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Podcast Transcript

Episode 16: Psychowhat? All About Psychodrama in Eating Disorder Treatment with Nancy Willis, MSW, LSW

[Bouncy theme music plays.]

Sam: Hey, I’m Sam!

Ashley: Hi, I’m Ashley and you’re listening to All Bodies. All Foods. presented by The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders. We want to create a space for all bodies to come together authentically and purposefully to discuss various areas that impact us on a cultural and relational level.

Sam: We believe that all bodies and all foods are welcome, we would love for you to join us on this journey. Let’s learn together.

Sam: Welcome back to another episode of All Bodies. All Foods. I’m Sam and I’m here with my co-host Ashley, and we have a very exciting guest today. Nancy Willis is a licensed social worker, MSW, LSW, and a certified practitioner in Psychodrama by the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry, and Group Psychotherapy. Nancy also has experience in residential settings, treating substance use, compulsive sexual disorders, and trauma. She also provides verbal psychotherapy for an independent outpatient practice. Hello, Nancy!

Nancy: Hello!

Sam: Hello! You know, Ashley, Nancy and I worked together for a long time at the residential setting in Philadelphia. That’s where I met Nancy. And I remember as part of my orientation, I had to go around and watch different groups. Like, back when I was a wee little, you know, post-doc resident.

Ashley: Baby therapist!

Sam: Baby resident. And I had to go around and I went to see Nancy’s psychodrama, and I’m thinking, “What is this?!” I had never seen anything like this. I heard a professor in grad school say psychodrama one time. That was the only time I ever heard of it.

Ashley: Wow.

Sam: And a professor mentioned it to me. They said, “Oh, you were an actress in high school, right? You would maybe like psychodrama. Maybe you should think about doing that.” And I was like, “I don’t know what that is.” But I was so happy to be able to watch your psychodrama, Nancy, because it was one of the most powerful events I had seen unfold in front of my eyes. So, I’m so glad you’re on this podcast today because I know there are many folks out there wondering, “What is psychodrama?” Just like I was wondering. And not only that, but, you know, just, you know, how does it help? We wanna sort of dive into like, what is the magic of psychodrama? But also learn more about you, because I know so many, you know, past alums from Renfrew have gone through a psychodrama and it’s been so transformative for them as part of our programming. We ask our patients like, “OK, what are we doing right? What needs improvement?” As part of our, you know, we wanna make sure we’re doing things well. And this group consistently comes back as one of the favorites.

Ashley: Mhm.

Sam: Like, Ashley, I would like read through the evals and it’s like, “Nancy change my life! Psychodrama changed my life!” And I would always tell Nancy, I’m like, “Nancy, we got good feedback for you again! Wait till you hear!” So, anyway, but, you know, I think—well, I personally would love to hear a little more about you, Nancy, as a therapist, and what got you interested in the mental health field, and what got you interested in psychodrama?

Nancy: Thank you, thank you for having me. And um, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I first went to college. I think I was a political science major because my stepmother was a lawyer, and actually a friend of mine had a drug-induced psychotic break. My friend Beth, this was many years ago, but visiting her in a psychiatric inpatient hospital really did make me interested in mental health. And I was interested in mental health and also in acting. I was in high school and college plays, and those were my two interests. And I think I read one sentence about psychodrama in undergraduate.

Sam: Right!

Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: So, I think the more the word can get out about psychodrama existing, the better. I’m glad I can help in that endeavor. So, I was working at a mental health center and doing intake, emergency, just seeing people once. And I wanted more of an ongoing relationship with people. And there was an opening for a creative arts therapist upstairs in the partial hospital. And I thought, “I remember something about psychodrama, let me see if I can get training,” as if I could be trained in time for next week when they were filling the job! But the very first psychodrama workshop I went to, it felt so powerful to me and so moving that I felt I’m home, this is my tribe, I have to learn more about this. So yeah, it combined my two interests of being in therapy and in my interest in theater. So, it was a perfect fit for me.

Sam: That’s amazing.

Ashley: That is incredible, yeah.

Sam: Yeah.

Ashley: It’s—and I’m thinking of my even experience, you know, going through grad school. I didn’t hear anything about psychodrama!

