Experiential letter writing is a user-friendly, near psychodramatic technique that is a good way to incorporate some small forms of psychodrama into the group process.
Journaling allows emotions to come forward. If we encourage clients to write freely without editing—assuring them that this letter is for healing purposes only and never to be sent—we begin a role-play process that can be sustained in a contained manner. Journaling lets emotions unwind as the thinking mind or the inner witness observes. Trauma resolution is, at least in part, engaging in some sort of process through which split off emotion can be felt, translated into words and reflected upon so that we can become mindful and aware of the workings of our inner world. Click here
to watch a video of experiential letter writing
The following are three exercises that can be done either together or separately.
- To process feelings that are toward someone or a part of the self in a therapeutic way. These letters are not meant to be sent; they are a way to process personal feelings, what we call a near psychodramatic technique.
- To provide a contained way in which to use letter writing as an experiential process
- To use as a springboard for a contained form of experiential work
- Invite participants to make themselves comfortable either in their chairs or somewhere in the room. If you wish you can play soft, ambient sound or instrumental music while writing letters. Ask participants to write their letter by beginning with “Dear ___,” and ending with an appropriate closing and signing their names.
- Encourage group members to write anything that comes to mind. Again, this letter is not meant to be sent, but to release feelings. It works best to write quickly, not thinking about how it sounds or imagining that anyone will read it. Writing letters can be a useful closure activity to finish expressing feelings that have been stirred up through experiential exercises. It is “near psychodramatic” in that it involves “enrolling” another person or aspect of the self.
The following are some examples of letters that can be written:
- A letter to some aspect of the self (e.g., the hurt self, the successful self, the child self, the angry self, the addict, etc.)
- A letter of forgiveness to the self
- A letter asking forgiveness from someone else
- A letter expressing anger toward someone
- A letter from someone expressing sentiments the writer wishes that person had expressed
- A letter from someone who has hurt the writer, asking the writer for forgiveness
- A letter telling someone about a hurt
- A letter to someone expressing a desire for reconciliation
- A letter from someone expressing understanding of what the letter writer went through
- A letter to “the disease”
- A letter to an aspect of self or the self at a particular time in life (e.g., child, adolescent, self after a break up or traumatic moment, etc.)
- A letter to a substance or behavior to which a person in recovery is saying good-bye
Exercise Two: Reading a Letter to an Empty Chair
1.To provide a safe format for doing a piece of experiential work that is deep and meaningful
2.To work out unfinished business from the past
- Ask group members to get their letter
- Set up two chairs facing each other, one for the person reading the letter and one to represent the person or part of self to whom the letter is written
- Invite the group member to imagine the person or part of self to whom the letter is written is sitting in the empty chair
- Invite the group members to read their letter. Once they are finished with the letter you can invite the group member to double for themselves or to reverse roles.
- Doubling: In the case of doubling they would stand behind their own chair and speak their own “inner life” or what is going on the inside of them that remains unspoken.
- Role Reversal: In the case of role reversal they will change chairs and actually sit in the chair of the other person, momentarily taking on their role and responding to the letter as that other person or part of self to whom the letter is being read.
- Doubling for the Other Person: Once the group member has reversed roles, they may also double for the role they are representing, speaking the inner life that they imagine is going on inside of that other person. This can help with empathy and understanding.
- When one group member’s letter is finished, the group member may return to his or her seat and someone else can start.
- Sharing can occur after the reading of each letter, or after several letters have been worked with.
The following are several alternative ways in which letters can be shared after they have been written. Note that in no cases are letters ever sent to the person to whom they are written; letter writing is used for therapy purposes only.
- Share the letters with the group
- Form pairs or subgroups and share the letters
- Share the letters with a therapist in one-to-one work
- Read the letter to an empty chair representing the recipient of the letter
- Choose a group member to take on the role of the person to whom the letter is written and read it to them. Clients may also write letters that they wish they would receive from someone.
They may then:
- Choose a group member to play that person and experience the letter being read to back them
- Reverse roles and become that person and read the letter “as” that person back to themselves. In this case they can represent themselves with an empty chair or a role-player that they chose to represent them
One other variation is for the therapist to interview the group member in role reversal. Interviewing the group member in the role of the person he is dialoging with can be very helpful in deepening both his understanding of the other person and releasing him from carrying aspects of that other person inside of him. In other words, he becomes more aware of the parts of that person or that person’s perceptions about him, that he has been carrying or has introjected. This is one of those rare glimpses beneath the surface that psychodrama can offer.
