First reflections on overcoming catharsis in Humanistic Psychodrama

Hans-Werner Gessmann

Starting from the original meaning of the Greek word καθαρσισ and a basic explanation of the term, which takes its starting point in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, the Freudian conception of catharsis will first be outlined. Subsequently, central positions on catharsis in Classical Psychodrama will be examined and finally contrasted with Humanistic Psychodrama’s position on catharsis. Subsequently, central positions on catharsis in Classical Psychodrama will be examined and finally contrasted with Humanistic Psychodrama’s position on catharsis.

Preliminary note

In psychotherapy, the term catharsis is understood to mean a “freeing oneself from suppressed emotions or tensions in the sense of an abreaction” (Burkart, 1972, p. 128), or “the liberation from psychic traumas through intensive emotional remembering and catching up” (Fact, p. 215). “the liberation from psychic traumas through intensive emotional remembering and catching up” (Fact, p. 215).

Psychodrama is now considered a psychotherapeutic method that facilitates and promotes emotional expression to a particular degree. Battegay, for example, refers to psychodrama as a “cathartic method”: “Emotions that may have been unconscious or held back until now are activated and made to ‘overflow’. The reliving of old, but not extinguished, conflicts is not merely a repetition, but brings about a release.” (Battegay, 1972;2)

Based on the original meaning of the Greek word καθαρσισ and a basic explanation of the term, which takes its starting point in Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, the Freudian conception of cathar¬sis will first be outlined. Subsequently, central positions on catharsis in Classical Psychodrama will be examined and finally contrasted with Humanistic Psychodrama’s position on catharsis.

1. word meaning and tragedy theory of Aristotle

In Greek, catharsis originally meant purification or atonement, which was usually performed by sprinkling water or the blood of a sacrificial animal. In addition, the purification of consecration in the Eleusinian Mysteries was called catharsis. Also the meaning of an alignment or discharge of suffering or affects can be found (Gemoll 1965, p. 396). The Hippocratic physicians understood the term as purification entirely in the somatic sense (cf. Burkart op. cit.).

Of particular importance for the later reception of the term was Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. “Tragedy is the imitation of a good and self-contained action of a certain size, in attractively formed language, whereby these forming means are applied differently in the individual sections – Nachahmung von Handelnden und nicht durch Bericht, die Jammer und Schaudern hervorruft und hierdurch eine Reinigung von derartigen Erregungszuständen bewirkt“ (Aristoteles in: Fuhrmann, München, 1976). The concept of catharsis thus represents the central concept of Aristotle’s aesthetic of the effects of tragedy. By causing “lamentation” (Greek “éleos”) and “shuddering” (Greek “phóbos”), it triggers a purification, a liberation of the spectator from these very affects. For Aristotle, “lamentation” and “shuddering” were primarily psychological states of excitement, which express themselves in violent physical processes.

Aristotle thus clearly linked the concept of catharsis, which had previously been used only in the medical and religious vocabulary, to the elements of action of wailing and shuddering. However, he did not elaborate on “purification” per se, which – depending on the temporal and cultural background – has led to a variety of different interpretations and interpretations.

The modern discusssion of the concept of catharsis began with humanism. The usual rendering of “éleos” and “phóbos” by the Latin terms “misericordia” (compassion) and “metus” (fear) was a new interpretation. The term was ethically interpreted as purification of passions, which are represented in tragedy (cf. Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, Vol.11, 1990, p. 540f).

2. The Catharsis Concept of Psychoanalysis – Breuer and Freud

The catharsis conception of psychoanalysis has found its way into the most diverse fields of application and schools of psychotherapy and has ultimately also become formative for the considerations of numerous psychodrama theorists. Its origin can be traced back to the work of Joseph Breuer, who dealt with the phenomenon of hysteria in 1880 and 1881. While treating a patient suffering from hysteria (symptoms: motor paralysis, disturbances of consciousness), he succeeded in repeatedly returning her to a normal mental state by communicating the thoughts and moods that dominated her under hypnosis. Through consistent repetition of this procedure, the patient was finally freed from her symptoms, which at the time represented both a great therapeutic success and a decisive insight into the nature of neurosis. Breuer himself, however, did not then continue to work on the basis of these findings until Sigmund Freud was able to persuade him to resume this work in collaboration with him more than a decade later. Together they first published the text “On the Psychic Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena. Vorläufige Mitteilungen” and in 1895 the “Studien über Hysterie” (cf. Freud, S., 1972, pp. 81-312). Breuer’s and Freud’s researches revealed, among other things, that by uncovering the unknown meaning of the hysterical symptoms, their cancellation can be achieved. This is done by means of catharsis: According to Breuer and Freud, the hysterical symptoms are caused by the fact that a mental process loaded with strong affect was prevented in some way from balancing itself (“abreacting”) in the normal way leading to consciousness – in this way psychic traumas are caused. Catharsis now occurs through the opening of a path to consciousness and the normal discharge of affect.

