Living a good life – Leading a psychodramatic encounter group for everybody


By Manfred Jannicke


This is a report from a psychodrama group in Berlin which was open to everybody and was called “Living a good life”. It has emerged from the final phase of the psychodrama training of the author and his colleague and it continued to exist as an ongoing, later on intermittently closed offer (opened for new participants twice a year). The concept was based on the more than 2500 year-old thought-figure of a “good life”, which has once again become highly modern due to the collapse of the block confrontation and the neoliberal economic ideology that permeates today’s lives. It is connected with the anthropology, the philosophy and the methodological principles of psychodrama. The group has been well received for 7,5 years. Gradually, there are inquiries of other psychodramatists who want to offer similar groups. Therefore this publication is associated with the hope to encourage colleagues to “bring the psychodrama among the people”.


A heartfelt thanks goes to my colleague and “psychodramatic sister”, who has been leading the group “Living a good life” together with me for more than 7 years, a long time after our Psychodrama exam. We have accompagnied the group from the very first start as well as prepared and evaluated every session together. Without our intense exchange, our sometimes completely different view of things, without sharing our experience, our wealth of ideas and our enthusiasm for creativity, the group would hardly have become a success, and perhaps would not have existed for such a long time.


The “good life” – a relevant question?

The idea of a “good” life of people, for themselves and with each other, is a very old one. But which understandings of it exist and persist is to be negotiated again and again even 2500 years after Plato and Aristotle. Between everyday life, professional requirements, child rearing, self-realization, career, aging, farewell, grief, faith, hopes and dreams the question of what is or is supposed to be good in one’s life is encountered by everybody, whether in the form of a kind of dissatisfaction, fulfillment in working life, stress, strife, misfortune, illness, etc. or as the wish to have “more” of something (community, friendship, love, spirituality, success, and the like).

People ask themselves from time to time how good one’s own life actually is. In the past 30 years or so the impression increases that human beings are more and more being pushed towards exploitability and functionality (as so-called “human capital”). Worldwide, the societies changed from the Keynesian welfare or “social state” to the neoliberal “activating state”. Most of the people have little choice but to adapt to this societal climate by assessing their living conditions and even their inner values as to how well adapted they manage to be. The healing and the social professions come into the role of fitting the people as best as possible into this mainstream because sociality is no longer regarded as a civilization value in itself, but only as an investment which must yield a return.

This neoliberal ideology, which strives for a “good society” (Lippmann, 1937) by means of the implementation of market-oriented principles, affects the most private endeavors and utterances of the people in today’s societies, predominantly letting them think of self-treatment and self- optimization. How do I experience the world around me? How do I meet the demands placed on me? Where do I have deficits? Where do I fit? What do I like / do not like? What do I need? What would I want to possess / have around me? How will I reach this? How can I develop my personality to lead a better life? How do I ensure that I am seen by others as positively as possible, how can I maximize my chances / minimize my risks? (Schreiner, 2016, p. 26)

Such questions make people restless. They dominate the private, the professional, the political and even the spiritual sphere as well as all forms of organizational or social coexistence. Individuals have, whether wanted or not, largely become the forges of their own destinies. They experience this as a step backward as well as a gain in freedom. They are allowed and at the same time constantly forced to decide this and that.

But it is not just about individual well-being or happiness. Where collective ideals, beliefs, morals, etc. have existed in the past, people must not only discover what is good for themselves in a fragmented, rapidly changing environment. They must also adjust their lives in terms of right / wrong, fair / unjust and above all they have to preserve the natural basis of life. These questions are often hindering the individual pursuit of happiness and contentment, yet they need to be seen and balanced with the needs of others as much as their own. This is often only half-conscious, as a common “unspoken,” at any rate unreflected. As such, however, it plays an important role, for how long does satisfaction last – when achieved on the cost of others? How sustainable is safeness, which is purchased with dissatisfaction elsewhere in the world? How deceptive is wealth that can only be gained by exploiting the vital bases of those who live far away from the local perception?

These issues also take effect even if they are not consciously perceived. They destroy happiness by repeatedly troubling even those who have achieved almost everything they need and wish: Isn’t there anything else? Why can I feel no satisfaction although I am really well off? Is there maybe a job / house / partner that fits me better? Is this supposed to be it?


