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…..

Psychotherapist as Shaman

Shaman

One of my interests is in studying various traditional healing traditions around the world. Ancient people had a wide variety of methods to assist people in their culture to heal from physical and emotional wounds. I find that the more I learn about their work the more I sense that we may be missing something in our therapy work. This week I have been reading the book “Spirit Versus Scalpel: Traditional Healing and Modern Psychotherapy” published by Bergin and Garvey.

In the forward Dr. Uwe Gielen writes,

“The traditional healer must simultaneously cure the body and soul; otherwise, society will perceive him or her as a failure……It also helps if the healer succeed in staging a highly dramatic performance, since traditional healing typically takes place in the presence of impressionable spectators. Healing does not merely consist of the recovery of physical strength and health but must also result in the reintegration of the patient into his or her social group. The medicine man or voodoo priestess is not only a psychotherapist but equally a transmitter of culture. Everywhere, successful healers must learn to speak the psychological/spiritual/cultural language of their patients; they must enter the patients’ minds through a process of empathy and become sensitive to the emotional preoccupations that accompany their physical illnesses. They must evoke in the patients a sense of faith, hope and trust in the healer’s power.”
As I read this passage I began to wonder if we as psychotherapists are fully utilizing all the elements we could when working with people.

Do we give our clients hope just by walking in the room or is there a sense of uncertainty when we greet them?

Do we create an alive, exciting environment that facilitates change or do we quietly work with lifeless diseased based models of therapy?

Do we show our clients unwavering faith in the positive outcomes of our work or do we unconsciously send out the message that our work will be a long, tedious and unclear process?

We can learn a great deal form studying the Shamans of the world. What if we began to see our work as therapists as that of a modern shaman? What if we began to believe that we have great power to bring about sometimes inexplicable healing in our clients? I wonder if that alone could shift the manner in which therapist and clients traditionally interact and create surprising results for the people who seek us out in order to heal?