Expressive Therapies: addressing some common misconceptions

Expressive therapy provides a range of interactive, creative arts-based, projective techniques and interventions. It draws both on the principles of psychotherapy as well as the creative experience of the client to gain insight and to achieve growth, healing and integration.

There are a few common misconceptions about the work I do with clients that I’d like to highlight and address:

First of all, it is not just for children. I have personally worked with kids from as young as 5 years old through to fully-fledged adults in senior management positions. The important thing is not your age. It’s that you keep an open attitude and park your inner critic outside the room whilst allowing yourself to create and be free to play – with the sand, with figures, with colours, with movement, with sound.

I am not a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. I do not try to interpret the drawings or sandtrays, provide any kind of diagnosis or label based on the creation or provide clients with answers about “what they should do next” in their life. My aim is always to guide my client in the creation of something that has meaning for them, which might, in turn, allow them to gain some insight into their life situation or next steps. This may happen during the session or at a later stage as the process unfolds over a number of weeks.

It is not just for clients recovering from severe trauma. While sandplay therapy and expressive therapies have proved effective as a treatment for both trauma and mental health problems, it has also proven effective for those who are going through a life transition (post-natal, death of a beloved family member or friend, loss of a job, painful break-up of a relationship or divorce etc.) and would like to use it as a catalyst for the recovery of their sense of self.

It is not just for those who consider themselves “creative”. Creative ability is innate in humans. Sadly it often gets blocked as we grow up by the “shoulds and oughts” as we are pressured by the prevailing culture into leaving our playfulness behind. When we feel stuck in a life, or seem to have lost our sense of passion or purpose, it is often a lack of creative problem-solving that prevents us from seeing the way forward. Being conscious of your creative ability is not a requirement or a determinant in any way as to whether you will benefit from an expressive therapy sessions. In fact, sometimes, there is no activity involved in the session. My sessions are client-led; therefore, the decision of taking part in an expressive exercise is up to the client. Naturally, I will usually suggest an option for creative expression when I sense it might be helpful for my client.

The representation created facilitates further communication. It allows the creator to access parts of themselves that are not so easily accessible otherwise. As an expressive psychotherapist, I refer to these parts as coming from the sub-conscious or even the unconscious. Whatever is created, in the sand or on the page, reflects back at us both – you as the client and me as the therapist – and brings us into a deeper space, a sacred space ready to be gently and reverently explored and seen. It is this projective nature of expressive Sandplay and Symbol Work that affords us an opportunity to see ourselves outside of ourselves and to reflect upon what is seen.

This three-way relationship, between client, therapist and the creative process is a key element of the work. Clients often experience this approach as less threatening as it provides an indirect platform for discussion rather than addressing emotional problems in a straightforward verbal fashion. Let’s face it: it’s usually our own thinking patterns or entrenched beliefs or habits that got us stuck in an uncomfortable place – if telling someone what to do fixed the problem, or just talking about it solved things, it most likely would have been solved long before reaching my office!

What do you think?

Our thoughts shape the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. The biggest changes in my personal journey of growth came about when I began to recognize that the majority of the thoughts I was thinking weren’t actually true (big thank-you to Byron Katie’s The Work What?! Thoughts aren’t true?! That’s right. Most of us have a constant stream of thoughts running through our heads. It’s like watching the ticker-tape at the bottom of the screen on a TV news channel – mostly on red alert. And most of it is FAKE NEWS!

So what do you think? As I learned through various trainings in mindfulness practice, the majority of my thoughts (and probably yours too if you take time to notice) could be divided into two categories: reminiscing about the past and getting lost in regrets of “if-onlys” or bombarding myself with “what-ifs” and catastrophizing about some imagined form of dystopian-style future for myself or my children. Naturally, this meant I was existing in a perpetual state of stress and fear.

When I learned to step back, breath and examine the thoughts, I began to notice that there were a number of repetitious thought loops and common themes to my constant over-thinking. Using an activity called the Daily Pages from the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, I became more aware of the habitual thoughts and patterns that were driving me. Caught up in these thought loops, which would then trigger corresponding feelings which in turn would create a deeper and deeper groove for the thought-train to run along.

