How can internal family systems and sand tray therapy work together to bring us a greater understanding of ourselves? In this post, Arbour Therapist Joan Dosso guides us through her own experience of combining these two powerful approaches.
When I finished my MA in counselling psychology I was living in Edmonton and was faced with the decision of where to start my counselling practice. I had grown up on the west coast and longed for the ocean and to be closer to family. But I was also having a hard time imagining uprooting myself from the life I had built in Edmonton with my community of friends. I decided to take my summer holidays back on Vancouver Island reconnecting with family, friends, and the ocean, and exploring an area of special interest, play therapy. Marie Jose Dhaese, a master play therapist, was offering a course in sand tray (a type of play therapy) at the Centre for Expressive Therapy on Hornby Island, so I attended while holidaying on the coast.
The course was largely experiential, with lots of time for us to create sand trays for ourselves and work through some of our own issues by building a metaphorical external world in a sand tray (a shallow sandbox the size of a small table) with figurines and natural materials (wood, stones, shells) that represented our inner worlds.
People often think play therapy is for children because they are usually still in a stage of life when they are freer to use imagination and play to express themselves without the constraints of adult socialization that values appearing rational, practical and reality-based thinking. However, sand tray is a valuable tool for individuals of any age to access intuitive ways of knowing, break out of being stuck in their rational/thinking brain and use more of the right hemisphere of their brain to help them connect ideas and concepts in fresh and meaningful ways.
The psyche expresses itself in images more than words so the use of objects, symbols and metaphors in sand tray invites the psyche to express itself and explore emotions, different perspectives, and outcomes. Play therapy works from the premise that the psyche has a natural capacity to heal itself given the right conditions, just as our bodies heal themselves given the right conditions (https://www.sandplay.org/about-sandplay/what-is-sandplay/ - Sandplay Therapists of America).
Fast forward several years of my journey as a therapist and I discovered Richard Schwartz, the founder of Internal Family Systems therapy, making the same claim, only he refers to the healing entity within us as the Self rather than the psyche:
“If we are in enough Self-energy we are able to heal ourselves emotionally, just as the body is able to heal itself given it is in the right environment.” (Richard Schwartz, IFS Online Circle Course, 2016).
This shared foundational principle has led me to use an Internal Family Systems (IFS) approach through sand tray allowing clients to externalize their parts in a visual, tactile way and explore the relationships between them. To show how the two work together, I’ll first briefly describe IFS.
Internal Family Systems is a therapeutic approach based on the premise that we all have many subpersonalities, or parts, that are like little people inside of us that have feelings, beliefs, motivations and memories. Our parts do everything for a reason, even if we aren’t consciously aware of the reason. We can get to know them, negotiate with them, encourage them to trust us, and give them what they need to heal and transform to be able to take on healthier roles (Earley, J., Self Therapy, p. 20).
We also come into the world with Self, which isn’t a part, it’s the core you. The Self contains the qualities of calm, curiosity, compassion, creativity, confidence, courage, clarity, connectedness, presence, and perspective. The Self is meant to be the natural leader of the system like an orchestra conductor who has the perspective of seeing/hearing the whole system, bringing out the best of each part at the appropriate time, balancing the parts with each other into a harmonious whole and, as mentioned earlier, has the ability to listen to and heal parts that have been exiled or wounded. (For a deeper discussion of Internal Family Systems see my previous article, “Internal Family Systems: Playing on the Same Team with Yourself”.
It’s no wonder that IFS and sand tray naturally work well together with the figurines in the sand tray giving an external medium to get in touch with parts, explore them, give them a voice, and find out what motivates them and what they fear. Sand tray provides a place to discover who is actually in leadership in the system, how the parts are interacting with each other and “play” out how it would look and feel if they were freed to interact differently, led by Self-energy instead of by protective managers or fearful exiles (Krause, Pamela. “Child Counselling with Internal Family Systems”, IFS Institute).
When given the freedom, children naturally use play to express themselves because they haven’t yet developed parts of themselves that constrain them to conform to a societal-favoured rational approach to life, or they haven’t been wounded in ways that develop protective parts that won’t allow them to be vulnerable, or to explore and “fail” without criticism.
Adults who have kept a creative part of themselves in the forefront often find sand tray a natural way to explore struggles between their parts, but sometimes the most rational people have the most illuminating experiences in the sand tray as they find lost (exiled) parts of themselves that have been shoved aside by strong managers who need to control out of fear, or achieve to prove themselves as competent, or be perfect to protect from feelings of unworthiness. When a client can see a manager dominating another part into silence, perhaps by standing on top of it they realize how out of balance their system is and that they need to make space for less aggressive parts to have their say and offer wisdom.
