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Experiential Empathy Training: Using Role-Play to Build Empathy

Empathy is a phenomenon of feeling our way into the inner and perceptual world of another person. As the interpersonal neurobiologists say, we do not begin and end with our skin, we share a costate or resonance with others and empathy is a living, breathing part of this mutual experience. Without this ability to feel for and with each other, we would have long ago become extinct.  


Developmentally speaking, empathy begins immediately when mother and child are separated at birth and it is necessary for the baby’s survival. Initially, the mother (primary caretaker) and baby are one. The child senses its own feelings not only within him- or herself, but in the resonance with his mother, through her touch, her facial expressions, her smiles, her frowns, her ups, and her downs. That cofeeling state is a holding environment that allows a child to grow and expand into a larger felt sense of self and self in relation to another human being. The child can hold his or her own feelings because the mother is holding those feelings too from moment to moment. The child does not have the brain development to make sense of these feelings, but the child’s mother does. Without this emotional holding from the mother, the child would feel alone in the world. Children literally feel and sense their way into the world with and through their primary caretakers who, in turn, help them to “hold” and regulate their feeling states with them. 


This costate between parent and child is the beginning of empathy. Problems in attunement in this state or failures in connections can leave a child feeling unseen or even alone in the universe. A child has been given a screech and scream by nature that can make any adult spring to attention; it is the baby’s way of making his or her hunger or yearning for connection known. If this screech is ignored over time, if the caretaker simply is disinterested, unresponsive or tunes it out, the danger is that the baby will give up, the rage at being ignored will give way to a kind of helplessness and listlessness and the child will no longer expect to be responded to in an attuned and caring manner. The heartbreak is that the wound, though it may indeed be deep, may become invisible. Many personality problems are theorized as having their beginnings in such failures in empathy and early attachment. 


Neuropsychodrama can access this costate through role-play, doubling, and role reversal. All of these techniques are useful in building empathy and social skills. The kind of early rupture can benefit from the kind of drama that it takes some courage to do as it will likely look very regressive and might include the protagonist getting in touch with this deep yearning for connection and holding.


Paradoxically, leaving the self by choice and intention through role reversal has the effect of strengthening rather than weakening the self. As we enter the role of others through role reversal, through actually sitting in their chair, answering questions as them, replying in the moment motivated by feeling our way into their experience and perception of the world, something magical and mysterious happens: we ourselves are made larger and stronger. Seeing ourselves as if through the eyes of another allows us to see and even experience ourselves with greater clarity and objectivity. It makes us less invested in protecting our own space and more aware that we are actually sharing space with others. In terms of a relationship dynamic, it pulls back the thin and illusory veil that separates two people and lets us see how truly interconnected we are. To some extent, our notion that we are separate and do not overlay is incorrect. In fact, we overlap everywhere. 


As we spontaneously move in and out of our own chair of self into the chair or self of another and back into ourselves again, we have the odd sensation of taking ownership of our own point of view in a whole new way. We see both our point of view while simultaneously developing the ability to hold the point of view of another. This is empathy. And this empathy has the effect of strengthening the self and self in relationship. It also allows us to have a more flexible ego structure. Many people make the mistake of reversing roles with their ideas and projections of a person rather than actually momentarily leaving themselves behind and inhabiting the role of another. 


To gain empathy, we need to move past our own projections and feel our way into the inner world of another human being. Some find it hard to do this, and if that is the case it may mean that they are not fully ready to make such a bold move, that their own sense of self doesn’t feel well enough consolidated to leave. If this is the case, there are several options: 


  1. Don’t push it if it seems contraindicated.
  2. Invite the person having trouble role reversing to stand behind the chair of the person they are reversing roles with and double for them, to attempt to sense and feel their way into the world of that role. 
  3. “Interview” the person in role reversal. The more someone is called upon to answer questions “from” the role of another, the more aware of the interior life of the other they can become. 



On Doubling 


The purpose of the double is to speak the inner world of the role being played, to give voice to what might be going unspoken or even unfelt. The voice of the double represents an inner voice; it is the balloon in a cartoon that reveals what is going on inside a character’s mind and heart that is not being said out loud. Doubling trains people to sink down into themselves and identify what they might be feeling on the inside that is not fully part of their conscious awareness. So much of what goes on within us goes unspoken and we ourselves are often not aware of it. Doubling gives voice to those inner thoughts, it brings us to the threshold of our own awareness, it helps us to make the unconscious conscious, and it brings what’s in the background into the foreground.


On Role Reversal  


Role reversal allows us, for a moment, to leave the confines of our own experiences and see the world as another might see it, to feel as they might feel. It lets us stand temporarily in the shoes of another person, to live for one brief moment within their skin, to think and feel through the mind and heart of another person. So many of our misunderstandings in life come from an inability to be able to see the world as another sees it. While a complete role reversal is not realistic or even perhaps possible, the ability to mentally and—in the case of psychodrama—physically reverse roles with another person is experiential empathy training. The beauty of experiential role reversal is that we are forced to actually respond as another person might respond, which deepens the spontaneous experience of being in another person’s shoes. Through role reversal, we also begin to understand that other people had their own history that predated our arrival into their lives and drove their behavior. When we “stand in” for the woundedness of a parent for example, some of the way that they may have treated us loses some of its heat. Or if we are “interviewed” in the role of a parent and answer questions posed by the therapist “as them,” we come to understand their limitations, sense their unresolved issues, and realize that their treatment of us may have been a projection of their own pain. While that may not make their behavior more palatable, it often makes it more understandable. We stand not only in our own humanness, but in theirs as well.


There is also the freedom and spontaneity that is an inevitable byproduct of momentarily leaving the self and exploring the world from a different point of view. We can become trapped in our own point of view, guarding the boundaries of self as if they were real. But many spiritual disciplines and indeed forms of psychology will elucidate the ephemeral nature of the self, the porous boundaries it really has, and the “costate” of any relationship in which two selves are mingling.


Role reversal is one of the most important contributions of psychodrama to the mental health field or, for that matter, to any discipline from businesses where it is used to train employees on how to deal with costumers, to anger management workshops where an angry person can reverse roles with the recipient of their anger and see how it feels to be on the other side of it.
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Tian Dayton, PhD, is the author of sixteen books, including The ACoA Trauma Syndrome; Emotional Sobriety; Trauma and Addiction; Forgiving and Moving On; and The Living Stage. In addition, Dr. Dayton has developed a model for using sociometry and psychodrama to resolve issues related to relationship trauma repair. She is a board-certified trainer in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy and is the director of The New York Psychodrama Training Institute.