Nancy: Right!

Ashley: So it’s so wonderful to talk to you today, Nancy.

Nancy: I think people hear about art therapy that uses art, or music therapy that uses music, so psychodrama and drama therapy that use action—which, speaking of, it doesn’t do psychodrama a full service to be on a podcast talking about it. The whole point is in action. So, one can’t fully understand what it’s like just talking about it, it’s the opposite of what psychodrama is all about. Because the whole thing of why it can be so powerful is that when we talk, we can stay up in our heads, but moving into action is the mind-body connection, when feelings might be more palpable. So, I’ll do my best to talk about psychodrama but it’s more understandable seeing it. So that’s why I—

Sam: Right. Or being in one, being in one certainly. So, this will just be sort of an introductory episode to psychodrama. Hopefully will pique some interest out there and maybe someone will try it or maybe get trained in it to be a psychodramatist.

Nancy: Great! Do so.

Sam: Exactly. So, well, Nancy, did you—were—have you ever been, like, a part of a psycho drama as part of your training? Did they make you go into one at any point?

Nancy: Oh, of course! The training is just practicing on each other. Absolutely.

Sam: Wow, yeah.

Nancy: Psychodrama was conceived by Jacob Moreno, a Viennese psychiatrist in the 1920s, and it’s guided dramatic action to explore problems and issues. So, it’s—if someone, the person who it’s from their life is called the protagonist in psychodrama. We guide them to put into action whatever issue’s on their mind. It could be something bothering them, something they’re working on in treatment, could be something they need to address to maintain their recovery from the eating disorder. And because it explores their feelings, it gets new insights, it practices new behaviors. So, it really combines the thoughts, feelings, and actions, which is very Renfrew United Treatment Protocol congruent.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sam: Exactly.

Nancy: And so yeah, so the protagonist, and then the people playing roles were called auxiliaries, auxiliary egos, and the people witnessing in psychodrama are called the audience. The place of action is called the stage. The therapist is called the director. So, it’s, you know, it’s like— the protagonist is in charge. Like, it’s very respectful. Whatever I suggest, they can decline, they can alter, change, or accept. And it’s very spontaneously co-created as we go. And so, yes, the experience of being in psychodramas as the protagonist, the director, the auxiliary, the audience, is all part of the training.

Sam: I see.

Ashley: You’re talking about, like, even the—so say, well, you do this for groups at Renfrew and the different places you work, too. So, the people that are in the group that aren’t necessarily engaging at all, they’re still a part of the activity, the process?

Nancy: Absolutely! When you’re actually witnessing, it can make even more of an impact because your defenses are down, and someone playing a role or even the protagonist may be focusing on something, or their concentration might be on a role, and so watching something can really, you know, leave an impact on you.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sam: Right. Especially if the protagonist is working through something that you’re working through. And with eating disorders, I mean, so many of the issues are the same, although everyone usually thinks they’re the only one who feels that way. But to watch a protagonist work through something, in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “I think these things too. I have this conflict.”

Nancy: Right.

Sam: I could see how that would be really powerful.

Nancy: In fact, there’s psychodramatic techniques like mirroring, where someone steps back and someone steps in and does what they were doing to get that “Aha, this is what I looked like,” so that they can, you know, sort of restart their course or do something differently. There’s something called doubling, where you can stand behind someone as if you were them and add a line, maybe something they’re feeling inside that they’re not saying. So, there’s audience participation because anyone can double anyone. And if the protagonist is doubled, everything stops until they correct it, or repeat it, or make it their own somehow. But doubling any other auxiliary ego, it just becomes part of the action. So, people really can get involved from any position.

Sam: Wow. And there’s so much choice it sounds like, too, you know. Well, the protagonist has choice around what direction they want things to go, and then the audience members can choose to sit and watch, or they can choose to just get up and add a line. So, it seems really trauma-informed because there’s so much choice within the process. Would you agree with that, Nancy?