Freud expected “that the symptoms will disappear (by) themselves” (Freud op. cit., p. 8) when the catharsis has occurred and he assumed that with it the “psychic processes are to be brought to a different course from the previous one which has resulted in the formation of symptoms” (ibid.).

3. Catharsis in psychodrama

In the various psychodrama schools and approaches, the concept of catharsis is reflected and applied on the basis of the classical psychoanalytic conception of catharsis just presented. In psychodrama, too, catharsis – it is said – is a liberation of the human being from symptom formation, mediated by a fierce expression of affect brought about by an enactment in psychodrama play. The concept of catharsis in Classical Psychodrama emphasizes, in addition to the concept of “abreaction”, above all the aspect of “readjustment”. It is expected that through a catharsis in the psychodramatic process mental processes can be influenced in such a way that their course changes and does not lead to symptom formation.

3.1 Selected conceptions of catharsis in the

In the literature of the various psychodramatic schools, nuanced and diverse views can be found regarding the meaning and concrete formulation of a concept of catharsis. Ernst Engelke, for example, refers to the importance of achieving an action catharsis in relation to the play or action phase of psychodrama (Engelke 1981, p.17). Sigrid Löwen-Seifert emphasizes the outstanding importance of action with regard to the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic methods in general and attaches a prominent position to the concept of catharsis with regard to the process of personal transformation (cf. Löwen-Seifert, ibid., p.54). K. Zeintlinger-Hochreiter goes beyond this when she sees the individual effects of psychodramatic psychotherapy exclusively in catharsis. Roland Springer, on the other hand, in relation to effective factors in the therapeutic process of psychodrama, sees catharsis – which can be achieved in the optimal case – only as one effect among others, which can be achieved with regard to the psychological recovery of a person (cf. Springer, 1995, p. 98).

Despite all the differences, in the German- and French-language literature, catharsis as an effective factor is generally attributed to Freud’s psychoanalytic model. In American literature, on the other hand, a more far-reaching attempt at explanation, oriented to Moreno’s ideas of creativity and spontaneity, has priority.

Ernst Engelke refers to J. L. Moreno when he writes: “The goal of psychodramatic therapy is […] the total production of life“ (Engelke, 1981, S.14; emphasis in original). To achieve this goal, he says, “negotiation as a mechanism of action is significant, among other things. “Through dramatic acting out (“acting out” and action catharsis), access is possible to deep layers of the psyche that remain closed to verbal remembering” (ibid.).

In her remarks, Sigrid Löwen-Seifert emphasizes the action aspect as a central mechanism of action in psychotherapy in general and in psychodramatic psychotherapy in particular (Cf. Löwen-Seifert, 1981, p. 46ff). She points out that action is older than language – thus experiences and disturbances that lead to trauma in early childhood can only be insufficiently expressed in psychotherapy by means of language. Moreover, everything that is considered important in the respective situation can become action, so that in this way the possibilities of a “treatment” carried out with predominantly linguistic means are surpassed. According to Löwen-Seifert, such therapeutic actions are “directly related to becoming aware of and working through the present, past, but also future personal life situation” (ibid., p.48). The possibility of these actions, or actions in the therapeutic process, now forms the basis and prerequisite for experiencing a genuine catharsis. The author illustrates this phenomenon by the example of a possible encounter of the protagonist with the negative introjects of essential reference persons in the psychodrama. What is significant here is “that in the context of or as a consequence of such encounters a reconciliation with the negative introjects of these reference persons and thus also with the stressful phases of the personal history can take place” (Löwen-Seifert 1981, p. 54). By the fact that the pain associated with this, the anger that is released, sometimes finds its expression in a scream or a shouting at the father, for example, a real catharsis occurs. According to the author, such an experience has a loosening effect for further constellations and is in any case experienced as liberating and relieving.

