How to Incorporate Symbols of Safety, Strength, and Calm Within Counselling

This is my dog, Jack. 

Among his many enduring traits is his habit of collecting my partner’s clothes the moment they leave the house. He creates a little nest for himself, usually remaining there until she comes home. We often joke that Jack loves his “mom” too much.

I have since learned that this is a common trait of dogs – to get quite attached to one member of the family. During absences, the dog seeks connection to reminders of their favourite person, often in the form of clothing that holds that person’s scent. This is an instinct for us all, whether we are dogs, kids, or adults – to seek closeness, calm, and safety during times of absence, loss, and stress. 

I met “Dave,” very early on in my career. He was a character, and he taught me a lot. I credit him for inspiring the concept I use a fair bit in my counselling work: a symbol of safety. Early into our meetings, he began one session by reaching into his pocket, pulling out a handful of marbles, and exclaiming, “I just wanted to start by saying, ‘I haven’t lost my marbles!’”

During our session, he kept the marbles in his hand and would often roll them back and forth as we explored his experiences of trauma, and struggles with mental health and substances. From that meeting on, he continued in this ritual at the beginning of every meeting: “I still got my marbles.” In this blog, I’m going to walk you through the concept of using symbols in therapy.

Introduce Symbols of Safety Concept

Many people are familiar with the concept of triggers – those reminders of “the problem” that brings the challenge crashing back, often creating a sense of overwhelm. These triggers are powerful influences on behaviours and are often related to survival responses such as flight, flight, freeze, and appease. While triggers influence a “drift” from stability, symbols of safety, strength, and calm anchors oneself within these qualities.

Many people are familiar with the concept of triggers – those reminders of “the problem” that brings the challenge crashing back, often creating a sense of overwhelm.

To introduce the concept of symbols to your client, you could say something like:

“Problems hate to be looked at. They prefer to remain in the dark, but that’s where they have the most power. As we expose [the problem], don’t be surprised if it tries to reassert itself. To counter this, I would like you to reflect on something that reminds you of safety, strength, or calm. Something that is rooted in the senses. Something that you can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. For example…”

Explore Details of the Symbol

Once the symbol has been introduced, it is then important to explore the details within the story of safety, strength, and calm. By doing so, we are thickening that story, enlivening it, and making it more accessible in memory, so that it’s there to lean on when the problem rears its ugly head.

When Dave first introduced me to the marbles, I hadn’t thought about playing marbles since I was a child. I too found joy in those schoolyard memories of marble games with my friends.

“Dave, I haven’t thought about marbles forever. Wow, is that a jumbo steely?! Very cool. Can you tell me about these marbles and what they mean to you?”

Dave shared a story of growing up in poverty; he didn’t have much. His dad had gifted him a bag of marbles for his 7th birthday. He loved to play marbles at recess with his friends. He shared with pride his favourite marble and told the story of winning it from his best friend Steve during a game. Dave said that marbles represented a simpler time in his life. A time of fun and belonging. A time of innocence before themes of trauma and significant struggle began to dominate his life. He rediscovered his marbles recently while cleaning out his dad’s place after he died. Dave shared with me the experience of opening the marble bag and being instantly transported back to the beauty of his childhood. 

Crisis and trauma leave a powerful imprint on our being. It is a strong story that can often overshadow other experiences. Investigating and highlighting reminders of safety and strength counteract this darkness and can help in the healing process.

Crisis and trauma leave a powerful imprint on our being. It is a strong story that can often overshadow other experiences.

Use the Symbol as Part of the Ritual

Problems often inspire uncertainty and can, at times, rouse chaos. This is especially true with issues of crisis and trauma. Ritual does the opposite in that it creates structure, stability, and predictability – key aspects within the counselling process. 

Dave naturally created a ritual at the beginning of each session (“I still got my marbles”) and throughout the tactile connection of our conversation, as he rolled the marbles back and forth in his hand. At the end of each meeting, he would then place the marbles back into the bag, put it in his pocket, and exclaim, “Until next time!” This signified that our meeting had come to an end. Such ritual contained the counselling experience, providing not just a structured beginning, but an end as well, which allowed Dave to shift away from the experience of counselling and reengage with the rest of his day.

Since meeting Dave, I have introduced symbols of safety, strength, and calm to the majority of my clients and have found it to be an integral part of my practice. I too use my own symbol, when uncertainty comes to visit me. 

This pen holder was given to me by my grandmother (who was a hero of mine) and has been a fixture on my desk since I was eight.  When I look at it, I am reminded of her thoughtfulness, love, and care for me. Although she passed away a few years ago, every time I reach for a pen or highlighter, I am reminded of her and her profound influence on me. What a gift.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.  Check out other blogs by John on our website.


John Koop Harder

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

To receive notification of a new blog posting, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
© CTRI Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute (
Interested in using the content of this blog? Learn more here.

Share this:
Keep up to date with CTRI

Receive a free Trauma-Informed Care E-Manual!
Sign me up to receive info on: