Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Action Explorations or Psychodrama as Research

Originally posted on February 6, 2013

Although “research” tends to be associated with a more restrictive process—attempting to control many variables in order to see if varying one makes a difference—this approach applies more to only certain kinds of research—kinds that tend to be associated with things, material objects, chemistry, physics, biology. But if we recognize the word is more a condensation of a sentiment, “Let’s just see what happens if…,” then that allows us to recognize that all explorations are also, in this sense, research. A child figuring out how to construct something with toy parts is doing research.

The famous early 20th century artist Pablo Picasso said, “I never made a painting as a work of art, it’s all research.”

Ben Franklin was doing research on whether lightning was a form of electricity. It was. But there are many aspects of what electricity is and all its potentials, and they continue to be discovered, as noted in a recent book written by David Bodanis. So asking a question, doing a bit of research, doesn’t have to imply that we are getting comprehensive, final answers. Sometimes we’re just beginning to explore.

Now what I’m getting at is that exploring, finding out if not all about it, at least more, can be pretty open ended. I’ve recently realized that psychodramatic methods are tools for bringing to the surface, making explicit, some of the maneuvers of the mind. Some of these are neurotic: By playing out the different roles or “voices” in the mind, we can see together how the main player has gotten herself into a muddle. Some of these processes are creative and liberating. By exploring together alternatives in drama we make explicit new and fresh views of how else it might be viewed, what else might be done.

For instance, using the “voice over,” the main player is helped by a fellow group member in recognizing the inner associations, the inner voices that threaten and paralyze: “If I say no she’ll never be my friend again.” We carry a number of these residues from our younger years and when we can more clearly recognize this we can make new decisions: “I don’t believe that is true anymore. In fact, it probably wasn’t even true when I first thought it!”

Another technique is simply stopping the action and asking the main player (in psychodrama, it’s called the “protagonist”) to freeze and notice his muscles, where is there tightness. This moment of awareness, taking a body scan, might reveal a wealth of information about underlying feelings. “I’m apologizing, but my hands are balling into a fist and I want to slug him!”

A main player in a drama might be feeling hurt: “He should have known!” The director calls for a role reversal. The person playing herself changes parts and becomes the other person who should have known. Interviewed in role it becomes clear that there’s no way the other person could have known! So role reversal, becoming more empathic, in this example resulted in the person not taking what might be interpreted as a snub so personally. It wasn’t a snub—it was just not having disclosed enough information so the other person might have “known.”

Most psychodramatic techniques can be viewed thus, as explorations, as kinds of research. We often don’t know exactly what will be found, but that’s okay—it’s the asking: Is this so? What if we do it this way?

The Group

It can happen even in a one-to-one with a therapist, but there is extra value in this process happening in a group. When a person brings what is unspoken into explicit consciousness and goes further, expresses it out loud so that it can be heard, it makes the ideas or words more real. Without expression people can unconsciously deny it: “I didn’t really think it. I didn’t mean it. I must have been out of my mind.” But when it’s said in group and it’s heard, then that layer of denial is swept aside. The challenge then is dealing with the reality that at least part of the person was indeed thinking or feeling this way. Let’s work with that.

In a group that is supportive, it’s not a matter of fearing blame. Of course, that might happen, but then the scene shifts to the tendency to perceive others as being judging when in fact they’re just exploring: How can we learn from each other and all of us move towards greater emotional freedom? We’re not hear to judge each other and feel smug and superior—although it can seem that other social groups one has encountered in the past were more like that. Maybe. But just exploring the question, “Who are these other people and are they as judgmental as I am toward myself?” is a form of research.

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