Ask the Dramatherapist… “A session with my psyche”

Exactly two months ago, I began to experience a nagging sense of questioning what I was doing with my life, and even wrote about it in the March Reflexions feature. I rarely experience this, particularly in the professional context.

I was always fairly certain about what I wanted to do, but the how has been through some dramatic changes. And today, the how was questioned to such an extent, that it also made me question the what.

“Do you want to be a Dramatherapist? Do you even want to continue helping others?” Talk about a slap in the face! I haven’t questioned my what in about two decades.

As someone who has been actively working on self-awareness and reflection for the most part of the last 10 years, it is very clear to me that these questions will be around for a while. Particularly that second one. When the what is questioned, one must pay very close attention. I guess this is what growing older entails. Can I go back to my playground, please? Anyway…

This post will begin to address the first question above, in a way which I have never done before in this blog. I was so taken aback, that I decided to try and do some Dramatherapy on myself. For all the non-Dramatherapist readers… have you ever wondered what it might be like? Well, here it is.

One of my favourite tools in Dramatherapy is my deck of Archetype Cards, by Caroline Myss (2003; http://www.hayhouse.co.uk/archetype-cards-a-80-card-deck-with-guidebook).

From the accompanying guide book:

Archetypes have been around since at least the time of Plato (…), but it was the 20th century visionary Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who put archetypes on the map of modern consciousness.

In essence, most archetypes are psychological patterns derived from historical roles in life, such as Mother, Child…; they can also be universal events or situations, such as Death. Along with our individual personal unconscious, which is unique to each of us, Jung believed that “there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature that is identical in all individuals.” This “collective unconscious” (…) is inherited, rather than developed, and is composed largely of archetypes and mythological figures.

Although archetypes are both ancient and universal, they become personalised when they’re a part of your own psyche.

Now, from theory to practice. I use these cards in various ways, but this is one of the most common ones. I asked myself “Who am I as a Dramatherapist?”, and went through the deck, picking out the ones which instinctually resonated with me. The instinctual resonance is key here, because it prevents the rational mind from making too many decisions. Below, is the result of this first exercise: 11 cards.

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Fig 1. 11 Archetypes: Shape-Shifter; Companion; Alchemist; Guide; Prostitute; Child:Wounded; Seeker; Healer; Pioneer; Artist; Addict

Immediately, I felt drawn to some of them and not others, so I removed the ones that didn’t hold enough resonance, which left me with 7 cards, as below.

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Fig 2. 7 Archetypes: Addict; Prostitute; Child:Wounded; Artist; Pioneer; Seeker; Healer

As I looked at this second selection and got in touch with feelings and sensations, by taking a few deep breaths and grounding myself, I began to gain some clarity on feelings of who/what was in control – expressed by the Shadow attributes of the Addict (allowing addictive patterns to have authority over inner spirit), the Prostitute (placing material considerations and security above self-empowerment), and the Healer (failing to care for oneself).

What does this mean? I interpreted it in the context of what I’ve been feeling – an overemphasis on business, rather than passion, and a focus on others’ wellbeing, before my own.

There were also feelings of neglect of the following Light attributes – Artist (expressing a dimension of life that is beyond the five senses), the Wounded Child (awakening compassion and desire to serve other Wounded Children), and the Healer (passion to serve others by repairing the body, mind, spirit connection).

I felt this neglect was mainly about passion, and the fact that I have been feeling disconnected from the purpose of why I do this work.

Three main observations from this exercise:

  • The aspects of the Healer were present in both groups – I realised I was feeling controlled by its Shadow attributes and neglecting its Light attributes.
  • I realised I was quite angry at the concept of Pioneer.
  • The Seeker felt completely invisible and ignored.

I was curious about the anger directed at the Pioneer, and realised that this archetype had driven all the other ones to their extremes, and that its Shadow attribute of a compulsive need to keep moving on has been the driving force in my psyche for many months.

