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Review: The use of clay in therapy workshop

I first touched clay at a pottery evening class two years ago. Straight away I was hooked, and have maintained the hobby ever since. I find the process of manipulating clay incredibly absorbing and have fleetingly wondered about incorporating it into my work as a psychotherapist. I was therefore excited to hear about a workshop called ‘The use of clay in therapy’ arranged by CB Counsellor Training.

The workshop was facilitated by Dr Lynne Souter-Anderson, author of Touching Clay, Touching What? (2010) and Director of Bridging Creative Therapies Consultancy. I attended with the sole aim of working out if and how I could incorporate clay into my therapeutic work with young people. My motivations were purely professional. I could not have anticipated the enormous personal impact the day would have on me.

We began with a straightforward individual task. Seated in a semi-circle, each participant was presented with a lump of clay and a wooden board. Lynne invited us to close our eyes and begin to handle the clay as she guided us through an almost meditative activity, talking gently about the origins and properties of the clay in our hands. The activity lasted about 20 minutes before we were invited to open our eyes and reflect on the process. Several participants shared profound, personal experiences with the group associated with childhood and recent memories, grief, loss and anxiety. The power of touching clay had already begun to assert itself.

The middle activity involved working with a partner, one person in role as client, the other as counsellor. Counsellor observed as client manipulated the clay, commenting on the observed process as appropriate. After 20 minutes we reflected and swapped roles. I was surprised at what came up for me. There had been an unconscious connection to something my partner did in role as client that triggered my work with a current client. As I manipulated the clay I realised that I was producing a symbolic version of the themes my client brings to therapy without even realising it. Having a solid image in front of me helped me to reflect on my own client’s themes and issues.

The final activity was a paired activity, with both partners using clay simultaneously. The person in role of therapist was instructed to focus their attention on the ‘client’ and the client’s clay, while at the same time manipulating clay of their own. I was amazed when my ‘therapist’ produced a representation of what I’d experienced in the morning session and that it linked in my mind to my creation in this activity. I’d manipulated the clay without conscious awareness yet produced something incredibly significant (as had my therapist) to my own childhood. I was aware that this was a training day, rather than a therapy session, and held back explaining to my partner what the activity had provoked for me. But the power of the unconscious in clay work is stronger than that! When we swapped roles and my partner told her story I was astonished that it mirrored my own almost exactly.

Reflecting on the day I thought, if this is what can happen in an artificial setting, in a 20 minute activity, acting in role with a stranger, then imagine what could happen during the therapeutic hour with a client whom I have already built a safe and trusting relationship with. The day persuaded me that I had to incorporate clay into my work and some very practical tips from Lynne persuaded me how to make it possible. Within a week of attending the workshop I was up and running and it feels like a huge privilege to be able to offer clay therapy to my clients of all ages.

© Jeanine Connor 2015

Jeanine Connor MBACP works as a child and adolescent psychodynamic psychotherapist in private practice and in specialist Tier 3 CAMHS and is also a writer, supervisor and trainer.

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