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Mama Drama: Invitation to an Encounter

I believe it was the poet Thom Gunn who said “ The longer people are dead, the more our relationship with them changes.” In Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir I write about the evolving relationship with my wife and daughter, my patients and my parents.

But my parents have passed on.

So how is it that thoughts and feelings about the people who affected us the most, particularly the negative feelings, can morph into something different?

As a psychologist and psychodramatist I use role-playing to untangle some of the pain in relationships, particularly when the other person, either through death or circumstance, isn’t available.

Below is an excerpt from my memoir from the essay The Smoke Clears. It is a psychodrama done privately after my mother’s passing. Following the excerpt I include some guidelines on how to do one of these on your own.

I got up out of my chair and sat on the end of the couch and became my mother again.

“You’re saying I was the worst mother in the world, and I’m not supposed to have a reaction?”

I said these words from her position, literally sitting in a chair I designated as “hers” in my one-person role play. I sat there and struggled to identify exactly what she would be feeling, and the very words she would use. Psychodramatists call this a monodrama, but this was clearly my mama drama.

Even though I was playing the role of my mother, she was doing the same old crap to me. I didn’t want to get angry, but I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. I got up off the couch and sat back in my padded red chair.

“I am more like you than I care to admit,” I offered from my own role.

I then continued going back and forth, playing both roles of the dialogue.

“How are you like me?” she replied.

“I am angry a lot of the time. I feel resentful of others, and I sometimes have a hard time tolerating people,” I said.

“That’s how you see me?” she said.

When I sat back in my red chair, I tried to imagine what she would look like if she were really sitting across from me on the end of my couch. I’d see her wrinkles, nearly scars, around her mouth with heavy makeup trying to hide the decades of smoking. She’d have on a white blouse — I don’t think she owned another color — and a beige skirt with matching shoes and belt and pocketbook. Her posture would be straight, but unnatural, and every hair would be perfectly in place and dyed auburn brown.

“You were always angry at someone or something,” I said. “Always! In all the time I was growing up I can only remember a few, very few instances when you were smiling. Every day you were angry. Every time someone got close to you, or started to, you found some reason to get angry with them and distance yourself. Even I felt as though I had to protect myself from you,” I said.

“But all I did was love you!” she cried, with her palms turned upward.

“But it felt as if you were angry and critical. I felt you only loved me when I did the right thing, and I certainly couldn’t do anything that would have embarrassed you. I think you would have disowned me,” I said.

I help people perform their psychodramas every day. Every day I ask people to have conversations with those with whom they have unfinished business, but doing it alone, at home in my writing room, was something else.

“How can you say all this? I did everything a mother is supposed to do, and this is how you repay me!”

I could sense all the old feelings come up inside me. She was about to guilt me into dropping the point altogether, and I wanted her to know I wasn’t backing down.

“This is why we never talked when you were alive,” I pressed on. “Here I am trying to talk to you about how I feel, and all you can do is think of how hurt you are. That was the trap. If I tried to explain what was going on for me, it all of a sudden became all about you, and I was out of the loop. Then it wasn’t about how I felt, but about how I was hurting you with what I was saying.

“We never got to talk about this stuff,” I continued. “If you felt you were going to be hurt, you just got angry and that was the end of it. You got angry, and that was supposed to make me feel so guilty for bringing it up that I didn’t bring it up again for a long, long time.”

“Danny, what do you want from me?” she asked.

“I don’t even know,” I said, considering my words, “but I feel as though I’m like you in a lot of ways, and I can’t stand it.”

“So you want me to help you be less like me?” she said with a sarcastic tone.

“I guess I just want to understand what is going on. On the outside it feels as if I can handle things. I love Nancy and Devon, I have good friends, and I like the kind of work I do. But I feel I am always ready to be angry. I feel resentment when I think I am giving out too much and others aren’t giving back enough,” I said surprising myself.

“What makes you so angry?” she asked.

“I don’t know!” I said as I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess I was hoping you would help me with that!”

“How would I know what is making you angry?” she said, throwing her hands up.

“When I get like this it doesn’t feel like me, it doesn’t feel as though these feelings belong to me. It feels like your stuff,” I said groping my way through these new ideas.

“That’s ridiculous! How could my anger and resentment be yours? I don’t understand that,” she said.

“I don’t know. All I know is that I get a feeling inside of me as if I want to protect something. If I can get angry enough, I can protect myself from something.”

“Me?” she questioned.

“No. You’re dead,” I said as soon as I got back in my chair. “ I don’t feel as though I have to protect myself from you any longer. But maybe I’m afraid I’ll become like you if I let those feelings out as you did.”

I stayed in my chair trying to absorb the words I’d just said to her. After a moment I went over to sit on the couch and answered as I thought she would.

“So you’re not afraid of me; you’re afraid you’ll become like me if you get angry like I did, is that it?” she clarified.

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Why would it be so bad to be me?” she asked.

“You didn’t even like yourself! You had no friends, and you seemed to have no joy in your life. You treated your own daughter terribly. You made unrealistic demands on Donna {my sister}all the time. She had her own family, her own business, and you demanded she do things for you that took up an enormous amount of time, and you barely acknowledged what she did for you,” I said raising my voice.

“Everybody thought your father was the good guy, and that I was the maniac. Well, let me tell you, your father was no saint,” she said, pointing her finger.

