By Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P
“I’m a drama therapist… and a real therapist” the woman said to me with large eyes and over-pronunciation to emphasize her point. I was at a meet-and-greet for mental health professionals working in the arts and education. After making an initial lap of the room, I had managed to find one other drama therapist soul with whom to connect. The introduction drew me up short. “A real therapist.” I wondered what that made me. Me with my newly minted Licensed Creative Arts Therapist permit—me with an empty frame waiting for a stiff diploma in the mail—me with new business cards announcing my educational achievement and representing all my hopes for my new career. “A real therapist?” I asked tentatively. She simply responded, “Well, you know.”
No, I did not know.
That is not true. I knew exactly what she was saying. She was informing me that she was also an MFT, LMHC, LCSW, or LPC perhaps. What I did not know was why she was presenting herself in that way, especially to me, a sister-in-arms. Were we not just as “real” as these other professionals? Was my education not just as academically rigorous? My sessions with clients just as meaningful? My work just as important? I had only recently started my new job working with put-at-risk youth in public school settings. So far my day-to-day interactions with the children, the trauma stories I was hearing, and the interventions I was crafting along the way certainly felt real. Nothing felt fake about the connections I was making nor the role I was playing for these kids. And yet, here I was, being told by a new colleague that she was only a real therapist because she held a second licensure. In effect then, I was an imposter.
My mind rolled back to the first time I read drama therapist David Read Johnson’s (1994) article on shame dynamics in relation to the creative arts therapies. Johnson explored internalized shame, suggesting a number of defenses that creative arts therapists employ to combat their experience of inferiority. He identified overcompensation, redirecting shame on others, increased rigidity, and need for control as ways that we potentially “shame-prone individual[s]” (p. 176) defend against the impact of our experiences. Johnson suggested that these defenses are seen in drama therapists’ relationships with each other, with other creative arts therapy modalities, and with professionals in the larger mental health field.
I remember being deeply impacted by this article in my first semester of internship class and relating to the shame I had already begun to feel but could not name. It amazed me that 20 years after the article was originally published, the main tenets still felt so familiar, so present, as if Johnson (1994) had just written this article as a guide for me and my cohort. As I stepped into my clinical internships, I faced not only my own shame about who I was as a drama therapist, but also the shame passed on to me from my mentors and supervisors. This is not to discount the wisdom, professionalism, and countless benefits I gained from my supervisors. Still, I quickly learned my place not only as intern, but more specifically as an intern to a creative arts therapist. I learned when I was allowed to speak to the psychologists and psychiatrists at my sites and when I was expected to stay quiet because it was not my place to speak up. Add this to culturally defined gender roles and systemic oppression and I was caught in a storm from which it felt there was no shelter. Even with exceptional skill and best intentions, my supervisors could not shield me from the shame seeping within and out of our profession.
Drama therapist Eleanor Irwin (1986) wrote about her belief in the importance of the supervisor’s role in a budding therapist’s development. Irwin suggested that the supervisor is integral in the creation of the supervisee’s professional identity. It is through the relationship with the supervisor that we learn to hone our intuition, ask questions, speak up, and “most important, to listen—to [our]self as well as others” (p. 191). In my experience, these lessons are learned just as much outside the therapy room as within. It was confusing when I was taught to trust my clinical intuition with clients, yet asked to silence myself with my mental health colleagues; when I was reminded to hold boundaries for and with my clients while at the same time watching my supervisors—overloaded with work—take on tasks outside their job scope simply because they were the only creative arts therapists on their teams. Johnson (1994) proposed that shame dynamics might be at play in the lack of consistent mentoring within the field. Just as we can be influenced by our client’s affect, if our supervisors and mentors are affected by an underlying professional shame, might those of us new to the field absorb some of those feelings?
