Fixed Role Therapy: A Holistic Approach to Personal Growth and Exploration
Fixed Role Therapy (FRT) is a unique psychotherapeutic approach that focuses on identity exploration and personal growth by assigning individuals fixed roles within specific social contexts. George Kelly developed Fixed Role Therapy as a treatment technique within his theory of personal constructs. FRT combines elements of role theory, social psychology, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The goal is to enhance client’s self-awareness, improve their interpersonal skills, and assist them to develop a stronger sense of identity.
J.C. J. Bonarius explains that from the perspective of s different role the world changes. He wrote, “the world around you is changing due to the different perspectives implied by the role” (Bonarius, 1970). Basically, Fixed Role therapy is a technique to shock the client into a temporary new mode of thinking. Hopefully, The treatment will expand their perspectives and open them up to alternate ways of behaving. Bonarius explains that “you suddenly realize: ‘if I act in a different way I can be different. I can be different what I think I am. I can change'” (1970).
Understanding Fixed Role Therapy
Fixed-Role Therapy is a popular well-known technique within the realm of personal construct psychotherapy. The central concept of Fixed-Role Therapy is the assignment of a fixed role to the client, where individuals immerse themselves in a role contrary to their usual behavior. Consequently, by playing a role different from natural tendencies, clients explore alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
Franz Epting describes this technique this way:
Fixed role therapy is a procedure whereby the client is invited to assume an identity other than his or her own for approximately a 2-week period of time in order to have a chance to experience the world differently for this brief period. Working closely with the therapist, the client is asked to become someone else for a short period of time. Instead of just continuing to be themselves, the clients are asked to approach the world as if they were a different type of person just to see what that altered perspective may provide. The client is asked to be in the world in a very different way for a brief period of time (Epting,1984).
Breaking from Normal Routines to See the World Differently
David Green explains that “Fixed-Role Therapy formalized the liberating effects of playing the part of another person into a brief and specific procedure.” Green describes the overall aim as, “is to enable the client to recognize that it is possible to change, rather than to find an immediate solution to their presenting problem” (Green, 1997). Epting refers to the technique as a way for the client to temporarily “jump ship” from their current personal constructs and seeing the world from a different perspective (Epting, 1984).
This therapeutic approach is especially beneficial for individuals who feel stuck in their current patterns, struggle with low self-esteem, or find it challenging to step out of the comfort of routines. Accordingly, FRT allows participants to experience new perspectives, practice empathy, and gain insights into different aspects of their personalities.
Fixed-Role Therapy is a therapeutic style under the umbrella of personal constructs theory developed by George Kelly in 1955. This therapeutic process entails the therapist designing a different role for the client to “role-play” in a variety of different social interactions.
History of Development of Fixed-Role Therapy
In opening his chapter on Fixed Role Therapy, Kelly cites the work of Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) and J. L. Moreno, MD. (1889-1974) as his inspiration. Kelly explained from his interpretation of Korzybski and Moreno, together with his own clinical experience, he began to piece together Fixed Role therapy (Kelly, 1955). He described four observations that contributed to his perspective on Moreno’s writings:
- Observations of the lasting effects of dramatics experience
Kelly recalled watching a high school friend playing the role of an English Lord in the play Dulcy. His friend lived the part and consequently absorbed some of the characteristics of the role, even after completing the performance.
- Self-Expression in dramatics
Certain person’s have an uncanny ability to express themselves in spontaneity and vehemence. “It was as if they had just found a verbal vehicle not ordinarily available to them for expressing ideas and elaborating upon the derivatives.” Kelly continues, “in most instances this new behaviour, carried out within the containment of the rehearsal situation, seemed to be followed by a general influence in fluency, both verbal and behavioural” (1955).
- Clinical exploration of enactment techniques
Kelly practiced varying techniques of make-believed in his psychotherapy practice with success. For example, in leading a client to contemplate an unthinkable cause to their mental difficulties, he may introduce it in the form of make-believe. “let’s suppose for a moment that you don’t love your husband…”
- Establishment of a social function
Kelly found that client’s improved when they discovered a functional relationship within their environment.
