How Drama and Theater Can Rewire Limiting Beliefs

As practitioners, we sometimes have to be creative in coming up with interventions that will work for a particular patient.

And this can be especially true when clients have deeply rooted limiting beliefs about themselves.

Bessel van der Kolk, MD is a master at coming up with creative approaches to help clients work with beliefs and emotions that hold them back.

In the video below, Bessel shares a story about how, and why, theater can be a powerful tool in working with patients.

Take a look – it’s just under 5 minutes.

This video was taken from the Next Level Practitioner training program where members receive a daily video like this from one of the top 25 experts in our field. That program is not open for new members right now, but if you want to be on a waiting list in case it opens up, please click here.

What have you found to be effective in helping clients overcome their limiting beliefs? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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35 Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Sing out loud even though it’s very average singing

  2. I was happy to see this as part of your series. Dr JL Moreno , founder of psychodrama, group therapy and sociometry developed these methods in the early 20th century . There is a very rigorous training program to become a certified psychodramatist and an additional modified model specifically for trauma survivors called The Therapeutic Spiral Model tm ( Dr Kate Hudgins and Francesca Torcani) which incorporates additional safety measures to avoid re-traumatization . Dr Moreno’s theory of personality is role theory which Dr vander Kolk alludes to in his talk. His use of the word “visceral” is spot on – the method is wholistic and addresses the whole person , the body, the whole brain including where trauma is stored , the heart and the spirit. It is quite powerful .

  3. you may be onto something: as a trauma survivor myself, I think its so important to express one’s emotions freely without fear and sadly enough this is rarely allowed. As a child I did become other characters. For ex: one day I put aluminum foil on my teeth pretending I had braces, and strangely enough, it gave me enough confidence to engage in conversation, to take my extremely shy and fearful self and set it aside for a while,. I just so much wanted to be normal.

  4. Emma rourke says:

    Singing can really help clients. Joining community choirs and singing in a group uplifts then and gives them confidence. I am not a psychotherapist, but training as an equine facilitator of human development. Again horses, time and again give people with trauma or lack of confidence so much. Not only do they mirror the incongruities but they help them make corrective limbic revisions.

  5. Greg says:

    I am not a therapist, but I do have some thoughts about theater and play-acting as a therapeutic learning experience. My two grandsons, ages 7 and 9, have lived with me and my wife, on and off, from the time they were born. My daughter, their mother, has a diagnosis of bipolar and personality disorder. Their father is not generally involved in their day to day lives. He, too, has issues that prevent him from taking responsibility for his children. The boys have endured continuous fighting by the primary caregivers around them. Their mother has a tendency to overlook their needs in a multitude of ways and this often brings her into conflict with my wife and me and the boys. The boys look to me for comfort, psychic and otherwise. Since they were toddlers, I’ve played with them thru puppetry, using hand-puppets and stuffed animals, etc. Using these props, I’ve guided the boys thru scenarios involving stress, anger, sadness, shyness, joy, cooperation, bullying, conflict resolution and perseverance and capability. The boys seem to enjoy this kind of guided play. They also seem comforted and unburdened by this kind of playacting which gives me hope for their mental and emotional health in spite of their often difficult environment. In this light, Dr. van der Kolk’s insights about theater resonate with me, and I am eager to learn more.

    • Suzy says:

      Greg,
      You are a rockin grandpa!
      I still have bad dreams about not getting chosen for the 2nd grade play.
      I was devistated that my best friend was picked to be Screaming Mimi and I didn’t get a part.
      I never forgot it.
      Thanks for being present with your family. They are very lucky to have you at such vulnerable times.

    • amy says:

      Awesome. Loved your story, thanks for sharing it.

  6. Doris Mason says:

    Appreciate your sharing your own story. Thank you.

  7. Anne says:

    I have just read Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. It is theatre in a correctional facility.

  8. Judy hanazawa says:

    I have worked in a First Nations community where the history of residential school, child welfare practice, and other historic colonial and oppressive government measures has been devastating for families. The people I know, colleagues and clients and friends, have consistently referred to traditional values, cultural practice, ie spiritual practices like bathing in territorial waters, drumming, singing, canoe journeys, sharing stories of ancestors, are a significant part of their healing and path to wellness.

    • Mirjam says:

      I love this story and hope that everyone is able to connect with their ancesters and roots. Istrongly believe in healing using rituals.

