If you look on my twitter bio you will see I describe myself as a pepper plant. This image came to me when asked to describe where I was right now in my life, and it has stuck. When a symbol strikes us as meaningful you have to be willing, I believe, to explore it. Sometimes this is what scares people about therapy. They believe if they mention anything the therapist will interpret it, snakes become phallus’, key holes vagina, and a simple memory of childhood overladen with meaning and reinterpretation that is directed by the therapist. Of course in traditional psychotherapy this was, and is, the approach taken. Symbols are used to dig beneath the surface, to circumvent any barriers the client may have to self-awareness. However it is very much therapist led, a way of working that Rodgers was rebelling against when he first described client led therapy.
Does this mean the person centered therapist cannot use symbols?
I don’t believe so. The human mind is full of symbols, and indeed in the modern world it is a rare person who is unaware that certain things have been given meaning by experts. Who is to say that if a person now dreams of cigars and snakes that it is not a sex dream precisely because their subconscious has heard of the ideas of Freud? Symbols and symbolic thinking exist. As person centered therapists however we must be sure to listen for those symbols which matter to the client. Not to offer interpretation but to provide that space where the client themselves can explore what something means to them.
So, why am I a pepper plant?
In the spring I bought two very weedy seedlings from a local shop. They were nothing special to look at but they were cheap. I repotted them with basic compost and put them on a sunny windowsill. Now, in the last week of October, as the temperature drops they are still fruiting. glossy green fruit, and this will be the sixth crop in total. I see myself in these plants, discovering my potential late, and in unexpected ways. Needing nurturing and care, but not too much. If we looked at Maslow perhaps there is an argument that just like the plants I needed somewhere safe, secure, protected, in order to produce the unexpected fruit. I may have believed I was in that place previously but there was no “crop” to show for it.
Working with Symbols
Were I sitting in the other chair, with someone using the symbol of the pepper plants how could I approach this in a person centered manner? I think the answer is to always ask what the symbol means to the client. Here for example I could ask;
- Why was the growth unexpected?
- What nurturing do the plants need now
- How can the plants be looked after to make it through the winter
These questions look to the past, the here and now, and the future, without any interpretation on the therapists part. Looking at them I am reminded of how I often feel overlooked, and a neediness that can cause, I am also reminded of the need for self-care in the lean times, the emotional winter. A further thought occurs, that winter is a natural part of the cycle, that it is OK to have less productive times, in order that we can bear fruit at the right time.
So this simple image, of my pepper plants on my windowsill has allowed me to not only understand where I am now, but how I can look after myself in the future. Working with a symbol that had meaning to me, and to me alone.