Nancy: A absolutely. And the protagonist asks people to play roles for them, because part of recovery is asking for help making choices. But I always tell group members, if you feel a role would be traumatic for you, please take care of yourselves and decline and the protagonist will pick someone else. But don’t say no because you think, “Oh, I don’t know how, or I won’t be good,” because there’s no standard to live up to and we’ll help you. And just that it’s in a safe supportive setting. Spontaneity is used a lot and spontaneity is a therapeutic factor. I mean, eating disorders, addictions are very rigid. You’re doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So just moving into action is healthy spontaneity. “I can respond to all things in a new way or new things in an adaptive way.” So when you practice new or effective roles or behaviors in a safe supportive place, it can be very healing. And particularly, we don’t go into specifics of trauma in groups at Renfrew, people can do specifics in individual sessions or trauma track, but people can still look at the impact of trauma. And also sometimes we don’t tip toe around things, things will come up. The purpose isn’t to trigger people, but basically that might be the issue of why they’re here. So, if something comes up watching or being in a psychodrama, you’re in residential treatment right here. There’s counselors and therapists to talk to. And this may be a very helpful, useful thing. Even though it’s painful in the short run, just surviving that discomfort and talking about it instead of using a symptom can be really helpful.

Sam: Right. So, it’s also building tolerance to emotions, to distress, all at once.

Ashley: Right. I’m curious, Nancy, after somebody kind of has that breakthrough experience towards maybe perhaps the end of the group, is that something you all process together? Or do they—kind of how do they, how do they leave the group experience?

Nancy: Sure! Psychodrama has three parts: the warmup, the action, and the sharing. So, maybe I’ll start talking about the warmup because that’s very important that someone comes, who emerges as the protagonist, is ready to work. They’re almost making a contract of, “This is what I want to work on.” And if someone isn’t warmed up, or if the group isn’t warmed up to being supportive of that, you don’t want that.

Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: So, I mean, like in life, warmups are important, right? “I’m gonna stretch before I jog.” Well, I’m not gonna jog, but someone might. “I’m gonna write down notes before I do a talk.” So, adequately warming up to something in life is important. So, there’s a very important psychodrama warmup. So, someone may know ahead of time that they wanna work and let me know, here that’s fine. Their therapist might let me know they wanna work, or it would be helpful if they did some work. But there’s warmup exercises such as, from as simple as everyone’s saying someone they admire, or a book they like, or “If you got a tattoo, what would it be of?” Or there’s “What’s the strength of yours that is one of your resources?” So, there’s also warmup exercises. You could do a two chair one, “Be someone who supports your recovery and then be someone who doesn’t understand eating disorder and recovery.” “Be you in the future if you’re in recovery, be you in the future if you’ve relapsed.” To do a food atom, it’s like a social atom is significant people, positive and negative, the food atom is significant foods positive or negative, and draw them or sculpt them so that they’re near or far. And you reverse roles so that the auxiliary can learn how to be true to your version of the role as you see it, the action would be protagonist centered. And just the messages that come through from different foods can, for example, or from different people, can lead to— you work from the periphery to the core underlying issues and then sort of end back at the periphery of, like, “How does this adjust till today?” So, there’s all kinds of warm ups and— well, maybe I can just, like, sort of talk about a pretend psychodrama.

Sam: Yes, yes yes!

Ashley: That would be great!

Sam: Get our imagination going.

Ashley: Yeah!

Nancy: And then I will get— I do remember you wanted to know about the de-rolling and the sharing and processing. But I’m sort of making this up, so all a resemblance to real or fictional characters is purely coincidental. So, say the person wants to work on being bullied at a younger age.

Sam: Mhm. That’s a big one with eating disorders.

Nancy: It really is. And you get— first of all, I want them to have strengths and supports before they go in to do that work of bringing up painful feelings. So, there’s three categories of supports. One is an intrapersonal strength, like your determination, your resiliency, pick someone to play that role. It could be like a passion for something— theater, music, athletics— something inside. Another one is an external support, like a person, a friend, a partner, a therapist. And all these things you role reverse with. So, I’m interviewing the protagonist in the role, partly so the auxiliary knows how to play it when I switch them back. But partly for the protagonist to have that experience of owning their strengths and seeing how a supportive person perceives them. You take that with you when you come back to the role.

Ashley: Mhm.