And so, the antedote?

Meditation. High on the list. I attended an 8 week MBSR training in Singapore led by Sheryl Bathman, as well as regularly attending various classes with Toby Ouvry and a few online courses. I attended a 10-day Vipassana Silent Retreat which – whilst challenging on many levels – really gave me a clearer understanding of the meaning of being present.

Change the way that you talk to yourself about yourself in your head. Yes. I did this. It worked. I consciously forced (in a kind and loving way naturally!) myself to be kind to myself about myself. I created a loving mantra that I would repeat over and over in my head. If I could spend 40+ years allowing myself to be bullied by myself in my head, I would need to make a conscious effort to reverse it. And so, deliberately, I began with “I am happy, I am well and I am loved”. Trust me, it felt ridiculous at first, but my negative side (having been so dominant in my psyche for many years) wasn’t going to give up its space in my head that quickly or easily. Slowly, as the new habit built, my inner experience of myself and my automatic thinking habits began to change.

Focus on the good. Whatever has happened in your life, whatever your perception of those events, whatever your core beliefs about how the world works bringing your focus onto what is working, what is good, what is beautiful will bring about change. Gratitude and appreciation for the good will change you. If you wish to be inspired, watch Alice Hertz-Sommer, survivor of World War Two’s Holocaust explain, at the age of 108, her philosophy on how to live a long and happy life:

So. What do YOU think?

Now Is The Time

There are many strengths, values, characteristics and habits we develop throughout our lives but among the most important for me right now are creativity, gratitude, simplicity, purpose, and resiliency. Now is the time to strengthen and draw on them all, in whatever capacity we can, in service of the greater good.

For me this means increasing time in contemplative prayer and meditation, online yoga classes, cooking nourishing foods for my family and focusing on the good that emerges in a crisis whilst still honouring the heaviness in my heart as I grieve for the world I knew before January 2020 and for those suffering illness and despair.

It also means letting go of some ways of showing up in the world, going more slowly than usual, accepting the limitations willingly, and considering more creative ways to be present for others as time passes.

What would resiliency look like for you? How are you using this time to reflect and let go of that which no longer serves?

#resiliency #wellbeing #beingwell #selfcare #strengths

Training Alert!

Sandplay and Symbol Work Certificate Course 2018/19 is starting soon in Singapore.  don’t miss this opportunity to build your therapeutic skills and learn from practicing therapist, senior lecturer and author Helen Wilson of the Expressive Therapies Institute of Australia (ETIA ).

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The Certificate consists of  four 3-day workshops and will be hosted by Tanglin Trust School‘s Professional Development Centre in Singapore on the following dates:

Level One: 20th – 22nd June 2018

Level Two: 27th -29th  Nov 2018

Level Three 30th Jan – 1st Feb 2019

Level Four 6th – 8th March 2019

Specifically aimed at those already working in the helping professions such as Counsellors, Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Creative Arts Therapists, Social Workers, Youth Workers, and Chaplains, those who are simply curious to learn more about Sandplay and Symbol Work for their own personal growth and development are also welcome to join.

Participants with prior training in the helping professions will receive the Certificate in Sandplay Therapy & Symbol Work.  Those without a professional qualification will be awarded a Statement of Attendance.

The course is recognised by the Australian Creative Arts Therapies Association, and by the Australian Counselling Association, and a number of PACFA member associations, for professional development points.

For more details complete the form below:





People reach out to me as a therapist when they feel stuck.   Something isn’t working. Something is wrong.  I’m suffering.  I’m in pain.  My heart is broken.  I feel so flat. Nothing seems to matter much to me any more.   I want my life to change.