The new social movements and the capabilities approach

A modern theory, which is at the bottom of these questions, is the “Capabilities Approach” of the Northamerican philosopher Martha Nussbaum. It integrates the so-called “new social movements” into an action-guiding, theoretical edifice of ideas against the de-solidarising, disintegrating tendencies of market liberalism (Bittlingmeyer, 2011, pp. 61-64). Thus it is an equally radical foundation for the universal validity of human rights, such as the conception of man formulated by Moreno. He was strongly motivated to support those individuals who belong to a group that he called the “sociometric proletariat”. Both – Moreno and the Capabilities Approach – are common in calling on all civilizations to make the human developmental options the target of their actions.

Therefore the main topic here is about justice, not in an abstract way, but in a totally action-oriented way, which can be perceived directly. Amartya Sen, as the economic predecessor and counterpart of Martha Nussbaum, described this practical understanding of justice (Sen, 1979) as following: Income equalization as the only objective for a policy of distribution-based justice should be overcome. On the contrary, it is necessary to take the so-called “realization opportunities / capabilities” as indicators (therefore „capabilities approach“). “Realization opportunities” describe what concrete people can do in their complex reality, what of their doing or being they consider valuable. If their opportunities for achievement are (almost) equal, there is justice. This vision has become the basis of today’s poverty research and human rights policy. While it was “no matter” in the liberal sense (for Sen), which realization opportunities seem attractive to the individuals in their respective environment, Nussbaum postulated a series of “capabilities” which should be accessible to all people.

In a first step, she elucidates the Aristotelian comparison between man and beast, and then asks: What are the abilities of the animal “man” in opposition to those of the other animals? How must the world of this beast be procured or prepared, what is needed in order that it may not be dissatisfied, and may cease to strive for further liberties and goods (by which the other people would be restricted). In her own words: “What is each person able to do and to be?” (Nussbaum, 2011)

Together with the living conditions of individuals, the essential characteristics and the empowerment of human beings form the degree of their actual freedom, the quality of their lives. In order to define this, it is therefore not relevant to ask how much of something the individual has or how much he should have. It is much more important whether the individual is able to achieve what he or she is able to achieve according to his ontogenetic make-up and to the conditions of his environment (which is not at all, as neoliberalism affirms, the same in all human beings).

Great importance was attached by Nussbaum to the freedom of choice: It is, for instance not primarily important to approximate all living conditions (health care, income, etc.). Not everyone should be able to do or do the same, but everybody should be empowered to do or to leave it at their own choice. “Options are freedoms, and freedom has intrinsic value.” (Nussbaum 2011) But of course, there is a basic set of options for all people, a “threshold of humanity”. To determine this, Nussbaum asks: “… among the many things that human beings might develop the capacity to do, which ones are really valuable ones, which are the ones that a minimally just society will endeavour to nurture and support?” (Nussbaum 2011)

Among the ten positions in her list (here only some), one recognizes, besides the universal human rights, many that are also required by Moreno for a good and healthy life. For example, Nussbaum writes that all men should be capable as follows:

  • Emotional experience – feeling your own feelings and living without traumatic experiences
  • Senses and imagination – feeling and imagining the sense perceptions (incl. spiritual feelings), expressing perceptions and emotions and critically reflecting one’s life
  • Trust – to tie yourself to other people or things
  • Affiliation / sociality – living together with other people and interacting with others, being able to identify with others, being reckless, respect others
  • Contact with nature: sharing and feeling connected with animals, plants and the world of nature
  • Leisure activities – laugh, play and enjoy relaxing activities
  • Demarcation – living one’s own life and not somebody else’s (self-sufficiency, freedom of assembly, protection from state arbitrariness), to shape life by their own efforts (right to work), and to dispose of the personal belongings (Property rights).

Nussbaum’s capabilities as well as the psychodramatic human image and its options for action are self-evident and completely utopian at the same moment. They not only show a selection of the very least possibilities that should be approved, but rather express the wide range of demands, which are indispensable for a good life. Moreno wanted to support those individuals belonging to the group he called “sociometric proletariat“ and to lead them to more creativity and spontaneity. He was “paranoid, megalomaniac, exhibitionist and socially badly adjusted” (his own words: MORENO, 1953, R.19) enough to take a closer look at the whole world and the whole of mankind, and he also thought “his psychodrama” to be capable of a fundamental change like that:

… first, the hypothesis of spontaneity-creativity as a propelling force in human progress, … second, … the hypothesis of love and mutual sharing as a powerful, indispensable working principle in group life … and third, the hypothesis of a superdynamic community based upon these principles … . It may be said, that I tried to do through sociometry what “religion without science” has failed to accomplish in the past and what “science without religion” has failed to accomplish in Soviet Russia. All the cultural and social techniques which I developed in the course of years have been motivated to serve this purpose. (Moreno, 1953, R.15)

The psychodramatic conception of man attributes the quality of becoming a human being only as a “social atom”, not alone (Moreno, 1937, pp. 206-219). This makes the compulsory search for how to lead a “good life” unthinkable in an individual way, we cannot strive for a good life alone. We can only succeed together with other people, being part of a net of relationships. An individual living mainly at the expense of others can not establish a subjective feeling of happiness, contentment, and good life – it would suffer from the misery of others.

In addition, all individual expectations and assessment criteria are acquired through socialization and adapted to the prevailing living conditions. A person having an adequately trained range of skills, to whom it is not known that his horizon of perception might be much wider, is unlikely be able to sense and name his real needs.

Moreno represented a fundamentally non-reductionist image of mankind, described by Hutter as follows:

Man cannot be reduced to his somatic symptoms, not to the role he is about to fulfill, or to his family relations. Man is more than his political conviction, his milieu, his ethical or sexual identity. The mere perception of the empirically measureable everyday reality represents for Moreno a shortening of the scene – emotions, dreams, desires or ideals belong self-evidently to the reality of man. (Hutter, 2012, p. 24)

The tremendous potential of psychodrama is based on the holistic permission to develop freely, which nowadays is barely visible in the helping professions. It is the power of psychodrama to enable human beings to unfold their dormant potential.

Hutter sees the psychodrama in contradiction to the perception of human beings in the ruling public discourse (in a simultaneously accelerating and “exploding” world). It threatens to destroy the social (political) consensus that humanity as a whole and every individual person should not be degraded as a purpose, or be reduced to be a homo oeconomicus (the fictitious person who makes problem- solving decisions exclusively on the basis of rational cost-benefit considerations, like a logical machine), which is aimed at the optimization of one’s own profits, but always must be considered for its own sake. Hutter (2007) gave the psychodramatists four central questions to take along:

  • How can we give structure and public attention to basic human questions in an accelerated and exploding world?
  • How can we talk about human beings without reducing them to function?
  • What are our social options and how can we integrate the economically unproductive people?
  • How can we guarantee social integration against economic plausibilities and the mega trend of individualization?

Psychodramatic beliefs include:

  1. that each individual is unique and remains not obligated to do or to achieve anything for it has the right to exist and to unfold. – “the approach takes each person as an end” (Nussbaum 2011);
  2. that the individual has the ability of “liberating” itself, “exiting from immaturity”;
  3. that these two issues affect society.

All these considerations brought me to the idea to support people who carry the desire for more “good” in their lives by establishing a group named “Living a good life”.

Could a psychodramatic space of encounter and experience contribute to their individual and social well-being?

Would Nussbaum’s capabilities be helpful?

What are the connections on the practical level?

Target group and address

The group “Living a good life” wanted to offer psychodrama for “normal people” – “end users”. In particular, it wanted to appeal to people who not yet have any specific experience with psychodrama and who should be welcome with any kind of personal question or expectation. Also, it was not primarily intended to be a testing platform for people who think about learning about psychodrama (although this was, of course, not a reason for exclusion). The focus was very clear: encounter and self-adventure with the aim of expanding the adaptive preferences and the individual role spectrum in a group …

  • which is addressed to all people, insofar as they have not recognizable psychological problems in a disease-relevant extent,
  • in which active participation is indispensable,
  • which is clearly marked as a psychodramatic space for those who are interested (including ageneral explanation),
  • which at the same time is not a therapy group,
  • but which is a leisure activity that (also) is fun,
  • in which both existing resources and motivation are sustained and promoted.
  • and which represents a gain for the community in the sense of an attractive offer.

