Humanistic Psychodrama

Hans-Werner Gessmann

In 1980 Hilarion Petzold classified psychodrama as a method of the humanistic psychology. In his opinion, psychodrama could be called the oldest method of humanistic psychotherapy. Furthermore, Moreno could be seen as the creator of psychodrama itself and also as doyen and the most important pioneer of this movement. The most important concepts of humanist psychology had been developed by Moreno in the twenties and thirties of the 20th century – long before Rogers, Perls, and Maslow and many others of the “third power” created their ideas and procedures. On the one hand it is, in fact, true that Moreno was a precursor and inspirer for some of those protagonists, but on the other hand, he never explicitly saw himself as part of the emerging school of humanistic psychology. He was more interested in establishing the “Moreno-Psychodrama” as an independent method for group-psychotherapy, especially in distinction to psychoanalysis. In 1966 he called his pioneering work in psychological group work “Third psychiatric revolution”. He didn’t want humanistic psychology to be “the third power” but rather his psychodrama, his sociatry. The process of creating a psychological movement through the integration of J.L. Moreno’s thoughts was impeded by his personality and the traits that came with it, such as the want for authenticity, authorship, and prophetism. For me, it seems that he didn’t even want that. In his late works, he developed a religious, cosmological Ideology. In 1959 he writes: “The new values are of a cosmo-dynamical nature. New life forces will flow to humans due to their connection with the cosmos.” (Moreno, S.8)

The classical psychodrama of Moreno, which, in Germany is represented mainly by Grete Leutz, has meanwhile been revamped and further refined. Heike Straub, a disciple of Moreno, created a first variation of the original setting, as she incorporated more group dynamical procedures from other psychotherapies into the psychodrama. Psychodrama methods have been used in many different psychoanalytical therapies over and over. Adolf Friedemann in Switzerland, Serge Lebovici in France and from 1950 on Didier Anzieu, Basquin, Widlöcher, and others have used psychodrama in a, to some extent, quite conventional-psychanalytical concept. Erdmann and Henne see similarities between Moreno’s psychodrama and the analytical psychology of C.G. Jung, especially when it comes to the goal of the therapeutic events: One’s own essence is to be discovered in its entireness. Furthermore, one’s own self is to be encountered and individual autonomy and sociality are to be extended in the process. Alfred Adler and J.L. Moreno combine social phenomena in ways that therapists and disciples of Adler, such as Ansbacher, Ackermann, Corsini, and Dreikurs started practicing psychodramatic methods without falling back on Moreno’s theoretical concepts. Behavioral-therapeutical role plays have been deduced from Moreno’s interventional-sociometric practices by Zander and Lipitt as early as in the 1940s. Since then role plays have been used to acquire the desired behavior. Furthermore, role plays have gained more importance under the influence of cognitive behavioral therapy and Lazarus’s multimodal approach. From 1969 on Petzold has tried to connect psychodrama and behavioral therapy. He saw his so-called “Behaviordrama” as a further specification of the behavioral therapeutic elements within the psychodrama and wanted to expose its psychoanalytical elements (Petzold in Völker, S.211). The quadripartite psychodrama is supposed to integrate different psychodramatic tendencies. Schützenberger tries to unite the theories of Freud, Moreno, and Lewin with the help of Roger’s humanistic psychological approaches. Their theoretical formulations remain confused whereat one can see that they made an effort to create an integrative psychodrama therapy. Petzold has subsequently, as he put it, developed the building blocks for an integrative drama therapy and thus founded the quadripartite psychodrama. He achieved this by combining Moreno`s psychodrama and Iljine`s therapeutical theater with gestalt and movement therapy. An initial phase is succeeded by an action phase which again is followed by an integration phase that concludes with a phase of reorientation. He actually didn’t do much more than simply take the classical drama from the antiquity with its phases of Protasis, Peripeteia, and Lysis, the phase of learning new behavioral patterns and add a role play training to it.

The humanistic psychodrama is a new form of psychodrama. After a return to Moreno`s original thoughts, the humanistic psychodrama was subject to a reformulation of ideas and theories. Which referred to Moreno’s concepts and also to newly gained insights from the very intense practical experiences in humanistic psychodrama that were made from 1980 until today. Due to its integration into humanistic psychology, it became necessary to reevaluate and redescribe its goals and methods.

The individual human responsibility for himself and the community has become the center of attention. The goal of self-realization is pursued with the help of the group.

