“Sculpturing,” or reconstructive and neuropsychodrama, is interpersonal neurobiology in a guided, experiential format. It is aiming not only at healing pain but also at creating a template for new relational experiences as well. Sculpturing allows clients/protagonists to view the contents of their inner world before they are asked to reflect on them in the abstract through words. The clients/protagonists can see themselves in action and context, feeling their way empathically into their own relational world.
How to Do a Social Atom
The social atom places clients at the center of their own drama, their own life story, and their own psychological and emotional processes. The psychodramatic stage is given to clients as a vehicle through which they can encounter their inner world in concrete form; they can share their story and have it witnessed. The director serves as a sort of coproducer who follows the lead of the clients/protagonists, allowing them to be in charge of the life issues they wish to examine. The clients and therapist form a therapeutic alliance in which the therapist tacitly agrees to stay within the clients’ internal range of motion; together they agree to work with what is emerging. Group members are available to play roles of actual people from the life of the protagonists so that the conflict or issue can be brought to life and given shape, form, voice, and movement. Every aspect of the psychodramatic method is designed to restore a sense of personal agency and empowerment to the protagonists as they time travel through their own inner space, bringing real and imagined life situations to the clinical “stage” for reexamination and reconstruction.
A “Stand-in” Representing the Self
The use of a stand-in to represent protagonists allows protagonists to view themselves from the outside. This can allow protagonists to empathize with themselves as they witnesses themselves struggling with circumstances that may, as a child at least, have been out of their control. It can also help protagonists to unlock from a stuck position in which they became triggered and immobilized. The protagonists regain the perspective that gets lost in the heat of a triggered moment and begins to separate the past from the present. Inherent in this separation is the realization that the past does not have to be mindlessly repeated. If protagonists need greater distance from traumatic material, they can use stand-ins to represent themselves as they witness the content of their own drama; in this case, they can move in and out of scene through role reversal, or “double” for themselves, thus giving clients a safety net if work becomes too intense. They also have the opportunity with the director to freeze the scene so that they can step back and get a deeper look at what might have been going on for them at a given juncture in their lives. This allows protagonists to gain perspective on their own “feedback loop” or what complexes might be feeding their triggers. The fact that psychodrama is a role-based method allows clients to explore damage that may have occurred in a particular role, say that of son or daughter of a particular parent, while preserving strength and resilience that may still be present in other life roles.
Role-playing engages both the body and the senses and therefore can resimulate intense trauma-related memories and emotions that may otherwise remain buried. When handled with care, processing this triggered material can help clients to move through the emotional constriction and numbness that so often accompany trauma and slowly train clients to tolerate the intensity of their inner worlds and gradually modulate it.
The Social Atom: Using the Social Atom in Trauma Treatment
Oftentimes when protagonists “revisit” their family or origin atom, for example, they are thrown back into a state of frozenness that they then have to be somehow drawn out of. The following is a description of a method for using the social atom that enhances safety by guiding the process through the use of specific techniques. The thinking behind this is that it keeps the social atom from “going live” all at once and overwhelming or even retraumatizing protagonists. Hence, by structuring the social atom as a sculpture, adding a stand-in for protagonists that represents them “at that moment,” and having an adult self-standing outside the atom who can keep “thinking” and whose thinking mind is not in a frozen, shutdown state, the relationship between the thinking/feeling adult and the frozen child (adolescent, young adult, wife, husband, mother, etc.) or traumatized part of the mind can be regulated by protagonists with minimal intervention from the director, auxiliaries, and observers. The two parts of protagonists—the thinking and limbic mind—can, in a sense, wake up together and find their own way from frozenness to everyday consciousness and self-awareness.
Process A: Create a Social Atom
Step One: Create a social atom. The social atom can be family or origin or the instruction can be to find a “frozen moment” and create a social atom of that moment. The advantage to this is that it zeros in on the moment at which clients felt threatened or traumatized while leaving the social atom representing their life or family undisturbed. It does not, in other words, pathologize an entire childhood or an entire family system, but hones in on those moments or dynamics that were traumatizing and begins to “unfreeze” them. This is also better for building resilience as the strengths become less contaminated by the sort of iatrogenic collateral damage of aiming at the whole family system rather than identifying the problematic parts and allowing the happy or functional parts to remain intact and unquestioned.
