DECOLONIZING THERAPY: Playing with Traditional Relationships of Power in Therapy

This month, CANY staff heads to the North American Drama Therapy Association’s annual conference. This year’s theme focuses on diversity and social justice. CANY staff member Rachel Lee Soon shares some of her thoughts on colonization in the therapeutic process in CANY’s October blog post.


As a Native Hawaiian, I carry with me a historical narrative of colonization. My Grandma used to tell me stories of her parents and grandparents, who were around during a time when Hawai’i was being annexed to the United States. Their language and cultural practices were pushed out of the mainstream and into the shadows – and in some cases even outlawed – in favor of cultural practices and language of the American settlers.

The term colonization describes a co-created relationship between two cultures or groups of people wherein one exercises power or domination over another, and can lead to social and systemic oppression of the colonized group (Oxford English Dictionary, 2014). As a drama therapist, I often wonder how colonization plays out in the therapeutic relationship. When we bring our rituals, metaphor, and drama-based theories and practices into a group, are we in-effect colonizing our clients by asking them to assimilate to our norms?

The role of the therapist is often endowed with an inherent position of authority or power, much like that of the colonizer, particularly in spaces where most of our clients have experienced trauma in their lives. At CANY, the metaphor of colonization is even more salient. We are nomadic drama therapists, and we take our model of trauma-informed drama therapy into sites that sometimes don’t operate under the same principles that guide our work. In this instance, it is easy for us as therapists to fall into the role of the colonizer, and our clients the colonized. Considering this, how do we dismantle traditional relationships of power, and decolonize the therapeutic encounter? And is this even possible?

In the fall of last year, my co-leader and I began running weekly drama therapy groups within a school, housed inside of an outpatient substance abuse treatment program. Our students were between the ages of 15-18, and many were court-mandated into treatment. For the first two or three weeks of group, we introduced games and getting-to-know-you exercises in order to foster connections between clients and build a safe space. We were excited by the energy and creativity of the group: they took “Zip Zap Zop” and turned it into “Bacon Egg and Cheese”, adding new layers of complexity like “on a roll”, which made everyone in the group change places in the circle, and “with hot sauce”, which meant everyone had to do a dance move in their place.

This creativity and spontaneity evidenced a great deal of inherent strength in the group, as they were able to claim agency in the group process and make these games their own. Trauma-informed theory tells us that if we are damaged in relationship, and we must heal in relationship (Herman, 1992). As we played these games, we began to build connections between group members who otherwise presented as isolated and withdrawn through the group process, we witnessed them delight in each other’s playfulness in these early groups. The clients’ fresh takes on each game we played became the artifacts of our newly co-created group culture.

However, after a few weeks we started having difficulty getting through check-ins, the beginning stage of CANY group work. Group members would sit around the circle precariously tipping their chairs backward to lean against the walls, throw candy across the circle at one another, have side-conversations, take out their phones, and laugh at and make fun of each another. This was a stark departure from the group we met a few weeks ago, in which members played together in a way that built relationships instead of tearing them down. My co-leader, on-site teacher, and I worked week after week to re-introduce structure in the form of group rules and norms: we asked group members to put their phones away, keep their chairs on the floor, and to work on demonstrating respect for one another physically and verbally. Try as we might, this only seemed to turn up the volume on the “resistance”.   There were many weeks were we did not make it through our check-ins at all. It became very difficult to simply share space together.

Each week, as we continued to introduce our group guidelines, games, and interventions, it felt like we were unsuccessfully colonizing a foreign land. The cohort was pushing back against us with everything they had. It became more and more challenging to build relationships with our clients, especially when we were there for only one hour per week. We felt defeated. Surely, this was not what a drama therapy group was “supposed” to look like. We could barely stay in the same room together, much less work together to build a drama or story.

As CANY drama therapists, we are trained to let go of our plans for a group in favor of simply being with our clients in the moment. The ongoing struggles of this group provided an opportunity for my co-leader and I, both beginning therapists, to practice this skill in action. After weeks of struggling against the group, my co-leader and I finally sacrificed our ideas of what our drama therapy group was “supposed” to look like, and just tried to be with them in a way that would most effectively serve their needs.

In one of our earlier sessions, the group connected around building a dance routine to a shared beat, so we opted to introduce the theme of music, which we had hoped would provide scaffolding for rebuilding relationships. We invited them to share their favorite artists and we spent our time developing a playlist and listening to it together. We continued to work simply on being in the room and being in relationship with each another through our shared appreciation of music.

For me, this experience underscored the importance of our model’s tenet to be open to the needs of the group first and foremost, and to building relationships with our clients that are dynamic and grow out of a shared culture. If we had continued to facilitate these groups around our own ideas of what we thought this group “should” look like, we would have run the risk of further colonizing our clients by forcing them into roles like the “unruly adolescent” to our “responsible adult”, or the “patient” to our “clinician”, instead of allowing them to imagine new possibilities and try on new roles in their lives.

If we begin with a goal of simply building relationships instead of implementing interventions that compel our clients meet our expectations, we can build a shared culture that creates a safe space to explore our individual and collective narratives. Whereas colonization in a cultural and historical context happens when one group’s narrative is forcefully imposed upon another, as drama therapists we can work toward decolonizing the therapeutic encounter by giving up our position of power, and truly partnering with our clients to imagine and build a new narrative in their lives.

Rachel Lee Soon - Photo 2015
Rachel Lee Soon, MA, RDT, LCAT-Permit
CANY Program and Training Assistant

References

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Oppression, n. (n.d.). Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/132008?redirectedFrom=oppression#eid.

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