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.
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.
I often structure the tasks in this way:
- Listen closely to the metaphors and words clients use to describe their problem.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
-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.