Nancy: I particularly like having therapists as their supports because when they play their therapist, I can pick their brain for information. They’ll tell me about their dynamics, their strengths, their resources. For some reason, it’s easier when you’re meeting someone else to say great things about yourself and to express the understanding. And then the third source of support is something more transcendent. It could be a higher power, it could be nature, love, it could be your dog, you know, anything that is gonna be a voice of groundedness and ok-ness. Even when you’re not feeling comfortable, you’re grounded, you’re supported, you’re OK. So, just anything can be used as these supports. Like, if someone has a stuffed animal, “Who can play your stuffed animal?” If someone has a tattoo, like a Harry Potter tattoo, “Who’s your favorite character? Ok, let’s bring Hermione in here,” because they will give voice to that support in their role reversal. So, say we give someone who’s wanting to work on their feelings of low self-esteem that they internalized from bullying, and we give them the support, and then they might do a scene when they were the age of when they were bullied.

Sam/Ashley: Mhm.

Nancy: “How old were you?” “Eleven.” “Can you ask someone to be you when you were 11, and who could play the bullies?” And again, a person may decline the role, but it can— it’s useful and helpful for the protagonist if you play a so-called negative role. But a person can also get a lot of insights playing a negative role, like, “That was horrible. I hated saying that. It wasn’t true when people said it to me,” or “It’s not appropriate for me to say that to myself.” So, it all can be useful and helpful. So, if they feel safe and comfortable, I might have them go back to be 11 years old, and we act the scene out in the here and now, present tense. Just makes feelings more accessible. So, you are 11. If they begin to feel shaky or dissociated, come back to your current age. The last thing we wanna do is retraumatize anyone.

Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: But again, you’re in a safe, supportive place and if you survive that you can survive reliving it with help, and with gaining understanding and distance and trying new behaviors. And at the time, if they’re being bullied and then the low self-esteem voice comes in, “Yeah, you’re no good. You don’t look right.” And then, this is when your eating disorder developed, “Great, pick someone to play the role of the eating disorder.” And it’s just really helpful because the eating disorder served a function. It gave you a sense of control, it was a way to express feelings, it was something that you had just of your own, it made you numb your painful feelings. And also putting the eating disorder in a chair reinforces that this was a coping skill that you weren’t born with. It was— it can be unlearned. “You are not your eating disorder, it’s in that chair over there.”

Sam: It separates it. Yeah.

Nancy: And it’s also helpful to have the eating disorder there because if we’re bringing up painful feelings, in the past, this is what you would have used. So, we really want to emphasize that you’re doing something differently right there, right now. And that’s why it gets its own chair. So, as the bullies are talking to the 11-year-old and the eating disorder and the inner voice says, “Yeah, you’re no good,” and the eating disorder says, “I can get you liked, I can make you feel good,” then the adult protagonist, the 11-year-old says, “I feel awful. I just feel terrible. Maybe I am no good.” So, then you can have the person be the adult again, and the person playing the 11-year-old go back into that chair, and we can have a chorus of all these voices, so it really hits them powerfully.

Sam/Ashley: Mhm.

Nancy: Like, “Oh my God, I was taught this! And no wonder I’ve learned to feel that way given those circumstances. It wasn’t my fault. I’m not gonna beat myself up, even for developing the maladaptive coping skills that I did. It was the best I could do at the time. It was kind of clever to think of some way to cope and self soothe. And I can have compassion for myself and self-understanding. Here’s 11-year-old me, and so I can go rescue that 11-year-old.” Like, literally go get them and bring them to you and give them comfort and tell them, “You were always good enough. You didn’t deserve that. That’s not true.” And then the protagonist can speak up to the bullies, “How dare you? I never deserved that. I’m not gonna let how you made me feel affect how I behave today anymore.” And so, they might say to their low self-esteem, like, “I’m gonna make friends with these painful feelings. They’ll pop up, but I can remind myself that they’re not true. And all the good things about me.” And the three categories of supports are still saying the good and positive things. The whole group can be a chorus— “Hey, anyone else in the room want to say anything to the bullies?” And then we get the “F—you”s and the “Go away”s.

Sam: They all stand up then!

