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By Anna Marie Boyd MA, RDT

Mentalization Based Therapy (MBT) is rooted in the concept that we must be aware and curious about our emotions and the emotions occurring in others to better understand our behavior and that of others. Peter Fonagy and Anthony Bateman champion this school of thought and developed the concept of mentalization within treatment. Mentalization requires a level of imaginative reasoning because we can never truly predict what someone else is thinking or experiencing.

Holding onto that concept of imaginative reasoning, drama therapy refers to the use of theatrical techniques to promote healing, foster change, and develop personal growth. It is often incorrectly assumed to be a modality limited to children or actors when in fact it can serve as a cathartic, transformative tool in therapy. Drama therapists use all types of projective techniques and forms of embodied work to help clients to closely examine the human experience and relate these insights back to their own stories. Whether it is storytelling, metaphor, improv, or performance, using drama allows clients a safe space to use their creative problem-solving skills, pretend, and tap into their childlike imagination.

Robert Landy, Ph.D. authored “Role Theory,” which states, “The human personality is a system of interrelated roles which provide a sense of order and purpose.” These roles shift and evolve due to social, somatic, cognitive, affective, and spiritual influences throughout a person’s everyday life. As we walk through our “stage” our roles change depending upon who we are with, what is needed of us, former experiences that have influenced us and what we are currently experiencing in the moment. Within Landy’s Role Theory, there is a list comprised of common, recurring roles that were found throughout Western literature and plays. These are archetypal roles, which Jung refers to as, “universal representations of the collective unconscious.” Landy understands roles to be, “the most indivisible aspect of the personality, it represents a part of the person…it holds certain qualities and serves certain knowable purposes within the lives of all people.”

Landy also posits that the human experience is centralized around dramatic action. He theorized that when people engage in play and dramatic activity, perhaps such as with drama therapy, they are offered the opportunity to expand and accept new roles within their repertoire. This assists individuals in accepting new aspects of the self and shedding light on roles that people may not want to initially associate themselves with. Jacob L. Moreno, M.D., suggested that a person “has at all times a set of friends and a set of enemies—[he] has a range of roles in which he sees himself and faces a set of counter roles in which he sees others around him.”

Mentalization offers insight into new perspectives, while drama therapy serves as the gateway to access this information. Instead of relying on discussion, drama therapy offers the client specific roles to “try on.” This allows the client to draw from their own insight to better understand specific events or relationships. Taking this idea, a step further, the utilization of psychodrama within group therapy exemplifies how mentalizing plays a key role within this therapeutic process and how this process can improve mentalizing. Founded in 1942 by Dr. Moreno, psychodrama is a therapeutic framework that explores conflict and life events by enacting them rather than talking about them and allowing for processing afterward.

A true psychodrama session consists of three distinct parts; a warm-up, enactment, and sharing. Other tools that could be used are: role reversals, mirroring, chorus, and soliloquy. In short, psychodrama usually takes place within a group setting under the guidance of a director, or certified psychodramatist. The client who participates will choose an event to reenact based on the warm-up or area of concern.

The director will then allow the client to “set the stage” or recreate the space in which this constructed exploration will occur (e.g., a car, or the client’s living room). The client will then choose another participant to take on the role of this individual. The client can place other characters or supportive figures within the scene. For instance, maybe the client wants someone to play his/her/their grandmother to provide emotional support during a difficult confrontation. The director will then guide the scene or interaction. The director can ask the client and actor to switch roles mid-conversation. The client would then take on the role of the relationship they are exploring and use mentalization to respond to the best of their abilities as this individual. After the scene organically wraps up, the client has space to process with the therapist and other participants.

Psychodrama only represents one approach to group drama therapy. There are many distinct approaches that offer clients the ability to view their experiences and relationships in a very different light. Drama therapy can also be particularly effective for clients who “feel stuck” within their lives or traditional psychotherapy. It offers a way to access subconscious information that can be difficult to engage with otherwise. It also teaches the clients how to better conceptualize other’s viewpoints and the possible emotions they could be experiencing. Clients and therapists should remain curious about what the incorporation of theater and dramatic play can do for mentalization-based treatment.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory. 

About the Author:

Anna Marie Boyd MA, RDT, LPC-Intern, RYT-200 is a community integration specialist at The Menninger Clinic. She is a registered drama therapist, LPC-Intern, and a registered yoga teacher. She received her master’s degree in drama therapy from New York University and has a background in working in both inpatient and outpatient settings.

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