Among the most challenging moments in the provision of psychotherapy are those that involve helping patients alter embedded core beliefs about themselves. These beliefs, while often irrational, tenaciously hold onto humans, playing in the background like ambient music in a store, waiting for the right moment to cut us all down to size. They are blunt, forceful, and unforgiving, telling us we are not capable, not worthy of love, untalented, stupid, less-than. They can prevent us from venturing into taking risks or leave us bound to repeat the same tired steps of a painful and joyless dance. Helping people change these beliefs is the sine qua non of therapy, and the place where many otherwise effective treatments go off the rails.
While there are identified clinical techniques for assisting patients in expanding their limiting sense of themselves, and while these techniques can lead to clients verbalizing new understandings, often this newly acquired ability does not lead to behavioral change. It is one thing to know that one can expect/do/be more while in the safety of a clinical relationship. But when the world rushes in to attack that new knowledge patients can return to what feels like square one after even a minor setback. This is particularly true of trauma survivors, for whom there is almost always a vast disjunction between what they know cognitively and what they know somatically and affectively. More simply put, what we know in our heads is often not the same as what we know in our bones. And when under threat, visceral knowledge often overrides its thought-based counterpart.
People who have been traumatized have had powerful object lessons that are often untouched by the word-based interventions that characterize most psychotherapy practices. Abraham Maslow (source unknown) is often attributed these words describing the dilemma of change: “You will either step forward into growth, or you will step backward into safety.” The bodies and brains of people who have been hurt urgently demand they step backward, for they know intimately the consequences of not clinging to (at least the illusion of) safety.
At the essence of changing deeply held, survival-upholding core beliefs is the necessity of providing new experiences. Trauma exists in actions taken in which boundaries and will are overwhelmed, and its effects are best undone through action that reasserts and reinforces those fences. These corrective experiences are ones that are often readily accessible in the space of the imagination before they are accessible in real life. In a recent interview, trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk (Gilmore, 2014) stated, “I have some very serious doubts about whether you can [heal trauma] by understanding and talking. Neuroscience research doesn’t support that the areas of the brain involved in insight and understanding have much connection with areas where emotions are generated and stored…In order to change our feelings we have to do other things, and those other things tend to be more experiential…So that’s what got me into theater, yoga, and movement because it became very clear to me that in order to change you have to move.”
Often, following a session in which a patient plays a role that taps an under-expressed, more courageous or more vulnerable part of him- or herself, that person will return to treatment to report that, while they can’t quite put their finger on what it was, something inside them shifted that week. Shaun McNiff (1998) affirmed that the act of performing is “especially helpful in changing rigid attitudes and fixed opinions since it is difficult to avoid changes in consciousness when we enter the dramatic space in an open and committed way.”
This kind of transformative experience, particularly for trauma survivors, is one that CANY provides on a day-to-day basis. By engaging refugees, victims of domestic violence, abused children, and others in dramatic enactment, the CANY staff are asking them to do more, to imagine more, and to not forget themselves and their vast capabilities. They are generating new possibilities by asking people to re-member themselves. In the words of Parker Palmer (2007), “Remembering ourselves and our power can lead to revolution, but it requires more than recalling a few facts. Re-membering involves putting ourselves back together, recovering identity and integrity, reclaiming the wholeness of our lives.” This may be drama therapy’s ultimate value, and one not offered so readily in many forms of verbal psychotherapy: that in providing new experiences drama therapists fill in holes marked by absence and fear, planting seeds from which hope might flourish.
Hope is not the simplistic, ornamental stuff of greeting cards. For trauma survivors, holding hope is instead a gritty, hard-won, defiant stand against the person(s) who treated them as less than human. It means stepping into the unknown with no guarantees when doing so in the past has led to things going terribly wrong. Yet, when patients have had the opportunity to experience themselves in new ways in action, a felt sense of possibility can become embedded in the same internal space where self-defeating beliefs reside, as though a flower begins to sprout in the midst of a vast desert. In this way, the person can reach a point where, as was articulated by one of my own patients in transition, staying the same represents a greater risk than trying something new. It is a developmental achievement that begins with as if and gradually becomes as is.
Craig Haen, Ph.D., RDT, CGP, LCAT, FAGPA has a private practice working with children, adolescents, adults and families in White Plains, NY. He serves as Adjunct Faculty at NYU and in the Lesley University doctoral program. Craig is contributing co-editor of Clinical Applications of Drama Therapy in Child and Adolescent Treatment and contributing editor of the recent book Engaging Boys in Treatment: Creative Approaches to the Therapy Process. He was a staff member at CANY for six years, leading groups in a number of residential and shelter programs, and has served on the Advisory Board since 2004. For more information on Craig and his work – CraigHaen.com
Quotes gratefully borrowed from:
Gilmore, M. (2014, Winter). The body keeps the score: Integration of mind, brain,
and body in the treatment of trauma: Interview with Bessel van der Kolk, MD. The Group Circle, 3-4, 8.
McNiff, S. (1998). Art-based research. London, England: Jessica Kingsley.
Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a
teacher’s life (10th Anniversary Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Art images gratefully borrowed from: