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Symbolic Approaches

Often, in the discussion of symbolism in counseling, people's thoughts are drawn to the application of dream work. While this is one aspect of the symbolic approach to counseling, there are many more symbolic elements that are explored as part of the therapeutic work with clients. Even in classic talk therapies, symbolism encompasses the totality of the session. Counselors and clients use symbols through their speech, nonverbal communication, and even the counseling relationship itself (Goud, 2001). Symbolic comprehension is crucial to effective communication and conceptualization of therapeutic process.

Symbolic approaches to counseling are established in the belief that clients' reality is based on their interpretation of symbols (i.e., words, interactions, objects, etc.) in their lives. From a symbolic approach to counseling, clients are in search of meaning and definition in their lives. Whether or not people are aware of it, they infuse meaning into every aspect of their daily lives. Clients' perceptions upon entering counseling may be focused on symbols that, through faulty representations, create an unpleasant or unmanageable reality for them. Effective use of the symbolic approach must take into account the client's social context. The goal of symbolic counseling is to aid clients in redefining the symbols and their interpretation of symbols in their lives.

In the following excerpt from a counseling session, the client shares a situation that he perceives as the source of his presenting problem. Using William Glasser's reality therapy theory, the counselor explores the choices that the client is making to satisfy his drives.

Client: I really wish my wife would get over this car thing. A new "Benz" is just what I need to fit in at the agency. I keep telling her this will pay off when the "uppers" notice me, but... (sigh) I don't know. She says it's either the car or her.

Counselor: Tell me what this car represents for you.

Client: Well . . . status, you know, makes it look like I'm doing things with the little money they pay me. Investing and ... nobody wants to promote someone who isn't making moves, you know.

Counselor: So, you want to look the part of someone with a certain status and freedom to "make moves," to belong?

Client: Well. . . when you put it like that it sounds a little selfish and like I'm some kid no one wants to play with so I'm hying to fit in. (laughs) I guess I could see why she thinks I'm nuts.

The client believes that his new car is a symbol of status and will afford him more opportunities in the future. While a new car may be a valid interpretation of status, the client's belief is having a negative impact on his marital relationship. By integrating the symbolic approach into reality therapy, the counselor presented the client with the meaning behind his choices, giving him a much more realistic perspective of his issue. From a symbolic approach, the counselor facilitated the client's reevaluation of his definitions of "status," highlighting how his wants and needs for belonging and freedom are coming across in the session. Through self-evaluation, the client is able to hear the symbolic meaning he has placed on a car.

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