  9. Viola says:

    I took 21 former prison inmates, all of whom had suffered repeated traumas thru abuse and neglect, to see a stage production of Fiddler on the Roof. Most of them had never seen a stage play with live people and were amazed at the varying roles. I asked what they related to and what bothered them. It was interestingly diverse and opened wonderful dialogue especially as they compared characters to people they knew, including themselves. When reminded it was acting a part and that was not necessarily their true personalities, some where quite surprised. A few wanted a chance to perform and try to be someone else. It was very uplifting and encouraging to them to have a new vision opened up to them for a new way to express oneself and be creative. It felt therapeutic in a silent manner.

    • Susan Hawkes says:

      It must have felt amazing to open up such a different understanding of the larger world to your theater-going group. To have some encounter for the first time the notion that people play roles that are not necessarily their authentic selves must have been wild to watch in their faces. Lucky you!

  10. I have used theater since I was in third grade for my own self-preservation, and the enlightning of my students. I have been very blessed with the opportunity to share life experiences and lessons learned through drama. And over the last 20 years I’ve taken it into multi-racial, and multicultural environments around the world, and have been allowed to ue drama as a tool for developing and encouraging growth of all ages from kindergarten through college. But my biggest challenge has been trying to use what I know through my own brain injuries. Within 13 months I suffered three Trumatic brain injury’s, an F5 tornado that swept through my community and at about the same time, and my marriage fell apart, my business lost a key employee, I received the news of my first grandchild, and the news of my second grandchild that would be coming out of wedlock, during that time as well. Ironically my first book signing as well as the progression of my children’s books dealing with leaving a legacy to my first grandchild on character building was lunch just before the tornado hit. I had been going into schools using drama to reach those kids who were unreachable with various learning disabilities by bringing honesty integrity and perseverance to life using characterization. Now I am an executive professional trying to use what I have taught others, to be able to enable my own career and family business. The struggle is real, compassion is a necessity, and hope is the lifeline. Theater is my escape from the overwhelming requirements of my daily life as well as my emotional health. Thank you for all that you have provided professionals as I have taken your counsel, the wisdom of professionals, and my own personal experiences to be able to function in this life. Thank you, I am very grateful.….And because of what I have learned my story continues.

  11. I concur with Al W. I am a certified psychodramatist and have been teaching psychodrama for over 24 years. Beyond simply role playing is Role reversal a technique created by Dr. Moreno that goes beyond just the taking of roles into the actual playing of roles from the protagonist”s perspective. In role reversal the main person working exchanges roles and plays the role as he/she perceives the role. This gives both players opportunities to understand the dynamics of the relationship and the beliefs, feelings, perceptions and values of the other person. We are relationship therapists. Psychodrama gives opportunities for new insoghts about oneself and the other person thru setting the scene, setting a contract on the work in action and experiences in a new and different realitY.
    ,

  12. eric says:

    i just saw the movie “reign over me” and now, seeing this, i wonder: has anyone ever catalogued good movies that could be couched in a therepeutic process? it’d be cool to have a small group theatre in a therapy center. anyone done this? you know that magic moment, right after a good movie? yeah, that one in which cells reignight? to capture that moment for good; or to pause after salient scene? imagine

    • Suzy says:

      That’s a great idea Eric. That is very possible

  13. Ma. E Salas-Porras says:

    Bert Hellinger’s constellations are an evolution of theater started by Jodorowsky… it’s relatively easy to work at your situations using footsteps or even small dolls to represent each participant , it works, it saves a long time of regular therapy in a very small period of time…

  14. I wrote a story about my mother, I narrated her personal journey as if she had been on a mythological journey through depression as a sacred path toward wholeness. It brought out a deep sense of curiosity of wanting to know what happened to my mother, a family secret. It opened up all sorts of creativity, and inlays into secret compartments in my heart where I buried “trauma” – experiences that otherwise would have been too horrific to remember. But I could access the depths of my unconscious and build a bridge to my conscious reality, to get them out in the open, so they couldn’t “run” my life. Unfreezing my body, was so empowering.