In her dissertation “Compendium of Psychodrama Therapy”, Karin Zeintlinger-Hochreiter, like Engelke, orients herself to Moreno himself with regard to catharsis and also points out that Moreno’s concept of catharsis goes beyond the mere abreaction and release of unpleasant feelings, in that it also includes the “recognition of new possibilities of experience and action” (Zeintlinger-Hochreiter, 1996, p.113). Furthermore, referring to Moreno, she attributes individual effects of psychodramatic therapy directly to an experienced catharsis, e.g. the “appropriate processing of negative experiences”, the “reduction of transference tendencies”, the improvement of spontaneity and creativity in a positive direction” or an “improvement of the ability to encounter” (ibid.). Following these remarks, she again refers to the complexity of the effect of psychodrama and pleads not to simplify the question of the effect (or effects) of psychodrama inappropriately.

Roland Springer emphasizes that psychodrama enables both new emotional experiences – here he mentions e.g. the “telic encounter with other people” and “cathartic moments”- and cognitive experiences, e.g. “through reflection of emotional results, feedback” (Springer, 1995, p.100). Thus, he argues parallel to Zeintlinger-Hochreiter, but avoids making the goals, or effects, of psychodrama directly dependent on experienced catharsis in psychodrama. As overarching goals of psychodramatic therapy he names, among others, “the ability to act spontaneously and creatively”, as well as “the ability to perceive and improve one’s own relationship to the world and its cosmic laws” (ibid., p.101).

Anne Schützenberger-Ancelin emphasizes that it was Moreno who gave a direct meaning to catharsis – he sought it and used it. The author tries to describe the emotions that – according to her – accompanied a catharsis when she writes that “catharsis is a relief after a state of extraordinary tension, an upsurge, an emotional peak in which resistance is broken, the emotions are thawed, the dross is removed, producing a liberation from the past and a change from which an action of reconstruction is possible with an abreaction and an awareness (indirect or direct) that allows the threshold to be crossed” (Schützenberger-Ancelin,1979, p. 126 ). On the basis of these statements it becomes clear that the author, by not fundamentally relating catharsis to action as a basic prerequisite, or condition, is determinantly guided by the conception of Breuer and Freud presented above. She reports the profound effect of catharsis in psychodrama and also considers it one of the dimensions of any analytical psychotherapy.

For Volker Riegels, catharsis forms a cornerstone of psychodrama – it is only in the context of catharsis that acting as a therapeutic principle acquires its meaning. Riegels understands catharsis as the “thawing and release of inhibited and repressed feelings, the intensive reliving of a traumatic situation and the liberation from trauma” (Riegels, 1981, p. 59). Like Schützenberger-Ancelin, he thus follows Breuer’s and Freud’s conception with regard to the (possible) effect of catharsis – however, he emphasizes that it is only made possible by action, with which he wants to see the prerequisites more narrowly defined.

In order to stabilize the effect of the catharsis, or to improve its therapeutic effect, the individual scenes are worked through together in the discussion phase following the play phase, whereby awareness is promoted for the protagonist, which in turn can become the basis for the development of new ways of experiencing and behaving. Furthermore, previously unrecognizable connections become apparent.

Referring to the traditional meaning of the term catharsis, Grete Leutz refers to the liberation character of the same – insofar as in the liberation “our relationship to being as our reason is no longer obscured by ego-fixated being-in-the-world” (Leutz, 1974, p.141). Thus, it is liberated from the pure ego-attached to the mere being – being speaks for itself. An existence based on such a being would remain unthreatened by “self-alienation as the actual alienation from being” (ibid.). However, man – according to the author with reference to Moreno – is involved in massive problems of blocking his creative powers due to his ego fixation – the “ego plague” (ibid.), a condition that can often only be remedied by a comprehensive purification by means of catharsis. In the following, the author gives the different manifestations, respectively the meaning of catharsis according to Moreno: catharsis as a means of releasing spontaneity and transforming it into creativity. “However, what matters […] is not only the release of catharsis, but, as in the release of human spontaneity in general, its transformation into creativity. In the possibility given by catharsis for a new beginning and for the development of human creativity […] Moreno sees the actual meaning of catharsis and therefore speaks quite generally of creative catharsis” (ibid., p. 142).

Jakob Levi Moreno himself speaks on a general level of spiritual catharsis, which is essential for man to “purify his impure emotions” (Moreno, 2001, p. 87). The necessity of such a purification through a spiritual catharsis arises from the imbalance in which man finds himself because he is not able to muster enough spontaneity to meet the change to which he is exposed.

With regard to psychodrama, Moreno speaks – and this can be called the core of his statements in this regard – of the “action” or “action catharsis”, which develops from the spontaneous actions in the group: “Psychodrama can […] be called that method which fathoms the truth of the soul through action. The catharsis it produces is, therefore, a ‘catharsis of action'” (Moreno, 1959, p.77, emphasis in original).