Nancy: Is there anything you want to say to your eating disorder, like, “Thank you for your service, and you’re not helping anymore. I have other ways to help myself” or “You’re creating more problems than you helped. So, goodbye today.” And then the, you know, the drama might end with them again, giving themselves that reinforcement and reversing role. As your inner child, hear that from your adult self and reverse back again and thank your supports and strengths. And that might be the end of the drama. So, sharing action. And then comes—

Sam: I have chills!

Ashley: I can do this every day.

Sam: I need psycho drama every day, yes. You know, I’m thinking of this, like, 11-year-old talking to the inner strength or talking to, you know, those three, what were the three supports, Nancy? The inner, and then like—

Nancy: Intra, inter, and transcendent.

Sam: Yeah, I’m, like, thinking of this little 11-year-old connecting with those in front of everyone, and I’m, like, goose bumps right now. I’m like, “Oh my gosh!”

Nancy: I’m glad! So, there is the warmup, there’s the action, and then there’s sharing. This is very important. The people who were in the roles can say, like, “I’m Mary, I’m not your bully,” and what it felt like playing that role. “Oh, I didn’t like saying those things, that went so against my nature.” That’s a— sharing our “I” statements, you’re talking about yourself. Because the protagonist can do no wrong, a compliment is a good judgment, but it’s still a judgment. You— the protagonist has been open and vulnerable and you want them to feel safe, like they’re not gonna be evaluated or judged. It keeps it safer for future protagonists to know that they’re not gonna be evaluated or judged, whatever happens is fine. So, by sharing “I” statements, “This is what I felt inside when I was in a role,” and then what it brought up from my own life, even if the circumstances were different, “I could relate to feeling powerless, I could relate to feeling unsupported.”

Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: So, by sharing, it helps people get out of the roles. And the protagonist is, like, in the recovery room. They’re not talking, they’ve worked hard, it’s their time to rest. They’re listening, now the group is saying what came up for them and that’s very important because then that gives you an idea of what you want to work on in action or what you’re gonna talk with your therapist about.

Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: So, de-rolling, and sharing, and knowing that there’s people here to talk to is very important.

Sam: Wow, it’s like— it’s like a month of therapy in an hour. Like, “Let’s take a bite of your eating disorder. Let’s confront your bullies.”

Ashley: Right!

Sam: “Let’s strengthen your, you know, recovery voice,” and then 45 minutes later we’re done.

Ashley: And also, let’s maybe build some community in there that can provide some compassion and empathy for you too, you know.

Sam: Right! Like, “Let me share my deepest conflicts with the people in my program and bond with them.” Wow.

Nancy: Yeah. A lot of people bring family issues, by the way.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sam: I’m sure.

Nancy: Family issues are really—it’s our first most significant group where we learn what it’ okay to express, how we should be. So, like, a lot of the psycho dramas are about family.

Sam: I’m sure, I’m sure. Nancy, do you ever do, like, a psychodrama with a fam— actually with the family?

Nancy: It, well— it’s interesting because when you’re playing your mother, it’s your projections. When you have the actual mother there, you’re actually— that’s family therapy.

Sam: Right, yeah!

Nancy: But I have used psychodrama techniques with families, like the mirroring, the doubling, the role reversal, and then correcting and accurate role reversal. But there used to be in-person Family Day. I know since the pandemic Family Day is on Zoom. But when it was in person, again, I’m not violating HIPAA, I’m sort of making this up.

Sam: Yeah, it’s all pretend.

Nancy: But say there was a mother at Family Day, the mother of a resident, who sort of got everyone’s attention, and “I just wanted to do right by my kid,” and “This is probably all my fault,” and “I’m a bad mother.” So, it’s like, “Hey, you want to do some work? Is that OK with your kid who’s the resident?” “Yeah!” So, actually looking at the… having the mother play her parents, and say the— and reverse roles with them so that the auxiliaries know how to play the role. And say the father might have been active in alcoholism, or workaholism, or there was a chronic depression, or immigration issues, or Holocaust survivor issues, whatever it is. And then the mother of the mother, you know, the grandmother, who’s presented as, “Well, let’s just pray about it,” maybe. I mean, that’s just an example.

