There are many things in life which can only be learned fully by doing them. One of the difficulties with counseling can be that it is a “talk” therapy: a chance for individuals, couples or families to talk about what is happening in their lives. No question, talking about our lives is of crucial importance to understanding ourselves and one another, or else counseling, classes and books on communication would not be at an all time high in our country today. But what happens when talk is not enough?
As early as the 1920’s a psychiatrist named JL Moreno was asking the same question. How come there are certain aspects of our behavior or our personality which persist, no matter how hard we seem to work on them, how much we want them to change, or how often we talk about them? Moreno hypothesized that some things we have to experience in order to change them. Using his roots in both theater and psychiatry, he developed a form of therapy called psychodrama. Although not widely known by its formal name, psychodrama is in wide use today. Every time you are in a situation in which you roleplay a conversation in your mind, you are using psychodrama. Any time you try to assume the role or the mindset of another person, in order to understand what they are experiencing or thinking, you are using psychodrama. Psychodrama has been around so long, and has so pervaded our everyday experience that we no longer even realize it when we are using it. But it is a very effective, and powerful method of counseling.
It is only in the last 20 years that the focus on our mind-body connection has received popular attention, but therapists, including Moreno, have been focused on this powerful connection since Freud’s time. Our bodies so powerfully inform our consciousness that we can literally “make ourselves sick” with our thoughts, causing depression, anxiety, panic attacks and even a drop in our own immune systems, based on our moods; and, we can also harness the powerful energy in our bodies to work toward physical, psychological and spiritual healing as well. Faith communities have known this for centuries. Action oriented psychotherapies such as Psychodrama allow participants to act out their dilemmas, their feelings and their conflicts, in order not only to engage their minds and their beliefs in their healing, but also to incorporate the wisdom of their bodies as well. Want to see how it works in the privacy of your own home? Try the following exercises:
ROLE REVERSAL: Set out two chairs facing one another. You sit in one, and leave the other one empty. Picture a person whom you are having a conflict with in the opposite chair. This can be a mate, a family member, a coworker or boss, or can even work when you are having a spiritual question or crisis by picturing God or Jesus in the empty chair, as a form of prayer. From your own chair, before you do anything, picture the person you want to speak to as fully as you can: What do they look like? How are they dressed? What is the expression on their face? Are they receptive to hear what you have to say? Or are they defensive? Picture them as completely as you can in your mind’s eye, and then begin to speak to them in the empty chair aloud. Not only in your mind, but verbally, using your voice, your hands, your body. Remember this is a therapy that uses the wisdom of our experience and our body, so create enough time and enough privacy that you can really use your words and your body to say what you want to say to this person. Talking it through in your head is NOT what makes psychodrama work! When you have spoken aloud as much as you feel is necessary to the empty chair, take a moment, and a deep breath, and literally get up and change seats. Again, remember this is a therapy where body and imagination are key, so really allow yourself to move over to the other chair. One of the brilliant discoveries that Moreno made is that it really does make a difference when we literally put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. It is not enough to just do it in our mind’s eye. Allow yourself to actually change positions, putting yourself literally in the other person’s spot. From the opposite chair, take a moment to fully feel what the other person must be feeling… sit in the position they would sit in. Imagine yourself taking on any physical characteristics they may have. Are they older than you? Younger? Do they have physical pain that they struggle with, or any other limitations? Do they see well, or have visual limitations? Could they even completely hear what you said, or do they have hearing difficulties? First, before anything else, do your utmost to put yourself within their body, before you even begin to try to think like them. Then allow yourself to feel what the emotions from that chair might be: Do they feel more or less powerful than you when they are with you? Are they comfortable with you? Or frightened of you? Angry? Or loving? Take a moment to completely be in the other person’s skin as much as you are able to. And then from this position, attempt to really envision yourself (in the now empty chair which you originally occupied when speaking) as this person actually sees you. From the other person’s role, do you look like a friend? Or a foe? Someone coming to them for help? Or for harm? From this other person’s chair do you see yourself as a threat? Or as someone meaning well and seeking a solution to your dilemma? Having spent some time in their “point of view” before ever trying to speak, now respond to yourself aloud from the other person’s role as completely as you can, not planning in advance, but allowing the thoughts to come to you aloud as you speak. Don’t try to edit what you think you should be saying, say whatever comes to you from that chair. Oftentimes it will not be nearly what you thought you would be saying. Even people who have done this exercise many times can still be amazed at what they find coming out of their mouths when they fully allow themselves to role reverse with the other person. This often allows us to realize how we are perceived by others, what they might need of us, and why we get the responses we get from the other person. Knowing this, and putting ourselves literally in their role, (role reversing) can tell us how we can communicate more effectively with not only this person, but perhaps others as well. Seeing ourselves from someone else’s point of view allows us to have more empathy for them, as well as to learn about how others see us.
