Please introduce yourself briefly
I’m Dan Tomasulo, MAPP 7. Since graduation in 2012 I’ve worked as an assistant instructor for Marty Seligman and James Pawelski. I’m also core faculty for the “Spirituality Mind Body Institute” at Teachers College, Columbia University in NYC where I’ve designed and teach the Optimal Well-Being concentration. I also direct the Open Center’s New York Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (NYCAPP).
What did you do before joining the MAPP program at Penn?
Hmmm. Depends on how far back we are willing to look. 🙂 I’m a licensed psychologist and psychodrama trainer and work in private practice and consulting. I also have an MFA in writing and a few books under my belt. I have a daily blog called Ask the therapist at Psychcentral.com and write for Psychology Today as well.
What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?
I went through a personal crisis and got depressed. There is nothing worse than a depressed psychologist. People would tell me what was bothering them – and I thought, Huh – you think THAT’S bad…wait until I tell you what happened to me. (I never actually said that out loud.) My best friend took me to the first International Positive Psychology Conference and I was hooked. I started doing things that made me feel better and despite all my years of training nothing seemed to be so directly helpful. That was when I decided to go to MAPP.
While googling you, I found a NYT article from 1983(!) stating you used to be a stand-up comedian. Can you tell us more about that?
Damn, I told you not to tell! 🙂 Yep, for a couple of years I was on the circuit. If you are a fan – this was back in the time of Andy Kaufman. I was mostly at the Improv in Hells Kitchen. But it was the same time I was finishing my Ph.D. I had to choose between comedy and psychology and that’s when psychodrama came along. I realized I could blend the two into a therapeutic form. Ultimately, I became a trauma expert using psychodrama to help people unlock the part of their soul that had shut down. Being able to use humor in the right amounts at the right time was part of the gift that stand-up gave me. It helps the healing when people have to touch some dark feelings.
(There is a wonderful story I will write about one day about the night Andy Kaufman told us of how “foreign man’s” “Thank you berry much.” Came about—but that’s a tale for another time.)
As stated above, among other many things, you facilitate and teach Psychodrama. What is that all about?
It is an action-oriented for of psychotherapy where we use role-playing to understand a situation, activate emotions, and correct them. In a group we will use auxiliaries to play the different roles the protagonist is talking about. If you are angry at your mother you would choose a person to play your mother and we would enact the scenes related to the issue. We use a variety of techniques to amplify and explore the emotions. We have people take on the role of someone’s feelings, their ambivalence, their compassion, or anger. It is more than simple role-playing however. The training is long (my post-doctoral training program was 13 years!) and you learn to manage dramas at an individual level, group level, and the community level. At one point I was hired by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to use a special type of psychodrama to heal unrest in a community. It was amazing to see large groups of people respond to large-scale group dynamics with a healing result.
And how does Psychodrama tie in with Positive Psychology? Are there any parallels?
Just as psychology focused on the negative aspects and developed tools to alleviate suffering, psychodrama followed suit. Most of the training and the work was targeted at relieving pain. But the tools are so powerful that it seems the methods of psychodrama could be used to activate positive emotions in a way that strengthens and integrates.
This past summer at the IPPA conference in Montreal I was given the Avant-Garde Clinical Intervention award for the development of the Virtual Gratitude Visit (VGV). This technique builds on the original gratitude letter Marty researched. He asked students to deliver a letter of gratitude to someone they felt they needed to thank. This was one of the first pieces of research to show that the use of a positive intervention could improve well-being while stablizing depression for a period of time. In the virtual gratitude visit we use an empty chair to have the protagonist deliver a feeling of gratitude. They then reverse roles, become the person and answer, then reverse back. This is typically a very powerful and moving experience. People can do this with those that have passed on – as well as those they are no longer in touch with. Technically, with negative emotions you get a catharsis that acts like a purging. But with positive emotions you get a catharsis of integration. The expression of the positive emotions pulls together a miriad of feelings and integrates them. This creates a feeling of wholness.
I’ve developed several other experiential methods for use in exploring character strengths, forgiveness, resilience, best possible self, self compassion, etc. Each does a similar thing in using the psychodramatic methods to integrate emotions.
It seems like being a story-teller is an overarching theme in your life. Over the upcoming weeks, your memoir called American Snake Pit will be published. Here´s your space for some unbridled adulation.
I am very excited that in April George Mason’s Stillhouse press will release my memoir, “American Snake Pit: Hope Grit, and Resilience in the Wake of Willowbrook.” This will be my second memoir and it tells the story of moving a group of very challenging people into the community. It gives a voice to those who could not advocate for themselves.
My memoir is in the spirit of “One Flew Over the CooKoo’s Nest”, “Awakenings”, and “Girl Interrupted”. It challenges the perception of mental illness and is the first memoir of its kind concerning the treatment of intellectually disabled and mentally ill patients coming from the infamous Willowbrook, a hell on earth Bobby Kennedy called a “snake pit.” But it is much more than a depiction of the horrors of the institution. It is the story of patients not just surviving, but flourishing for the first time in their lives, proving the resilience and hope of the human spirit. Their story is about what happens when intentional well-being replaces indifference.
American Snake Pit is the story of the disregarded souls who ended up in my care; of the eccentric, resilient staff who helped make such a momentous success possible; and about a blind spot in American history. Because of the success and the progress made by the inmates in group homes like these, mental health became a civil right in the United States. The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) of 1980, affects all Americans. It is particularly important now as the right to quality healthcare treatment, and access is so politically charged. This is the story of how it all began.
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