What is Role Reversal?

Zerka Moreno, a co-founder of psychodrama, is famous for, among other things, saying that “role reversal is the sine qua non”, or indispensable factor, of psychodrama. So what is role reversal?

As the name implies, role reversal means an exchange of roles, an exchange of positions; conceptually, role reversal means transcendence of self or self-component; in practice, role reversal is a gradual, cautious technique of outsight training.[i]

Simply stated, role reversal means taking or “playing” the role of another.  In psychodrama when you “role reverse” you attempt to “become” another person.  This can happen in many different ways depending on the needs of the individual and the needs of the group.

Early on in the group work, simple role-reversals may be encouraged by the psychodrama director as a way of “warming up” a group to each other or to a particular issue.  A person may role reverse with another person who may or may not be present, with an object of significance, with a feeling, a part of the body or with an animal.  Role reversal is limited only by the needs of the individual and group and the imagination of the participants.

One specific type of role-reversal takes place during an encounter.  According to Moreno, encounter is a meeting whereby both persons begin to become known to each other through the reciprocal process of role reversal.[ii]  Encounters can be used to resolve conflict within a group or so that participants can gain a greater understanding of another person.

As a process, role reversal usually includes (1) the simulation of a person’s appearance, “body language,” facial expressions and movements; (2) repetition of the words spoken using the same approximate rhythm and intonations; (3) attempting to incorporate the other’s feelings into your own experience.

The process of role-reversal is also used to help a person gain insight to themselves or another, to deepen their emotional experience, to cool down a person’s emotional process, or to help a person who is the focus of the psychodrama (called the protagonist) get “unstuck.”

[i] Hale, Conducting Clinical Socometric Explorations; A Manual for Psychodramatists and Sociometrists, First Workbook Edition, pg. 93 (1985), internal citations omitted.

[ii] Id.