Introduction to Psychodrama from Marlo Archer

I was in a family feud over money and needed some advice. I invited my dad to have a talk with me about it on a picnic table near Lake Michigan at the Summerfest grounds, under the Hoan Bridge on a bright, sunny day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He told me I didn’t need to worry about what my aunt and uncle thought, and he knew I’d make the right decision. We spoke of other things as well. We laughed and cried as I caught him up on everything that had happened in my life since he had died. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that my dad is gone?

In fact, it was his estate and another estate that got us all into feud to begin with. However, through the power of psychodrama, I did, in fact, have a conversation with him and get all the advice I needed to move forward with my dilemma. Oddly enough, he was played by an Australian woman I had never met before, and she was perfect for the part.
What am I talking about? 

The power of psychodrama. It is an excellent form of therapy that simply has an unfortunate name. It was created and named by a psychiatrist from Vienna long before people thought about the marketing implications of choosing a name for a technique.

To move away from the name, “Psychodrama,” which can conjure up images of teenaged girls with runny mascara raccoon eyes, some people also refer to it as “Experiential Therapy” or “Action Methods.” Psychodrama involves actions that look a lot like what people might call “role-playing,” but it is far more complex and therapeutic than the dippy sorts of role plays some employers try to get us to do when they have consultants come in to do the sexual harassment or cultural sensitivity trainings.

Why would you want to try it?

Psychodrama offers the opportunity to experience things that are not possible in real life, but they would have been really helpful to experience. How about that cop that pulled you over for speeding and you were nothing but polite and he was a total jerk? Don’t you have a few things you’d still like to say to him? Or, the guy that broke your heart in high-school — wouldn’t it be interesting to invite him to your home with your husband and show him the happy family that you have now, no thanks to him? Psychodrama can grant you these opportunities — and so much more.

How about the time your grandmother was sick and you flew home to see her, only to arrive an hour after she had already passed? Are there things you wish you could have said to her while she was still here? What about your 3rd grade teacher, you don’t even remember her name, but you came to school without a lunch, she gave you half her sandwich and now you realize she was one of the very few people who even noticed you when you were that age. Wouldn’t it be great to tell her how much she meant to you? Psychodrama gives you those chances as well.

Psychodrama and Trauma

Psychodrama can also help resolve complex trauma and injuries sustained as a child.

Maybe you had a drunken step-father and a passive mother and you endured decades of abuse at his hands while she did nothing. I bet you’re still a little messed up about that. Psychodrama can help you sort that out as well. You can go back to your childhood home as an adult, armed with angels, a dragon, three friends, a dog, a bear, the police, Jerry Springer, or whatever else you might need to face your demons and send them packing. You can do today what you could not do then and even though it seems like just creating it would seem fake, it really isn’t when you are doing the work. It feels real and the release of emotions you’ve been carrying for years helps heal the deep wounds.

How does it work?

Whenever we have an urge to do something (that’s called an act hunger), that urge, that energy, stays in our body until it is released in a healthy way. So, if mom whacked you with a wooden spoon when you were five and told you to quit crying or she’d give you something to cry about — you probably stuffed away a lot of tears that still need to be cried. Psychodrama helps you release those tears in a safe and respectful setting so they can be released and stop giving you migraines or high blood pressure.

When our boss at work humiliates us in front of our team, we want to cry or break something. If we do either, we’ll be fired. We clench our jaws, purse our lips, and agree to whatever is being asked of us. Then we either we hold the tension in our body or we discharge it later inappropriately on our children when we get home. Psychodrama allows us to safely discharge stored tensions by allowing us to complete actions we had a strong urge to do, but were prevented at the time.

So far it sounds like a bunch of crying and yelling. Sign me up, right?

Well, there can be some crying and yelling, but what takes up most of the time in a psychodrama group is connecting. People connecting to each other, people connecting to themselves, people connecting their past to their present, to their future, connecting emotions to behaviors, connecting values to actions.