However, Moreno also sees this type of catharsis as a universal phenomenon that occurs even in the more discussion-driven type of group psychotherapy (cf. Moreno, 1959, p. 57).

Furthermore, Moreno speaks of “observational catharsis”, or “spectator catharsis”, which occurs “through identifying observation of actions” (Springer, op. cit., p. 100).

In addition to these subjective forms of catharsis, Moreno emphasizes the importance of “group catharsis,” which is a “catharsis of integration” (Moreno, op. cit., p. 57) – triggered by the helpful interactions between group members.

Moreno distinguishes, with regard to the genesis of a psychodramatic view of catharsis, between “passive catharsis” – the type of catharsis just mentioned, going back to Aristotle, which he called observational catharsis, and “active catharsis,” for which he refers to the example of Eastern religions – here a saint, in order to become a redeemer, must act by realizing and implementing the ideal of his religion in his own life (cf. ibid., p. 314). Moreno sees the synthesis of these two forms of catharsis (action versus observation catharsis; passive versus active catharsis) realized in the psychodramatic concept of catharsis.

Concerning the effect, Moreno remains consistent with the idea of the creative force, to which he attributes everything healing and whose disturbance or blockage is the reason for the symptoms. However, he pursues this thought in a quite realistic weakening. Not only pure creative power is the salvation in psychodrama for him, but spontaneity and creativity in the connection to reality, which leads to the introduction of the reality principle (reality test) and to a dynamization of the concept of catharsis.

3.2 Critical evaluation of the positions

One aspect concerning the positions presented above regarding catharsis in psychodrama that seems to be really clear, or rather clear, is the ambiguity – or rather, the ambiguity of the statements, which in some places cannot escape an obvious contradiction.

Ernst Engelkeremains on a descriptive level in his presentation of the psychodrama, argues close to Moreno’s statements and holds back with his own evaluations. He assigns central importance to catharsis in psychodrama, but remains with hints concerning the concrete effect of catharsis. He can neither state under which conditions catharsis takes place nor what consequences cathartic processes have for the individual, let alone how cathartic processes could be specifically brought about.

Sigrid Löwen-Seifert, although her psychoanalytic orientation is clearly noticeable, takes an integrative, far-reaching position regarding the concrete design of effective psychotherapy. She knows that it is necessary to make use of the comprehensive possibilities of psychodrama in this regard and refers to the importance of therapeutic interaction – an approach which could well take into account a humanistic-psychological perspective, especially with regard to the resulting possibilities of psychotherapeutic practice. By illustrating her approach with examples from her practical work as a psychotherapist for children and adolescents, the author credibly suggests the extensive possibilities for the use of psychodrama – at the same time giving hints about anthropological and theoretical foundations of psychodrama. Unfortunately, Löwen-Seifert’s perspective is ultimately narrowed by the fact that she reduces the complex effects of (psychotherapeutic) interactions previously presented in the approach to the phenomenon of catharsis, which is only poorly explicable.

Karin Zeintlinger-Hochreiter remains ambiguous in her position when she, as indicated above, on the one hand reduces psychodrama to the effect of catharsis with reference to Moreno (cf. Zeintlinger-Hochreiter, op. cit., p.113) – but on the other hand points to the enormous complexity of the effect of psychodrama (ibid., p. 114f). Furthermore, she, too, can only remain vague in the description of what is concrete to be understood by a catharsis, under what conditions it comes about, etc. In this context, the author has to be content with reproducing Moreno’s equally vague statements.

Roland Springer leaves it at reproducing Moreno’s thoughts on the subject of catharsis to some extent, whereby he interprets Moreno with regard to the significance of catharsis differently than e.g. Schützenberger-Ancelin or Riegels, by noting that in the psychodramatic play “in the optimal case” a catharsis occurs. The author avoids – possibly in view of the lack of operationalizability of the topic – making further assumptions regarding the concrete nature and the prerequisites of cathartic processes in psychodrama. However, with regard to possibly more tangible objectives of psychodrama, he then sticks to presenting the statements of Moreno himself, respectively of other psychodramatists, instead of devoting himself to this question in more detail.