Humanistic psychology’s idea of man is adopted:

  • The belief in the individual’s possibilities of personal growth and self- realization
  • One’s own acceptance and the acceptance of the members of the group
  • Hope and responsibility for a humane life on earth
  • Renouncing absolute claim to truth and authority

Every single human being is autonomous and at the same time socially involved. It is responsible for its life.

This means that in humanistic psychodrama the individual, in its social environment, is seen as able to learn and develop itself further and is also encouraged to do so. As a consequence, the therapist must not relieve the individual from its responsibility by “curing” it from the outside, but rather. Instead, the therapist is ought to encourage his patient to explore himself, to define goals and try to reach them. The personal responsibility remains on the client side. During the therapeutic process, the client becomes aware of his capability to chose and make decisions and that he alone is responsible for their outcomes. He chooses, for example, the topic and the scene he wants to work on. Furthermore, he selects the individual member of the group for the therapeutic work. Additionally, every member of a humanistic psychodrama-group determines how much he is willing to share and work on with the group. The therapist has the professional qualification to support the change process. Psychodramitcal work is based on the individual’s expression in the group and this expression is fostered by the group. Therefore, the group, apart from the relationship between the therapist and his client, is of utmost importance, as it makes the whole process of expression work possible by serving as an auxiliary ego or as a double.

With the help of the therapist, the protagonist sets up a play that illustrates the conflictual manner of experiencing and processing (difficult) situations. At the same time, the protagonist and his topic represent thematic proportions of the other group members. The protagonist play is preceded by a warming-up phase at the beginning of the group session. This enables the members of the group to find their topic and introduce it to the group process so that a common level of expression can be created. The warming-up phase is concluded by the sociometric election. The group chooses its protagonist. The choice of the protagonist as a sociometric and thematical manifestation is more or less determined by more or lesser known thematical proportions of the group members. Furthermore, thematical and sociometric connections that have previously been created in the warming-up phase now manifest themselves in the choice of the protagonist. The group-process focusses on a common subject, which is bound to one of the group members. The group’s attention is thereby bundled. Hence, choosing a protagonist is a solidifying concentration of each group member’s own thematical proportions. The following play represents an intensive form of communication within the group and plays a vital part in forming congruent relationship structures within the group. The display and design of the protagonist always serve as a describing “conversation” with the group. The group participates play-immanently in the “conversation” in the form of an auxiliary ego, a double or in the following phase of “sharing”. It is important which group member is chosen as an auxiliary ego by the protagonist. The choice is not arbitrary but rather based on a relationship that contains an emotional and content-related connection between the protagonist’s current biographical emotional state and the group’s sociometric topicality. That means the relationships within the group do not merely serve as a foundation of the play but become a part of it as well.

The participators and the therapist support the protagonist in displaying his subjectively experienced truth and experience. The other participator’s, in their role as auxiliary ego or double, should not improvise, but rather adopt the protagonist’s view through this role reversal and shape it according to his interpretation of the role. The protagonist set’s the frame of the role by initially substantiating the role of the auxiliary ego in a role reversal. That way he introduces the other participators into his conceptual world so that they can later emphatically shape it on his behalf. For the protagonist, this creates a consistent feeling of realizing himself to an ideal degree. He becomes the center, the most important person in his own world and he creates his own authority and competence. He starts to act freely and to structure his world more efficiently in a creative way. Apart from persons from the protagonist’s social environment, group members, in their role as auxiliary ego, can also represent thoughts, imaginations, and feelings. This enables the protagonist to take a step back an look at these thoughts, imaginations, and feelings from a distance and to work with them, modify them or distance himself from them.

By creating his world on the stage the protagonist can discover new aspects of his life that until now had a different significance or were missing completely. Through the display of his inner thoughts, imaginations, and phantasies and their externalization by the acting auxiliary egos, the protagonist establishes a meaningful context that allows him to part from old constructions of reality or change them altogether. This process also enables the protagonist to create a more appropriate interpretation of his world.

Although every member of the group is asked to act as a double, it is up to them if and how often they participate. Within an emancipatory balance of giving and taking, this is a longer process for every member of the group. Through observation and trying, this process results in a realization that dedication for others brings personal independence and is a huge enrichment. Furthermore, in the group process, it becomes clear that it is satisfying and valuable to accept and understand others, to be close to them, to matter to them as a person, and to walk one’s path alongside them.