The wounds we experience starting the moment we’re born, are primarily perpetrated by human beings and each injury serves to break connections. We feel less connected to the stressed-out mother who didn’t have time for us because she had two other children. We feel less connected to our father who sleeps all day on his day off. We feel less connected to kids that bully us. We feel less connected to our own spirit when someone told us to choose a more reasonable career than the one for which we believe we were truly born. We can even feel less connected to the Divine when we get injured by humans.

The good news is that since we are primarily wounded in relationships with people, we can be healed by relationships and interactions with other people. Psychodrama gives us a chance to connect to people safely in ways we really need in order to heal from old insults and injuries. When we go back through difficult scenes from our lives and replay them the way we wished they would have been, we have different experiences and we take those experiences forward into our day-to-day life.

Try this simple exercise

Think of someone who did something nice for you, but for whatever reason, you never got to tell them, “Thank you.” Place an empty chair across from you and imagine them in the chair. Really envision them. Think about how they look, how old they are, what they’d be wearing, how they smell, how they sit. Then, look at them directly and speak out loud to them. It’s important to speak out loud, not just say the words in your head. Say the words of gratitude you never had to chance to say. Speak for as long as is needed. When you have finished, move into the empty chair and become that person.

Sit as that person, imagine you are them. They may be a different gender or age than you are. Really get into what it feels like to be that age or gender, or height or weight. Put yourself fully into their shoes. Imagine what their life has been like. Then, as that person, hear those words of gratitude from yourself and make a spontaneous response, as the other person. You can’t get it wrong. Just say whatever comes to mind. Let the words flow. When you have finished, take your own chair again and hear the response. You might be surprised at how profound a very simple use of one psychodramatic technique can be. With the skill of a trained psychodrama director and a group of others, very elaborate scenes can be enacted that feel absolutely real.

A psychodrama session consists of three parts, a warm-up, the action, and then sharing. The purpose of the warm-up is to help everyone present feel safe and comfortable with each other, with the leader, and with the sorts of things that might happen.

Light ice-breaker types of activities help people get used to moving around, speaking up, and tapping into their creativity and spontaneity. As the group members warm up to each other and to their issues, some topics usually emerge that get the groups’ attention. As the group moves from more frivolous topics to more serious ones, it generally becomes clear that there are a couple of people who would really benefit from having the focus of the group. One of those people is chosen to be what is called the protagonist, and it is their story that is put into action with the help of the group, under the guidance of the director. People in the group play roles in the protagonists’ story and feed back to the protagonist the dialog they’ve been trained to say.

The protagonist gets to have a full-bodied experience of the scene and get fully in touch with suppressed emotions and can get a chance to see the scene from a different perspective than when they were originally in it. They can change aspects and see what it would have been like if it had gone a different way and when they put new endings into action, they get a real felt sense of it that stays in the body and actually works to re-wire neural pathways in the brain.

There is absolutely no way to explain on paper, the power of this method. To fully understand, you must experience it. It’s like trying to write an article about tres leches cake or a first kiss. You can put as many words on the page as you want, you’ll never be able to fully capture the experience. People sometimes refer to psychodrama as “doing psychological surgery” and I have seen a single psychodrama session provide insights that might have taken a year or more in individual talk therapy.

It can be difficult to convince people to join a group in which psychodrama methods are used, but if you look at the extreme savings of time and money, I can’t imagine why more people don’t want to use this fast, effective method. Probably because it can be pretty intense and that can be scary. It is the director’s job to keep the activities safe. If you trust your director, things should turn out fine, and anything that doesn’t seem like it’s turning out fine can be adjusted and fixed, using these very methods.


 

Dr. Marlo Archer is the founder of Down to Earth Enterprises. Psychological Services for Children, Teens, and Their Families, Married and Parenting Couples, and Individual Adults. Visit www. drmarlo.com.