  15. Betsy Glass says:

    I worked for many years as a leader of Bibliodrama (based on psychodrama, but the characters are archetypes, and the text is the classic one, not based on the client’s life) for young people in a Hebrew School. One year I had an 8th grade student whose father had died suddenly. From the time she came back into the large class, in every scene we played, she was “dying.” Eventually, over the months, we got to the scene where the Israelites are standing at the edge of the Sea. One by one, each “Israelite” shared his/her thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears upon entering the unknown. The grieving child lay down. She said “I’m dying. I can’t go.” Breaking the rule of Bibliodrama where the facilitator does not participate directly, I entered the scene and knelt by her head. I said, “I am an angel sent by God. I’m here to tell you that you are not dying. You are very much alive and you have a wonderful, full, and happy life before you. Now you are able to enter a new place, where you are not enslaved.” The girl thought for a moment, smiled, got up, and entered the “Sea.” She never said “I’m dying” or played a dying person again. I believe she was free.

    • MK says:

      This is touching. So caring and thoughtful of you.

  16. I believe every practitioner needs to expose themselves to various drama forms. It helps. I was part of a semi-professional women’s theater group for a few years and it formed an important part of my training as a therapist.
    Thank you Bessel for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It totally agrees with my understanding of how theater can rewire or “de-frost” a person’s mind – particularly if appropriate humour is injected.

  17. And yes I definitely agree with the recent comments that to work with psychodrama you need to have substantial training in the method through a recognised training body. There are many psychodrama training institutes in USA and other countries.

  18. Hi Ruth. I am a psychodramatist in New Zealand. The ideas Bessel is talking about have their source and foundation in psychodrama which was developed by Dr J.L. Moreno, a psychiatrist in the same era as Freud. He developed the Theatre of Spontaneity in Vienna then later emigrated to USA setting up the Beacon Institute in New York State. He started working mainly with psychiatric patients using psychodrama, then expanded the method to encompass every aspect of life. Since then psychodrama has spread to every country in the world. There is a huge body of writings by Moreno and many writers since on psychodrama. Here in New Zealand and Australia we have a thriving psychodrama community with people working in therapy, education and organisational development using the psychodrama method. Nickie Godfrey, one of the commenters below, mentions Fritz and Lores Perls – they too learned then developed Gestalt from Moreno and psychodrama. I would love Moreno and psychodrama to be acknowledged as the birth place of so many action therapies.

  19. Thank you. I agree with Emily B about the importance of getting training in Drama Therapy.

  20. Emily B says:

    Drama therapy is a nationally recognized modality with training programs around the country and Master’s level programs at many universities. It is a life changing modality that heals trauma better than anything I have ever seen. Find out more about getting trained at the North American Drama Therapy Association’s website at NADTA.com If you want to do this work, please take time to get some training as theatre techniques take time and thoughtful effort to be applied correctly.

  21. Mimi Seton says:

    I wish you could fix your SOUND quality. The mic’ing on Dr. Bessel is very poor — his voice is whistling, metallic, and creating high frequencies …this is not his natural speaking voice. I am in Theatre and Pschollogy and would have LOVED to hear this BUT the voice is impossible to stay with because of the poor recording.

  22. Ruth, these are not new thoughts. Fritz and Lore Perls talked and wrote about this kind of work I their development of gestalt therapy. Now it,s “mindfulness” or “drama therapy”. I,ve been doing this kind of experiential and wholistic work in my practice for decades now and find it enormously helpful. I’m glad this kind of thinking is gaining such prominence again, tho I wish therapists would realize where it really came from.

  23. Cindy Bell says:

    I loved this. I do a lot of theater with kids as theater,
    not therapy but this was a wonderful description of the
    profound overlap between the two and how theater can
    change a person’s life.

