As a therapist, I have a range of materials that clients can draw on in their therapy to help them make sense of their experiences and one of the most popular is clay.
It’s hard to think about the origins of the clay that we use in therapy, but it actually started being formed millions of years ago when feldspar rock disintegrated. The clay we use in therapy is either buff (grey) or terracotta (red) but the only difference is the mineral content between the two.
Interestingly, client choice of colour is often deeply significant for them, whether they are aware of this or not. Grey clay is often chosen when working on issues around death, but red is often chosen when themes around nurture and nourishment are being worked on – this is not just my experience, many other therapists find the same trends.
Clay is literally found all over the world and is one of the two forms of the very Earth we inhabit that we use in therapy. The other form is sand, but this is geographically ‘younger’ than clay (more on that another day). Both are different forms of earth and handle differently. Clay being older, appears to connect us more to the primal side of being human – connecting us to the earth and grounding us in our experiences.
Many cultures revere and honour the Earth, even Jung considered earth to ‘contain the captive world-soul’. It is hard to play with clay and not to be drawn by its energy and how it behaves in the hands. Many clients, young and older, are drawn to clay and can feel very connected to it, drawing on it’s strength. As an artist, long before I was a therapist, clay was a medium that really spoke deeply to me and it is something I often return to in my own life. Some therapists use alternatives, but in my experience, it is the very nature of the clay that brings about the deep work for clients, where they really explore how they feel at a fundamental level, and nothing else replicates this.
As a therapist, I am integrative, which means I draw on many different approaches to psychology. Working with clay is very Jungian and Jung makes links between the identical psychological material of both clay and our primal selves. When a client works with clay in therapy, it becomes an outward image of their inner thoughts – bridging the gap between the two inner and outer worlds.
Whether clients are just safely giving their feelings to the clay or whether they ‘make’ something the outcomes from working with are hugely therapeutic. Clay is very resilient and forgiving – you can hit it, tear it, pound it, twist it, roll it, slam it, cut it and more. You can give it all the negative feelings you can and then remould it into something that represents all your feelings; positive and/or negative. The range of tactile experiences with clay are as broad as the client wants them to be. Adding water brings a whole new dimension to the experience.
Free exploration of the clay is where the learning and healing takes place for the client, so as with many other things in the therapy room, as long as everyone and everything is safe, a lot can go on.
Clients learn a lot about themselves in the process of working with clay. Many are quiet as they go deep into whatever they are working on, but as therapists, their story unfolds in front of us, whether they talk about their work or not. Many clients struggling with their mental health or trauma experiences find working with clay tremendously beneficial as the concentration they experience working with clay gives them a chance to be immersed in their process and emotional shifts often occur for them when working with clay, especially if it used repeatedly in sessions.
If you are interested in learning more about clay therapy, Lynne Souter Anderson’s work is tremendously interesting and informative and was the basis for writing this piece.