Kelly pondered, what if clients that came to therapy for “assistance on certain verbalized ‘problems’ were offered, instead, a new self, a new role, and a new name?” From here sprung Kelly’s development of fixed role therapy.
The Process of Fixed Role Therapy
Fixed Role Therapy typically takes place in a carefully guided and structured group setting, facilitated by a trained therapist. The process consists of several key stages:
Fixed-Role Sketch (Role Assignment)
Therapist assign clients roles that may be intentionally contrasting to their usual identities. The therapist designs a Fixed-Role Sketch, after thoroughly understanding the client’s perceived self-characterization. Accordingly, the sketch should be “simple, credible, and, if possible, intriguing in its invitation to try something different” (Green, 1997).
For example, a shy individual might be assigned the role of a confident public speaker, encouraging them to channel and explore a different aspect of their personality.
Key Elements for the Fixed Role Sketch
1. Not an ideal person created by the therapist
Kelly warns that this sketch should not be creating a role of a model human, presenting the client with a role that eliminated all his faults. Accordingly, the theme is not perfection but different from current practices. Kelly wrote, “Our thinking was that we would not devise the fixed-role sketch to correct all the client’s faults; rather, we would attempt to mobilize his resources. We looked for features in his self-characterization sketch which might be generalized and put to good use.”
“Fixed-role therapy is a sheer creative process in which therapist and client conjoin their talents. Any attempt to make it a repair process rather than a creative process seems to result in some measure of failure” (Kelly, 1955).
2. The use of sharp contrast
The contrast between the role and the person’s normal characteristics should be significant so normal life and the role do not merge, making it difficult to reflect upon the feelings of engaging in a new role. Kelly designed roles “which deliberately invited the client to explore certain sharply contrasting behaviour” (1955).
However, the contrast is not to be a complete opposite. David Winter explains that “this emphasis on contrast therefore does not mean that the fixed-role sketch should be of a person who is the complete opposite of the client” (Winter, 2013, p. 168).
3. Setting ongoing processes in motion rather than creating a new state
The underlying goal is setting the stage for change. Accordingly, Kelly explains that “the new sketch is written and the interview series undertaken in order to shake the client loose from these constructs—in order to jounce him out of his rut” (1955). The role should create a sharp contrast with the client’s self constructs that keep them stuck, continually returning to their maladaptive behaviors.
4. Testable hypothesis for the client
“The new role should not be merely an ‘academic’ one but should be freighted with implications for action and response.” Consequently, the new role should create notable new experiences and feelings for the client that the client and therapist can examine in their following sessions.
5. Emphasis on role perceptions
“Fixed-role therapy is, therefore, more than the introduction of new patterns of behaviour; it is a rationale for new patterns of behaviour and, more particularly still, it is a way of introducing concepts enabling a person to subsume the rationales under which other people” (1955).
6. The Protective Mask
The protective mask for Fixed Role Therapy is the constant reminder that it the role is purely make believe. The role is not contain a hidden agenda to re-create the client as the character in the role play. The role play simply expands the client’s ability to perceive different roles, and their confidence in acting in different ways, not necessarily in duplicating the character traits of a role.
Basically, the client is to engage in a creative endeavor rather than an attempt to become what they or the therapist desires (Horley, 2005).
Role Enactment and Immersion
Participants immerse themselves in their assigned roles by actively engaging in activities, discussions, and interactions while embodying the characteristics and behaviors associated with the given role. Therapist direct clients to act out their role over a two to three week period.
To best immerse in the role, the client needs assistance through a series of rehearsals. After introducing the role, along with key characteristics, the therapist should rehearse with the client his new role in a verity of environments:
- work situations,
- situations involving casual social relationships,
- situations involving the spouse or a person of romantic interest,
- situations involving parents,
- and situations involving life orientation and plan (Kelly, 1955).