  24. Billie Corbett says:

    As a child in school, I had an experience where I was able to explore myself creatively and I got to taste the freedom of self expression. The context was a P.E. class where the class was assigned a project. We had to choose a piece of music and choreograph a number which would involve all of us and selected piece of gym equipment. (Balls, hula hoops, skipping ropes etc.)
    During this class experience I learned alot. I loved the experience. We all had to collaborate with one another. We choose the music together and selected the gym equipment together. Then, we all contributed our ideas to choreographing our movements. We created a beautiful number we eventually performed. It was a wonderful experience. I found I could express myself individually as well as be a team player.
    Later, in life I found myself deeply stuck in a limiting, controlling relationship with a spouse and a faith based group. I had begun to reach out for help and healing through professional means, while at the same time I intuitively, went outside of my limiting circumstances to join a community choir. Much to my horror to begin with, the choir morphed into putting on musicals for our community. This was very challenging for me. I was quite musical and had a fairly good singing voice, but, I was deeply insecure and anxious.
    The choir director was the person who cast the roles. (Retrospectively, I see she was quite brilliant. Probably in ways she wasn’t consciously aware of.) Regarding myself, she never put me in a role that would make me collapse in on myself. (I am sure she was acting intuitively.) She always chose for me very small insignificant supporting bits. These roles contained just enough responsibility where if I faultered I would not be crushed or devastate the flow of the production. Yet, the responsibility was enough to stress me. It would confront me with the fact that I would need to stretch myself out of my existing comfort zone to accomplish it. I would often find myself quite conflicted because I was really scared, but, to succeed, I had to push through the fear and do it inspite of the fear. I would go through this process many times and find that I was able to succeed. Thus, it reduced my fear / anxiety levels and build inner self confidence.
    A major side benefit to participating in the creation of a successful musical theatre production was: I began to sort out some very complex aspects of my personal life. In my spousal relationship and faith based relationships I was being told I was: disruptive, uncooperative, non compliant…etc. In other words…I was “the” problem…as to why things were not working very well in the marriage and in the faith based group. Once I was involved in musical theater, I began to compare the perceptions of others. The community experience of me with the spousal/faithbased perception. The perceptions and experience of me as a person didn’t line up. There was no congruency between the two. In the choir/musical theatre, I was well liked, enjoyed and seen as a part of the whole.( I wasn’t a problem.) I was seen as being dependable, reliable, co-operative, friendly, likeable and valued. This caused me to then question and doubt the “role and relationship” I had with myself and with others in my personal life. Intuitively I began to become aware of and understand projection. I began to see that I was not who I was being told I was in my personal life. I began to see how others were projecting their unwanted, denied parts onto me, because I was vulnerable to absorbing them.
    This was quite life altering. In time, I left the marriage and the faith based community that I was in. I started to align myself with the truth of who I was as a person (which was revealed to me by contrast, reflection, introspection and self awareness.) Through musical theatre I learned to take responsibility for myself in a deep way. I learned to create congruency in my personal life. The lessons I learned through participating in musical theatre were and still are extremely valuable to me. I continue to challenge myself and grow in all aspects of my life. It helped me to solidify a congruent sense of self.
    This is small bit of my experience…shared to confirn and validate what Bessel van de Kolk has referenced in this video. I definitely believe theatre create an environment conducive to personal reflection and introspection. They can observe themselves from a different perspective. It is helpful to get outside themselves…so to speak for a bit. Theatre can facilitate growth in the ability to absorb complex intrapersonal and interpersonal realities. It helps to expand an individuals perception of choices and their ability to choose who they want to be.

  25. Genevieve E. Chandler says:

    We have demonstrated and increase in resilience, managing stress and an increase in emotional awareness through the Changing Minds Changing Lives (CMCL) program using an Empower Resilience Intervention, a ACE aware, trauma informed 5 week, 2x/ week course. ERI incorporates the 4 R’s: Relaxation (mindfulness) Research, Reflection and Recognition. The key is Reflection through a group writing method based on Amherst Writers and Artist’s practice (AWA) where participant’s free write their story in response to a open-ended prompt and receive feedback on their writing from peers and facilitators. The CMCL program has demonstrated efficacy with young adults, diverse community college students and incoming athletes. CMCL is funded by the NCAA and recently, a Public Service Endowment Grant to implement the program in a Springfield, MA high school.
    I believe writing & reading their stories with genuine feedback produces similar outcomes as acting.

    • This sounds awesome, Genevieve! I’m a fanatic EQer (emotional intelligence trainer) and I would love to use this technique. Do you mind sharing the wording of the open-ended prompt?

      Thanks!
      – Matt

  26. joann Ostern says:

    I think that theater is a good way of helping someone come out of a too shy and vulnerable persona. I have seen it in myself and a classmate who in one performance totally came out of her old personality into her new more free one. Unfortunately she slide back into the first one shorty after the production was over. For myself, I have grown much from participation in theater. The hard part is getting the more shy and “frozen” to be open to participate.

  27. Annie says:

    LOVE this! it made me realize the degree to which getting into theater as a teen changed MY life. I never experienced any early trauma, however, I was meek….. Theater allowed me to explore and expand all of the aspects of my personality.

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