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Sandtray Therapy for Ending Unhealthy Relationships

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Date : April 29, 2017

This blog is based on a compilation of several case studies.

Thirty-seven-year-old Mary was struggling with ending unhealthy relationships. She realized that she was somehow attracted to men who were emotionally unavailable. They had anger management issues and were verbally abusive.

She had been dealing with this relationship trauma for years. Regular talk therapy did help her somewhat, but she felt like she was stuck in an endless loop of bad choices and self-loathing. Mary had completed four previous sandtray sessions before today’s appointment.

I asked her to choose any figures off the shelf and she said, “It feels wonderful to know I have a huge selection of figures to choose from. It makes me feel free and empowered. “

She chooses a little girl with a frightened look on her face, a tall monster with a distorted face and a female figure called the calm women.

I ask her if she wants to add any other figures and she declines. I ask her to describe each figure and she begins with the monster. She picks him up and looks deeply into his face. Then she returns him to his original position in the tray. She says, “He is a nasty piece of work. He can be so understanding one minute and the next second he tears down my character.” I ask, “What does he say to her?” She replies, “He tells me that I am ugly, fat and nobody likes me. I used to cry when he said those things to me, but now I become emotionally numb and sink into my despair.” She says this monster is her last boyfriend, all her previous boyfriends and after crying a bit, she blurts out that he is also her father.

She says, “I know from all the work I have done on myself that this is all about my relationship with my mean ass father.”

I ask her to move on to the next figure and she chooses the little girl who is eight years old. She says the girl is worn down, but resilient. She is fearful of the monster, but wants to protect him from his internal demons. I say that this must be an exhausting process for her; to be emotionally hammered by him out of the blue and having to take care of him as well. It is a role many women find themselves in. She says, “The little girl wants to save the monster from himself. She gets triggered when he is sad, angry or withdrawn; just about all the time she sees him.” She never gets to relax; she is always on guard for him to either be miserable and depressed or raging at me. He was such a bully and he took all his anger out on me. He got worse after my mother left him. The courts made me stay with him every other weekend, but that was too much.”

I ask her if there is any figure in the tray or shelf that can help the little girl. She places the calm women next to the little girl and they stand face to face. The calm women tells the little girl that she loves her and my client begins to cry deeply from a well of trauma and loss deep inside her body.

Mary says that the little girl and the calm women have never spoken before. They have been aware of each other’s existence, but have never conversed before. This feels strange and scary to her, but she pushes forward.

The calm women says, “Little girl, I’m going to tell you the truth of what is happening here and I want you to listen. If it becomes too much, let me know and we can take a break and play outside.” The little girl shakes her head in affirmation. The calm woman continues, “This monster is your father, your last boyfriend and your last five boyfriends before him. They all had similar qualities-moody, nasty, hateful. They were very unhappy with their own lives and had no problem taking out all the feelings of not measuring up out on you-the very definition of a bully. You keep choosing men like dad. You refuse to see the red flags at first and inevitably it all comes crashing down. You are not stupid. You haven’t been aware of why you follow this self-destructive path. It is because you believe if you can change these men to become loving instead of hating; then somehow dad will change too and he will be so appreciative of your efforts. Honey, this isn’t going to happen. “

The little girl responds, “You mean I can’t change dad?” The calm women says, “Not only can you not change him or these other men, it is not your job to do so. It is your job to play outside and walk in the sunshine.” The little girl smiles and walks out into the light.

Mary sits and takes in all the figures in the tray. She picks some plastic flowers and greenery. She says, “It is time to honor the little girl. She has absorbed so much pain. It is time to set her free. I will take on this struggle and I will forge ahead with our recovery. I know it won’t be easy letting go of the need to select and change these men, but from this day forward, I really want to learn how to do so.”

The little girl and calm woman look at the monster and simultaneously say, “I know you are in pain, but you have to figure out how to heal yourself. I am not your therapist, I am your daughter. I am going to build a wall between us and that will serve as a boundary and a reminder that I am not to go over or around that wall. It will remind me that I am not responsible for your moods or controlling your demons. Mary places a wall between the monster and the little girl. She feels like she understands the word boundaries for the first time.

The therapy session is about to end and Mary feels that today’s work in the sandtray is a breakthrough for her. She realizes there is much work to be done to expand and hold this empowered place within her. She looks forward to her next session and says goodbye.

Click here for information about Redemption of the Shattered: A Teenager’s Healing Journey through Sandtray Therapy.

If you would like to obtain more information about Sandtray Therapy, please email me at bobsandtraytherapy@gmail.com Thanks!

Written by

Bob utilizes his life experiences as well as professional ones to connect and assist with clients. Bob holds a Masters Degree in Social Welfare that he earned at the University of Kansas in 1979. His California License number is LCS 11087.He has been featured in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Miami Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The Hartford Courant, Natural Health Magazine, The Library Journal, Grand Magazine, Lee’s Summit Journal and Womansday.com. He is an expert on the Oprah/Dr. Oz owned Sharecare.com and he is a frequent contributor to the highly regarded Mentalhelp.net.

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