Symbols can be a useful way to help clients develop a concrete understanding of the role that problems or emotions are playing in their life.
Clients may need support from the counsellor to build a connection with the symbol and to link the symbol with an abstract emotion or value.
It is important that counsellors allow time for clients to make their own choice about what object they choose to represent their problem. Some people with intellectual disability may feel they need to pick the item that their counsellor thinks they should pick, in order to please the counsellor or be seen as able. Counsellors need to encourage clients to take their time and choose the item that they think is right.
Giving the symbol a name can help to personalise the ‘problem’. The problem then becomes something the client knows and has a relationship with. This can help them to gain a sense of control over the problem – it is external to them, something that they can now see, and perhaps find ways to overcome.
After choosing the symbol, the counsellor can encourage the client to talk about when the problem is strong and what happens, or to talk about when the problem is not around and what is different.
Symbols can give clients a safe place to stand away from and talk about the problem. If they are the problem themselves, it is very difficult to imagine or create change. But, by externalising the problem with a symbol, the counsellor, client (and perhaps their carers) can work together to overcome it. (For more information, see the section: ‘Externalising’ in the discussion about narrative therapy.)
For example, a client may be experiencing a lot of anger, which leads them into arguments with people in their lives. This client may choose a symbol for themselves, for a person they are arguing with, and for the anger itself.
A tiger (strong and scary) may be a symbol for representing their angry feelings. Through the symbols, the counsellor and the client can explore what happens when the anger appears in a situation and gets between the client and another person.
In sandtray example above, the client chose to represent themselves as a lion hiding on the rock. The client was scared of all the bad things trying to get at her. The client chose to represent her Mum and her sister as lions who were trying to help keep the bad things away.
Each symbol (character) has their own story that can be verbalised as they are placed (or not, if telling the story is too hard). A series of sandtrays over a number of sessions will show a progression of the story.