I find myself nervous asking that question, that it might be published in this very blog. In fact, writing this post in general has brought up some anxiety. I wonder: How do I ask these questions without fear of hurting or betraying any mentor I have had in this field? I know that some of those who have helped me along the way will support this line of questioning but I fear that I may be seen as ungrateful or out of place. I only just graduated and am finally understanding what others meant about the safety of being a student. I recently attended my first NADTA conference as a “professional” and I often felt unsure of where I fit. I was not back as a student, where my questioning was encouraged and my status was a safety net for exploration, nor was I a seasoned (or even licensed) therapist with a career. I was in no man’s land. How does someone new to our small field challenge and ask these questions when we are not sure how or when we will even get hired?
The shame I carry personally and the shame passed down to me in school became especially evident in the job search. Initially, I continued to utilize the spiel I learned as a student, explaining to everyone I met what a drama therapist does. I was applying for jobs titled “Activity Therapist,” “Recreation Specialist,” and “Waiver Service Provider.” My peers and I were constantly shifting the description of our skills in an attempt to fit preconceived notions of “therapist” for positions with supervisors who would not accept that we had earned a Master’s in psychotherapy with academically rigorous standards of theory and research. We were defeated by our “creative arts” title before we could even interview and prove our skills and knowledge. One job opportunity I found claimed to be enthusiastic about bringing a creative arts therapist on board but then listed “current driver’s license” as more vital to the job than “ability to serve as a positive role model to children.” Both requests seemed odd for a therapist position.
I finally landed a job with a company that employs and was founded by creative arts therapists. The job posting was explicitly for “Drama Therapist.” Seeing that title in and of itself felt supportive. This spring there will be two drama therapy interns working under two different RDTs in the organization. While I will not be their direct supervisor, I know that they will be shadowing some of my groups, watching how I work with clients, and potentially comparing their professional identity to mine. It is what I did when I was an intern. It is what I still do as I find my footing in this new career. It has me wondering: What kind of impressions will I leave on them? Will they inherit any of my professional shame?
Johnson (1994) called for creative arts therapists to collaborate and join together. Irwin (1986) spoke of the value of a guide who has journeyed upon a similar road as the traveler they lead. In reflection, I think my mentors not only imparted pieces of professional shame, but also gave me the tools to investigate it. The reason I question it now is because of the strength of those who came before me and fought their own battles in this field. I ask myself: How can I ensure that I am a part of drama therapy’s strength—not fear—and empowerment—not shame? I hunger for continued mentorship and hope to mentor others as I grow and learn. I worry that the farther away from school I get the shorter my mentor list will become and the easier it will be to slip into rigid and paranoid patterns of professional shame.
As I write this post I am very aware of the differences I feel between my role as student and my role as novice clinician. As a student, I was often encouraged to work and explore in a process—not product—oriented fashion. I was asked to create more questions than answers, to investigate myself, my practice, my clients with a postmodern lens that welcomed varying interpretations and experiences. But as a novice clinician I am asked for product. I am asked to provide solutions, explain behavior, and deliver concrete results as a means to prove my worth and efficacy. This is pressure enough in a career situation, but I find myself worried that it extends into my drama therapy community as well. Will I be accepted if I admit to not knowing the answers? Will I be guided if I acknowledge I don’t always know the way? Will I be answered if I ask questions without providing definite solutions? This is my call to the field: Can we hold each other in the liminal space? Can we admit to not knowing the answers and still commit to exploring them together? That is what I need in mentorship and support. Someone to walk the path with me, to dive into the unknown, and to sit in the muck because answers are not the same as solutions. Solutions are not always available in the difficult work that we do.
This post then, is me heeding the calls of Johnson (1994) and Irwin (1986). I am speaking up. I am seeking mentorship and support. I am asking for more dialogue about shame in our field. I am listening for the response and wondering who can sit in it with me.
Darci Burch, MA, LCAT-P, is a recent graduate of New York University and is currently working in New York City for ENACT, a non-profit organization teaching social emotional skills to young people in public schools. She is interested in continuing her thesis research on dissociation in the therapist/client relationship and looks forward to continuing her work acting and writing.
Irwin, E. C. (1986). On being and becoming a therapist. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 13, 191-195.
Johnson, D. R. (1994). Shame dynamics among creative arts therapists. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 21(3), 173-178.