Sam/Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: Or, “Let’s just not tell anyone outside the family what’s going on with dad, and don’t trust anyone, and don’t have your feelings because dad’s feelings take up all the room. When he gets angry, there’s no space for anyone else to have any problems, and you don’t want to set him off.” So, the actual mother who’s there realizes the messages she got. And the mother might say, “When I have kids, they were gonna have what I didn’t have. It’s gonna be so corrective for me. I’m gonna be a good mother and my kids are gonna be happy.” So, the resident, with doubling or with help, might say, “I have this perfectionism. If I’m not perfect, I feel horrible about myself, or I feel like I shouldn’t ask for help. I should just figure things out myself and not struggle. And my eating disorder came in as a way to stuff my feelings and to be perfect, because Mom, I could tell that you felt successful as a mother if I was happy. You only wanted me to be happy! I took that literally. Happy is the only feeling I dared show.”

Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: So, of course, and then you see the purpose of the eating disorder, and—but even the mother gets some self-compassion, because she came by her messages, right, away from her parents and it’s intergenerational. So, the mother might say, “Well, I can own my role in this and not beat myself up. I had conditioning and circumstances too. But I really want to work together to change things now and not make it all about me, where you can’t express your feelings because you’re trying to make sure I’m not upset.” Like everyone’s so busy trying not to upset everyone else. It’s like, you can have your feelings, you can have your— everyone can have their feelings. You don’t have to get rid of yours or anyone else’s, right? So, with coaching, the mother might say to the resident, “You don’t have to take care of me. It’s a joy to be your parent. It’s a privilege. I’ll get my own help. It’s not your job to support me. I wanna hear all your feelings and struggles, you can come to me with them. We’re gonna figure this out together.” And again, this is a room full of people resonating, doubling, relating. So, yes, family issues and family can absolutely be used and frequently are.

Sam: Wow.

Ashley: I feel like that would be so transformative.

Sam: I know, yeah. And what a way to build compassion between family members where, you know, “Oh, my mom got these messages, I better understand her now because of what grandmom told her.” And just really, I mean, the compassion and the understanding just from that one psychodrama. I mean, that’s amazing.

Nancy: It really is. I love psychodrama. I love how effective it can be. I had really good trainers and I continue to train, you know, it’s a lifelong learning. And just using the spontaneity and having the utter privilege and honor of witnessing people’s growth. It’s just exciting and I love it and it’s, like, you know, deeply satisfying. And I say this with all humility, you know. This modality spoke to me and to be able to be a conduit, you know, use it to help others, I sincerely relish it and cherish it.

Ashley: I’m imagining, Nancy, that you have seen and/or experienced several success stories after using these tools with some of the clients. I just feel like I would be deeply affected and changed. And so, I just—

Nancy: You know, I have had, I have been myself the protagonist in psychodramas that have been life changing. But I would say that it happens, but it’s a rarity. Like, for the most part, half the people might be bored because they’re not looking for the similarities, they’re thinking about the differences. They’re like, “That’s not me.” Half the people have their mind on something else. And the protagonist just feels free to choose, like, how shallow or how deep they wanna go.

Ashley: Yeah, I see.

Nancy: And so, a lot of time, most of the time, it’s just chipping away. It’s just one more little piece of work in a lifetime of work, therapy, recovery. But psychodrama can also be used for, like, positive things like, “Hey, I had a really great holiday dinner and I just want to recreate it to savor how well it went.”

Ashley: Yeah.

Sam: Oh!

Nancy: So, we’re not even getting into huge pain. We’re having, like, a nice scene. And that lets people know you better, and just developing a sense of gratitude. Being able to feel joy, delight. Because if you’re numbing anger, fear, sadness, then you’re numbing every feeling across the board. So, absolutely, we accept superficial and we accept joy.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sam: I never thought of that, but yeah, it could be a psychodrama about something really positive.

Ashley: Yeah.

Nancy: Absolutely.

Sam: And to strengthen those voices, and strengthen those beliefs.

Nancy: And if no one wants to be the protagonist in a psychodrama, there’s also something called sociodrama, where it’s just a central theme that might be explored. Like, people might explore a physical disease. So instead of your diabetes, someone plays an illness.