Anne Schützenberger-Ancelinemphasizes that it was Moreno who gave a direct meaning to catharsis – he sought it and used it. Like Löwen-Seifert, the psychoanalytic school is noticeable – she too is sure of the importance of catharsis and tries to show what happens in detail when catharsis is experienced. Even if this attempt to show the nature of the phenomenon of catharsis, in the sense of a qualitative-psychological approach, is basically to be assessed as positive, it does not contribute to increased clarity. On the one hand, the emotional qualities listed do not appear to be presented in great detail, partly vague – moreover, arbitrarily selected and incoherent – the reader does not know under which circumstances a catharsis and the associated emotional qualities occur – he merely feels called upon to assume and imagine, that it is “an upsurge,” an “emotional peak,” whereby “the dross is removed” (Schützenberger-Ancelin, op. cit., p.126). On the other hand, Schützenberger-Ancelin herself is not clear about what follows a catharsis, i.e., how it works concretely and what it causes (cf. ibid., p. 126f).

Volker Riegels refers to the therapeutic effect of catharsis when he emphasizes the necessity of integrating what has been experienced in the course of the cathartic process by means of a cognitive reappraisal of the contents in the conversational phase of the psychodrama – a demand that is certainly to be supported. However, he (too) cannot give any information about the cathartic process itself. As a result, the reader is left to his or her own speculations regarding the effects of a mechanism. In addition, the mechanism is not explained in detail. It seems evident when Riegels assumes that it is a gain for the participant(s) to “work through” an emotionally significant action experienced in psychodramatic play after the play – this statement, however, does not make the process itself more comprehensible.

Grete Leutz, like other authors, remains in Moreno’s terminology – even if she gives Moreno’s thoughts in detail concerning the meaning of catharsis for classical psychodrama, she has to leave numerous questions, e.g. about the nature of cathartic phenomena, unanswered or open.

In contrast to the predominantly psychoanalytically based explanatory approaches presented above, Leutz adheres directly to Moreno when she describes the effect of catharsis primarily in terms of breaking up blocked creativity (cf. Leutz, op. cit., p. 142) – which implies a less universal significance of catharsis in the context of psychodrama’s extensive range of applications. Universal cathartic moments would then only be with regard to a psychodramatic therapy, whereby – as stated above – it is about a release of spontaneity to be achieved through catharsis and its transformation into creativity. For the fact that Moreno himself – according to the author – “considered the investigation and therapeutic utilization of cathartic phenomena as an essential theoretical and practical basis of psychodrama therapy since the beginning of his work” (ibid.), Grete Leutz can also say little concrete about these very phenomena.

Jakob Levi Moreno’sdistinction between different types of catharsis allows him to describe many subjective experiences as cathartic phenomena. interpreted as such. The extension of the catharsis conception of psychoanalysis made by his work means beyond the simple extension an integration that results in psychodrama. Here, the human being can be acting and thus comprehensively present; here, according to Moreno, it is possible for catharsis to take place not only within the individual, but also between individuals who are connected with each other in a concrete situation, etc. On the other hand, this abundance of possibilities also means more ambiguity: for Moreno, cathartic phenomena are possible, so to speak, in almost every situation and for every person – even for several people at the same time. Unfortunately, Moreno himself did not succeed in a qualitative, systematic and sufficient study of catharsis. Although he – in view of the constant change of cultures and the resulting demands on people’s spontaneous adaptive capacities – has repeatedly pointed out the necessity of redesigning cultural preserves (“depreservation”, “vitalization of cultural preserves”- cf. Moreno, 2001, p. 77ff), even his successors have not yet succeeded in developing an appropriate, appropriately “vitalized” conception of catharsis.

  1. Experiential reports on the effects of Humanistic Psychodrama

In the context of the advanced training courses “Humanistic Psychodrama” of the Psychotherapeutic Institute Bergerhausen in Duisburg, different protagonists were asked to record their experiences, or experiences that occurred during a more extensive psychodrama play. In this way, it should be clarified to what extent the protagonists describe an experiential situation, which can be found in the criteria of a catharsis presented above. In addition, indications were to be expected regarding the specific mode of action of humanistic-psychodramatic action processes.

Six protocols are presented below, followed by evaluations of the experience.


I played the psychodrama mainly in the role of my girlfriend, I was someone else during the whole play.

