Creating a world

Image of a blue sand tray with figures of a boat, barbed wire fence, angel, $50 bill, pill bottle, and monster inside.

I went to a training to do sand tray therapy recently and was surprised by the experience. Essentially the idea of sand tray therapy is to be able to use symbolic objects in a flat, large tray of sand that represent different elements of the person’s world. The room is laid out with a variety of objects and figures that include plants, people, buildings, money, religious items, and fake guns, knives, and everyday objects like mirrors and clocks. The person doing the sand tray (client) will chose objects that symbolize something to them and then can arrange them in the tray to create a small version of their world. It seemed just like playing to me at first but after doing several with my group I saw the power of symbolism in this medium and was blown away at what these objects could tell me about a person’s world.

I feel frustrated often at the monetization of therapy and all the ways that we make therapeutic methods inaccessible to people. It’s so annoying as a therapist to know there are treatment types that are new and improved but so prohibitively expensive to learn to use. As someone who loves learning I think all knowledge should just be free and accessible and it’s horrible that someone who wants to learn, be it a therapist or a client, can’t because they don’t have the money. I think the profession has such a profound desire to be taken seriously that we go too far and way overkill it on the certifications, acronyms, and creation of methodologies that are basically incomprehensible to a layperson. Therapists are just people. We have degrees but I believe that there is nothing that we learn that no other person outside our field can understand. If there was a way that I could give out a treatment to every person who came into my office to have the skills to completely heal themselves, I would do it and be happy to be out of a job. But unfortunately we don’t live in that world.

This is why I get excited about therapies like sand tray. There are, of course, companies that will charge you upwards of $200 for a full kit of sand tray items and a tray in the specified ideal dimensions and colors, but someone could easily replicate the intervention with about $4 worth of items from a thrift store, some rice or outdoor sand, and a box. I made my kit for about $80 total since I went all out in purchasing items and wanted a big box with a lot of sand. Since items are symbolic, the person can imbue any item with symbolism and this makes the client in charge of the therapy rather than the therapist. It’s up to the client to explain to the therapist what the items mean to them, how they interact, and how they see those items having a resolution.

Another benefit to a medium like sand tray is that it appeals to the imagination. The method was originally made for children since it’s an extension of play therapy, but adults often have trouble verbalizing feelings in a way that can be fully understood by the therapist as well. Using symbolism can help adults and children get at emotions that are too complex to explain with words. A client may tell me there were issues with alcohol in their family, but if in choosing a figure to represent their father they select a fire-breathing monster, their mother a person without a face, and themselves a superhero, now we are understanding something about the nature of the family system that may have not been fully understood before.

When I did my own sand tray I was struck by two things – first that I realized some things about my family system that I was unaware of, and second that I felt myself overcome with emotion in front of some people who were relative strangers. I don’t as a rule share much of my emotion with others so I was surprised that despite keeping my tray on a relatively surface level, somehow the medium had come to a more profound meaning and I was deeply affected by what I was processing. During the training our trainer mentioned that he’d used it with his sons to help them process nightmares, and I had thought it was a complete load but when I actually did one I understood how symbolically changing your reality in a tray is powerfully effective to process a psychological issue.

Some common ways to do a sand tray would include choosing figures that represent members of a family, important people in someone’s life, reenacting an incident or argument, or choosing objects that represent someone’s state of being in the current moment, for example, embodying feelings about anxiety and its affects on relationships. In my work, I allow clients to choose how they are going to use the sand tray, giving examples like these, and before we use it at all I ask if that’s a method they’d like to try.

For more reading about sand trays, I recommend this book.

If you are interested in other low-cost therapy techniques or self-help, I recommend the book Self Therapy by Jay Earley.

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