Ashley: Sure.

Nancy: And it’s just themes are explored, but with that distance, and then there’s still sharing and spontaneity. And I also do individual psychodramas here at Renfrew. Which, of course, we get sick in groups, we benefit from healing in groups as well. So, it’s not the same time and contribution of having others be spontaneous and add to the drama by improvising, elaborating. But with the individuals, even you talking to an empty chair, or just role reversing with who you want to address in one of my individual consultations, then it just is more palpable sometimes than when we just talk, you know. It’s the trauma, that the body remembers what the mind forgets, and it’s all, you know, done safely with containment.

Ashley: Yeah.

Sam: Right!  There’s so much flexibility in how vulnerable you want to be. I mean, it just, you can really adjust to make sure the protagonist feels comfortable and the whole group feels comfortable, essentially.

Nancy: Yeah.

Sam: So, a lot of safety within the process,

Ashley: Nancy, I’m curious, so we’ve talked about eating disorders specifically. That’s really, you know, we talk a lot about that with this podcast. But I’m curious, can anyone benefit from doing a psychodrama? Does it have to be somebody with an eating disorder or substance use in their background?

Nancy: Anyone can benefit from it! Again, I do work in addictions, drug and alcohol, sex addiction. But sure, anyone can benefit from it because all humans can benefit from more self-acceptance, awareness, and acceptance of their emotions, and a more skillful relationship with feelings. Clarifying what one’s values are and what it would look like to have your values aligned with your actions more. Because we all do things that like, you know, “What am I doing?”

Ashley: Right, right.

Nancy: But there’s no one who can’t benefit from practicing better relationships. Role reversing with someone to see their point of view and get greater, understand— greater mutual understanding. Practicing having a conversation with someone. It also is very effective with grief, because the person doesn’t actually have to be there. Whether they’re not available or whether they’re deceased, you can run through your system, through your physical system, you can run through the conversation, the feelings. Like, you can do the mourning, or the grieving, or the affirming on your end, even when it’s someone else playing the role of the one you’re grieving. So psychodrama can be really helpful with that, and there’s no one who hasn’t grieved something, whether it’s a pet, a person, a realization about their childhood not being as secure as they’d like. Grieving health. As I said, there’s so many different kinds of losses, and being able to process and unpack your feelings. So, as long as you’re human, you probably have feelings, you probably have relationships. Psychodrama can help. But with the disorders, eating disorders, addictions, there’s very much— this behavior or this substance was filling a void, was numbing pain.

Ashley: Sure, yeah.

Nancy: And so, really practicing tolerating the void, tolerating the pain, and finding other things to do because of the consequences of your addictions not being aligned with your values, actually. People generally get into treatment when the outside world is telling them, you know, “This isn’t cool.” Because of the nature of denial, and at first being a solution, no one generally just wakes up and says, “I have a problem.” It’s a process. Everyone who gets here is a warrior, is brave. You know, just the willingness to look at oneself is a feat that a lot of people, because of their background, are so threatened or anxious, you know, that they’re not— they don’t have the courage to be vulnerable. So, yeah, it’s a wonderful tool for anyone.

Sam: Nancy, when I, when I was a therapist at the residential site, I would sometimes suggest to my clients, “Why don’t you try to be a protagonist in psychodrama?” And almost always, their first reaction was like, “No way! I can’t be the center of attention. It’s too much, but I really like watching them, and sometimes I get up and double.” And so I’m just curious, like, what guidance would you have for someone who, there’s a part of them that knows they would really benefit but they’re scared?

Nancy: Well, you’re providing a service to the group by letting yourself be known and expressing some of your issues. It really is a gift to people, because then they know that they’re not alone. And I would reassure them that there is— you can’t do it wrong. There no grading or grade system, whatever happens is fine. And again, you’re in charge. Anything I suggest, take, alter, decline. Speak up, whatever comes to you as we go, we’re co-creating spontaneously. If you just thought of this, if you don’t want that, if you want this, you know, speak up. We’re doing it together, and you’re in a safe, supportive place, and you’re in charge. If there’s something you don’t want to deal with right now, I might ask why and explore what the resistances are in case it’s something that we can address or go around. But no is a complete answer. You know, the old expression, “Yes doesn’t mean anything if you can’t say no.” So, you’re in charge. It’s self-determination. I may have ideas of three ways this could go because, like, that’s my job!