I then proceeded to engage in an instinctual dialogue between myself, as therapist, and the Pioneer archetype. This type of dialogue is done by following a flow, allowing the unconscious to speak by writing the first things that come to mind, rather than to rationalise it or try to make sense of it.

This dialogue revealed that the Pioneer was running away from something by pursuing something else in the future, rather than facing its fear in the present. It also allowed me to understand that part of my motivation of being a therapist was not appropriately aligned to the present and future, but still stuck in a distant past, which led the dialogue to an end, for the Pioneer couldn’t get past this obstacle.

I then went back to the cards I had previously picked and asked myself, which one of them could the Pioneer reach out to first, for help? I often pose this question to clients, because ultimately all the archetypes can be helpful, but it is also important to establish which one of them could be helpful in the here and now, when facing an obstacle in the present. Having many sources of help can often be overwhelming, so sometimes it’s important to identify and focus on one of them, and take small steps. The answer this time pointed to the Artist.

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Fig 3. 2 Archetypes:  Artist; Pioneer

I employed the same dialogue technique, but this time between the two archetypes. The content of their conversation was not that surprising: lack of passion, burnout. The realisation that my motivation for wanting to be there for others because I didn’t have anyone there for me, has led me to the exact same place: to feeling like there is no one else there for me. I continue to support others, whilst feeling unsupported.

At the end of this “session” I am left with the questions: how and where do I find others for support? And how do I re-ignite my passion?

This blog has aimed to show a glimpse of what a creative psychodynamic process can be like in Dramatherapy, as well as that the therapeutic process is often about trying to answer a question, only to find more questions.

I feel that the questions will never stop, but I also feel that life, and living, happens in the process of answering questions as they appear in our lives. 

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Reflexions… On Doors

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Every now and then, I hear this in my therapy room:

“I’ve been in therapy for years, and I’ve never talked about this”, or “I’ve been in therapy for years, and I’ve never made this connection before”.

Anyone else experiencing this?

No matter what my response is in the moment, depending on what the disclosure is, I often think why this is. Why are people going to therapy for years and not addressing something? What are they doing there? And then I remember my own therapeutic process and get the answer: sometimes, people aren’t ready. Sometimes, something doesn’t become pertinent until a specific time in one’s life. Sometimes, layers upon layers of life events and emotional processing need to be peeled off before revealing the cause of something. I spent three years in continuous therapeutic process during my training, and didn’t start addressing a core wound until after a year post-graduation.

And then, I also remember this: I work as a Dramatherapist, which is an incredibly powerful profession within psychological therapies.

A bit of a disclaimer here: I’m quite rational and analytical in my cognitive processes. I can expand, elaborate, explain, extrapolate to my heart’s content. I often tell this to therapists and supervisors, because I am very good at hiding when talking. I have a moderately strong photographic memory which allows me to access articles, books, films, music, references in general, within seconds and incorporate that in my verbal expression. I disclose this, because I often just need someone to tell me to stop thinking, and start feeling. Because of this, I can also be quite the rational and analytical Dramatherapist.

I am still finding my balance between creative expression and exploration, and cognitive reflection. Therefore, I admit that my delivery of Dramatherapy is substantially filled with verbal expression, a talking therapy. But I also have to admit that whenever I have heard one of the statements above, it is always during a post-creative expression reflective experience. It is rarely when we are just talking, but always after we’ve done something drama-related. And here lies the power of Dramatherapy, and why I feel so passionate about it, regardless of how it is delivered and which techniques are used.

This past week, I explored this with two clients, after their admittance that they have both spent more than a decade in therapy and had not made such connections before.  I found myself explaining that individuals will often experience this in Dramatherapy because, as a therapy, we often go through the back door of the mind. We may knock at the front door of the mind, through some talking, but it is through the back door that our work may be most profoundly felt.

I don’t mean to imply that Dramatherapists are somehow surreptitiously tricking clients into disclosing information, but I have found in my practice that this is a regular, unintentional occurrence. In the sense that the mind’s front door is rational and analytical, and the mind’s back door is emotional and instinctive. The former is founded upon control, and the latter upon freedom. Creativity is the corridor that connects both doors. And most of the time, even I’m surprised at what my clients and I find by going through the back door.

