Fresh Takes On Old Beliefs Through Applied Improvisation

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of them.” Linus Pauling

Beliefs — which can be inherited from family systems and cultural realities as much as formed by individual experience — are a powerful force shaping the way we frame and name experiences. Even when evidence exists that challenges false beliefs they can feel more real than, well, reality, which heightens their impact on mood and drives cycles of behavior. For example, an underlying belief like “my dreams will never come true so its better never to have them” designed to protect us from painful disappointment becomes a genuine block to making plans or taking steps to realize goals, then a repeated pattern of roads not taken and a sense of being trapped in familiar ruts that proves the belief true. Or a belief that “if I treat people well and am good then good things will happen to me” can induce a paralyzing sadness and guilt if a bad thing — which does not, in reality, have any connection to our goodness or lack of it — comes our way. Black-and-white beliefs such as this can lead to a sense of “what’s the use” about doing the difficult work involved with strengthening the “muscles” needed to climb out of an emotional difficulty and limits our capacity for self-compassion. One of the most self-defeating beliefs — “If I fail at something it would be better not to have done it at all” — makes being a novice or beginner at some activity threatening to the extreme, so we can experience a sense of futility and shame during the naturally-occurring difficulties of doing something new.

Applied Improvisation is an ideal way to learn skills for shifting out of counter-productive thoughts and beliefs. The basic idea of improvisation is that we are experimenting together, trying things out to see what takes shape, rather than sticking to a right/wrong, win/lose belief about how it all turns out. We can flounder and flail as we try to learn the principles and skills of improvisation, but enjoy ourselves the entire time. Learning and struggle can be fascinating and fun when we are thoroughly engaged and in a creative space with other people who are committed to the same process. Through improvisation we can loosen the rigid hold that deeply-held beliefs can have on our ability to think in fresh ways, because the emphasis is on the here-and-now and on approaching the same thing from different perspectives. Applied Improv is aligned with the core principles of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, an evidence-based approach to changing beliefs and thoughts in order to improve mood and expand the range of choices a person perceives as available and actionable. Dr. David Burns, a cognitive-behavioral specialist and author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy identifies 3 core principles upon which Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is based:

1) Moods are created by our “cognitions” or thoughts;

2) When we are feeling depressed, thoughts are dominated by a pervasive negativity;

3) The negative thoughts which cause emotional turmoil nearly always contain gross distortions;

Applied Improvisation is a natural fit for learning skills for shifting out of counter-productive thoughts and beliefs, a creative process that teaches us how to power through the discomfort of uncertainty rather than default to old mental habits. Because habitual thoughts tend to feel right even if some reality testing reveals them wrong, trying to embrace a different thought process can feel uncomfortable, wrong, and false. To produce new neural pathways we have to think and behave in new ways long enough for a pattern to be established. This is a creative challenge, and creative experiences produced through improv games and exercises are very effective toward producing these patterns. While negative thoughts produce a sense of threat which narrows the field of attention, learning to focus attention on our strengths, gifts, supports and resources expands the field of attention. Positive, collaborative, creative experiences garner our personal power, and when combined with action are even more engaging to the machinery of the brain. With practice and repetition, newly-developed ideas, roles, and beliefs eventually move from the cerebral cortex, where the conscious choice to make change begins, to the parts of the brain that manage simpler, more automatic processes. Neural pathways develop through this process of repetitive action and determine what will eventually become a “new normal.”

Applied Improvisation exercises provide a way to look at and experience the same things through different lenses. Through conscious, creative choice-making, we can train our brain to shift out of counter-productive negative thoughts as if it were a muscle. The website www.happify.com, which specializes in research-based brain games explains the way this works:

“1. The brain we’re born with can be changed. Technically speaking, they call that neuroplasticity (You can teach an old brain new tricks.)

2. We change our brain by adopting new thought patterns,

3. All of us are hard-wired for negativity (blame evolution!) but can profoundly benefit from learning new ways to react and deal with everyday stresses.

4. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a real difference in your life. A few simple and even entertaining mental diversions will change things.”

