the unconscious level) that he or she has more options than previously considered.

An example of this happened in a session I recently had with a male client who was seeking therapy due to an upcoming divorce. His wife had a consistent pattern of infidelity and seemed to have no desire to reform and become part of a monogamous team in a marriage. My client was hurt and depressed by his wife’s actions. He did feel divorce was the right thing to do in this situation but he was totally stuck in moving forward with his life. He really felt he loved his soon to be ex-wife and had trouble even envisioning a life without her. He could not even bring himself to begin getting rid of some things that belonged to his wife that she had left behind at his home. Seeing those items and not having a vision of a life without her led to his feeling more depression and heartache.

After we covered the important points of what brought him to therapy, I decided to enact a ritual to help him move forward. I asked him if he would be interested in doing a small action that could assist him in feeling better. He replied he was very interested. I told him that what I was going to ask him to do may seem a little strange but it was in his best interest. His curiosity was peaked but he still was open to what I was going to recommend.

I sat quietly for a minute. I then looked him directly in the eyes with some intensity and told him, “I think you need to perform an exorcism!” This was not what he had expected to hear. “An exorcism?” he asked to make sure he had heard me correctly. “Absolutely.” I told him, “You need to exorcise a room in your house.” At this point he was all ears. “I think you have a real issue that needs a different approach. The exorcism you will perform is not for ridding your home of the devil but rather the pain of this relationship. I want you to take all of your wife’s belongings out of one room in your house. Put these in the garage for three days. After you take her things out of the room I want you to go get yourself some incense from your local store. Choose the kind that you like the best. Light the incense and face each wall of the room which you removed her belongings and make the sign of the cross (this client was a devout Christian). After you make the sign of the cross say out loud four times, ‘I ask for peace and love in the name of the Father.’ Do this ritual seven times each day for three days. After three days you can feel free to bring in your wife’s belongings and put it back where it was in the room.”

My client did not expect to hear this kind of thing from a psychotherapist. In spite of him being surprised by my odd directions, a part of him appeared to be excited and energized to begin this assignment. I was not telling him to get rid of his soon to be ex-wife’s belongings but rather just to put them somewhere else for a few days. This action gave him the flexibility and experience of moving her things to the garage which could possibly lead to moving them out of the home. Making the sign of the cross invoked within him a feeling of connection with his religion which previously had given him comfort when life was tough. He reported back with a new feeling of possibility and hope that even though he was very sad, he could go on and create a new future with someone who would be faithful to him.

I certainly could have spent our time together working on his illogical beliefs about the future, his family of origin issues or his self-esteem troubles but I felt that in that moment a ritual would do more for him than the traditional therapy. The action I directed him to take was so different than what he was doing that he had no choice but to have a new experience. His experience of taking charge of moving things in his house and asking for help from his God gave him the necessary resources he needed to create new changes in his patterns.

I think we as psychotherapists need to ask ourselves what are some ways in which we can help our clients move through their trials and tribulations other than just talking with them (although that alone can be pretty powerful). What actions can we take to shake things up and give our clients the resources and experiences they need to solve their own problems? What rituals can we perform for ourselves that will make us more effective healers?