In order to reach the target group “all human beings”, it was helpful to use premises in a community institution which is as widely accessible as possible – premises that do not deter anyone, which are generally expected to be used by all people without any conditions (often church congregations or the public community offer such rooms, e.g. halls in libraries, family advisory offices, etc.)

Also the name of the group had to be chosen in such a way that, as intended, it excludes as few people as possible. It was helpful to name the concept of “good life” directly, since it already plays a certain role in public discourse and in the media. But designating the group only with the main substantive “life” and the attribute “good”, was considered too static. Finally it should be clearly different from offers, which for themselves claim the wisdom to already know about “good life”, as many esoteric and philosophical offers do. Already the name must transport: here, in this group, one’s own activity is required to discover the own personal good (which is unlike everyone else’s). This is expressed firstly by the fact that the term “a good life” clearly communicates, that probably different (i.e. individual) versions are imaginable and that secondly the doubling of the words “living + life” emphasizes the necessity of one’s own activity.

For a working public announcement a picture, logo or the like is needed, in which all this, the lack of condition, the diversity and the so-to-speak life-spanning claim of the group is expressed with a certain ease. The choice fell on the following photo:

Picture 1: “sunny and rainy days”, by Lena Cramer,, CC-Lizenz (by-nc) –

It awakens the association of a path to happiness (good life), it requires activity to find it (painting, holding it up, perhaps looking behind it), everyone can do it, not more than the already available resources are needed (the wood is obviously a left-over or driftwood) and what one may find is completely uncertain, open, probably very diverse and rather beautiful.

Some handouts, advertisements in the city magazine and a website were produced out of these ingredients (see: In particular, the website proved to be extremely suitable, since it allows to be constantly present, at the same time to advertise practically free of charge as well as to integrate many informations and a direct contact form.

A further decision was to be made regarding the price. Neither should participation be without charge (this could suggest that the group is not worth while; and even the most altruistic psychodramatist should benefit at least a little bit), nor should the group be too expensive (to exclude as few people as possible). If we initially started with an only symbolic contribution, we can say from experience today that there are always enough interested people who accept a price equivalent of a normal evening entertainment (for example, a cinema entry plus a drink).

From November 2012 to November 2016, there were 52 evenings of 2.5 hours, with 4 to a maximum of 12 people. A total of 28 individuals participated, including 13 men and 15 women between the ages of 22 and 72 years. 8 persons (5 men, 3 women) participated only once or twice. 9 persons came 4-7 times (3 women, 2 men) and 11 persons came 8 to 51 times (5 men, 6 women), out of which some “hard cores” formed each for one year (persons who wanted to work together for a while). Later on, the group worked until the end of the 2019, but not anymore under a serious regiment of evaluation.

In the beginning we had the idea, that the participants should be allowed to “vote with their feet”, that is, they only should come when they were in the mood. We changed this after about a year because:

  • we and the group members continually had to integrate new participants and to familiarize them with the psychodrama,
  • the advertising for new participants became more work than we wanted and could afford,
  • the group members wanted a deepening of the work with the now more familiar regular visitors and
  • we shared this wish.

With this increase in commitment and the resulting deepening of the work, our experience as a whole was very positive. The group then worked for one year from September to September. The first three meetings were open for newcomers. After these, we closed the group until the following fall. This closure was supported by the payment mode: the first three evenings were paid individually (nobody was obliged to come back), all following evenings (which are fixed for the whole year) had to be paid together in advance.


Some examples and reflections

In a meeting shortly after the closure, one of the participants was quite upset because she no longer understood what framework the group should have from now on and what she could expect. She asked the other members: “Why do you constantly come here at all?”

Of course, a wide variation of offers for reflection and exchange over the desired topics, possible options and boundaries, etc. preceeded this question. Also, the division of the group had been discussed and agreed upon together. But it was only at this moment that the participant became clear (and a bit queasy), how much she had already shown of herself, how intense experiences she had already accumulated in the group, and which inner themes she now touched. We went on very welcoming and encouraged her to take her limits seriously, to say when she felt uneasy, and we asked not only her but the whole group about it from time to time.

