Have you ever found yourself having a conversation with a friend or in a therapy session, and you didn’t quite know what to say? Or all the words you could find to discuss your experience had already been said, and restated in slightly different ways, but perpetual feelings of discontent, depression, anxiety, loneliness, overwhelm, confusion or grief were still gnawing at the pit of your stomach?
When words can’t convey how you’re feeling
Talking out your experience with a trusted confidant or therapist can sometimes feel helpful and supportive, but what about the times when talking, analyzing and thinking about how to solve an internal feeling of discontent doesn’t work?
Our unconscious stores memories based on feeling states and broad connections attributed to certain people and experiences. The amygdala (the emotional center of our brain) does not think linguistically; rather, it processes emotion and fear responses based on sensory input. Thus, we can’t necessarily think or talk our way out of trauma or emotional discontent. The key to truly resolving and healing old wounds often lies in changing our felt relationship to the experience, and experientially engaging in a different way.
This is what drama therapy seeks to do. But what is drama therapy? Drawing upon attachment theory and psychodynamic underpinnings, it’s is a technique that helps someone get out of their head, by using different sensory modalities to deepen their exploration and understanding of the problem or the discomfort they are experiencing.
Distancing from our self-proclaimed rigid identities
Oscar Wilde once said, “Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” I believe this is one of the core fundamental underpinnings that makes drama therapy so special and unique as a healing modality. In my earlier years as an actor, I found that my favorite roles included those that seemed far removed from my own life and own persona.
Somehow, playing these surprising roles allowed me a freedom and permission to explore and feel on a deeper level. Ironically, the more that I “put on a mask,” the more I was able to access and express parts of my authentic self. The more foreign the role, the more truth and honesty I was able to bring to it. And so it is with drama therapy.
Playing characters, using imagination and creating “as-if” scenarios give us the flexibility to distance from our self-proclaimed rigid identities. This distance creates an increased sense of safety and spontaneity of expression that allow us to get to know ourselves more intimately, giving life and voice to the different parts within us, allowing us to be witnessed wholly.
People operate unconsciously based on principles and rules they internalized in childhood. Drama therapy can play a significant role in shifting these internalized “working models” that are outdated holdovers from our earliest relationships. Drama therapy is particularly powerful for working with these early, unconscious, embodied aspects of the self.
To give you an example, if a client begins talking about how much of a failure she is and how she cannot do anything right, I may present an array of colored scarves and ask her to choose one that represents that critical internal voice.
In this way, we are able to externalize that critical voice, and flesh it out as separate from the individual and the individual’s character. Once the client has chosen the scarf, I may ask her to “step into” the scarf and imagine that the critical voice is a separate entity. I would then have her speak to herself from that critical voice, utilizing a second-person point of view (e.g. “You never do this right. You messed up again.”)
If the client has trouble doing this, I may ask to “double” her. This is another drama therapy technique in which the therapist stands next to the client and speaks for her, taking guesses on how she may be feeling, to elicit and clarify core emotions. If the guess is correct, the client is then asked to repeat the statement in her own words, changing or correcting the statement as needed.
The beauty of the re-enactment
When the “critical voice” is externalized and explored, clients often recognize the voice as sounding similar to a parent, an older sibling, a grandparent, or some other significant person in their life. This can then lead into an enacted dialogue or psychodrama with various people from different stages in the client’s life.
The difference is that within the “re-enactments,” the client gets a chance to fully express herself without fearing negative ramifications from the receiver, and can alter her experience. There are many different paths that a drama therapy enactment or psychodrama can take, depending on the client and the situation, but the re-enactment is unlike the real-life event. In the re-enactment, the client is in the driver’s seat and has the ability to change the outcome.
The client can ultimately construct a new narrative. Even though the parent isn’t actually in the therapy room at the moment, the client, taking on the role of her child self and expressing things that may not have been verbalized to the parent, alters and regenerates neural pathways in the brain to promote healing. Additionally, in the re-enactment, the client is often able to gain new clarity and understanding about a situation or a person’s actions. The client also has the support, witnessing, and guidance of a trusted other (the therapist), and the knowledge and wisdom of her current adult self who is able to impart guidance and a different perspective to her child self who may be stuck in the past.
A corrective emotional experience
In drama therapy, an attuned therapist creates a safe space and encourages the client to re experience, restructure, and re-embody situations from their life. This can provide a corrective emotional experience, changing long-held unconscious assumptions about what is possible in relationships.
The client not only hears validating words from the therapist, but is actually able to replay scenarios from the past, or project lived-in scenarios in the future, with the therapist providing a secure base and supportive holding environment in the moment. Additionally, by externalizing various emotions and exploring them as separate outside entities, and then correcting those voices and internalized psychic states, the client is allowed to literally re-parent themselves in the moment.
She might take on the role of a nurturing parent to comfort the frightened inner child, or become a firm parent and protect the inner child that may have not been protected in reality. This process can result in a strengthened internalized and differentiated self. Additionally, in these enactments, clients are literally able to step out of a role-play and comment on what they notice occurring (their process, their emotional reactions), thereby practicing a core concept utilized in mindfulness practice (observation), and what attachment theory refers to as “metacognition.”
Neuroscience research has established that neural integration is drastically improved by mindful awareness, which includes observing, witnessing, and narrating moment-to-moment experience, increased self-differentiation, and practicing interpersonal compassion and attunement. Neural integration enhances mental and physical health, and improves one’s ability to self-soothe and auto-regulate. The processes embedded in drama therapy naturally incorporate and combine these elements concurrently.
Other drama therapy tools include the following: decision-making exercises (in which the client gets to try out verbalizing various decisions and noticing the feeling state that accompanies each stated choice), the imagining of and conversation with a “wisdom figure” (who is essentially the client), letter writing techniques, guided imagery, photography. Regardless of the technique used, the most rewarding and beneficial aspect of drama therapy is the ability to be present.
We spend so much time thinking, imagining, lost in a daze, and feeling separate from our reality. Instead of only thinking about our experience, we can delve into the emotion that is always just below the surface or threatening to emerge, and we can allow it to be. Rather than talking about how awful your ex is and explaining all of the things that they did, wouldn’t it be better to actually get to say all of the things you need to say to them, and then switch roles with them to discover what each of you may not be saying?
The client is able to tap into the deep need to physicalize her emotional and psychological world before she is asked to reflect on it. We all have a deep wisdom and intuitive knowing within us, but it can get lost in logic, fears, and overthinking. Drama therapy allows the client to spontaneously tap into this knowing space. Sometimes we need a preview of what’s to come to see how we might experience it. Drama therapy allows for this.
No performance required
Drama therapy is in the “doing,” so it is difficult to describe in theory and concept. However, one known misconception about drama therapy is that it is anxiety-provoking and demands some sort of “performance.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Drama therapy is about freedom and allowing all of your senses to be involved rather than remaining solely trapped in hypotheses.
Both the therapist and client explore together without expectation, leaving room to start over, change things, and make mistakes. Tian Dayton sums it up nicely in his book “The Living Stage” when he writes that drama therapy/psychodrama allows for an “integrative experience that offers long-term shifts in thinking, feeling, and behavior as a result of experiencing the parts of self that have been warded off or banished from consciousness, and reincorporating them with new insight and understanding.”