In the warm-up, I described a scene of me lying in bed with my girlfriend, she is asleep, but I want to be caressed by her. In role reversal with my girlfriend, I felt this Rainer next to me harassing me, wanting to put me in a “headlock”. At this point I was also very sensitive to body touch. I flinched when his greedy hand reached for me. My double and I found that these touches were terrible. To this, Rainer, who was lying next to me, verbally demanded that I love him. This demand and the touches that made me wince so much were now intensified as we went on. Many people from the group started to “chase” me and wanted to be “loved” by me. I could not stand any touch and the group pursued me with words and touches. I wanted to get out, out, out. I threatened one of the group to hit him if he touched me again. I grabbed this one out to at least get rid of this nuisance. My mind was working perfectly clear, I knew that we were just playing a psychodrama and even asked the leader to stop this fucking psychodrama. I felt it in my own body, how it is when love is demanded from someone, which I did at that time in the relationship with my girlfriend.

I then managed to free myself from the help-egos and then did a role reversal again, was Rainer again. I went to my friend, who was played by Marianne at the time, and cried to her, just cried to her. I had understood how she felt, and it also became clear to me that I knew this feeling of being groped, of being overwhelmed by demands for love, from my mother. I loved then just as my deaf-mute mother loved me, tried to love me.

I broke up with the unhappy relationship after the psychodrama. I also said goodbye to the girlfriend in the psychodrama game. I didn’t want to love her like that, it was unbearable, I went through that myself. The role reversal was almost perfect because I felt the same sensitivity to touch that my girlfriend actually had when she was with me. I experienced as a liberation that the group finally let go of me, but it was a very long way until then. When she let go of me, I had won and was free and finally at peace.

I had a great feeling of inner peace after the psychodrama and the feeling that I am my body and it belongs only to me. It was important to learn to respect each other’s bodies. Only after the psychodrama did I know why.

Through the psychodrama game, I experienced a widening of perception, was able to fully understand the other person. In my head I knew that the love for my girlfriend was sick, now the feeling had also understood it. It was a learning situation for the feeling, an “aha experience” for my feeling area. I experienced a kind of conversion. A reorientation with which I felt happier than before. My psychodrama can certainly be interpreted on many levels, because I also fulfilled the wish that the whole group would run after me and demand my love. That is certainly also a wish of mine, which I forbid myself, but which is also there. Another level is certainly that I was reenacting and acting out past experiences with my mother, who, after all, wanted to love me excessively. I’m glad to have it behind me now and I’m quite happy with it.


Our oldest daughter took her own life at 21 without a goodbye after we thought she was over her depression.

In role reversal with my late daughter, I learned that she could not write a suicide note because she no longer had the strength to do so. For the decision to take her own life, she needed all her strength.

I experienced tremendous relief when I realized: Our daughter did not say goodbye out of love for us. She had made the decision without us. It was her decision. Now I was able to accept it.


In a psychodrama seminar in 1981 in Burg Bergerhausen I learned to perceive my positive feelings towards my mother again and to become aware of them. Until then, I guess I only perceived the “negative” ones. I was able to free myself from my ” old” mother image and can now say that the psychodrama has been the trigger for a better, cordial relationship with my mother.

Thinking back, I remember that “nothing” was clear to me after the psychodrama. I was confused, and somehow I also felt liberated and redeemed. Something had happened without me having a solution right now for the future. My topic was: conflict with the mother. I had the impression that she wants to hold me, cling to herself – and I want to break away, away, away from her. But how?

This tug-of-war, this feeling of being stuck to the mother and wanting to go, to leave, was then staged on stage.

Interestingly enough, my biological father then showed up and told me to get away from my mother.

By tugging the help-egos at me-back and here and back and forth, to the mother, away from the mother, I came to feel this more and more. The action became more intense. I felt torn, and was unwilling to change anything about the state of affairs, until I couldn’t take it anymore and finally broke away, made it clear to my mother why I was leaving, and then finally left.

Before I could break away, I felt really helpless and powerless, between two forces that can do whatever they want with me. I experienced myself as a plaything of these two powers.

During this time, I have also always assumed my mother’s intention, that all the things she does for me, she does in order to make me cling to her. She does this to make it as difficult as possible for me to get away from her.

All the allowances, washing clothes, shining shoes, … and I resisted, but still put up with it. So there was always a fight in the house. And I didn’t want that argument, so I had to leave home, I thought.

After the psychodrama game – so little by little – then came the enlightenments. I realized that in the psychodrama I was dealing with my mother image, which is in me (the mother clinging to me), and this image in me denied me contact with the real mother. With time I was able to perceive and express my positive feelings towards my mother again. Our relationship became cordial again.


