Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that suppose to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing.
~Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1987
The first relationship with another human being is with our mother. We forge our sense of who we are, who we are going to love, and our needs based on the interactions and understandings derived from through thousands of encounters with mom. For better or worse we are molded by an emotional dance with mom.
Then we move on. We deal with dad and siblings, develop friendships, find lovers, and then a spouse. Throughout this journey mom serves as a role model and becomes a source of encouragement, love, anxiety, frustration, avoidance, support and conflict.
“It’s complicated,” as the Facebook category for relationship status so aptly puts it.
As we move into adulthood there are often unresolved issues that linger and we are left with the angst of not being able to correct it with mom. Her frailty from aging or death prevents the relationship from getting rectified.
This brings us to psychodrama.
Developed by Jacob Levy Moreno in Vienna in the early 1920s this action-oriented form of psychodynamic therapy was in direct contrast to Freud’s analytic approach. A famous meeting occurred between Freud and Moreno at a time when Freud was attempting to enlist the younger Moreno into the psychoanalytic movement. After the overture by Freud ,Moreno was said to respond: “You put people on a couch and analyze their dreams. I put them on a stage and teach them to dream again.”
But you don’t need a stage to do psychodrama. In fact you can use an empty chair and in the privacy of your own room do an enactment that has the power to heal and make whole our pain. This brings us to a mama drama.
Unexpressed or unresolved feelings have an opportunity to be given voice through the use of this technique. Technically this would be called a mono-drama because you would be doing both roles on your own. There is a more complete description of this method here, but these are the basics.
First, place two chairs in relationship to each other that symbolizes the relationship with you mom. Have them close, or far away, or turn one slightly away from the other. Find a way to symbolize the relationship with the chairs that represents how you feel, or felt, with your mom.
Then sit in the chair that can be a symbol of you and imagine your mom sitting in the other chair, and then say what you want to say to her. This could be in the form of a question (Why didn’t you spend more time with me when I was growing up?” To a comment, “I always felt I was on eggshells around you.” To a direct expression of feeling, “I felt let down by you when it came time for me to go to college.” In any case the beginning of the drama starts with you in your chair and then moving to your mother’s.
Then you must literally stand up, move to the other chair, and become your mother in the role-play. When you reverse roles you can now answer as your mother. (Role reversal is one of the salient features of psychodrama and distinguishes from other action methods developed afterward — like Gestalt therapy.)
Finally you end up back in your chair and answer your mother. The important rules are that you must begin in your chair, move and role play being your mother, then return to your own role.
This role reversal enactment can go on for several turns until the enactment is completed. You may want to tape record the exchange as there are often surprises that are expressed as you play out the roles.
The entire drama should last only a few minutes.
The goal of doing these types of dramas is to find something called a catharsis of integration. You are trying to experience and move through an emotion so as to not have it build up residual dynamics. Often unexpressed and unresolved feelings lead to feelings of guild, resentment, anger or depression, and finding a safe way to express them becomes a vehicle for a positive shift.
But clearing out the negative emotions isn’t the only use of this psychodramatic method.
Often coping with the negatives issues with mom can eclipse all the positive and loving features that were also experienced. As much as psychology has focused on the mother-child dyad and the dysfunction that cam come from it, the current interest and research bloom in positive psychology suggests that it is possible to alter our perception of the past, the present and the future though the simple acknowledgment of gratitude.
For this positive encounter arrange the chairs in such a way that they reflect an opportunity for you to give your mother some direct expression of your gratitude. You are arranging the chairs to optimize both the sending of the statements of gratitude, and receiving them.
Again, you begin in your chair and tell the empty chair where your mother would be sitting the things you are grateful for in your relationship. If I were doing this with my mom I might say, “You always gave me encouragement, even when we had our difficult times, I always knew you loved me and wanted the best for me, and I am grateful for that.” Adding the tag line, “…and I am grateful for that,” allows you to have a degree of emotional ownership for the expression.
When you reverse roles and become your mother you may be surprised at how grateful she is to receive this expression of appreciation. As in the earlier exercise you may have several of these exchanges, and you end up back in your original chair.
In the end you may find that your feelings for your mom are more whole and integrated than before. Indeed once you have done the exercises you may come to the same conclusion as Pearl S. Buck,
“Some mothers are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together.”