There is one very sensitive topic resonating in practically all the work, which I probably would not even have noticed if it had not been pointed out several times during psychodrama training: the traces of the Second World War and of the repression and extermination policy of the Nazis. Until today’s life, up to the stage of the group “Living a good life”, these affect and press individuals mostly unconsciously and / or unconstituted.

A sixty-year-old participant presents her social atom painted with crayons. She has covered her image to more than a quarter with a black surface that surpasses all other relationships. She explains how she lived with her parents, who had both experienced persecution, fear, threat, imprisonment, and mortal danger, and had been impressively reporting this to their daughter. She felt totally unable to lead a successful life. She was confronted with something like a terrible ban on happiness and she withdrew from life.

The individuals of our group often and widely feel restricted and limited by strict internal rules and prohibitions. When and how has all this been sedimented in the cultural-axiological background as learned roles, by “familiary inheritance”?

A threatening, authoritative father whom another participant brought onto the stage immediately brought forth corresponding associations:

Mona experiences in the first pass of her scene how she becomes petrified, smaller and smaller, defenseless and feels hatred for her father. Some of it she can only express with the support of a double and she also realizes what was particularly frightening her: she feels that the father has no soul. As a child, she wonders how he can live without a soul. (The father is a very authoritarian man from East Europe who is characterized by the impulsive breakthroughs of alcoholism. Later in that scene, he kills the daughter’s little dog to make her “hard enough for life”.)

One could certainly have interpreted this pattern of relationship as the foundation of fascism: the absolute alienation from the own feelings allows the violent person and forces him to go literally over corpses – be that the ones of his own children. At the same time, extreme caution has to be exercised, because the work with traumatization (which can occur at any time in a group for everybody) has to deal primarily with the impulses of the protagonist – not of the leader. The leader must be aware of the following danger: in identification with this father the antagonist (and the leader him/herself) also feels the perpetrator’s great suffering. The father probably did not act like that because he was a bad person from the beginning, but because he himself was exposed to such violence and suffering. Despite this, the leader has to stay with the protagonist all the time and has to watch very closely on the danger of identification with the aggressor. Even if the perpetrator did not decide, even if he – as a child – could not but pass the enormous and absurd suffering to the next generation and despair of the inner desire to abolish this huge debt, the protagonist has to be supported and not left alone on the stage.

It is necessary that the leadership of a group open to everybody has developed mindfulness and empowerment in dealing with transgenerationally transmitted suffering and also brings the willingness and strength to contribute to the suffering of the participants. Because it is not just individual suffering, but every human being carries the historical burdens of his family and his
people. Moreno for this developed the concepts “the co-unconscious” (Moreno 1959, pp. 237-240) and “the cultural interpsychology” (Moreno 1961, p. 242).

To be seen is of great significance for many group members. To find a place where one finally is truly perceived and not ignored, criticized or ashamed, where this being-seen is thus associated with acceptance and may encounter mutualism in the sharing – this is obviously a huge relief.

Equally relevant and also striking: It is precisely this “so-desired being-seen” that only comes about when the psychodramatic space gives the possibility of showing so much of the vulnerability, the emotions and impulses which are regarded as socially unacceptable, but still are present in each individual. They can only be seen, because psychodrama creates that space where they can dare to show so much of themselves. And this is the only way to open the corrective and complementary possibilities of the creative circle. It is only through their self-presentation in the psychodramatic space (stage and group) that the other group members hear and feel enough to give feedback (in particular the identification feedback) as an auxiliary-me, in role reverse, in doubling and mirroring, to create supplementary proposals and to express them in such a way as to be compatible with the self-model of the protagonist.

After this experience participants report, that restrictions by real or felt social constraints diminish.


