Webpage Supplement to


Inhibitions and Resistances to Drama

Adam Blatner

September 20, 2006

We should not underestimate the prevalence of personal and cultural factors that operate to inhibit performance, enactment, getting up in front of people in any way. It has been noted repeatedly that the most pervasive fear that people have is that of public speaking. The art of even standing up and giving a clear toast to the bride at a party is declining, and I’ve noticed a distinct decline in the volume of people’s speech in groups, almost as if the art of projecting one’s voice has become associated with being too forceful or aggressive. (This is often true even of psychodramatists and drama therapists, because, I suspect, there has been a greater focus on working with victims of trauma, and a gearing down into gentleness in the way therapists talk with their clients.) While it is fine to be able to speak softly, the problem arises when such inhibitions become automatic, habitual, and unconscious. Then it is hard to re-adjust one’s behavior so that one can effectively project one’s voice when it is appropriate, such as working in a medium-sized group setting!

Consider the elements that contribute to inhibition:

 1. The more you do, the more others can see. The more they can see, the easier it is to judge.

 2. You know that when you act, you show your body, your unconscious styles of facial expression, movement, tics, habits, the way you carry your body, your voice tone, the potential slips of the tongue, mis-pronunciations, and other ways of unintentional self-disclosure. You’re just a bit out of control. To the extent that you’re inclined towards self-consciousness and shame, to that extent you’ll be anxious and tend to avoid any activities that have a risk of such self-disclosure.

 3. There used to be a norm for getting up in front of a class and reciting. Elocution, clear pronunciation, was emphasized. Tendencies to speak in dialect or with an accent was corrected. It seems as if such components of education have declined. There are too many other tasks that aim more for test score achievement that are higher priorities, alas. As a result, we have increasing numbers of people who continue to speak in ways that are near-unintelligible to people who aren’t in the speaker’s own sub-culture. I now encounter tele-marketers who I can’t understand–they mumble, speak too rapidly, have unusual accents.

 4. The norm of having an accent is actually reinforced in light of the popularity of both hip hop, rap, and country-western music, regional and sub-cultural sounds that are “cool,” but, as I say, unintelligible to the un-initiated. Much of modern music, though, has a noise-sound / word ratio that is much higher than it used to be, so the medium offers the message that the understanding of the words is less important than the intensity of auditory vibrations.

 5. The norm of “cool” as understated rather than expressive, the mask-like expression of many models, all offer social models of desirable alternative behaviors. These express an interesting mixed message: My attitude of impassivity shows how much I don’t care about what you think, I don’t need to do social smiles with you, much less social sad-empathic sharing; I have “attitude,” the outward expression of inner confidence, and therefore social status and strength. All this in a flat look. Dark glasses emphasize the whole message, and have become a more prevalent icon in modern media (e.g., the “Matrix” movies).

6. There remains a reaction to the neo-child-like innocence of the hippie culture, a clamping-down of cool, and another interesting alternative that’s halfway between the two: goth. One can be cool in the sense of macabre, yet innovative and outrageously expressive within that pseudo morbidity. An interesting creative synthesis.

 7. A related cultural element is the dominant role of strength as an abstract ideal, and the image of strength being again impassivity mixed with brute strength, bulk, martial arts skills, or super-hero powers. More subtle forms of strength, such as the capacity to engage in diplomatic negotiations, to hang in their as a parent of teenage kids, to give here and hold the line there, to re-center in the face of stress–such more mature forms of wisdom, courage, and faith are almost too subtle to be well-represented by mass media. Also, both kids and immature adults can hardly perceive much less appreciate such more subtle forms of strength.
  (Interestingly, drama–the strength to get up in front of people–may be a tool for bringing these more complex skills and attitudes back into common discourse!)


Improvisation deepens the risk, because it opens into areas where simplistic standards of correct and incorrect, right and wrong, competent and incompetent, and serious or playful are somewhat ambiguous. In improvisation, it is understood that all behaviors are tentative, exploratory. It’s not playful in the sense of frivolity, but rather as capable of being revised, having room to maneuver.

8. The inhibition of improvisation is an intensification of the risk of self-disclosure, judgment, and shame. Here it draws one away from the familiar context of book-learning and tests. The grid for a mistake is more secure with simple facts. Playing hunches is like moving away from the secure edge of a swimming-pool, where staying above water is more simple matter of resisting gravity and in a swimming pool, heading out to the deeper water, where a different group of skills are employed. One doesn’t in fact stay above water, but bounces back.

 The effort to stay in balance as a form of strength must then be re-framed. As a martial artist replied when complimented on his balance, “I’m frequently off balance; I just know how to regain my balance.”

9. We should recognize that shame is an emotion that can be controlled just as fear is controlled. As children learn to walk, climb, ride a bicycle, swim, ride on roller coasters, see scarey movies, they face and overcome fears, layer upon layer. De-sensitization can be found in many aspects of life. Shame, too, becomes manageable. Shame is magnified into humiliation through the practice of repeating and believing that the feeling means something real, proves inferiority, or that others are feeling more judgmental than they are (most of the time.) Instead, one needs to have as the “default mode” or baseline of thinking that most things experienced as embarrassing are no big deal, hardly noticed by most others, or generously forgiven if not (more often) overlooked. “Embarrassment is temporary,” as David Young likes to quote.