And this is where our work is invaluable: the creative processes we use are not meant to trigger for the sake of it, and sometimes they don’t. But when they do, our psychological training will enable us to hold, contain, and support the emotional ups and downs of our clients. I believe Dramatherapy is a tremendously powerful approach, and to be able to do it is a gift and talent. The combination of depth and enjoyment that Dramatherapy provides to psychological development and wellbeing are astounding. How do I know this? Because I often get this feedback: “I have never told this to any other therapists”, “I didn’t know I wanted to talk about that”, “I didn’t know that was there”, “I can’t believe how quickly we’ve progressed”.

I will support myself here a little bit and say that part of why this happens may be due to my own approach, but it is also important to acknowledge that part of it is the client’s readiness at this point in their lives, and, of course, because of Dramatherapy itself.

One of my clients was telling me yesterday that they were really enjoying the dance between their conscious and unconscious mind, and I just felt like saying “ABSOLUTELY!!!”. That is exactly how I feel about Dramatherapy – I love the dance, and drama, between conscious and unconscious processes. I love engaging and spending time with the back door keepers. Their language is different, yet the same, for they communicate through symbols, metaphors, feelings, and sensations. They are unpredictable, but often, they just want someone to spend time with them, and then they will happily, and safely, take you inside the house to show you what is calling for attention.

Reflexions…On Butterflies

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It may be a strange analogy within the context of therapy, but do you ever experience being in a clinical session with an individual client, or a group, and the dynamics of that session give you some kind of butterflies? That feeling of excitement because you want to know more, of hope that the unknown will turn out okay, of belonging because you feel you are in the right place, of achievement because you have found something special, and of awe because you have witnessed someone’s spark?

I recently saw my first clients with pronounced clinical depression, and the bleakness of those presentations stopped me in my tracks. Every day, I work with chaos, anger, sadness, ups and downs, glimmers of hope and joy, life and death, shame, guilt, anxiety, to name just a few. But bleakness to the point where there is no alternative, no hope, no light, no movement… well, I was not ready for that.

And this got me thinking about a lecture in my first year of Dramatherapy training, where a lecturer said – and I’m paraphrasing here: “Just because you’re becoming therapists, it doesn’t mean that you can, or should, work with everyone and every kind of condition. You actually have a choice on that.”

I remember how deeply that resonated with me, because I recognised that a part of me did think that I would be somehow responsible to respond to all the problems of the world. I remember mumbling that to myself for days… “I have a choice. I have a choice. I have choice.”

Sometimes there is nothing scarier than having choice. It means that a decision must be made. That something must be left. That something must be taken. And that we are responsible for the consequences of whatever that decision is.

I also remember thinking “How selfish!”. How selfish that I, a therapist, could refuse to help someone, when I’ve been given all these tools to do just that. And yet, there was also a relief: I didn’t have to help everyone.

And through the years, I have been not only actively and consciously making this choice, but I have also been noticing something else. That, perhaps, whatever butterflies a therapist experiences towards a specific client group or clinical context, may be in alignment with some kind of inner talent, skill…an aptitude. Allow me to expand on this.

In my first year of training, I also remember having a chat with one of the lecturers about which client groups I wanted to work with, both practically in terms of my clinical placements, but also generally, in terms of profession and career. It was always very clear to me that I wanted to work within addiction, and with gay men. These were clearly aligned and influenced by my own lived experience and by wanting to know more about myself, by helping others through similar experiences.

It sounds selfish, I know. But I believe that this is something mostly unconscious at first, rather than conscious – this idea that we might want to know more about ourselves, by working with others who share similar life experiences. This became more conscious to me, the more clients I met and worked with. And also, sometimes it’s not even about the condition or context, but about the effects, the aftermath of an experience. For instance, a great friend of mine has never spent time in prison, and yet, she has great affinity and aptitude to work and empathise within that field. Even in my work within addiction, I notice it every day, that I have much greater empathy and affinity towards clients who have overcome active addiction and are now in active recovery. I tend to find the aftermath of active addiction much more fascinating.

Why has this come about now? I have been noticing through the years, and particularly in the past few weeks, that there are certain clinical presentations to which I’m really drawn to and am greatly curious about, and others to which I’m not. And when this occurs in a session, when I’m not drawn towards something or feel no curiosity at all, I notice it immediately, because I always feel like I have to “work at it”.

I felt this particularly during the sessions where I was presented with complete bleakness. I was taken aback, not simply because I couldn’t get through, but also because there was a part of me which, frankly, didn’t necessarily want to get through. This got me thinking about the why of this occurrence, and also why I literally feel so alive in certain clinical contexts, and so indifferent in others. As I’m writing this, my inner therapist just said: “There’s probably a reason in your lived experience for why this is, and if you give it enough time and space, you’ll know exactly why.”

He’s right. My inner therapist tends to be right. And as I think about it further, without getting into much detail, I can connect why I tend to distance myself from both intense bleakness and active chaos – such as psychosis, or drugs withdrawal. I’ve learned and witnessed how well I can create deeply profound connections with individuals who, whilst still experiencing chaos and distress, are also willing and stable enough to want to create some kind of change in their lives.

I feel this may be related with my 7 years of active spiritual practice. If there’s a willingness and an awareness that change is required, no matter how faint this is, and no matter how many difficulties that individual has experienced in the past, or is experiencing in the present, then my curiosity, my drive, my empathy, are fully there. But if I can’t feel that from the client, then those traits don’t seem to make an appearance.

I have been very aware of my choices recently, both in relation to what I feel curious about, and to how much chaos I am willing to engage with on a daily basis. I have been noticing that my aptitudes, and my butterflies, may lie in clinical contexts and presentations where someone has already decided to change, no matter how determined or faint that decision is. And then I look at and talk to some of my colleagues and realise that their butterflies lie elsewhere.

This is the beauty of healthcare professions, and where we can find relief from the potential pressure of wanting to help everyone: there is always someone who is interested, driven to help, experiencing butterflies, in every single clinical presentation that exists. I don’t have to worry about helping everyone, because there are other professionals who are helping people at every single stage of their recovery. I don’t need to feel guilty about not feeling more curious at the earlier stages of someone’s treatment, because someone else is, and I feel that the combination of my knowledge, skills, and talents, is better served when there is a certain level of, or potential for, stability and balance.

Ask the Dramatherapist…”The Client’s Role”

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I was recently invited to participate in a research study about Dramatherapy as a psychological therapy and profession. I met up with the researcher last week, where she asked me a series of questions about the different aspects of my practice. After asking me what I perceived the role of the therapist to be, she asked me “What is the role of the client?”

I will admit to you, as I admitted to her: I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question before, and I don’t know if I have spent much time considering it either. This startled me, and I have been thinking about it ever since. What is the role of the client? WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CLIENT?

Have other therapists considered this before? Am I alone in this?

I mean, I have considered many aspects of the client’s experience and process, but I don’t remember anyone ever phrasing it in such a way. What is their role?

This is my response, and reflection, as of February 2017, a week after the question was first posed to me. I believe that my views on this will probably change as time passes, and experience settles, but this is my here and now, and good enough, response.

As it is often common in the life of a therapist, whenever a big question comes up, it tends to show up within therapy sessions, in very unexpected ways.

A few days ago, as I was concluding a group session and making a summary of the work and insights the group had undertaken and experienced, I found myself talking about my role, and their role.

Within that discussion, I was stating that I tend to see the therapeutic process, not so much as a discovery of something, but as a re-discovery. Meaning that, I truly believe each person knows themselves better than anyone else, but their intuition and reason are often clouded by judgement, fear, doubt, expectations, pressures. Everyone has and experiences glimpses into their core every now and then, which we tend to dismiss as “odd”, “peculiar”, “unreasonable”.

My perception of what I do as a Dramatherapist is often of a guide through these clouds. I’m not influenced by someone’s judgement, fear, doubt, expectations, or pressures, which makes me able to navigate through these clouds with curiosity, empathy, and clarity. My role is often about helping to remove the clouds, not so that clients can discover themselves, but so that they can re-discover themselves. Everyone has and experiences glimpses into their core every now and then. We all know what we feel and think, whether or not we have the vocabulary to express it to others. These are different matters: the knowing and the expressing.

And so, as I continued with this metaphor of clouds and removing them, I found myself saying to my Monday group that their role was to make decisions, to choose. Let’s pause here and imagine that I am guiding you through your clouds. As a Dramatherapist, I will do that through prompts: “I notice that… your body language has changed; your tone of voice is different; you said this but did that; where would you like to go next?; what would you like to do next?; to say?; breathe, don’t forget your breathing; pause, take a moment or two; what does it look like, feel like?; it’s okay; I’m here.”

These prompts represent opportunities for the client to choose: to say something, to do something, to ask something, to express, to hide, to move forward, to move backwards, to remain, to settle, to change.

As I guide someone through their own clouds, I will make observations about what I see, notice, and feel, in the therapy space and all of this is meant to create clarity about the different choices a client has in those moments, but also in their lives outside the therapy room. I can do that for them, but then I can’t make any choices for them.

However, to make a choice, one must have the awareness that one has a choice. It also then involves personal responsibility and autonomy. The therapeutic process, and the therapist, must aid in this: the empowerment and awareness of personal responsibility and autonomy. This may sound like too much, but that’s why therapy isn’t always easy, and it shouldn’t be. It should make things simpler, but not necessarily easier.

And a choice doesn’t have to be of the life-changing capacity either. A choice can be as simple as choosing a pencil over a crayon. And the more often one makes simple choices, the easier it becomes to make more complex ones. But the choice must always be made by the client, and this is how I see the client’s role: to make a choice.

It feels like this: I guide a client through something, I make my observations and present the choices at hand, momentarily remove myself from the dynamic so the client can make a choice, and once the choice is made, I return to the dynamic to continue the journey through the clouds. That split second and moment of temporary withdrawal on my part is designed to allow the client to feel that they have made a choice on their own. Small moments like these, of choosing a pencil over a crayon, or the colour of a piece of paper, is what signals to the conscious and unconscious mind, as well as someone’s heart and spirit, that they are in control and empowered.

 

 

 

Reflexions…On the Duration of Therapy

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I have recently experienced a shift in paradigm, in relation to how I experience therapy. I experienced this in the context of my own personal therapy, and I am currently questioning many aspects of my training and practice – which is both frightening and exciting!

For the sake of context, I studied and trained to become a Dramatherapist for 3 years. One of the requirements of that training was that I needed to be in personal therapy throughout that period of time. This included group and individual therapy. Both of those experiences were long-term: I spent 30 weeks in group therapy, and the remaining 120 or so weeks were spent in individual therapy.  Say what you will, but that is a lot of time to be spent in continuous self-reflection and processing of emotional and behavioural dynamics.

Combined with that experience, is my own experience of my tutors and lecturers, and even of available research, whose presentation of clinical case studies seemed to always feature long-term cases. I am not saying that the content only featured those cases, but the ones who stuck with me were often of long-term therapeutic relationships.

And I must admit, that up until this recent challenge to the paradigm I was following, I wasn’t even aware I was following such a paradigm. This paradigm entailed that effective, long-lasting, and authentic healing therapeutic relationships, could only occur in the context of long-term therapy. No one ever told or taught me this, but somehow, through the experiences of my training and studying, I had unconsciously adopted this as dogma. Even though most of my clinical experiences as a therapist have been facilitating short-term interventions! But I recognise now, that I always had this longing to “find” a client with whom I could work with for years. I still do. And I will probably be able to have that experience at some point in the future.

But this is not a debate between long- and short-term therapy. This is simply an awakening, a new perspective, and the curiosity to see where this may lead.

It is very poignant that the first question someone submitted to my “Ask the Dramatherapist…” feature was about uncovering old wounds and the potential negative effects of such actions in a therapeutic setting. I wrote in that post that, often, old wounds are uncovered unexpectedly. That dealing with something here, will trigger or awaken something else over there. And that we won’t know that will happen, until it happens.

This is what happened to me recently. I received some life-changing news in May 2016 and decided to go back to therapy to process the information and its manifested and potential effects on my life moving forward. In the process of doing this, a very painful and traumatic memory re-emerged from the depths of my unconscious and demanded to be processed for the first time in two decades. I had not planned this at all. In fact, I had “worked” so hard at keeping it hidden that not even the intense psychological process of studying Dramatherapy for 3 years had come close to unblock or shift certain life experiences. They were carefully and deeply locked, hidden, and mostly forgotten. The psychological split and disassociation around this experience were very effective.

But then, May 2016 happened. And many “problems” became irrelevant. I was able to finish many chapters, close many stories, and retire old roles that had overstayed their position in the spotlight. Many layers were peeled, which left the core exposed. I felt incredible relief at this purge of old personal narratives, but felt equally apprehensive about the core. I had never addressed it, let alone give it a voice, or time and space. Now, I can easily run away from something if its presence is faint or mild, but if it’s staring me right in the face, I tend to just go for it.

And so, in open and honest discussions with my therapist, I decided to engage in intense trauma work, using a technique and approach called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), often used with PTSD to reduce the long-lasting effects of distressing memories, by engaging the brain’s natural adaptive information processing mechanisms, thereby relieving present symptoms. In EMDR, in careful agreement with the therapist, the client chooses a, or the most, painful memory they have about a specific event, and reconnects to the feelings it created, the messages it produced, and the effects it had. Whilst recalling all of this, the client receives one of several bilateral sensory inputs, such as side to side eye movements. I will let you conduct further research on this, if you are interested.

The main point, however, is that through EMDR, I was able to experience the memory differently, in the sense that the feelings it created, the messages it produced, and the effects it had, changed. Not dramatically, not completely, but they changed. And this shift has had a profound effect. And for Dramatherapists reading this, as well as other professionals working with psychodynamic approaches, you will hopefully understand when I say that I cannot explain what the shift was. Only that there was a shift, and that I feel different, lighter, and more relieved. Somewhere in my unconscious, the perspective of this event changed. And this happened within 8 weeks of treatment.

The week after a particularly intense session, I sat down with my therapist and she asked me where I would like to go next. And even though she didn’t verbalise the different options, as a therapist myself, I felt what they were: to stop or to continue. And this is where my paradigm shift happened.

I knew I could continue. I could choose more memories – and trust me, there are a ton of them now! – and continue to follow that process. But like I said earlier, there was something different in me. Reprocessing that particular memory had shifted how I perceived other memories, how I perceived myself and my role in my own life.

We had purposefully agreed to meet two weeks after the intense session, so that I would have time to process it, by simply living my life. And as I started living my life more openly, freely, and emotionally, I realised that I was okay. At least, for now. And that, right now, I didn’t need to continue reprocessing memories, even though I could. And this stopped me in my tracks: I could continue, but I didn’t need to. I didn’t need to continue with this therapeutic relationship, because, right now, my catharsis was enough. And I didn’t need to continue to prod, analyse, investigate, explore. In fact, I didn’t want to. I had spent two decades trapped by something I couldn’t even recognise, and now that something was no longer there. All I wanted, correction, all I want, right now, is to simply live my life. To start new chapters, new stories, and allow new roles to take centre stage.

This is not a defence of anything in particular, simply a sharing about a shift in perspective. That therapy doesn’t always need to be long-term. That profound catharsis and change can actually occur within a short period of time, and that both experiences can be equally valid.

This is a commitment to follow my curiosity in what feels like a brave new world to me: could my Dramatherapy practice enable this as well? What can I do to be more effective in my efforts to facilitate long-lasting change in the context of short-term therapy interventions?