Epting explains that initially the new role and trial rehearsals is awkward for the client. “This is usually a very difficult time for the therapy because the client feels awkward and foolish. Because of this it is a good idea for the counselor immediately to take on playing the part of the fixed role and allow the client to play some other life figure, such as the boss or a clerk, with whom the fixed role character is supposed to be interacting” (Epting, 1984).
Reflection and Analyzation
After the immersion phase, participants reflect on their experiences, emotions, and insights gained from embodying the assigned roles. This reflection allows individuals to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. This demands the client take the perspective as ‘Man the Scientist’. This requires a dispassionate look at the experiment of taking on a different role.
During this phase, the therapist invites the clients “to reflect on their experience and consider what implications the exercise might have for the way they construe themselves and their future prospects” (Green, 1997). The therapist continually evaluates progress. “In evaluating progress the therapist should keep in mind that his purpose is to help the client set in motion a healthful psychological process rather than to create a fixed state of well-being at the termination of therapy” (Kelly, 1955).
Integration and Application
The final stage involves integrating the lessons learned from the role immersion and reflection phases into everyday life. The therapist encourages clients to incorporate newfound insights, perspectives, and behaviors into their personal and professional interactions, promoting positive change and growth. Kelly instructs that the therapist should avoid sermonizing from the role sessions. Rather, “the therapist must always be immediately aware of the illustrative potential of material appearing unexpectedly in the interview and be prepared to weave it into the rehearsal” (1955).
Benefits of Fixed Role Therapy
Fixed Role Therapy offers several significant benefits for individuals seeking personal growth and self-improvement:
- Expanded Self-Awareness: FRT provides a unique opportunity for individuals to explore different aspects of their personalities and gain insights into their strengths, weaknesses, and potential areas for growth.
- Enhanced Empathy and Perspective-Taking: By immersing themselves in different roles, participants develop a greater understanding and empathy for others, recognizing the impact of various perspectives on interpersonal relationships.
- Increased Flexibility and Adaptability: FRT helps individuals break free from rigid patterns of thinking and behavior, fostering adaptability and flexibility in various social contexts.
- Improved Interpersonal Skills: Through role immersion and reflection, participants develop and refine their communication, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills, leading to healthier and more meaningful relationships.
Fixed Role Therapy provides an occasional break from a past focused treatment. “When another form of therapy needs to be terminated, fixed-role therapy may be usefully employed in view of its focus on the present and future rather than the past, and on the client’s experimentation in the outside world rather than continued dependency on the therapist” (Winter, 2013, p. 274). Fixed-Role Therapy is not a stand alone therapy. It is a technique that therapists can use to prompt growth when other forms of therapy have stalled.
Fixed Role Therapy offers a unique and effective approach to personal growth. Clients grow by stepping outside of the perspectives of usual roles. By immersing themselves in different roles and reflecting on the experiences, clients gain valuable insights into their own identities. Clients also develop skills to navigate various social contexts that they previously missed. However, there isn’t much empirical research supporting the effectiveness of this technique. Accordingly, therapist’s should carefully examine the surrounding facts of their individual clients before implementing.
If you’re seeking a transformative therapeutic approach that challenges your current patterns and inspires personal growth, Fixed Role Therapy may be a valuable option. Under the guidance of a skilled therapist, FRT has the potential to unlock new perspectives, enhance self-awareness, and facilitate meaningful change. Perhaps, your therapist is familiar with this technique and will engage with you in the experiment. After all, we all put on different masks in a variety of social situations. Perhaps, this is just a formal and controlled practice of something we unconsciously do.
Epting, Franz R. (1984). Personal construct counseling and psychotherapy (Wiley series on methods in psychotherapy). John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Kelly, George. (1955) The Psychology of Personal Constructs (p. Vol1:282). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Winter, David (2013). Personal construct psychology in clinical practice : theory, research, and applications. Routledge; 1st edition.