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Creativity and Trauma - 4/5

Last week, Sarah Van Gogh introduced us to Shaz, a middle-aged woman of Pakistani heritage experiencing chronic pain in her shoulders. In the penultimate part of this series on working creatively with trauma, we see how facilitating an imaginary dialogue between the client and a mysterious figure led the past to lessen its grip.


The beauty of fostering a dialogue between Shaz and her imagined figure was that I didn’t need to know for sure who or what the figure represented, or how they had come to be formed in her unconscious. Simply allowing better communication between more unconscious and more conscious parts of her would be healing an internal split, and helping her to integrate painful past experiences.

Me: “I wonder what would happen if you could let him know that you understand that he’s there to protect you, but that he seems to be hurting you quite a bit as he does so? Would you be able to let him know that?”

Shaz: “Yes, I think so. Mmm.”

Another long pause.

Me: “How does he seem to react?”

Shaz: (After a pause) “He actually… actually seems a bit sorry. Like, he’s almost taken aback that it’s been so painful for me. Not exactly that he’s saying sorry, but more like he’s saying he didn’t know – didn’t know that it had hurt me so much. It all just got a bit out of hand – his trying to keep me safe.”

Me: “Yes. Out of your handS and into his – literally!”

Shaz: (With a wry laugh) “Yes.”

Me: “I wonder if there is a way you and he could agree some kind of compromise – something that means he still gets to protect you, but in a way that’s not so… heavy handed.”

Shaz: “Literally again!”

We both smiled. She paused and closed her eyes again to help her speak in her imagination to the figure.

Shaz: “I asked him if he could maybe, still be there, behind me, but just have his hands lightly resting on my shoulders.”

Me: “Right. What does he make of that request?”

Shaz: “He… Yes, he gets it. He’s going to try. He says, he’s just going to put them there gently. And not dig his fingers in this time.”

Me: “That sounds quite different. How is that?”

Shaz wiggled her shoulders and a small smile appeared on her face. “It’s much better. My shoulders really do feel a bit better.” She opened her eyes and looked at me, and we exchanged a look for some time. Then her eyes filled with tears once more.

Shaz: “I… I’m just suddenly thinking of my dad, you know. It’s just made me sad all of a sudden to think of how, if I could have reasoned with him, back when he felt he had to discipline us kids, in the same way that I’ve been able to reason with this guard-guy, then…” She sighed deeply.

Shaz: “But I couldn’t. And I feel sad for that little girl I was, who always got smacked by her dad whenever she put a foot wrong. And I even feel a bit sad for my dad too. Because I think he thought he was doing what had to be done, too – he was like the guard. He thought he had to be strict with us. He thought it was for our own good when he shouted at us and smacked us to try and teach us good manners.”

Without the need for any small prompt or guiding comment from me, Shaz was making powerful connections between the image of the dark figure who had been gripping her, and her experience of her father in her childhood.

Me: “That does sound sad – to think of how limited your dad’s repertoire of how to teach you all good manners might have been.”

Shaz: “Mmm. I mean he was probably just doing what his dad did to him. Handing it on, you know.”

Me: “Handing on some of the pain of being physically punished for childhood naughtiness?”

Shaz: (Wiping her eyes with a tissue) “Yes. I used to feel a bit stupid to think ‘Poor me!’ about the times he used to hit me. But now I feel more like, ‘Poor me and poor him!’ Poor all of us when he got mad and lashed out!”

Although she still had some tears on her cheeks, Shaz now seemed very different following this imagined dialogue with, and reflection on the meaning of, her powerful guarding figure. She had been tightly anxious, defended and pained. Now she was more relaxed in her demeanour, her gaze seemed brighter, and she had a generally more animated manner.

All of this spoke to the likelihood that she had integrated and processed a little more of some old trauma that she had been left with, due to the physical punishments she had received from her father when she had been a young child.

In next week’s concluding blog, I will look at how making space in a session for music and poetry, even if that is only in very small, subtle ways, can be powerfully effective in processing old traumas.


Sarah Van Gogh

Before training as a counsellor 20 years ago, Sarah worked in the fields of Theatre-in-Education and community health outreach. She now works in private practice, and is one of the trainers on the counselling diploma at the Re-Vision Centre in London.

She also worked for 7 years as a counsellor and trainer at Survivors UK, a service for men who have experienced sexual violation. Her book Helping Male Survivors of Sexual Violation to Recover – Stories From Therapy was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2018. She is the co-editor with Chris Robertson of Transformation in Troubled Times published by TransPersonal Press in 2018. She writes a regular column for the BACP Private Practice Journal.

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