The more a group member acts as a double, the better it learns to empathically understand other people. This reduces social anxieties in the group, but also in everyday situations. An “active” group member has, in his participation in psychodrama work, experienced many roles and confidently knows how to handle them. This veteran group member is not an alien anymore but can communicate itself and knows how to find a way to mutual understanding. As a consequence, the willingness grows to accept and appreciate the members of the group and other people in the social environment as they are and to see them within the scope of their possibilities and limitations.

The fundamental intention of humanistic psychodrama lies in the enabling and support of the group members’ independent development within the group context. All psychodramatic method are subject to this goal. They relate to the member of the group, the group as a whole and focus on the protagonist as the representative of the group. The members of the group determine the content and the extent of their activity which is only limited by the group’s social reality.

Advocates of the humanistic psychodrama believe that humans have an innate natural desire to grow and for self-actualization. 

In the therapeutic process, this desire can be drawn on. It gives the therapist and the group members non-judgemental, relaxed confidence in the progress of the therapeutical process and in the client, integrated into his social environment, to find himself by himself.

Following humanistic psychology, humanistic psychodrama also propagates a positive image of the human being as creative and inventive. This is true in regard to individual development, as well as for the constructive and creative analysis of relationships with other people. The human being as a living organism is active and strives to develop his creative skills. Tendencies towards self-actualization are basic driving forces of the organism that, in constant exchange with its environment and under beneficial circumstances, further develop and differentiate existing skills. The human organism aims at self-actualization, values, meaning, goals, its tendency towards a “good gestalt” and towards crossing borders. It is intent on self-actualization and holistic growth and a feature of human existence. In principle, every human being possesses the ability to develop his personality, behavior, and experience processualy. The self is in a continual process of change and development.

Self-awareness and self-actualization are crucial aspects of the therapeutic process of the humanistic psychodrama. For the member of the group, subjective experiences, feelings, thoughts, and his own experiences are always the starting point for change or re-orientation in his experience and behavior towards more happiness and self-acceptance.  At the same time, these aspects are always ys subject to his social reality. In the practical therapeutical work, analyzing the individual’s biography is very closely connected to the sociometry of the group. By striking a balance between personal and social identity, the individual dual is able to develop true happiness. Self-esteem is created, when one can realize his desire for self-respect and social appreciation.

The group therapeutic approach in the humanistic psychodrama, therefore, offers good prerequisites and possibilities for each member of the group to strike a balance between personal and social parts of the self and to realize them.

Everything that happens psychologically is targeted and meaningful. 

The quest for meaning and fulfillment, even beyond one’s own existence, is to be regarded a the essential motivation of humans. Following psychodrama therapy, this motivation can trigger the analysis and improvement of relationships with people in one’s social environment. As only in interaction and communication with his fellow human beings can the individual expand and change his experience and view of life.

The human being can only be understood as a holistic being, as an acting subject in its social environment.

Humanistic psychodrama does not treat singular disorders but put the human being as a whole, with his individual view of life, into the center of the transformation process. He is the point of reference for the therapist and his methods, as well as for the members of the group. At the same time, humanistic values, such as independence, justice, and human dignity are part of the therapist’s stance and methods and they serve the formation of norms within the group.

In humanistic psychodrama, the aspect of holism is important on many levels:

On the individual level, it refers to the human being as a psychophysical entity. The human being is, in regard to its thoughts, feelings, and body a single entity. On the one hand, the individual is a unity of body, soul, and spirit and on the other hand as a unity of human and environment. In the psychodrama, the subjective world of the participators exists with all its human facets. Holism also includes the whole spectrum of individual topics. Not the treatment of single disorders, but the human being as a whole and its individual view of life are the center of psychodrama.

At the same time, the aspect of holism incorporates the social relatedness of the human being – the human being is seen as a psycho-physical social being. As a form of group therapeutic procedure, the humanistic psychodrama disposes, due to its group-reality, of an included criterion of reality. For the individual, the group is a counterpart that can be talked to and is affected by its problems, feelings an messages. Within the group, intense communication processes take place and therefore the individual’s social constitution is addressed.

In the therapeutic process, holism also affects the way of the therapeutical approach i.e. psychodrama is no “talking cure”, it is not exclusively focussed on talking alone and is not binary. Within the boundaries of its basic structure psychodrama is open for a variety of methods.

Psychodrama is far less designed for analysis as it is for integration. Conflicts are not only based on scenes/origin-scenes from the past but are always currently updated and self-constructed topics. They are located in the here and now.

Humanistic psychodrama takes place in the here and now. 