One client found it very powerful to play out what it looked like physically and felt like emotionally for a manager (action figure) who was all about productivity, to step back, and allow the creative part that worked from a state of flow (woman in white dress) to be set on her feet and given a voice. This image and the emotional “aha” that came with creating it, can guide the client in the future to detect when that manager is triggered into taking over the system and she wants to relax that part to stay in more self-energy.
When I was attending that first Sand tray course some years ago and creating sand trays as part of my learning, I was stewing over whether to stay in Edmonton or move back to the coast to start my counselling practice. My psyche created sand trays that revealed parts of myself I wasn’t aware were influencing me and keeping me stuck when I had previously approached the question using the rational method of listing pros and cons.
One life-changing tray I created featured a path with a fork in the road. One side of the fork had lush vegetation that led to the ocean with glass gems scattered along the path to the water representing the soul food of beauty found there and treasures to be discovered on that path.
The other fork of the path was a completely un- developed barren path leading nowhere, perhaps because I actually had no vision for staying in Edmonton, just strong feelings of sadness as I considered leaving friends and familiarity.
I realized I needed a spiritual guide to help me discern my direction so I returned to the shelf of figurines looking for a representation of my spiritual part. A stern-looking nun practically jumped off the shelf at me! I fought with her, not wanting her to be my guide since I often felt judged and confined by her. But she was an undeniable voice influencing this decision so I felt compelled to put her in my sand tray. The part of me that didn’t want to listen to her because she usually took away the things I really wanted, finally agreed to put her in the tray but insisted on burying her upside down in the sand to shut her up!
When Marie Jose (therapist teaching the course) witnessed my tray and saw the upside-down nun blocking the path to the ocean, she suggested that burying the nun upside down wouldn’t actually stop her from influencing me. I would need to get curious about what she was saying if she was to open the path for me to move forward in my decision.
This tray illuminated for me the real reason I was stuck while trying to make this decision, and it had nothing to do with the practical reasons I had been weighing out in my head. The nun-protector and her outdated fears and judgments needed to be brought out in the open for healing and release.
Being on Hornby Island in summer while taking the sand tray course, I was going swimming every spare moment to bathe my spirit in my beloved ocean that I missed so terribly living in prairie Edmonton. My love of the ocean was obvious as I came back to class from lunch break every day with wet hair, so Marie Jose suggested that I take the nun swimming that evening, and see what she said without her Habit constricting her. This was taking play therapy to another level – literally swimming in the metaphor to explore its possibilities!
My conversation with the nun as I floated and splashed that evening mirrored what my body was experiencing - freedom and permission to go where my heart was drawn. The nun had always tried to keep me safe from making mistakes by enforcing strict rules, judging me harshly for what she perceived as failure (perfection is an awfully high bar!) and squelching desires for a life that wasn’t solely focused on helping others while denying what might bring me joy. The nun was trying to protect me from her childhood perception of a God who was punitive, demanding denial of self and total devotion, which translated into a life of mostly joyless hard work.
While feeling the freedom of swimming without her Habit, enjoying the beauty of nature created by an imaginative, gracious God, the nun loosened her grip. She allowed my Self to step forward and imagine a life that was creative, connected to others and myself in compassion, and courageous to explore new directions. When I looked at the decision of whether to move from Edmonton through the eyes of Self leadership, with the protective nun no longer controlling me, it was clear which direction would be life-giving. I decided as I was towelling off that I would be moving back to the coast and I’ve been there ever since.
Joan Dosso, M.T.S., MA, RCC brings a creative approach to therapy that helps her clients understand and integrate their emotional worlds. You can find out more about Joan here: meet Joan.
Dosso, Joan (2021). “Internal Family Systems: Playing on the Same Team with Yourself” https://www.arbourcounselling.ca/post/internal-family-systems-playing-on-the-same-team-with-yourself).
Earley, Jay. Self-therapy: a step-by-step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child, second edition (Pattern System Books, 2009).
Schwartz, Richard & Gordhamer, Soren. Becoming Whole: Healing the Exiled & Rejected Parts of Ourselves (Podcast).
Krause, Pamela. “Child Counselling with Internal Family Systems”, IFS Institute https://ifs-institute.com/resources/articles/child-counseling-internal-family-systems-therapy