Now, if you’ve being hanging around on Planet Earth for a few years you’ll know by now that the path through life isn’t guaranteed to be a smooth one and life for many people often involves pain, suffering, disappointment and misery at some point or the other. Often on the way to our dream life we find that something goes wrong, something gets lost in translation and life doesn’t quite work out the way we thought it was meant to. We can’t control what happens to us (no matter how much New Age Positive Thinking we do).  We can only control how we decide to respond to it.  How we allow it to shape us or define us.

Often people tell me that they want something different in their lives to the reality of what is.  And that is where their pain resides.  It is the gap between what is actually happening and what they wish was happening.  Trauma shapes the way we perceive the world around us, how we interpret social situations, how we translate events, and the narratives we create to keep ourselves safe. There are so many pieces to this puzzle of reality it is hard to know where to focus.  And it is our focus that transforms our experience of reality.

Often we claim we want to transform our lives but transformation involves surrender, acceptance and a willingness to change our story about who we are, what we believe about ourselves and what we think about the world around us.  We can’t demand that others change and expect not to do the work ourselves.

And yet, so often, what we say we want and what we are really open to are very different things.  Caroline Myss wrote a wonderful article on this topic that made me nod my head in agreement as I read it.  Click here to read it for yourself   As usual, she nails it.  So many of us claim we want to change but in reality?   Our ego tries to control and limit – as egos so often do.  “Dear God, Please change these things in my life, but only in ways that I won’t find too difficult or painful.  Don’t make me look at my Shadow, my role in creating this situation or how I might be contributing to or perpetuating my own pain.   Oh and please Dear God, make it all about other people and events and make sure that they change to make my life better.”   Hmmm.

So do you REALLY want to transform your life?  Are you REALLY ready to surrender? What are you willing to give up to undergo transformation?  Your ego?  Your point of view?  Your need to be right?  Your need to be a victim?  Your need to be the hero?  The rescuer?  Any transformation worth its salt must involve change.  It must also involve death. Yes death!  Death of the old way of being, the old way of seeing, speaking, thinking, acting and the birth of the new.  Ego death.  There are many archetypal representations of this energy.   One of my favourites is the Hindu Goddess Kali.  Kali is one of many goddesses from ancient cultures that represent the cycle of life, death and rebirth.  Kali is a demon-slayer.  The goddess Durga is attempting to kill the demon Raktabija but with every wound she inflicts on him, more demons are spawning as his blood drips onto the ground.  Kali comes to Durga’s aid, preventing the demon army from spawning by catching the drops of Raktabija’s blood on her lolling tongue before they are able to take root in the Earth and multiply.  She brings an end to suffering by facing the enemy, preventing the negativity from taking root and multiplying.   She slaughters the remaining demons and dances on their corpses.  Only when Shiva lays himself beneath her feet can she shake off her destructive dance and become calm again.

Only when we are willing to engage with the determination and ferocity of the archtypal Kali to face our inner demons, and stop our repetitive negative “stinking thinking” (as they call it in the 12-step programme) can we begin our transformation.   As author and teacher Tosha Silver writes, Kali is the embodiment of a ferocious love, a love of the Self, and a willingness to stand against the Ego’s games and take no prisoners!

My favourite authors on this topic:

Byron Katie “Loving What Is”
Tosha Silver “Outrageous Openness”

And, of course, anything and everything by Caroline Myss!


Anyone ready to look at their dark side?  It’s not a place many of us like to go.  Let’s be honest.  We prefer to think of ourselves as the good side, light-workers, healers, at the vanguard of a shift in consciousness.   I’m listening to an online workshop with Carolyn Myss and Andrew Harvey exploring the Shadow.   As I listened to this week’s episode (week 2, Shadow in Personal Relationship) Caroline Myss asserted that everything in life is an extension of our shadow and nothing happens without being driven archetypally.   We either become conscious and own it, recognise it and use it to help us remain humble or it will reek havoc as we unconsciously act it out or project it on to others.   I was reminded of William Shakespeare’s lines from As You Like It (Act II, Scene vii) “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;  They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.”

the world as a stage

Imagine.  Most of us are operating at a level where we think the performance is real.  We take on the roles, rejecting some parts, embracing others. Projecting our shadow onto others, judging and condemning the wrong-doers.   All the time believing that the character we’ve created – our personality – is the director of the play.   I mean, we are in control right?  And the show must go on.  We remain oblivious to the fact that there are other characters – subpersonalities Assagioli called them – also participating in our show uninvited, rejected, avoided, denied.   Archetypal shadows undermining our performance, tripping us up, catching us unaware.   It is not until we can embrace our darkness as well as our light that we can truly become all that we can possibly be.  All that we were born to be.