Exercise Three: Monodramas
Monodrama comes from the Greek root word monos, meaning “only” or “one.” In a monodrama, one person plays all of the roles. A monodrama often uses an empty chair, a technique adopted from psychodrama by Fritz Perls for Gestalt Therapy. Protagonists can play out as many auxiliary roles as they need to in order to expand their drama and usually do this by using multiple empty chairs.
Monodramas can be used to explore aspects of the inner self, such as “put your anger in a chair” or “put the part of you that’s afraid in a chair” or “put the part of you that wants this new adventure or experience in a chair” and so on. Monodramas can also be used to explore the self at varying stages of development. For example, a protagonist may wish to talk to herself at a particular age when something significant occurred. Or in the case of a trauma, before it occurred, so that she can reconnect with the person she was before a traumatic event took her away from herself.
Another use for monodramas can be to put something protagonists want to dialogue with into a chair and talk to it, like a new or old career or an identity like “the rebel,” “the overfunctioner,” and others. Or, in working with addicts, you can put a bottle, paraphernalia, drugs, sex, living on the edge, cigarettes or whatever it is that has hold of them in the chair. In working with trauma, one might put her numbness in a chair or her grief, her anger, her sadness or the light-spirited self she feels out of touch with.
All of the normal devices of psychodrama—role reversal, doubling, interviewing—are used in monodramas. Interviewing the protagonist either in his own role or in the role of the person he is speaking with in role reversal can be very helpful in deepening both his understanding of the other person and releasing him from carrying aspects of that other person inside of him. In other words, he becomes more aware of the parts of that person or that person’s perceptions about him, which he introjected.
This exercise allows pain to be shared, personalized, and placed into context. It is amazing to witness how much feeling can arise when talking to an empty chair that is, of course, not empty at all but filled with the felt presence of another person from the client’s life or a part of his or her own inner being. Protagonists may also benefit from talking to the substance or behavior, embodying it, speaking as it so that they can pass through that feared boundary between becoming it and never getting out again. They may want to talk to a part of themselves that they are letting go of, such as the “fun drunk,” the “life of the party,” the “bad person,” and others.
- To concretize an interpersonal or intrapersonal act hunger or open tension
- To provide an experiential vehicle where open tensions can be brought to completion, words can be spoken, and feelings can be expressed
- Invite the person working to set up two chairs facing each other or to set up one chair and the
protagonist can stand and move.
- Invite the person working to place a part of herself, another person or perhaps a substance or
behavior into the empty chair (i.e., designate what the empty chair represents).
- Invite the person working to say what she needs or wishes to say to whatever is in the chair. Use role reversal wherever appropriate.
- If this is done in a group, there may be other group members who have strong identification with what is being said by the person working (the protagonist) and feel that they may be able to bring the protagonist closer to their own truth through brief doubling. Invite the people who feel this way to stand behind and slightly to the side of the protagonist and be her double. Doubles can spontaneously self-select and sit down after they have spoken.
- When you feel the protagonist has spoken fully, say, “Say the last thing you need to say,” and end the action.
- In the group, share the identification members may feel or what came up for them in watching the action. In this way, everyone gets a chance to do personal work and share from his or her own experience. Keep the sharing on a personal basis; it is not a time for advice-giving or questioning.
The empty chair is very useful resolving grief issues. Feelings that were never expressed and good-byes that were not said can be dealt with easily with this very versatile and powerful technique. It is also a very useful format through which to have a conversation with a part of the self or to say good-bye to a substance or behavior. Multiple empty chairs can be used to represent several roles. This can also be used in one-to-one therapy. This technique was adopted by and used greatly in the Gestalt movement.
If the protagonist is saying good-bye to a lost person or even a part of the self, setting the scene can also be part of the role-play. The protagonist may wish to be in any type of setting, either real or imagined. The setting can be a funeral, a deathbed, a park scene, a field of flowers or anywhere the protagonist may choose. The idea is to say good-bye fully however and wherever it works best. If life did not offer an opportunity for the protagonist to say good-bye and put closure on the relationship, psychodrama can create that unique opportunity to do so bringing closure and comfort where needed.