“You see, here we are talking about stuff that you do, or did, and you want to change the subject to shift the blame elsewhere. I wasn’t talking about Dad. I was talking about you. I never said he was a saint,” I said, challenging her.

“But that’s the way it always comes out. He was Mr. Nice Guy, and I was the shrew. It wasn’t fair that I had to do all the discipline with you; I had to make you be responsible for yourself. He could just come home from work and be the good guy. It isn’t easy competing with a saint.”

“My point, Mom, was that you pushed everybody away. Even your best friend, Roxanne. She was the sweetest woman in the world and remained your friend even when you treated her horribly, and I don’t think you ever realized how hard she tried to be close to you. Everybody else just let you stew in your own juices.”

Mom knew I was right about that, and I sat on the couch as her for a moment before answering.

“What do you want me to do?” she finally said.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s like what you said before. If I have the same angry, resentful feelings you had, I’ll become like you, but if I try not to have them—that just makes me worse.”

It was time to sit in my chair for a moment. I was trying to let the words I’d just spoken sink in. It was mind-boggling to realize what I was doing. I was having a full-tilt argument with my dead mother, out loud, and moving around from chair to couch to play both parts. This wouldn’t be easy to explain to the neighbors. Eventually I got up and sat on the couch again.

“So, it isn’t really me you are afraid of becoming,” she said. “You’re afraid of having feelings that are like the ones I used to have. You saw what they did to me, and you dedicated yourself to not having them,” she clarified.

“Isn’t that the same thing?” I asked. “What’s the difference if I become like you, or have the same feelings as you?”

There would have been a smugness on her face; I could feel it as I sat on the couch and became her. It was one of those rare times when my mother wasn’t just being argumentative; she had something important to say, and she knew she was right about it. Her gel-blue eyes would have become electrified, and she would have burned her point home.

“You’re the one who brought up the fact that I’m dead. Everything you are dealing with is inside of you.”

I stayed seated on the couch as my mother. That was it! I accused her of blaming others, yet I had been blaming her instead of taking responsibility for myself. I went back to sitting in my red chair to make this clear.

“So, you’re saying it’s my anger, my resentment, and my lack of tolerance—and that I’m afraid I’ll handle them in the same way you did. That’s what scares me.”

The answer came so fast I barely got up from my chair. “Right,” was all she said.

“So, what I have to do is take responsibility for my own negative feelings,” I continued. “Acknowledge them, and then realize I have a choice in how I deal with them. I don’t have to react to them the same way you did.”

“No one ever taught me how to deal with my feelings,” she said. “When I got angry at someone I just curled up into a ball.”

“A ball with spikes,” I added.

“You could put it that way,” she smiled.

This was the other side of her. When I made a good point she could sense it and acknowledge it.

“If I let myself really feel all those negative feelings, they would destroy me,” I said.

“That’s because they did destroy me, but they don’t have to do that to you. You are trying to find a way of coping with them. That’s something I never did. I always blamed someone or something else for what I was feeling. It was Roxanne’s fault, or your father’s fault, or Donna’s fault, or your fault. I never let myself try to get to the pain underneath the anger. That’s why I never dealt with it. It was never mine. It was always someone else’s doing. I was being victimized, and I had a right to be angry.”

Moving back to my seat, I nodded. “So, I’m afraid I’ll do the same thing.”

“I think you are doing the same thing right now,” she said, “and that’s what scares you. You’ve been trying very hard to point the finger at me, but the better part of you knows that won’t work.”

“So, if I keep blaming my angry feelings on you,” I said, “I don’t have to acknowledge that they’re my negative feelings. I can keep feeling victimized by you and your negativity, instead of realizing I have to deal with these feelings myself.”

“Sounds right,” she said.

“You know, Mom, I really wish we could have had one of these talks when you were alive.”

I sat looking at the empty space near the end of the couch. It was as though I could feel her, sense her hair, her white blouse, and beige shoes. Our relationship felt softer somehow after this talk. I changed seats for the last time and sat on the end of the couch.

“So do I, Danny. So do I.”

If you would like to try one of these monodrama there are a few guidelines:

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  1. Don’t push yourself. Don’t do anything that is too uncomfortable. The goal of these is to help with insight and integration of feelings. If you feel too anxious about doing one of these you may want to bring the idea up with your therapist to see if he or she would be willing to be there to support you through the role-play.
  2. If you do decide to go forward set up two chairs and arrange them in a way that reflects the relationship. Are the two chairs facing each other, but far apart? Are they next to one another? Does one chair have its back to the other? Arrange the chairs so you will be able to move back and forth between the two easily.
  3. Always begin and end in your chair. This is your drama and it is important for you to have a home base.
  4. In order for the best effect to happen you should literally reverse roles with the other person. Don’t just imagine this in your mind. Begin the encounter in your chair, then get up and move to the other chair to answer. You may be very surprised at what you find there.
  5. Always end the role in your chair saying the last things that you would want to say to the person for the moment. Following the encounter you may want to write down your reactions. You may even wish to use a tape recorder as these spontaneous role-plays often reveal information we may be surprised at.
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Dr. Tomasulo is a psychologist, psychodrama trainer and writer on faculty at New Jersey City University. He was formerly a visiting faculty member on fellowship at Princeton. His website is at www.FormerChild.com. You can also read our review of his book, Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir.

Mama Drama: Invitation to an Encounter

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: http://www.dare2behappy.com/. He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Mama Drama: Invitation to an Encounter. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/mama-drama-invitation-to-an-encounter/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.