Image courtesy of John Olesen, TEP


Encountering Our Strengths, Befriending our Resources

Expressive Therapies Summit

November 12, 2016

Negative internal scripts can block us from fully exploring our strengths and resources with spontaneity. Positive psychology teaches us to be resource-based. Whether you use signature strengths or other methods for honoring resources, moving beyond an initial understanding of our assets can add depth, playfulness and wonder to a client’s self-discovery.

In this experiential workshop, participants will have an opportunity to engage their resources through action, as well as learning ways to use simple techniques for anchoring strengths in their clinical practices. 


  • Identify at least 2 principles of warming-up that facilitate overcoming resistance for new clients and can be used to evaluate client strengths.

  • Define and articulate the 3 stages of role development in developing strengths in clients.

  • Explain 1 or more action method techniques for grounding clients in strengths and assets 

"Reminding one another of the dream that each of us aspires to may be enough for us to set each other free." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery, poet and pilot

Many years ago, I toured a pottery factory with my uncle. He noticed when someone asked a question, the tour guide – a worker pulled off of the assembly line for visitors- would repeat the part of her memorized description that most closely pertained to the person’s question. For the remainder of the tour, he asked questions just to see if the woman conducting the tour would repeat the text verbatim or step out of her script. Of course, her primary job description was making pottery and she held to her script for a task that was clearly not part of her regular duties.

Most of us have devoted considerable time and effort towards creating our self-image. We could be influenced by external culture, through feedback from critics and friends, and simply by the way we hope to appear to others.  Often, our initial intentions for creating this image began in the past.  Over time, we shift from conscious insight to living out memorized scripts. While rote memorization might work for learning the multiplication tables, it is a less effective way to navigate the world.  Internal scripts create an inflexible perspective of ourselves.  This includes what we consider to be our talents and gifts, when we might otherwise explore and integrate new strengths and resources. 

One of the goals in psychodrama and the Expressive Therapies is to move from these internalized scripts to a more spontaneous awareness in the moment. JL Moreno, father of psychodrama and group psychotherapy, defined spontaneity as ‘an adequate response to a new situation or a creative response to a known situation.’  In speaking about psychodrama and sociometry, Moreno also said “A truly therapeutic procedure cannot have less an objective than the whole of mankind.”   In many ways, this parallels our goals as expressive therapists; to move from a model of simply treating illness to inviting people to become their healthy, resourceful, and best possible selves. A major building block to facilitating this growth is when clients are not able to access their available strengths.  How often in the creative arts therapies will a client say:  “I can’t (dance/draw/act/sing)”?

One way the expressive arts are resources is by helping individuals move from a scripted understanding of their resources to a fuller, richer exploration of the skills, resources and gifts that are already within easy access.

There are three parts to a classical psychodrama: Warm-up, action and sharing. In terms of the focus of this workshop and the tools we are learning, we will focus on warm-up and action.  Where psychotherapy might identify certain behaviors or responses as resistance, we prefer to view this as someone who is not sufficiently warmed-up to a topic, or who has a different warm-up than the therapist.  By accessing a deeper level of creativity, we can to help them overcome any resistance.  This occurs by gently and safely warming them up to stepping outside their script. I find several people resistant to role playing.  These people consistently had previous experiences in which a teacher, retreat leader or facilitator asked them to take on certain roles without sufficient time to prepare and warm-up.  They and their group were therefore dissatisfied with any role play. However, role training, when properly done, has significant potential for unlocking our creativity and moving beyond our limiting scripts.

Creativity is the urge to wholeness, the urge to individuation or the becoming of what one truly is. And in that becoming we bring the cosmos into form. Jean Huston

In the workshop, we will explore ways to warm-up individuals to exploring their strengths from a fresh perspective. We begin with a brief review of role development. From a psychodrama perspective, a primary task is helping our clients develop the roles they need to be effective. The more roles available to them in a given situation, the more creatively and spontaneously they can respond.  We develop roles in three stages: Role taking, role playing or exploring, and role creating.


The goal of warming up is to help access an individual’s or group’s creativity and spontaneity and to bring focus to the current issues. At times, an individual will already have a clear warm-up that leads directly into the clinical work.  At other times, or in a group setting, warming up can occur through discussion, through some early movements or sounds, through a focus of creative writing or a poem.  In his conference, we will use a few initial action warm-ups to help build cohesion for the topic and for the remainder of our session.

Role Theory:

In part, our sense of ‘self’ emerges from the number and quality of the roles that we can access. When we refer to a client as ‘under-resourced’ we are speaking about important roles that are poorly or underdeveloped.  The creation and integration of new roles moves through a series of stages. Knowing these stages can help normalize this process as well as offer direction for creating or improving these roles.  In with workshop, we will be specifically exploring ways to increase an individual’s availability and appreciation for specific strengths.   There are three stages to role development:

Role Taking:

In 12 step meetings, newcomers are told “Fake it ‘til you make it.” This is a stage of watching others and mimicking their behaviors.  To use a classic example, consider Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. When she first learns proper pronunciation, she is parroting the words the way her mentors are speaking. This initial phase is more surface and less likely to sustain itself in the face of strong difficulty. This is typically how people enter into a new situation; observe others around us follow their leads.  This is often a time when a client might be seeking clear direction from the therapist:  ‘What am I supposed to draw today?”  They might match or make a slight variation to the movement of the person preceding them.