It also brought to mind one of my all time favourite Rumi quotes:


My life journey and my work is dedicated to finding this field. There. I’ve said it. Committed it to writing!  Until I find it, I cannot rest, for there will always be work to be done.

Useful Links if you want to know more:

The Shadow Course by Caroline Myss and Andrew Harvey is available via Sounds True 
More on Roberto Assagioli’s psychosynthesis

What is Expressive Therapy?

Not everyone likes to talk about what’s bothering them.  Sometimes it’s hard to think your way out of a situation when no obvious solution presents itself.  Expressive therapies bring the opportunity to explore the psyche in a creative and playful way.

So many of us seem to lose our ability to engage our imagination and creativity.  We decry our situation in life, and wonder why we have lost our sense of passion and purpose.  Expressive Therapies provide an alternative way of engaging with the issues.  A different way of viewing our life situation.  A creative way of exploring the options open to us as we move forward,  allowing our imagination, our intuition, and our creativity to flow again.

I offer my clients weekly sessions in which we might engage in activities such as drawing, painting, writing, visualising, meditating, movement, listening to or making music, empathetic role-play, sand-play or symbol work which allow you to explore your inner landscape in ways that traditional talk therapy doesn’t.  Each of these expressive activities has its own unique therapeutic benefit and use depending on the client, the setting, the situation and the objectives set as desired outcomes.  We talk.  I listen with an open-mind and an empathetic stance as we look to find the luminous space beyond right and wrong where fresh ideas emerge.

For a deeper exploration of the history, theory and practice of expressive therapies I recommend reading “Using Expressive Arts to Work With Mind, Body and Emotion” by Mark Pearson and Helen Wilson available to order here or Cathy Malchiodi’s book “Expressive Therapies” Available on Amazon

Click to read a chapter of Cathy Malchiodi’s book “Expressive Therapies”

What is Sandplay Therapy?

what is sandplay therapySandplay is deceptively simple to the untrained eye.  After all, what could be complicated about putting a few miniature figures in a sandtray?  Perhaps adding water or moving the sand to form hills and valleys?  Maybe moving the figures around and creating a narrative about what’s happening?  And yet, so complex in its ability to have a profound effect on people’s wellbeing.  Research has shown that it can have a profound healing effect in the lives of both adults and children.  In the therapy room there will always be a tray, perhaps even two (one wet and one dry).  The tray is always blue on the inside, with proportions constructed precisely to enable the person standing in front of it to observe the whole scene without moving or having to look from side to side.  Why blue on the inside?  To represent sky or water. Only natural coloured sand is used and preferably fine-grade.  Some things are tactile and need to be experienced.

If you have a memory as a child of playing on a sunny day, on a beach with sand and water then you will know that it can transport you into another world.  A sensory, three-dimensional representation of the client’s current situation represented by the symbols they’ve chosen.  Verbal expression is always optional.  The therapist might ask the client: “is there anything you’d like to tell me about what you’ve created here?”.   This is a client-centred therapy.   And yet, Sandplay therapy is so much more than simply sand and play.


Developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Swiss Jungian psychoanalyst, Dora Kalff (1904 – 1990) Sandplay has its roots in Jungian therapy.  Kalff studied with Carl Jung himself, as well as spending a year with London-based child psychiatrist Margaret Lowenfield who had developed a therapy known as the World Technique in her efforts to help children express themselves on difficult topics, which in turn drew inspiration from the observations of author H. G. Wells who wrote about watching his sons play with miniature figures and seeming to resolve their difficulties through what he called Floor Games.  Kalff had a fascination with Eastern spirituality which she incorporated into her work.  She hosted Tibetan monks at her home in Zurich when they had been exiled from their homeland by the Chinese annexation in the early 1950s.  When parents saw the positive outcomes in her work with their children, they requested personal sessions for themselves and her work was extended to include adults.   Kalff saw Sandplay as a non-verbal therapeutic means of reaching the central core of being, what Jungians call the Self.  Life is journey of “Self” discovery and the path to achieving this is known as the individuation process.  Sandplay therapy is a vehicle to support the process of individuation and becoming whole.


dora kalff

Jungian therapists believe that, given the right circumstances, the psyche’s natural tendency is to seek balance and healing.  The tools for this healing lie within us, if we are willing to give ourselves the chance to find them.  The three-dimensional nature of Sandplay touches and opens parts of the psyche that talking alone cannot.  It is hands-on therapeutic work, where the client is given the opportunity to spend time reflecting and engaging with both conscious and subconscious issues.  Sometimes a client will chose a symbol but then say: “I have no idea what that is or what it’s doing there!”.   Through Sandplay, the client is expressing something non-verbally, that they are unable to access intellectually.  And yet there it is, being included and witnessed as part of their creation.

The therapist’s role is to hold a space, as a silent witness to the unfolding creation, what Kalff called a “free and protected” space. The walls of the Sandplay therapist’s office are often filled with miniature figurines and objects from nature, fantasy and daily life.  The client choses figures from the shelves and places them in the tray.  As soon as an object is chosen it becomes a symbol or as Jung would say “it becomes alive with meaning” for the client.  A red rose could hold significance in different ways to different people: perhaps romance? Perhaps a wedding? A funeral? Or a garden?  A gift? thorns? petals? A rose garden? In Spring time? In Summer time? Or the last Autumn rose?


red rose

All symbols hold the tension of opposites.  They represent the multitude of options available to our psyches.  This symbolic language, activated by the simple action of picking an object (or many) to place in the tray, triggers different ways of thinking, seeing, touching, believing on multiple levels in the client.  These symbols help us to reconcile the opposites within our psyche, the good, the bad, the rejected, the accepted, the things we love, the things we hate.  They are a bridge between our conscious and unconscious mind.

The client’s psyche responds to the Sandplay creation.  It reconciles and realigns itself in accordance to what it sees, what it touches, what it senses.  Neurological changes occur as the client places these symbolic figurines, as they shape and move the sand itself, rearrange and observe their own creative work. This deceptively simple process opens us up to something new and creative. The client has moved from the left-brain of logic, linear, rational thinking, into engagement with the right-brain activities of imagination and intuition.  When both come together there is a liminal space, a gateway, where reality and fantasy meet and something new can emerge.  Just as the dream-state at night gives us access to our unconscious inner world, so do the various symbols engaged in the Sandplay session.

The therapist’s role is not to interpret on behalf of the client, to interfere with, or direct the client’s Sandplay in any way.  It is simply to be empathetic, receptive, accepting and allow the client time and space to meet and work with the material that emerges from their own psyche into the tray.  By moving away from expecting the therapist to be the expert, Sandplay empowers the client to bring their own insights, their own revelations and their own reflections on what has emerged in their Sandplay session.  The client might wish to speak about their experience of the process, their creation and their observations.  The trained Sandplay therapist supports the process with an invitational and open stance, but doesn’t direct the conversation or put any interpretation on what the client has chosen.

sand mandala


In my personal experience, the only way to truly understand this simple yet complex therapeutic work is to participate in your own Sandplay process.  A commitment to a series of trays over a period of weeks can bring a significant insights and be truly transformational.  But don’t take my word for it – come and play!



Recommended reading:

Sandplay: A Psychotherapeutic Approach to the Psyche by Dora Kalff

Images of the Self: The Sandplay Therapy Process by Estelle L. Weinrib

Sandplay and Symbol Work by Mark Pearson and Helen Wilson