Picture 2: Equivalence of self-presentation, being-seen and personal growth with the creative circle by Moreno, M. Jannicke

Another observation concerns the great impact of Surplus Reality, which is always surprising for members in psychodramatically unexperienced groups. Hereto the following, more detailed example:

Tom (all names changed), 53, married, without children, quite dissatisfied with his professional career, has up to now shown himself stubbornly stiffened, intellectualizing, monologizing and little spontaneous. He suffers from severe and chronic back pain. Now, after a warm-up on the subject of “wishes”, he presents a scene in which he proceeds in a weak and held back way through the early morning. His wish: He wants to become more energetic and to have more contact to his wife.
First, he lays out a double bed, arranges windows and doors, pictures on the wall; where bathroom, kitchen and hallway are. It is very early in the morning, he is in bed, his wife is asleep next to him. She is not or very little aware of what is happening to/with him. From an interview, we know that the alarm clock is actually a shock to him, because he already knows how exhausting the day will be and how bad he will feel. The room is darkened, after a short “sleep” we provide a dazzling alarm clock. After that Tom demonstrates his morning routine to the time he punctually departs from his house. He shows the greatest respect for his wife. We hear that he is internally occupied with avoiding to make any circumstances to her, not to arouse his wife, not to get her involved in any way, not to make himself noticed, etc. He refuses the offer to change roles with one of the pictures on the wall (what do they see in this bedroom?). In his morning hygiene and the short breakfast, he does what he can not to utter a peep. Shortly before he quietly closes the door behind him, he looks again into the bedroom and calls (whispers) his wife a greeting, but she does not react.
Like before, he also refuses to change roles with his wife. He is asked to show the scene once again in slowmotion and is always asked for his feelings. He reacts “obediently”, does not change anything in the process. He names a feeling of exhaustion even before getting up, which increases during getting up and the proceeding day. When he whispered his wife’s farewell, he feels the wish that at least she could get up with him every now and then, maybe drink a coffee with him.
In this second run, the protagonist reacts strongly on the stage: he gets out of breath and sweats. As he continues to name only few concrete feelings, he gets the offer to watch his scene in the psychodramatic mirror, with an alter ego. Tom looks at his scene (mirror), does not intervene anywhere, does not articulate any spontaneous impulse or desire to change anything. Finally he once again stresses his feeling oft exhaustion and localizes this feeling in the rear lower lumbar area.
Did the leadership fail? The protagonist at least, despite three passages, experiences no cathartic transformation, can not create a change idea, which he could try out in order to fulfill his wish.
Tom got a lot and very relevant sharing from the group. One participant revealed her own long-term marital relationship, in which she always cut herself back, did not look out for her own needs, had not been accepted and all-in-all suffered greatly. She reported how she could only understand her somatic response to the persistent psychological stress as a warning and accept it when it was already too late – when she had become seriously ill.

The scene was highly contentful as an exploration. The protagonist showed himself to be in a serious and existential partnership crisis. Following this hypothesis, his lack of strength based on the oppression of his feelings of disappointment, loneliness, anger, presumably also of his partners sexual abandonment. If he only could get in touch with his restrained feelings, energy could come back to him, into the partnership and his holding apparatus.

Regarding the effectiveness of Surplus Reality, this scene contains valuable hints: The protagonist is very keen not to make himself felt. If he would show more of himself in his everyday life, he perhaps would irritate his wife or make her angry; conflicts could hardly be avoided in the partnership. In this scene he can not use the Surplus (the second run in the slow motion) to try out new behaviours: For example, he rejects the proposal to reverse role with his wife – which could have enabled a dialogue with her in a second scene. But: It helps him to feel reality deeper. In Surplus, he confronts himself with how little he actually expresses his own needs. And without having been observed by the group participants during his action in the Surplus Space, he would not have received realistic feedback from the sharing which he can relate to his own life. In other words, although he behaves not very differently on stage than in real life, it is easier for him to show himself “as if”, to feel his feelings and to accept them, so that he may also dare this in real life in the future.

It might be said that the protagonist creates a surplus space, which facilitates a “true second time” (Moreno, 1947, pp. 75-78) only by repeating a simple life process on stage. The whole range of psychodrama methods, which can be added and make literally everything imaginable, are, of course, means to increase the possibilities for success. But the Surplus Reality of psychodrama is evoked just by the fact that quite normal, psychodramatically completely untrained people decide to act on a stage (without playing theatre).

