Humanistic Sandtray Therapy in the Moment

Unlike other approaches to sandtray therapy, the humanistic approach emphasizes the here-and-now. After the client creates the scene, the therapist’s main goal with the client in the processing phase of sandtray therapy is to facilitate a process of exploration, expression, awareness and discovery. The focus is on the moment and this focus guides the therapist’s responses to the client. Awareness is emphasized over insight because awareness is about experiencing.

Imagine that your adult client is struggling in her marriage. You have asked her to create a sandtray scene of her marriage. In her scene, she positions the miniature representing her husband on one end of the tray and her figure on the other end. As she is processing the scene, she says, “I don’t love him anymore, but I’m afraid to leave him.” If you have ever worked with couples or clients who are struggling with their marriage, I am sure that you’ve heard something similar to this statement. In this approach to therapy, we call this kind of statement a polarity. A polarity contains two parts; part of this client does not love her husband and wants more out of life. She may experience this lack of love as deeply painful and lonely. The other part of her is afraid. She may be afraid for financial reasons. She may be afraid of losing the familiar. She may be afraid that she cannot live on her own. Have you ever noticed how reluctant we are to part with the familiar? She may have children and be afraid of how her decision to leave will impact them.

There are countless responses that a therapist could make to this statement from the client. How would you respond? If you wanted the client to go deeper into her awareness, what you would not want to do is have her analyze her feelings. Clients cannot analyze a feeling and experience it at the same time. Let me say that again. Clients cannot analyze a feeling and experience it at the same time. Most of us like to know why we feel the way that we do and many of us are quite good at analyzing our feelings. However, knowing why you feel the way that you do may not change anything. Analyzing feelings is a cognitive process. As Yalom (1995) noted, reflection and analysis are helpful after an experience, not during the experience. In this approach to sandtray therapy, the time for reflection and analysis is after clients have done the hard work of staying with an issue or experience.

Let’s look at some possible options for responding to the client who does not love her husband. It is critical to notice the polarity in the client’s statement. One option for the therapist would be to ask the client which of the two parts (part 1-do not love him, part 2-afraid to leave him) she is more aware of now. I might say, “Right now, are you more aware of the part of you that doesn’t love him or the part that is afraid to leave?” Let us say that she says she is more aware of the part of her that is afraid. I might ask, “Do you feel the fear right now?” If she says yes, I might say, “What is the fear like? Describe it to me.”

Something that is assumed in the humanistic approach with clients is the sandtray therapist works to keep the client focused on a feeling or issue. One of the advantages of sandtray is that the arrangement of the miniatures and the sandtray tend to catalyze the client’s awareness and keep the client more focused on her issues. Many clients will bring up an issue and do everything that they can to avoid experiencing feelings related to the issue. Why do clients do this? One possible explanation for this tendency is that clients were polarized about the issue in the first place. They wanted to bring up the issue and resolve it but they did not want to experience the pain, fear, or other feelings associated with the issue.

By focusing on feelings in the present, humanistic sandtray therapists optimize the exploratory experience for clients and facilitate an in-depth awareness that is not possible when therapists focus on the past. The past is relevant but unless clients have feelings about the past, the skilled therapist will have more success facilitating growth by keeping the focus on the present.

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