Role Playing or Exploring:

In this phase of role development, the individual takes something from one person, something from another. They begin to fine-tune ways of acting, make personal adaptations and find ways to get new behaviors or perspectives to ‘fit them’.  Eliza Doolittle, at the race track, is playing with her image of a lady, but begins to mix and match in a way that causes it to unravel. In developing your role as a clinician, this is when you begin to step out of the familiar questions or interventions you’ve read or learned in class.  Instead, you explore and adapt the skills as they fit your personal style. There might be some fumbling or mistakes, but this is part of the process of learning and internalizing a new role.  In clients, this might be where you see some new directions or changes in how they engage with you and the group.

Role Creating:

At this stage, the role is integrated. Eliza, attending the ball, is able to respond to any of the people around her.  She has gone through a change at her core level, and has now internalized the sensitivities of a lady.  In clinical training, instead of asking “What would (Insert your favorite professor/trainer/author’s name here) do?” you ask “What could I do right now?”  Psychodrama would identify one of the primary goals of healing as helping people expand their resourced selves into the role creating stage.

That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life but in a new way. Doris Lessing.

Specifically, this workshop will explore some options for helping clients look at their resources from a fresh perspective, and support their moving to a deeper internalization of these strengths.

Warming up:

A client already has some level of warm-up when you begin your session. In bringing role-reversals or other alternative perspectives to owning their resources, you want to warm them up gradually. Perhaps your client recently identified their VIA strengths.  They might be keeping a gratitude journal. You can also create a focused warm-up.  One simple way is to ask your client to write down several strengths or resources.  This could be a general review of strengths, or focused towards one of his or her current challenges. Help the client choose one resource to explore in a specific session. Explain what you want to offer-- an opportunity to better appreciate this strength’s value in relation to a specific challenge.  In psychodrama we might have them move to a different chair, or at least sit differently, as a way to ‘step into’ and to become this resource. This could also be accomplished by thoughtfully choosing an art medium, a movement, a poem.  Explain that you want to explore this strength with them in a different way, and have mutual permission to be playful with these strengths: “I’d really like to get to know this strength of yours better. Perhaps you could take the role of that strength and allow us to have a bit of conversation, speaking from that role. I want you to think about that strength, how it might sit or stand, and to take that position for yourself”I find it often helps to do a brief modeling, especially with a client who is unfamiliar with working in this way.  A wonderful book for helping to model personalizing strengths is The Book Of Qualities, by J Ruth Gendler.

Role Reversal:

If you are working with role training as a tool for asking the client to become their strength, it is important to help the client into this transition. One of the most effective ways is to speak to this role, rather than to the client, and use his or her name in the third person.  Ask questions that allow the client to deepen his or her role reversal.  “So, you’re Steve’s creativity. Tell me a bit about yourself. Have you been a part of his life all along, or are you a recent development?” “Creativity, are you consistently present, or do you show up, accomplish what you need and then step away?”Remember the dynamics of warming-up.  As the client moves deeper into the role reversal, you can begin to ask more specific questions. “Steve is working on building healthier relationships. Are you helping him in that task? How? Is he using you to his best advantage, or might you have some additional suggestions for him?” As the client takes on the role of his or her resources, you can use your own interventions and powerful questions to help concretize and strengthen the presence of this resource.

A powerful aspect of role reversal is that it gives a different perspective to a familiar quality or situation. When clients are immersed in a role reversal, they step beyond their familiar script in describing the quality, and begin to identify some fresher or deeper aspects that were previously less conscious.

Each of the expressive therapies has their tools for opening a new and deeper perspective. Having a person journal from the role of their strength, draw from this perspective, move from this energy all give a new way of exploring and understanding the resources available to us.


When roles are reciprocated, they are strengthened. When they aren’t, they tend to weaken and fade. If you decided to make a huge, splashy entrance to a party, and no one noticed, you are less likely to try that again. If you drew people’s attention, whether amusement, envy or annoyance, that dramatic role will be stronger next time.

One of the ways to help strengthen a client who has role reversed with a resource it to allow clients to return to their own role, whether moving back to their original chair or taking their original position. Ask them to listen to what their resource said to them and invite them to make any response. A possible way to anchor this work is through creative writing.  One such homework assignment is to ask the person to reverse roles during the week, and write a note from the resource to the client. You can have a client take up or create a small object to signify this resource.  Sometimes referred to as a yantra, this is an instrument for holding, or fastening a concept or intention, allowing the mind to fasten onto this new idea.


Gendler, J Ruth, The Book of Qualities 1988  HarperPerennial (originally published by Turquoise Mountain Publications. 1984) NY

To learn more about the VIA strengths:         Open the 'Questionnaires' index and then open the VIA Survey of Character Strengths

To learn more about action methods:

www.nccata.orgThe National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations this site will provide links to the major creative Arts Therapies organizations  The American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama offers a calendar of trainings within chapters and individuals across the country.  This is the certifying body, and can help you locate certified psychodramatists in your area. My website includes a series of warm-up action structures in the Warm-up corner and Warm-up Archives.

I’m grateful for all the people who have been my auxiliaries, in my journey as psychodramatist. A special thanks to Dale Buchanan and Nina Garcia for their mentoring and for creating a space to share skills and enthusiasm. Thank you for attending this workshop and your shared interest in this topic.

Stephen Kopp, MS, TEP


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