Another example shows Tom in a later meeting, in a group game (encounter in anti-roles):

During the preparatory minutes, Tom takes a small glass bottle (without top) from the available collection of materials. He keeps it in his hand during the entire group game. He needs some time to get used to the ascribed anti- (anti) role as a “genie in a bottle”. Then he begins to act as a genie, who has found out of his bottle and tries to give it to someone else in the manner of a salesman. He describes the bottle (his dwelling) as a beautiful object; but if he is asked why he wanted to get rid of it, he has to confess that he feels imprisoned in it most of the time. Finally, a genie in a bottle can hardly control when to come out of the bottle. With this argument he will of course not let go of his bottle to anyone, so his plan fails.
That is why he now relies on accompanying the other players with their actions. But no matter whether he shows himself supportive or not, his behaviour does not show any effect in the game, he is a useless genie. This is clearly reported back by the other players, they send him away.

The feedback from the group members in the integration phase was quite pitiless: he learned that he was perceived as nebulous, unconcrete, not effective, not showing himself, not communicating. During this feedback, his face became paler, his breath faster and flatter. On inquiry, he confirmed that he had clearly felt all that. He was not at all happy, he had experienced the game as extremely difficult and exhausting, experienced himself (as he did real life) as incapable, weak, not empowered, and he was very dissatisfied with himself. In the same moment he suspected the game to be very beneficent. He had no idea to the question, how the actors in their anti-role could perhaps still have worked. But the other participants suggested him to his no-nonsense surprise that, for instance, he simply could have lost his “silly” bottle somewhere or smashed it and freed away.

For the question about effects of Surplus Reality, the following hints are to be found here: The entire setting of this anti- role (which had been ascribed by the other participants) brought something new for Tom from the beginning: he could not hide because his bottle was transparent. But he added something quite decisive by being outside of his bottle (he could also have left it at the beginning or stayed permanently in his home).

He presented himself thus as visible, not as invisible!

The fact that he (in his role) did not show any effectiveness in this game (that is to say, he could not be self-effective and could not experience any confirmation of the others) was of course a very bitter medicine for him. Nevertheless: He has made himself visible, has shown himself. He could and had to experience bitterly through this self-expression in the protected space of the game (only “as if”) that his internalized self-evaluation is shared from the outside. He was seen in the way he felt himself. However, he was not depreciated, punished, or so on, but he could salutarily feel how well it was to remain an esteemed member of the group, to be held and supported.

In another session, all participants had the opportunity to show their family pictures in the form of table-stages.

In her family picture Irene shows herself as a little girl (single child), who felt either exploited or overlooked by her alcohol-abusing parents. The mother’s addiction was more pronounced; Irene was also exposed to it for a relatively long time, as the father died early and she lived alone with her mother during adolescence. She remembers quite rare visits from girlfriends who never came back because her home was so “peculiar”.

Congruously (tele!) in her small group is another participant, who initiated her family picture with the remark that she could practically leave Irenes, because of so many similarities. Irene gets a rich and very knowledgeable sharing of a “suffering fellow” to the shared family background. Here self-presentation was valuable again. The protagonist not only feels that she is not alone. In the feedback round, one question is enough to encourage the two participants, who are very touched by the similarity of their experiences, to mutually recognize that they have succeeded in surviving to this day and even to lead a life that is functioning as a whole. Even though they are not yet able to permanently assign (reframe) their life experience as valuable resource. But on this one evening they could feel and have expressly acknowledged how they have mastered their impaired and strength-sapping life.


Some insights

For the leaders, it was quite “easy” to let participants in their own responsibility, which aspects they wanted to share with each other. If preparation is good and boundaries are well observed, it is not always necessary to have great individual scenes in order to bring large, presumably difficult subjects onto the stage. And often enough it was in the integration phase, that the perhaps most decisive intervention of the evening succeeded. The insight here: the leader of such a group for everybody must be able to wait. Not everything has to be pronounced “didactically”. On the stage the participants often give the signal that this would be overwhelming – but they express important things in the integration phase.

