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RfG Blog: Be Very a-Freud: Don’t Think Ahead!

November 20, 2020

Sigmund Freud’s famous dictum, “Denken ist probiter Arbeit” (Thinking is practice work) reflected a Nineteenth-century viewpoint that productive action originates in conscious thought as planning or rehearsal. Of course, Freud himself believed that much behavior is determined by mental processes outside of consciousness; by this dictum he was explicating only the role of conscious (secondary-process, Ego-based) thought. The dictum appears to reject, or rather does not take into account, the possibility that cognitions which arise out of unpremeditated action (behavior) or of non-rational mental process (“primary-process thinking”) may also be valuable.

This blog does not aim to totally refute Freud’s dictum but invites improvisers to appreciate the creative potential available through spontaneous choosing (“Adventure Mind”), while also  recognizing the drawbacks of adult reliance on “thinking ahead” (what I call “Survival Mind” functioning) and its interference with improvised performance.


Some definitions used in RfG:

Survival Mind is a description of one mode of mental functioning, in which people focus their attention (both purposefully and automatically) toward the future in order to achieve desired results, scan for dangers, and promote the feeling of being in control of that future. Survival mind functioning also draws on associating present cues with past experience and applying prior solutions to present circumstances.

By contrast, Adventure Mind describes a contrasting mode of mental functioning, in which people are absorbed in living fully for the moment. The guiding principle in Adventure Mind functioning is, ‘follow one’s interest in the present moment, wherever it goes.’


Spontaneity and Anxiety

From the Psychoanalytic (Freudian) perspective, the conscious Ego defends itself (via defense mechanisms) from impulses that are regarded as unacceptable. The goal of these mechanisms is to reduce either of two kinds of anxiety: neurotic anxiety, stemming from the fear that the Id will take control; or moral anxiety, arising from the Superego’s fear that one’s violation of moral codes will incur shame or guilt. These defense mechanisms operate outside our current awareness in order to distort or deny the actual reasons for our actions. In the Psychoanalytic paradigm, a person’s actions are never viewed as truly spontaneous but as determined by unconscious processes.

Keith Johnstone’s “Impro”, written in 1982, presented improvisation (“improv”) as an activity that takes performers out of their reliance on the past and plunges them into the present moment, thereby freeing up their spontaneity and activating “risky aliveness” [Another dimension of Keith’s work lies in deepening trust and collaboration between improvisers]. The title of his 1994 book, “Don’t be Prepared: TheatreSports for Teachers” turns the American boy scout motto (“Be Prepared”) on its head; that book features practical demonstrations of how we perform creatively only when we engage with a different relationship to consciousness, by bypassing our anticipatory, Survival Mind mentality.

RfG, which applies improv performance to psychotherapy and personal growth, benefits clients when they accept offers to explore the terror and novelty of venturing outside of their routine ways of thinking and interacting. On both conscious and unconscious levels, we are all self-defined by our habits to a considerable degree; the mere invitation to venture into unfamiliarity activates Survival Mind. The core of effective therapeutic practice in RfG consists of making it sufficiently safe in the moment for our clients to accept the risk of feeling unprepared. Taking up a character (dramatic enactment) lessens such riskiness by reducing our subjective accountability to the consequences of failure.

We therapists make it safer for our clients to take these risks in a number of ways: (1) we build on having established ourselves previously as trustworthy and respectful, which is foundational to all good therapy; (2) we are ourselves open to novelty and inquiry in the moment; (3) we time our offers to moments when we sense clients’ receptivity and invite them respectfully, without expectation or pressure on them to assent; (4) we provide clear instructions in advance, allowing for informed consent for what is to follow; and, (5) we make it known that we have no performance standards or expectations for whatever ensues, that all enactments will be taken as experiments, discoveries and/or rehearsals, not performances.
In the majority of cases, clients will strengthen/develop self-appreciation for making their own decisions to choose or reject the opportunity to venture into the unknown; for some, saying “no” or “not yet” and seeing that the therapist genuinely accepts their decision strengthens the therapeutic alliance and makes it more likely that they will risk such adventures in the future.


Overcoming Survival mind Tyranny

Returning to the psychoanalytic perspective, the neurotic ego is compromised by fears of losing control or being vulnerable to shame. Through improvisational practice clients increase their ego strength when they experience directly the playful, provisional role expansions of improv. As improv creates ego-distance during dramatic enactments, clients directly and vividly experience their on-stage personae as distinct from their identified-with, usual social Selves. Acting with ego-distance heightens clients’ practice of “pushing the envelope” of inhibition that has, until now, limited the scope of their self-approval.  Over time, cultivating the practices of emotional risk-taking and accessing Adventure Mind leads to lasting personal and interpersonal growth. Paradoxically, we prepare ourselves for this growth first by tolerating the dread of being unprepared and, ultimately, by embracing the unknown. So, don’t be a-Freud; allow yourself to adventure into the unprepared-for, present moment!