As the protagonist, I wanted to build two sets of emotions to weigh against each other. When trying to build up that one feeling with an auxiliary ego, the following happened: I first turned to the positive feeling and experienced in fantasy/reality how beautiful it was, but could not really enjoy it. Using psychodrama methods, I became aware in play that it is as if I am trapped in a bell jar of positive possibilities I have, and cannot use or savor any with pleasure. Something keeps me on the ground. When I personify this feeling, the “holding me to the ground”, by means of auxiliary ego, and when this person approaches me, I suddenly become aware: This is my mother. My mother again. And I get hot and cold and tears burst out.

The experience I had in the game rarely comes up for me in the following days, but it does a few times. For example, in the following situation:

I have accomplished something difficult with success and stand before my successful work. Joy arises and a probing thought of doubt: “Was that enough accomplished?” Immediately I remember the psychodrama image with the “bell of possibilities” and the happiness-failing mother. Afterward, I can enjoy the happiness of having successfully completed a difficult matter with good feelings.


I remember one game in particular with my parents. It was a scene when I was 13 years old. I wanted to go to Düsseldorf with my girlfriend, but my parents didn’t give me permission. We played as my parents and I sat at lunch and discussed. I was very excited, talked a lot, but did not act.

In another scene – a conversation with my mother a few years later – I had an important experience in role reversal with my mother, mediated by the double: “I’m not actually mad, you can go,” the mother says.

This brand new thought also triggered an emotional change. Before, I had feelings of aggression and helplessness toward my mother. I was afraid to hurt her for fear of her retaliation. After the help-me played the ideal mother for me – “I’m not evil”- I was able to distance myself from my real mother, and the feeling – “I have no right to assert myself”- I was able to discard.


My psychodrama was about depression. I could think of three scenes that were played one after the other. The last one, which was the furthest back in time, took place when my mother was pregnant with me. She was talking to my father about how she didn’t really want me, that I was too much for her.

I once again felt all the sadness of the unborn child who was not wanted and was distressed at being such a burden to my poor mother.

I took this oppression with me through life. I relived individual stages in the game, felt how sadness wanted to keep me passive and small, how much energy it cost me to live and grow in spite of it. I experienced once again a not-wanted-ness when my husband left me, felt that even today, when I am loved and needed, the depression was still with me, I could not send it away at all as a part of me. It wasn’t until I reached my current age (in the game) and faced my mother again as an adult woman that I was able to break free of the depression. I understood with my present knowledge my mother: why she did not want me, that she did not reject me as Mariele, that I was blameless for her burden. I realized in a flash that my mother’s rejection was no longer currently endangering me.

She had done her best, and I didn’t need her anymore. A feeling of liberation displaced the sadness. I felt as if I could only really walk upright now, I could take a breath. There was a sense of joy, of “rightness,” of curiosity about life.

Half a year ago I played the psychodrama. I have not had any depression since then.

4.1 Evaluation of the experience

The examination of the present protocols illustrates the inappropriateness of a reductionist view regarding the mode of action of psychodramatic processes, which, as stated above, can go so far as to declare a catharsis (however experienced), a strong emotional experience as the goal of psychodramatic action. As the following text excerpts make clear, it is not the mere emotional reaction that caused the decisive change in the protagonist’s experience, but the cognitive and emotional insight that developed out of the experience:

  • R.U. “Through the psychodrama game I experienced a widening of perception, I could fully understand the other person. In my head I knew that the love for my friend was sick, now the feeling had also understood it. It was a learning situation for the feeling, an aha experience for my emotional area. I experienced a kind of reversal. A reorientation that made me feel happier than before.”
  • K.O. “I experienced tremendous relief when I realized …”
  • S.U. “I realized that in the psychodrama I had dealt with my mother’s image, which is in me (the mother clinging to me), and this image in me denied me contact with the real mother. I could now, with time, perceive and also express my positive feelings toward my mother again.”
  • D.H. “… I suddenly became aware …”
  • N.G. “This whole new thought also triggered an emotional change.”

Furthermore, the subjectivity of the mode of action of psychodramatic processes becomes clear, which, despite the importance of the action, the (inter-)action in psychodrama cannot be reduced to the experience of a catharsis – subjectively experienced changes are possible in psychodrama even without catharsis – and furthermore depend on many other factors in the psychodramatic play.

5. On Overcoming the Concept of Catharsis in Humanistic Psychodrama

Any kind of fixation of psychodrama on a special, moreover only vaguely and unclearly describable effect ultimately leads to a reduction which degenerates psychodrama itself and its numerous methods and possible applications as a means to a predefined end. This implies a rigidity that runs counter to the fundamental principles of psychodrama in general and Humanistic Psychodrama in particular. Strictly speaking – this should have become clear in the course of the preceding discussions – it is not possible to speak of one present conception of catharsis within the various psychodramatic orientations. What one finds in this context has – to use Moreno’s words – long since congealed into a cultural preserve, whose vitalization and expansion has (so far) largely failed.