For many people it is easier to live in the past or in the future instead of the present. As a result, their “real life” has either already happened in the past or is still to come in the future. That’s why they avoid current topics of their life instead of developing their potential. An important goal of humanistic psychodrama therapy consists of focussing on the present. Humanistic psychodrama takes place in the here and now, without taking into account whether the topic is expressed in a scene from the past, the present or the future. It can even be represented in a scene that has no connection the reality. The here and now needs to be understood as an entity of past, present, and future, as the meaning of the present is a result of the things experienced in the past and the knowledge about the possibilities of the future.

The therapist’s task is to make sure that the protagonist, as well as the auxiliary egos in the scene, stay in their roles in the here and now, instead of doing metacommunication by talking about how the scene happened in the past or how it might probably happen in the future. The therapist helps the protagonist to find out, which topic becomes prominent and which current feelings and needs it is connected to. The protagonist is supposed to experience “what” he perceives when his heart rate is increasing or when he changes into another posture or when some of his feelings change. He is supposed to comprehend “how” this came to be and what meaning he bestows upon his perception in regard to his current topic.

The humanistic psychodrama’s non-directive basic approach guided by empathy, appreciation, and congruity. 

The humanistic psychodrama shows, especially in regard to the therapist’s attitude and stance, evident similarities to the conceptual world of C.R. Rogers. What Rogers called the person-centered approach is called the protagonist-centered approach in the humanistic psychodrama.

The therapist within the humanistic psychodrama is guided by the demand or rather the emotional experience of the protagonist. The therapist is furthermore responsible to shape the protagonist’s topic in his subjective reality. Here the therapist is supposed to act as non-directive as possible and work with the “material” that the protagonist provides. In the therapeutical setting, the therapist is not supposed to force anything upon the protagonist that has not been provided by the protagonist or originate in his experience. If the therapist, a double or an auxiliary ego introduces aspects that have been formulated on the basis of his intuition or experience then they should be formulated as an offer or a question. The protagonist can then decide whether he wants to include the aspect into the therapeutic process or reject it. For this part, it is necessary that the therapist, as well as the members of the group, treat the protagonist with a high degree of empathy. That means that they behave in an empathic and not in a judgemental way. Ideally, the therapist and the group empathize with the protagonist in a way that allows them to comprehend his emotions in as much detail as possible and experience them losing their identity and their distance to the protagonist and his topic. In the course of this process, they do not have to approve the things the protagonist expresses but accept his individual features without prejudice and judgment.

Following his humanistic attitude, the therapist needs to avoid the creation of a pronounced therapist-client-hierarchy. The therapist in humanistic psychodrama is congruent – with himself. He does not fear the mutli-layered facets of his own feelings and attitudes but is rather aware of them and. He may also express these feelings and attitudes but this does not mean that he shares them, unchecked, with the protagonist. He is rather supposed to express what he deems helpful for the development of the protagonist in a transparent and appropriate way. Therefore, the therapist creates an honest intrahuman interaction where differences such as the level of education or the amount of knowledge are of secondary importance.

This kind of relationship is beneficial to the therapist and the members of the group alike, as both parties gain a lot through the ensuing development and learning.

Apart from the emphasis on the humanistic approach, the humanistic psychodrama’s special focus on the group-therapeutic approach requires certain attitudes from the therapist.

  • Respect for the individuality in its social responsibility helps to create a trustful atmosphere within the group
  • Respecting to organical development of a group process oriented supervision
  • The use of different psychodramatic methods by the therapist

The topics of the individual, the other and the group in humanistic psychodrama


Just like in everyday life, communication and interaction in humanistic psychodrama groups are not abstract but rather revolve around certain topics. In the warm-up phase, group members have the opportunity to approach and substantiate a psychodynamic topic within the group or their own topic that pertains to their inner psychic and social context outside the group. In the course of this process, a link is being established between different group members that enables them, by a sociometric election procedure, to choose the topic or a person that most interests them and which they would like to work with. During the processing phase, the group members elect a protagonist for the play. They choose the topic, that interests them the most and that represents the group’s topic. This approach has the advantage that it raises the group’s motivation to work with the topic with the amount they are interested in the topic, or that they can relate to the topic.  Ideally, members of the group can work on their own topic by working on the group topic.

This is one point in which the humanistic psychodrama is different from the classical psychodrama. In the classical psychodrama, the therapist chooses the protagonist and by that, he also sets the topic. It is, however, possible that the participators discuss the urgency of the topic among themselves.