10. This re-framing of shame needs to be an explicit topic (among others) taught in school, beginning in mid-elementary school, and through middle school, as part of a curriculum that deals with social and emotional learning. It should be an important educational goal to cultivate more realistic attitudes in the face of commonly-believed false or misleading attitudes. (Partially true values are also problematical. For example, I’m not suggesting a rejection of shame or guilt in situations when such emotions are fully called for and might help dissuade the person from committing inappropriate, obnoxious, or unkind acts.)

Inhibitions of Play

In the mind, all these dynamics overlap–they don’t remain in separate compartments. The fears of self-disclosure, shame, the risk-taking of spontaneity, the lack of appropriate models and vehicles, all reinforce each other. Although in a slightly conceptually different domain, the dynamics of make-believe play also can evoke contrary forces. People try to grow up and away from the childish, away from the dependency and the incompetence, the shallow self-centeredness and inability to plan for the future. Unfortunately, in our culture, the childish and some other elements associated with childhood–i.e., imaginativeness, spontaneity, exuberance, expressiveness, and the like–let’s call it the “child-like”–tend to be repressed also: The figurative baby is thrown out with the bath-water. We need to make this distinction and honor the child-like, for these qualities not only lead to being “young at heart” in adulthood, but also serve as the basis for creative thinking and continued development.

People are afraid of imagination and the loss of boundaries between imagination and reality. This fear is almost always unrealistic, but it partakes of a related sense that tends to think in either-or ways–which is itself a residue of childish thinking: Either you are grown-up and realistic or childishly imaginative. Oh, exceptions are made for artists, poets, and the like, but even then their free imaginativeness must be applied in ways that are judged to be economically responsibility.

Nor should we minimize the residue of Puritanical values that suspects fun, enjoyment. Again, much of this remains vague, on the edge of consciousness, because it isn’t much talked about clearly. Either we get down to business and are serious, or we get frivolous and no work will get done, no learning accomplished. This attitude is pervasive, if not spelled out, and it is terribly wrong. Actually, more learning and work happens when it’s a game, as Mary Poppins (in the Disney movie) rightly points out in the introduction to her song, “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Many educators recognize this. It’s less recognized among psychologists, and some psychoanalysts have been known to claim that psychotherapy requires a willingness to accept pain.

Actually, that again is a little bit true, in the sense that learning to swim requires the acceptance of a certain amount of stress and challenge in getting into the cold, wet water, and feeling cold and wet after climbing out–for a while. Worse is the risk taking as one moves to the next level of skill, and the moments of panic when one begins to choke on a bit of water. But in teaching swimming, it is possible to break the learning down into small steps, and making them a bit of a game, so that the ratio of fun to risk is at least 70% / 30% if not higher.

In psychotherapy, there are similar moments in which a certain measure of necessary negative emotion is encountered: A client must face that she’s been foolish; or the patient must recognize that he has hurt a friend unintentionally, or partially intentionally. Guilt, shame, remorse, grief, anger, anxiety–these and other feelings are part of what must become included in a more mature capacity for self-acceptance. They don’t have to be overwhelming. In my opinion, though, the therapist must set up a process in which encouragement, reassurance, support, instruction, opportunities to practice, becoming desensitized to negative emotions (such as the afore-mentioned shame), and offering many other elements that generate a context in which the process is mainly positive. This gives the client the stamina to face the negative parts of life and to cope with resilience, to learn and emerge a little stronger.

This digression is meant to remind us that negativity is not in itself wholly bad, but it must be balanced. Similarly, work and play must be balanced, effort and relaxation, silent contemplation or activity and discussion and interactivity.

A more insidious attitude is not uncommon and it would be good to be aware of its prevalence: If it’s fun, it must be bad. This fear of pleasure can emerge from a number of sources–sexual (e.g., parental attitudes and reactions to masturbation or exploratory sex play with friends in early childhood), independent and exploratory action (e.g., picking up parental over-concern and worry that mistakes might be catastrophic–when often it is really just that parents don’t want to bother with the sheer messiness of children’s explorations), and so forth. Many people have had more happy childhoods, free of such pressures, but many others feel an instinctive wariness and temptation to shut down when they find themselves tempted to joyously “cut loose.” (See Blatner & Blatner’s chapters on the inhibitions against play in their 1997 book, “The Art of Play.”)

All these influences combine to generate a personality that tends towards the stiff, inhibited, reticent, “up tight.” It may be masked by a veneer of “cool,” but it’s really a pathological state that interferes with optimal development, and it’s very prevalent.  Note that I wish to acknowledge that there are times for reticence–indeed, probably most of the time for most people in most situations. What’s needed, though, is that one can freely switch roles to more playful and imaginative modes when that’s what’s called for in a new situation–such as a class on improvisational dramatics.