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Role-Reversal: Seeing Situations With A New "I"

Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP
offers a weekly training group in experiential/
action methods Sept-June.
Bill (not his real name) – a 19-year-old man in an experiential group at a retreat for children of alcoholics - stepped up, reluctantly and therefore courageously, when I requested volunteers for an exercise that involved role-reversal. A technique that is central to the psychodramatic method, role-reversal shifts our frame of reference about a situation, memory or person. A person stuck in a conflict with an unbending boss, for example, will assume the role of this boss, and with the support of the director and the other group members explore the tension from the perspective of "the other." If we have generated sufficient psychological safety in the group, the process of role-reversal will reveal underlying beliefs and memories that connect to the present situation. It is ultimately a way to rewrite the story in a fresh, more empowered way.
 In a walk-and-talk interview "Bill" freely shared two things: 1) he attended this retreat only because of a bargain with his mother in which she agreed to pay his tuition every semester that he participated in some mental-health-related activity; 2) he had no faith whatsoever in the effectiveness of mental-health-related activities. Fair enough. The therapy-is-useless frame of reference is not only common, it is often justified, especially with children raised in alcoholic homes where kids can be tossed into treatment for acting out while all the adults involved dance around the actual causes if the family dysfunction. But his anger with the social workers and counselors he was forced to see as a teen because of a fight in which he broke his hand on another kids’ face was tinged with understanding. He knew they meant well. He recognized their empathy. But he saw nothing change as a result. At least that was the story he was ready to share with us at the time.
     His genuine anger was focused on the boy whose jaw he broke - a boy who had antagonized and bullied Bill since grade school. “When I was told to reverse roles with this guy I was so angry,” he wrote in a post-session evaluation. “I didn’t want to pretend to be him or crawl into his skin on any level. But I tried.”
     It may sound counter-intuitive for a victim to “become” the abuser, especially when the victim has suffered some unfortunate consequences for standing up to the perpetrator. But the beauty of role-reversal is its power to move between two – or more – frames of reference easily, allowing an almost rhythmic back-and-forth between a grounded, familiar position and that of the other characters in the drama. The perspectives of different players can begin to clarify the source of those internalized “voices” that re-energize negative self-talk. Bill shared the following in his discussion of the work:
     “I took the role and some other guy took the role of me, and when I started to call him names and make fun of him, the guy in my role just stood there looking scared like I used to and I hated him, me, for that. I really hated myself for being weak and letting this guy mess with me day after day. The things that jerk says to me are the same as what I say to myself every day of my life. And the things he did to me play over and over in my head because I keep saying these things inside my head. I don’t want him controlling me anymore.”
     The creative interaction pulled Bill's self-hating interior dialogue apart in an interesting and pressure-free way. He was still free to view psychotherapy as useless. He was also free to make some cognitive connections which reframed the way he thought about and talked to himself. He "got" that the way he beat himself up mirrored the person he hated the most and caused him to avoid relationships. The experience of role-taking brought about a visible shift in his thinking and an observable reduction in his anxiety, a shift that talking about the problems might have taken much more time to accomplish. It was a beginning, and a good one, of Bill’s co-creation of supportive relationships that form the foundation of successful emotional recovery and the fuel for creating his life.


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