How can I learn to unblend and unburden parts using miniatures in the sand tray?
Our latest sandplay teacher Laura McGuinness, who is also a level 2 trained IFS therapist, explains more …
Sandplay is a non-verbal way of working at unconscious levels of the psyche. The non-directive nature allows children, young people, and adults the freedom to express their inner world creatively until they are ready to integrate aspects consciously. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapy based on the idea we all naturally contain subpersonalities or parts, separated into the roles of protectors and exiles. Exiles are the wounded parts, capsules of experience tied to the past which may or may not be available to consciousness. Protectors are consumed with managing the pain of exiles and keeping affect and memory at bay, no matter what. The aim of IFS is to bring parts in contact with Self, the natural leader of the internal system with an innate healing capacity. You can read more about IFS here.
Sandplay and IFS can be integrated because both methods work with and hold different aspects of a client’s psyche. Parts show up naturally in sand.
It captures an internal world in that moment, and both Sandplay and IFS help us to differentiate and integrate. IFS and Sandplay can be integrated on both implicit and explicit levels. Implicitly the therapist who is aware of both will be able to contain the developmental and archetypal process. They can also hold in mind the function of certain parts and notice the appearance of young and wounded aspects. This allows us as therapists to listen carefully to what is happening in the tray.
On an explicit level integrative sandplay therapists may decide to combine the models through guided interventions and directed trays. They will in fact invite clients to externalise parts. Some clients, particularly children, will naturally do this.
Children and young people may not be suited to ‘going inside’ in the traditional IFS sense. Externalisation through play is essential if we are to build Self-part connections and gain a glimpse of their internal world.
This method is especially useful for those clients who struggle with visualisation. Also, those of us who lack an internal sense of safety in our bodies, as well as adults who experience shame around the idea of free play in the sand. We can use the safety of distance and containment through sandplay while integrating the model of IFS to create a trauma-informed way of working. This encapsulates both top-down and bottom-up ways of processing which can be adapted to the needs of each client.
In sandplay therapy, the simple act of selecting a figure to represent a part and placing it in the tray creates a method of unblending. This allows us to see it and be with it whilst the exiled part heals.
Clients can use symbolic play to externalise groups of parts in order to explore how these parts interact with each other. The aim is to help clients acknowledge disowned parts or exiles that protective parts guard and acknowledge the burdens these parts carry. The beauty of sand tray is this process happens naturally without the therapist having to do anything.
We can help a client externalise the struggle between different figures or parts which may on the surface appear to work against each other. We can therefore explore the dialogues between protectors and exiles using questions such as: ‘how is that part trying to help?’, ‘what is the part afraid would happen if it wasn’t doing this job?’, ‘who are they protecting?’, and ‘how do you feel towards that part?’.
By staying curious, we can learn how a part or figure in the sand feels, what its role is and what might help it to relax. When clients encounter wounded parts in a sand tray they can, through the safety of distance and projection, offer compassion and be with that part in the way it needed long ago.
Sandplay therapy using IFS works in a playful, effortless way that is perfect for children, young people and traumatised adult clients.
For those clients who cannot access this compassion the modelling and self-energy of the therapist will provide a scaffolding for future integration. Some clients may be able to represent the Self in the sand by using for example a crystal. This interaction often helps a relationship between parts and Self to begin to emerge.
In my experience, clients who have dissociative parts or parts based around distraction from pain may be more able to stay with the process via the safety of externalisation. The projection onto miniatures creates some distance, which does not feel as threatening to other protective or manager parts. In this way we avoid the “popcorn” effect of many parts popping up to defend the part being worked with.
Similarly, IFS gives us a model for working with those clients who may find it difficult to stay with a tray or to manage the somatic reactions parts may have in response to sandplay
As integrative Sandplay therapists we are always working with parts whether disowned, introjected or related to collective material. Sandplay therapy gives us a birds-eye view of a clients psyche and therefore a client’s internal system. If we are working at an unconscious level, we are working with parts. The integration between Sandplay and IFS is a natural step, suitable for both children and adults.
Laura will be teaching an Introduction to Integrative Sandplay Weekend course on May 13th/14th 2023. You can book it here.
She will also be teaching the Certificate in Integrative Sandplay in Autumn 2023. You can find more details and book onto our next Certificate course beginning Saturday 16th September with Tina Hesse here.