In summary, the idea of bringing together the Capability Approach and psychodramatic Surplus Reality seems useful to conceptualize psychodynamic principles in a “modernized way”, to invite people to embark on their journey to their individual good life and to confront the postmodern reduction of the concept of literacy, of healing and of humanity. The authorization to develop, which is part of the Capability Approach is particularly helpful, every bit as the strife to “good life”, which remaines so alive in the psychodrama of J.L. Moreno.

Psychodrama induces a particularly catchy way of learning. Without carrying out a theory of learning, let us suggest that psychodrama evokes not a product-oriented but a function-oriented type of learning. It is not a question of learning a product but rather the ability to deal with diverse situations (new scenes, new appropriate, spontaneous, successful, congruent reactions). This learning through action makes psychodrama easily accessible for everybody. In addition, the learning experience takes place internally. In action, in the integration phase, and, quite often long after the scenes, new ways of dealing and insights unfold – so that the new behavior / the learning effect suddenly appears in an inexplicable way. The protagonists in the examples could not have said: “Now I have learned this and that / changed myself so and so.” This particular kind of “psychodramatic internal learning” once again points towards the Capability Approach.

Surprisingly, the groups had a very high, sometimes even a predominant number of men. This may be due to its ever-gender-deconstructing effect (Moreno: “In psychodrama, a man can be a woman and vice versa.”). In addition, however, this effect may also relate to the title of the group. Do women feel, according to their typical socially and culturally constructed gender roles, less authorized than men to assume that they have a “good life” at all, so they could strive for it? (In the diction of the Capability Approach, this would be called an “adaptive preference”).

It is crucial for the leader to understand, that to be seen carries the risk to be “recognized” in a way like participants eventually don’t want to be seen. This great desire to be truly perceived and accepted is highly risky.

In the psychodrama group, it becomes clear that “being-seen” and “showing-yourself” are a highly ambivalent pair of wishes. This is something the leader has to be prepared for, and with which he should be attentive, for on stage both aspects will surely unfold. It is necessary to accompany the possible protagonists carefully during their sociometric election process and during the warm-up. The moment they step onto the stage, they are supposed to have the insight that the responsibility for how and with what they show up is not suspendable.

Here, another issue arises in order to understand the “Surplus Value Space” of the psychodramatic stage as something already given. Once he has entered this space, the protagonist can no longer decide not to show himself. Even if he tries very hard to avoid it (example Tom 1), this is highlighted as an important facet of the scene and he is “recognized” with it. In other words: On the psychodramatic stage, the “as if” is not a real “as if”. Rather, it is actually (as Blatner says), even more real than at other times. The Surplus Reality is associated with being seen, and thus has the effect of bringing-in-responsibility.

Over the four years, many group members have come into contact with their (partially suppressed) emotions and their energy, for instance they could generate something from the painfully missed parental care out of themselves in some scenes. They expanded their perceptive abilities, their ability to take on perspectives, and their role spectrum. Various physical complaints were treated and improved. In many professional and partnership scenes, the protagonists experienced a distinct strengthening of self-confidence, which was often addressed much later.

Participation in the group brings:

  • the experience of belonging and being accepted (group cohesion),
  • the experience of the comparability of fates, compassion, the universality of suffering and the ability to help,
  • the opportunity to show oneself, to recognize oneself in the other, to stand up for oneself, to confront others, but also to be confronted, to get advice and to gather corrective experiences,
  • the revival / relativization of childhood experiences,
  • explanations and interpretations, which aid to the reconstruction of reality,
  • an increase of hope.

Many very impressive scenes and moving cathartic moments stay in memory – scenes that provided something for everybody in the group.

The groups had the most pleasure in sociodramas and group games. They reported that they were the most and the longest moved and affected by them. This feedback was received both while the group was open, as well as after the closure.

In an ethical sense, the group “Living a good life” allowed the participants to actually lift the treasures of Surplus Reality into the fullness of everyday life.

And finally: to lead it was fun.



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An earlier version of this text was published in “The British journal of psychodrama and sociodrama”, Dec 2016

Information about the author:
Manfred Jannicke specialised in working fields related to social work and health services,  serves as executive director of a diaconal organisation for the welfare of families and the society. Professional: Children&YouthCare and avocational: Supervisor, Psychodrama Trainer