Step Two: At this point, the social atom can be shared in the group, one by one, without any movement toward action. This is, in itself, more than powerful enough to create inner movement and awareness and has the advantage of being potentially less retraumatizing than getting the whole system up and running through sculpturing and role-play.
Step Three: Small vignettes can also grow out of a frozen moment atom—such as talking to an empty chair, a part of the self, a person, or even idea or institution represented on the atom—without the necessity of sculpting and working with the entire atom.
Process B: Sculpturing
Step One: Create a social atom. The social atom can be family or origin or the instruction can be to find a “frozen moment” and do a social atom of that moment.
Step Two: Using the social atom as a “map,” chose role-players to represent all people, ideas, institutions, parts of self, states of mind, animals, and so on.
Step Three: Ask protagonists to place each aspect on the stage. Take care to encourage them to locate themselves in whatever size and shape the protagonists feel appropriately represents the self at that moment in time and to locate other aspects in whatever size, shape, and distance or closeness that feels appropriate. Use the full space of the designated stage area.
Step Four: Another way this can be sculptured is to invite protagonists to reverse roles for each aspect and show or demonstrate the size and shape and relative distance from themselves so that protagonists can (a) warm up to the various aspects of their own atom and (b) use fewer words and explanations to get the character’s or aspect’s essence across. I do not generally give any one-liners to characters, as I feel that it is too reductive. Trauma is just not that simple, and people are complicated and say many conflicting things.
Step Five: Once the sculpture is up and protagonists have chosen someone to represent them, invite protagonists to stand outside of it with you and perhaps share about how it feels to see the whole system or moment at once.
Step Six: Invite protagonists to reverse roles with themselves inside the sculpture, thus entering the moment and milling around the sculpture and either (a) double for any aspect, including themselves or (b) talk to any aspect including themselves. A fairly contained vignette can proceed from here that allows protagonists to go deeper, reverse roles, and do a significant piece of investigative or emotional work. By keeping the work in a vignette rather than having the whole social atom speak their roles, we’re reducing some of the chaos that can feel overwhelming to protagonists and send them back into a frozen state. We’re also keeping overzealous auxiliary egos from taking over the drama and interfering with protagonists’ focus, trance state, and healing. The vignette can add another aspect or refer to other characters and aspects, but just keep it careful. Of course, the power of having the whole system up for protagonists to refer to and feel the presence of is significant.
Step Seven: Invite the protagonists to repeat this process with other aspects if they feel a need to until their work is at a place of saturation and the protagonists have moved through what they feel the need to move through for now.
Step Eight: Invite the protagonists to reverse roles with themselves outside the drama and return to their adult/witnessing self. From the witnessing/thinking/mature adult, let the protagonists dialogue with themselves within the drama. If the drama is played out, protagonists can say the last things they wish to say. If protagonists wish to, they can reverse a bit back and forth. Generally though, things usually wrap up by now. The idea here is to create a real connection between the adult and child self or hurt self. Oftentimes we speak to the world from our traumatized self and wonder why no one understands us or wants to talk with us. We want to help clients learn to let their wounded selves be heard and cared for by their adult selves so the adult can translate their messages into mature words and communicate with the world from a more mature place. In this way, they have a better chance of healthy relating.
Step Nine: The sculpture can be rearranged according to the way the protagonists wish it had been by placing themselves as they would have liked to be placed. This provides a sort of template or corrective experience for that frozen moment by moving it into something desirable. Oftentimes this brings up a lot of feeling for the protagonists. They may again want to talk to themselves inside the family briefly, not as a drama, but just through words.
Step Ten: Attention can also be paid at some point to the idea that the adult selves need to understand what that self needs to do to take care of themselves so that the adult selves can take care of the “younger” parts of the self.