Psychodrama contains many approaches, and differs according to the therapeutic approach of the practitioner. I learned psychodrama from Harris Clemes, Ph.D., a psychologist practicing in Santa Cruz, CA. Harris’s approach was drawn from Process Oriented Psychology, as taught by Arnold Mindell (following the client’s conscious and unconscious signals and attending particularly to edges), Hakomi therapy developed by Ron Kurtz (a body-oriented, spiritual psychology), NLP- Neuro Lingusitic Programming (particularly the emphasis on attending to various channels, e.g. visual, auditory, kinisthetic) and his own experiences with Subud, a mostly non-verbal Islamic form of mysticism developed in Indonesia. J.L. Moreno, a Romanian born psychiatrist, is considered the founder of psychodrama, and he developed many of the concepts and language that are still used today. Psychodrama is normally used in group therapy, although elements of psychodrama can be effectively used in one-on-one therapy as well. Psychodrama was popular in the early days of T-groups and encounter groups and in the 60’s and 70’s often involved brutal confrontations. The form that Harris developed is deeply respectful of the individuals involved, while still leading to profound and lasting changes in behavior.
Two Types of Psychodrama
Harris teaches two main forms of psychodrama. One involves using preset roles with two or three main protagonists and scripts that are given to each of the protagonists outside the presence of the others. The scripts usually contain inherent conflicts with the other protagonists, built on reasonable but differing interpretations. Players are asked to stick to the script as closely as they can, but to draw on their own selves and experiences to fill in the many missing pieces. Conflicts are resolved through developing self-awareness in each of the protagonists, and with skills training in communication that involves learning how to question interpretations, to own expressions of thoughts and feelings instead of projecting onto others, and to identify and state preferences leading to negotiations with the others involved.
The other form of psychodrama involves one main protagonist, who is interviewed about current problems and behavior patterns that aren’t working well. A scene is developed from the protagonist’s experience, and various members of the group are asked to play roles as auxiliaries, becoming significant figures in the scene and acting those parts as best they can from the initial direction given by the protagonist as to how these people actually operated. The scene is run through and the facilitator or the players can freeze that scene at any time to explore emotions that are generated, to clear up confusion, or to comment on what is taking place.
In both forms, scenes are often played through twice; with coaching from the facilitator on either things the protagonist(s) were not originally aware of, or of ways to try the interactions differently.
The participation of group members not directly involved in the drama is vital. Group members will be asked at the end of the psychodrama to say what they experience and feel inside from watching the drama. This is specifically not a time to comment on what you think the protagonist should learn – rather it’s a chance to share real feelings that were triggered in you. I have heard time and again that what the protagonist was facing was something that many group members also face. The insight gained by the protagonist was for themselves, but also for many others. The energy of closely observing by the group is a main factor in the healing that occurs.
We will focus on the second type of psychodrama, although much of this discussion will also pertain to the scripted roles type.
One of the goals of this type of psychodrama is to identify missing experiences in a person’s upbringing that often influence how that person responds today in various situations. This will be a predominant theme while growing up. For example, as a child you may have been told that loud and noisy behavior would not be tolerated. Your natural exuberance would have led to frequently being told to be quiet, sometimes being sent to your room and in general you would have missed the experience of the full you being welcomed and loved. If you were quiet and shy as a child, you may have been urged constantly to speak up and put yourself forward, to lead. You would miss the experience of having the person that emerges from quiet and self-reflection feeling loved and welcomed. You may have grown up with a parent who loved you at times, abused you emotionally, physically or sexually at others, with no consistent clues as to what would trigger the love or the abuse. You would have missed the experience of knowing how to be safe in the world.
These missing experiences are a form of state-specific learning. It’s not enough to know as an adult that you missed something as a child. The child that is frozen emotionally inside at a specific age has to be accessed in order for learning to shift.
In psychodrama, the protagonist naturally regresses to an earlier state. This happens partially through pacing, in which the facilitator, by indicating that she or he is understanding and reflecting what the protagonist says in the interview stage, communicates to the protagonist’s unconscious that it is safe to let unconscious material emerge. The degree to which the protagonist thinks that she or he is being seen and understood will affect how far back into childhood the protagonist regresses. Generally, the earlier the childhood age, the more formative and risky the material will be. The degree of trust and safety in a group and its facilitator predicts the depth of the material worked.
Maintaining the Edge
Another factor affecting the degree of healing is the ability of the auxiliaries (the role players chosen to be significant actors for the protagonist) to be consistent in their acting with the original wounding behavior. It’s easier to play the loving sister than it is the abusive father. Yet if the abusive father role is softened prematurely, the protagonist never gets back to the full traumatized state and the healing doesn’t occur. This is one form of healing that depends on the ability to give the protagonist the gift of holding them in the fire of whatever abuse happened earlier in life, which means that most of us have to act out of character in order to pull this off. If you are the “heavy” auxiliary, it’s important for you to tolerate your own emotions as you are doing or saying things you wouldn’t like yourself. At some point, the protagonist will resist – when that is clear, the auxiliaries can give the protagonist the experience they missed as a child, by responding to the protagonist’s resisting from a more full human perspective and behaving differently from the original cast.
This spark of resistance comes from the protagonist’s inner resources. It’s likely that as a child, that spark could never fully emerge. Often it would be too dangerous, or it would simply be overpowered or ignored. The facilitator can recognize and encourage the inner resources, by helping the protagonist notice the resource state, by doubling (talking next to and for the protagonist to the auxiliary as if you were the protagonist, specifically the inner resource part, with amplification of the inner strengths), or even with educational statements. When the protagonist is fully regressed, and has shown resistance, the child-state is accessible and will listen and hear informative statements that normalize experiences, provide a context for the child to understand how the child has been acting, and ideas of how to keep safe while acting differently. The child in the regressed state can hear and unfreeze, with healing that reaches into the adult.
The experience of a child part being welcomed and loved and supported often leads to profound shifts in how the protagonist feels in their body. Focusing on that new felt sense, it is important to ask the protagonist to come back to where the journey started and then imagine a time in the near future where they will confront the same behaviors that would normally trigger an unconscious response. Reminding the person, as they imagine the next event, of what their body now feels like, will bring a different reaction inside. This helps bring the protagonist back into the present and retain the healing and learning.