Some Applied Improvisation games and exercises that promote cognitive-behavioral goals:

Creative Introductions

Objectives:

Practice active listening which requires the effort to suspend cognitive judgments;

Practice reframing a set of ideas in real time;

Generate an energy of fun and spontaneity that “breaks set” and disrupts the belief that the change process has to be difficult and painful;

Group members sit in pairs, facing each other. Each dyad decides who will be Person A and who will be Person B. Person A will talk for 1 minute without stopping about a topic assigned by the group leader while Person B listens without interrupting. As soon as the topic is given the exercise begins. Suggested topics are neutral, e.g.: breakfast, fruit, autumn, water, blue, stars, etc. Person A should share whatever comes to mind from their own experience on the topic. After time is called, Person B then shares with the larger group what he/she heard Person A say, in the style assigned by the leader. The style is assigned immediately before the group member is about to speak so there is minimal time to think too much. Styles include:

Real Housewives

Sports announcer

Very proud

Very impressed

This is something we really shouldn’t be talking about

Cheerleader

Tribute

Horrified!

Breaking News!

Players then regroup into new dyads. Everyone who was Person B in the first round are now Person A. A new topic is given, something a bit more personal, e.g. “Talk about your favorite fictional hero and why” “Talk about your favorite real-life hero and why” “Talk about a strength you are glad you possess” “Talk about a goal you have achieved that once seemed impossible.” Person A shares, Person B repeats in the style assigned by the leader.

GROUP COUNT-UP AND COUNTDOWN

Objectives:

Connect with others through eye contact and other nonverbal cues to create agreement;

Explore cognitive assumptions about what emotional intensity means;

Experiment with different perspectives on emotional intensity;

The group stands in a circle and counts out loud from 1 to 10, going from very soft to very loud, then back down from 10 to 1 gradually lowering volume. Players should make eye contact and take cues from one another based on what they see and hear as the group goes through the process.

Round 2: The group counts out loud from 1 to 10 going from very relaxed to very intense, without going to a high volume, and then back down again.

Round 3: The group counts from 1 to 10 from expressing an emotional state of “good” to full-bodied joy, and then back down again.

Debrief — What were you aware of while doing this exercise? What was it like to connect with the group in this way? What was it like to express intensity without volume — what feelings and awareness comes up? If intensity automatically comes up as anger or other negative emotions, what other possibilities for intensity exist, e.g passion, excitement. What is it like to focus on joy?

Song Structure Monologue

Objectives:

Explore a position or strong cognitive belief;

Look at a cognitive belief from more than 1 perspective;

Learn a structure for exploring different perspectives on the same idea;

Challenge negative beliefs about one’s ability to think and express ideas under pressure;

A song structure is described and used to create solo monologues that examine a cognitive belief expressed as a thesis statement:

Chorus: The chorus of a song repeats a core idea such as “we shall overcome” or “you’ve got a friend” and the verses supply content that support that central thesis. In this exercise, we choose a thesis statement to return to like a chorus in a song, but the statement reflects a cognitive belief that drives behavior. For example, a these statement might be “People are the way they are and cannot change.”

Verse: The verses of a song tell the story that supports the thesis statement/chorus. In this exercise, the “verses” are various arguments for the thesis statement that expands upon it, e.g. “if you don’t learn something when you’re young, you will never learn it. That’s true for all of us, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our brains are limited. We can’t do new things after a certain point. Look at all the wars that human beings have gotten talked into. Look at the way we are polluting the planet.”

Bridge: The “on the other hand” section, e.g. “on the other hand, I’ve seen people go from being hard core alcoholics to completely drug and alcohol free. I’ve seen people decide to start taking care of themselves and get really healthy in midlife. I’ve seen people rally and mobilize and pass laws that transform society.”

A physical position for each part of the song structure is established on the stage or in the room. A suggestion for a topic is given by the group, e.g. “Italian food.” A player stands in the CHORUS position and makes a thesis statement about the topic, e.g. “Pizza is the best Italian food ever invented.” Then the player moves to the position for VERSES and improvises an argument for that position, e.g. “Pizza has everything — carbs, vegetables and dairy. It can be the foundation for all sort of different styles and toppings…” and after completing a thought moves to the CHORUS position and repeats the thesis statement. Then another verse, followed by another CHORUS. Then the player moves to the BRIDGE position and takes a slightly or very different position, e.g. “on the other hand, pizza is really just a fast food, its not very nutritious. It isn’t as creative and exotic as lasagne or all the different kinds of pasta, etc” ending with, “but who am I kidding, pizza is the best Italian food ever invented” (repeat the thesis statement).

Debrief — what was it like to improvise these “verses,” to push through the on-the-spot creative process? What was it like to take 2 different perspectives on the same idea? How might this exercise help people rethink their underlying beliefs?

Goal-Setting — Envisioning The Future Self

Objective:

Use and stretch imagination in a focused, problem-solving process;

Examine a process of change from a new perspective;

Explore a cognitive,improvisational problem-solving technique;

Explore a creative thinking approach to a problem or goal;

Use the improvisation model of thinking in terms of small steps that build on one another to approach a larger goal;

Establish the priorities required to move toward the goal;

Look at the process of change in manageable steps;

The group chooses a fantastic goal — something imaginative and large in scale, e.g. “Reverse climate change.” One group member stands at a far end of the space, in a position we will call “position #10” and says “The goal is accomplished. Climate change is reversed.” The group then discusses what would have had to happen immediately before it could be announced that climate change is reversed. If this situation was a movie, and the ending was someone announcing that climate change had been successfully reversed, what would have been the final step in a process to make that happen. Using the imagination as if writing a screenplay, the final step might be “a technological device is deployed that reverses climate change.” A group member stands a short distance from the person in position #9 and says “the device that reverses climate change has been deployed.” Then the group brainstorms what would have led to a device being deployed, e.g. “the device is built.” A group member stands in position #8 and says “the device is built.” And so on until the group is at position #1, where the very first step in solving the problem is identified. Then the group states out loud each stage of the process starting at position #1 and ending at #10.

After a fantastic goal is explored, use real-life goals to do the same process. Start with the outcome and work backwards. This can be done with individual clients as well as groups. In individual work, have the client go to the far end of the room for position #10 and move toward the seat where he/she spends time in the consulting room, the present position.

Research: Read “You Make Better Decision If You ‘See’ Your Future Self” in Harvard Business Review

Read about a written version of this exercise on MindTools

DATING GAME

Objectives:

Explore underlying beliefs that produce cognitive distortions;

Identify some of the beliefs that cognitive-behavioral techniques address;

Examine the behaviors and thoughts that result from fixed beliefs;

In the style of the Dating Game that used to be on television, 3 players take the role of men or women in a line-up of potential dates. A 4th player asks them questions. Each person in the line-up is given a fixed belief on a piece of paper and their responses should be improvised based on how a person who is coming from this belief would think and speak. As more is revealed over the course of the game, the interviewer attempts to nail down the belief represented by each player. The game is over when the interview identifies the belief of each one. This can also be done in teams, using the Dating Game format of asking fun questions on a theme.

Some beliefs that can be used in this game:

I am so unlucky and there is nothing I can do to change that.

I deserve to be adored.

Nothing I do is ever appreciated.

No one must know how anxious I really am all the time.

Nothing ever works out for me.

I shouldn’t have to be the one who has to change.

Other people treat me very unfairly and that’s why I’m unhappy

Its too late for me to be try to be happy

If I fail at something, it would be better if I hadn’t done it at all

I peaked in high school

I can’t be happy unless my mother is happy. And she’s never happy.

I need someone else to notice and affirm me to have any direction in my life.

Admitting a mistake is a sign of weakness

It is never a good idea to admit to being happy.

A person’s talents and strengths are set at birth and cannot be changed. I wasn’t born with much.

I should be in control at all times.

I should be nice to everyone at all times no matter what.

I must make other people feel good at all times to have any self worth.

Nothing good is going to come of this.

If I get what I want I won’t know what to do with it. So its better if I don’t.

People will be jealous of me if I succeed. I can’t handle that.

Debrief: How was the belief being explored expressed through attitude, emotion, body language and words? What is the benefit of recognizing these “fixed” beliefs as part of the infrastructure of a person’s thinking?

With improvisation, something new, unplanned and unpredictable unfolds through a living, dynamic interactive experience. New experiences. Fresh takes. Change that “sticks.”

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, CPAI is President of Lifestage, Inc, a consulting and training company that designs and implements personal and professional development workshops and classes. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show and MASHUP-Stories Into Songs which features original songs inspired by true stories told by some of the best storytellers around.