Ashley: Right!

Nancy: But I’m bouncing off what you give me at every moment. We’re in the now, we’re in the here and now. You can’t do it wrong. Why not take a risk? You’ll never see these people again! Get your money’s worth, take a risk!

Sam: Right! I love that reframe, that it’s a gift to others. I think that could really help people gather the courage to try it. And it’s so empowering knowing that they have a lot of choice in the matter.

Nancy: Absolutely.

Ashley: Nancy, if someone wanted to learn more about psychodrama or experiential therapies, where could they go? Could they reach out to you? How could they learn more information?

Nancy: Well, they could certainly reach out to me, but there’s a lot of sources of information. If you’re in or around Media, Pennsylvania, there’s a monthly training workshop that anyone can come to, from 3 to 5, the fourth Saturday of every month. That’s the Delaware Valley Psychodrama Collective. So, if you Google, you’d get the Delaware Valley Psychodrama Collective. If again, you’re sort of in the Media, Philadelphia, area. There is also the That’s the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama. And the ASGPP website will have all the local workshops, trainings, the national conferences, the online trainings. And also, the There’s three websites I’m giving you, everything can be done on the computer! But is the American Board of Examiners in Psychodrama, Sociometry, and Group Psychotherapy. And you can find certified trainers on the practitioner level, you can find people certified as trainers, educators, and practitioners by geographical location, and see their groups, and the workshops, and the therapy that they all offer. So, it’s a vibrant, growing community and it’s exciting, actually. I really like my people, you know,

Sam: Yeah!

Nancy: I love my psychodrama people. So, you would be so welcome to come to join. It’s inclusive, we would welcome you no matter who or what or where you are from. And training is available. It’s not an easy thing. I mean, there is group dynamics role theory, you know, sociometry, it’s not— you know, you always worry about someone who sees it once and thinks they can do it. Like, you may be a competent therapist but there’s a lot of training hours, and essay tests, and on-site observations to become a certified psychodramatist. So, yeah, so we don’t encourage people to just give the whole thing a try without training. But you would be very welcome to come. Even if you didn’t want to go through the whole training and you just wanted to come to some workshops, please do. Because any competent therapist certainly could do, like, a Gestalt-type role reversal or empty chair.

Ashley: Sure.

Nancy: Like, the bigger piece— the more training you have, the easier it looks. But it’s not willy nilly.

Sam: Well, you make it look so easy, Nancy.

Ashley: Yes.

Sam: You really do.

Nancy: I’ve got years of experience!

Sam: Well, it shows! !t shows!

Nancy: And good teachers. I’ve had good teachers myself.

Sam/Ashley: Yes.

Ashley: Well, thank you so much, Nancy! This has been so incredible, to learn more about this style of therapy, more about you. And I just really appreciate, Sam and I both really appreciate, you being on here with us today.

Nancy: Well, thank you for having me! And anyone can ask me any questions they want.

Ashley: Definitely! Yeah, and so with that, thank you to our listeners of All Bodies, All Foods. Thank you to being here with us today. Please feel free, if you do have questions for Nancy, you can shoot us an email at [email protected] and we can get those to Nancy. Nancy, we will likely put up those websites that you also gave us as well, so. And then again to our listeners, thank you so much, we really appreciate and hope you enjoyed today’s episode talking about psychodrama with Nancy Willis. If you liked today’s episode, you can support us by subscribing, rating, leaving a review, and sharing with others. You can also find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok at @Renfrew Center. And then again for free education, events, trainings, webinars, resources, all of that jazz, you can check us out at And lastly, if you have any questions about today’s episode or you would like us to talk about a specific topic, please feel free to reach out to us, we would love to connect with you. Our email is [email protected]. Thank you all so much, thank you again, Nancy, and thank you to our listeners.

Ashley: Thank you for listening with us today on All Bodies. All Foods. presented by The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders.

Sam: We’re looking forward to you joining us next time as we continue these conversations.

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