As a continuation of the first part of this article, the role of symbolism and symbolic acts in the healing of past trauma is long standing and can be quite effective. Past events affect us traumatically through the recognition of symbols. Parking garages, fireworks, men with dark hair…these images take us back to the incident that is now burned into our right brain. Yet, if the sound of fireworks triggers flashbacks in an Iraqi Vet, this same individual can be “guided” to recognize something symbolic from Iraq with a strong positive, peaceful meaning. Perhaps this veteran’s primary image of Iraq is the desert and his symbol of the desert is the cactus. He engages in the act of planting a cactus, one he will care for and nurture. He does so in his therapist’s office, a safe place, while invoking peaceful images and positive memories. He now has a piece of his past memories to his time in the Middle East linked to this positive event.
One of the most widely known uses of symbolic action in therapy is Fritz Perl’s The Empty Chair. Born of Gestalt therapy, this technique encourages the client to become more present-minded by bringing a traumatic event to the here-and-now…where the client can now feel safe to address it. The client is presently granted the opportunity to speak to those that have victimized them in the past. While the event may have been months or years ago, the resolution the client so deeply seeks occurs in their present. And the present is all we can change.
In my own practice, it is so important that traumatized client recognize that I am going to walk this path with them toward healing. We sometimes symbolize our alliance in overcoming the trauma quite simply. The client provides a symbol of the traumatic event. The dress worn during a violent rape, for example. A snippet of the tag from the dress is removed from the garment and placed in a “possibles bag” (similar to a medicine pouch), which is worn to the sessions. The client recognizes that this is a joint venture towards healing as well as reducing the feelings of “alone-ness” in their trauma.
From Shamans to Carl Jung to Fritz Perls, symbolism and the symbolic act has been a powerful tool in healing emotional pain and moving towards a more peaceful present.