Introducing ‘pluralistic sand-tray therapy’: Humanistic principles for working creatively with adult clients
As a counsellor and trainer, I have always seen the benefit of using sand-tray with adult clients who want to work creatively. The client will select objects to symbolise their inner experience, their personal relationships, and their relationship to the wider world—often related to their distress. The objects act as physical metaphors, helping the client to work in-depth; yet the physical picture in the sand helps them to stay with their process without becoming overwhelmed. It is as if they have taken one step out of their pain without losing connection to it: taking the experiencer-observer position.
It is essential for the therapist to stay close to the client’s meaning of the objects without imposing their own interpretations, to avoid ‘trampling’ on the client’s process. For example, an object of a dragon can represent protection for one client or threat to another. Alternatively, a tree can symbolise reaching out in discovery for one person or an overwhelming challenge to another.
Sometimes a client may have a sense of something causing them distress yet may be unable to voice that experience. With the therapist’s help, an object symbolising that implicit experience can be explored. I have often witnessed clients finding their ‘right’ words in pluralistic sand-tray therapy (PSTT), helping them make the implicit explicit, often bringing a sense of relief and a phenomenological shift concerning an issue.
‘Jungian sandplay’ predominates contemporary sand-tray literature, yet if a therapist is not Jungian trained, there is little out there that informs the underpinning theoretical process of the client as they engage in sand-tray therapy. Although there is some literature from various stances, it mainly focuses on how to use sand-tray rather than the theoretical process of the client. My book offers additional theoretical understanding from a pluralistic standpoint and provides guidance on delivering PSTT.
The elements of the pluralistic approach such as collaboration, shared decision-making, metacommunication with purposeful questions, goals, therapy tasks, and assessment and feedback are essential to PSTT and are incorporated throughout the text. An advantage of PSST is that the therapist can draw upon aspects of other approaches to meet the client’s goals and expectations for therapy. For example, a therapist can facilitate edge of awareness and unconscious processing and, in my book, I provide examples of these processes taken from the case study.
My pluralistic theoretical framework was established from a multiple case study, and my book describes a range of concepts. These include the sand-tray as a ‘metaphorical experiential theatre’, ‘phenomenological shift’, ‘phenomenological flux’, and two sand-tray-specific mechanisms of ‘phenomenological anchor’ and ‘phenomenological hook’. Excerpts and coloured photographs of sand displays are embedded into the text to provide vivid explanations of each theoretical concept. In addition, further chapters focus on:
- Additional benefits of PSTT, which explore how issues such as touch, spatial arrangement, moving objects, adding and removing objects, burying objects ,and protective objects can aid the therapeutic process.
- Structured sand-tray sessions, offering ideas for working with clients who are not yet at ease with engaging in an unstructured way.
- Particular challenges a therapist may face when contemplating PSTT, such as cutting through intellectualisation as a defence, the adult persona as a block, male gender socialisation as a block, and adequate resourcing.
- Protocol for PSTT—offering specific guidance from the initial assessment to the end session.
- PSTT for specific issues including depression, loss, guilt and shame, relationship problems, suicidal clients, and intentional self-harm.
- PSTT with different client groups which focuses on age, gender, ethnicity, and race.
- Clinical PSTT supervision, outlining the difference between other methods of supervision and some key considerations for a supervisee attending PSTT supervision.
- Drawing on other theoretical orientations in PSTT, providing examples of how this can be done.