Likewise, we can use this therapy in action to better understand the ones we love (our children, our spouses, our friends) by trying another psychodrama skill, called DOUBLING. DOUBLING is another way to practice trying to completely understand a person we are in communication with, before we ever attempt to make any response to them, but we can do it right there with them, instead of only trying it out when we are alone. You might be amazed at how much further you get in your communication with the other person! The next time you are listening to a concern of someone you care about, rather than planning out your response while they are still talking, as we all so often end up doing, really completely listen to them. Listen to their tone of voice, their feelings, and the words and images which are behind their words, and instead of reacting to them, spend time reflecting that content back to the person, by simply speaking to their feelings, rather than defending your own. If you are in conversation with your teenager about being grounded for the weekend, for example: rather than explaining again for the umpteenth time why you have grounded them, try hearing and reflecting their feelings back to them, instead of defending your own. This doesn’t mean you have to agree that they are right, it just means you need to really hear them, instead of forcing your own agenda in the conversation. It might look something like this:
Teen: “I cannot believe you picked this weekend of all times, to ground me. Why this weekend? It is homecoming. I cannot believe you would not understand that, you’ll never know what you are taking away from me!”
You (doubling your teen’s feelings): “Yeah, it must feel so unfair. You sound like you feel that I don’t understand you at all, that I just don’t even care how you feel. You must feel so angry at me.”
Teen: “Well, yeah! It is like you were never a kid, you never did anything wrong. Didn’t you ever want to do something and have your parents tell you no? Didn’t you ever get in trouble for anything? You act like you were a saint all of the time!”
You (still doubling….AND not feeling the need to tell your child that it is none of their business whether you were a saint or not, thank you very much, you weren’t the one who got in three hours after curfew last night): “It must seem like I was never a kid, and I don’t know anything about what it is like for you. Like I have no idea what you are going to lose out on being grounded this weekend, and like I cannot even remember how important things like homecoming can be.”
I would love to tell you that the response you will get following these doubling statements is, “Gosh, mom and dad, you are right. Please ground me more often!” But of course, if you have ever had a conversation with a teenager, you know that is not going to happen. However, you might be amazed at what does happen. So often when we are in conflict with someone, we feel they cannot hear us at all, and cannot even begin to realize what we are feeling, so when we do spend the time really hearing and reflecting what the other person feels, the conflict is de-escalated, and the person feels much more heard and understood. Although you may never have a teenager who says, “Gee Mom and Dad, thanks for grounding me,” you may well have a teen who feels heard and loved, even though they do not like what your decision is, and that is the most important part of any parent-child interaction. What we teach our kids by the rules and boundaries we enforce for their safety is not the only important lesson for them. How we talk with our kids about the choices we make determines a great deal about whether they actually learn from the consequences of their behavior, or simply find those consequences one more gallon in the gulf of misunderstanding that develops between us during those years.
Doubling and Role Reversal are just two simple techniques from a vast array of approaches which Psychodrama uses to bring therapy to life. If you are interested in learning more about Psychodrama or other action oriented therapies, see the American Association of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP) website at www.asgpp.org, books about psychodrama such as The Inner World Outside (Paul Holmes and Marcia Karp) or Drama Games (Tian Dayton) or contact Carey Gauzens, LCSW, CP at (703) 903-9696 ext. 255 at the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia.