Role-Play refers to the changing of one’s behaviour to assume a role: either unconsciously to fill a social role, or consciously to act out an adopted one.
Role-Play provides a safe and private environment through which individuals can test drive threatening or feared situations and expel unwanted emotions that are difficult to own and often the cause of deep emotional upset.
In addition, in the course of having some fun, individuals can reflect upon existing attitudes and beliefs and experiment with different ways of acting in the world in order to build self-confidence and self-awareness.
Role Pay (also referred to as Enactment and Dramatisation) increases awareness through the dramatisation of some part of the client’s existence by asking him or her to put his or her feelings or thoughts into action. Activities include: saying it to the person (group therapy), addressing an empty chair (individual therapy), putting words to it and exaggeration. Role-Play can be incredibly therapeutic and encourage and increase creativity.
Role-Play was officially certified in 1942 with the founding of its first professional society: The American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP). Its origins, however, extend slightly further, all the way back to the early 1920s with the work of psychiatrist, theorist and educator Jacob Levy Moreno. The founder of Psychodrama and the foremost pioneer of group psychotherapy, Moreno was one of the leading social scientists of his day and it is often said that ‘he picked up’ where Freud left off. On a rare encounter with the man himself, he is reported to have explained : “You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings. You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.”
Continuing to prove its versatility over the years, Role-Play has since engaged Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the founding partners of NLP, amongst numerous others. Modelled on three of the most effective therapists in recent history: Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton H. Erickson, M.D., NLP contains psychological tools, techniques and strategies that help clients make rapid and permanent change to the way they think, feel and behave in their personal and professional lives.
Currently amongst one of the most important and popular of the creative therapies, Role-Play can be used to explore and improve relations with our partner, our children and/or our friends. And on a professional level it can serve to help us explore interactions with our boss, our colleagues, and our internal or external customers or clients.
If you consider any situation that you have been in, you can think about it from at least three different positions – Self, Other and Observer. Through the exploration of these positions, we can start to experience relationships in a new way, develop the ability to see and hear and feel the relationship through the eyes, ears and emotions of the other person, and the ability to explore the relationship through the eyes and ears of a neutral observer (a fly on the wall, a hidden video camera, etc…). By adding these new dimensions to our current perspective, we can learn new ways of behaving that will enrich and enhance each and every relationship we are in.
Role Play can be used for:
- Confidence and Self-Esteem
- Ego Strengthening
- Performance Anxiety
- Bereavement and Loss
- Anger Management
- Conflict Resolution
- Situational Anxiety
In addition, by providing the opportunity to test drive threatening or feared situations before actually experiencing them in real life, it serves as a safe and private space in which to vent and expel unwanted emotions that are difficult to own and often the cause of deep emotional upset. As well as being emotionally powerful, it is also vividly experiential, flexible and creative.
In Role Play there are four positions to consider, each named respectively:
- The First Position, and most likely the easiest to comprehend, is your natural perspective. This is where you are fully aware of what you think and feel, regardless of those around you. We refer to this position as a Fully Associated Position, you are fully in it and living it as if it was happening right now. Some of us, however (in particular those with self-esteem issues), will be more familiar with the position and perspective of others than to that of our own. In this instance, adopting the role of First Position enables a fresh and healthier perspective and serves as a great ego-strengthening tool.
- The Second Position is about imagining what it is like to be another person. It is called the Position of Other and, in essence, it is the “walking of a thousand miles in another man’s shoes”. The Second Position needn’t necessarily be that of another person; it can also be that of a painting or any other object, so long as it is represented as ‘other’ than the ‘you’ in First Position. It can even be another part of your own mind or body.
- The Third Position is an independent position where you act as a detached observer, noticing what’s happening in the relationship between two other people. This is where it gets slightly more complicated, as it is a position with three subtypes: Pure Third, Meta and Observer. Each of them is a Perceptual Position outside of the first two and outside of the communication loop going on between the First and the Second Positions. From Third Position, you are like an interested but not directly involved observer of the other two. It’s a useful position for gathering information and noticing relationship dynamics going on between them. In Third Position, if you were to refer to yourself in First or Second Position, you’d use third person pronouns, such as ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’.
- The Fourth Position is a synthesis of all the others, a sense of being the whole system. From this position you can see the genesis and effects of all the other positions and their interactions and notice large patterns which transcend individual identities, parts and relationships.
There are additional Perceptual Positions of another type called Projected Perceptual Positions, wherein the first person adopts the position of a second person, projecting their own thoughts, feelings and reactions onto them. The first of these is called Mind Reading.
Another variant of this is Reverse Mind Reading, the adoption of traits projected on oneself by someone else. Many self-esteem, co-dependence and self-confidence problems are directly tied to this form of self/other confusion.
Finally, there is what classical psychology calls Transference, where in addition to the transference of thoughts and emotions about one person to another, there is also the pre-transference confusion of Second Position perception between two others.
In order to experiment with all four of the above positions, clients will be encouraged to physically move to different chairs or places in a room as the therapist describes and discusses each one in turn, asking them to notice what they experience while standing or sitting in each space.
Role-Play is a powerful modality often used in therapy. Many clinicians use it under different terms, such as: drama work, experiential, empty chair, gestalt, etc… It is useful because it gets the client out of their head and into their body, thereby grounding them. Often we use the coping mechanism of over-thinking, rationalising, or being in denial in order to not be accountable or to feel certain feelings. Role-Play can allow us to short circuit this dilemma and hence avoid it.
Clients can use this skill as a way to sort through issues that are difficult to verbalise. It can also help to give insight into something that is yet to be thought through and can help with access to what is not completed in the mind. It can be used as a means through which to understand deeper issues, see patterns, and to gain motivation for a new plan.
As a method it is fun and playful and clients often leave a session feeling clearer and more energetic and positive as a result.
N.B: For your own safety, it is suggested that you consult an experienced practitioner before attempting to confront any serious issues on your own.
If you would like any further information about the process outlined above, please contact me with your questions.
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