Based on these findings, it is appropriate, with regard to focusing on the goals and effects of psychodramatic processes, to concentrate on what happens in detail, i.e., to precisely identify the individual mechanisms of action and, in doing so, to look for new ways of describing observed phenomena instead of falling back on congealed and, at the same time, unclear categories. Certainly, such work presents methodological difficulties due to the complexity of the processes taking place in psychodrama. However, these should not be taken as an opportunity to repeat or continue mistakes that have been made. Beyond methodological obstacles, there is still strong skepticism regarding the scientific legitimacy of phenomenologically-hermeneutically based therapeutic procedures. Verstärkte Bemühungen im Rahmen qualitativer Forschung, etwa mittels Einzelfallstudien, sind noch immer sehr unpopulär und überdies nicht einträglich.

In Humanistic Psychodrama, the step toward overcoming catharsis, or overcoming attachment to a conception of catharsis that has become obsolete, results from a humanistic-psychological conception of man that underlies Humanistic Psychodrama. Among other things, it is assumed that people have a natural need to grow and to realize themselves (cf. Gessmann, 1995, p. 9). The goals and intentions of psychodramatic practice to be derived from this refer to the holistic development of the human being in social responsibility. For the reasons given above, they cannot be promoted by applying the existing notions of catharsis; rather, the realization of the goals succeeds through a constructive, vitalizing, and thus creative overcoming of them.


Burkart, Veronika: Befreiung durch Aktionen. Böhlau/Wien, 1972

Battegay, Raymond: Der Mensch in der Gruppe. Band III, Hans Huber Verlag, Bern, Stuttgart, Wien, 1972;2

Brockhaus Enzyklopädie in 24 Bänden, 19., völlig neu bearbeitete Ausgabe, Brockhaus Verlag, Mannheim, 1987- 1994

Engelke, Ernst: Das Psychodrama und seine vielfältigen Möglichkeiten. In: Engelke (Hrsg.), Psychodrama in der Praxis. Pfeiffer, München, 1981

Faktum Lexikoninstitut: Lexikon der Psychologie, Gütersloh/München, 1995

Freud, Sigmund: Die Freudsche psychoanalytische Methode, 1904. In: Sigmund Freud: Darstellungen der Psychoanalyse. Fischer, Frankfurt/M, 1969

Freud, Sigmund: Studien über Hysterie. Über den psychischen Mechanismus hysterischer Phänomene. Ges. Werke, Bd. I, Fischer, Frank­furt, 1972;4

Fuhrmann, Manfred (Hrsg.): Aristoteles – Poetik. München, 1976

Gessmann, H.-W.: Das Humanistische Psychodrama. In: Internationale Zeitschrift für Humanistisches Psychodrama, Heft 1, Juni 1995, Verlag des PIB, Duisburg, 1995

Gemoll, Griechisch-deutsches Schul- und Handwörterbuch, München/Wien, 1965;9

Kellermann, Felix: Fokus Psychodrama. Verlag des PIB, Duisburg, 2002

Leutz, Grete: Das Klassische Psychodrama nach J. L. Moreno. Springer, Berlin, 1974

Löwen-Seifert, Sigrid: Die Aktion in der therapeutischen Interaktion. In: Engelke (Hrsg.), Psychodrama in der Praxis. Pfeiffer, München, 1981

Moreno, J. L.: Gruppenpsychotherapie und Psychodrama, Thieme, Stuttgart, 1959

Moreno, J. L.: Psychodrama und Soziometrie, Edition Humanistische Psychologie, Köln, 2001

Pohlen, Manfred/Bautz-Holzherr, Margarethe: Psychoanalyse – Das Ende einer Deutungsmacht. Rowohlt, Hamburg, 1995

Schützenberger-Ancelin, Anne: Psychodrama – ein Abriss. Hippokrates Verlag, Stuttgart, 1979

Springer, Roland: Grundlagen einer Psychodrama-Pädagogik, inScenario Verlag, Köln, 1995

Zeintlinger-Hochreiter, Karoline: Kompendium der Psychodrama-Therapie. Analyse, Präzisierung und Reformulierung der Aussagen zur psychodramatischen Therapie nach J.L.Moreno. inScenario Verlag, Köln, 1996