Tamar Pelleg

Since then, a lot of water has flowed in the river of my life. Today, apart from my everyday writing in my “Morning  Diary”, I write regularly on topics related to the Hebrew Bible’s portion of the week, from a psycho-spiritual perspective and on topics  related to relationships that I post on  Facebook, blog, digital story collections and recently I am engaged in writing a  book and my  dream begins to come true.



By Stephen Kopp, MS, TEP

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.  Anais Nin 

According to J. L. Moreno, who synthesized the discipline of psychodrama and sociometry, the smallest human unit cannot be less than two persons.  Underlying this statement is a belief that we can only be understood within our personal/social context.  To be human is to be connected to others in ways that can be comfortable, distressing, or neutral.  Moreno referred to this “nucleus of relations” that help to define a person as the social atom.  The purpose of the social atom is to ‘map out’ a person’s relational world.  This may be done for reasons of assessment, treatment, stabilization or insight.  Often, clinicians involved in family systems will have clients develop a genogram.  This can provide facts and data regarding patterns within a family, and denote a history.  The social atom allows an individual to explore his or her ‘family of choice’.

There are several ways to present social atoms to clients. For some practitioners, the social atom is given as a fairly structured assessment. This can include literally starting with a sheet of paper that has concentric circles to delineate individuals who are in the innermost circle of friends, to those who are peripheral. The presentation that we will be using is less structured; we believe this allows for both more creativity and projections on the part of the client.  While this less structures approach makes comparative research more difficult, it allows considerable material to emerge.  This can be addressed in subsequent therapy sessions.  In this model, we include some additional instructions regarding changes in relationships. These have evolved out of collaboration with Mari Pat McGuire, LCSW-C, TEP, and add additional elements that contribute to the therapeutic/healing process.

 To begin the process, it is important to talk with your client about the social atom, and the reasons for doing one at this time.  Explain that the focus will be on current relationships.  In mapping this out, we use circles for females and triangles for males.  With a higher functioning individual, you can also suggest the use of squares to signify groups (AA, Church, therapy group) and rectangles to identify one or two key issues, problems, or dynamics (HIV status, depression, stress, substance abuse).  If there are significant people who are not physically present, but nonetheless are an active part of the person’s life (patron saint, guardian angel, someone who is deceased) they can be indicated either by the triangle or circle or alternatively, by making the circle or triangle with a dotted or broken line.  To better help an individual appreciate their strengths and assets, you can invite the participant to draw a heart or two, to represent hopes and dreams.  They can place these as close or distant, large or small, as feels appropriate to them at the time.

The client is given a piece of blank, unlined paper and a pencil with an eraser, and invited to place himself or herself somewhere on the page.  Then they are asked to think about those persons who are particularly significant to them at the present time.  The social atom is not about identifying casual acquaintances, but those relationships that have ‘some juice’.  Remind them that significant people can have either a positive or an off-putting connection.  In experience, it is helpful to have the participant begin with circles and triangles, and after they have begun working on their atom, include some of the variations such as rectangles, squares or hearts.  The client is invited to use both the size and the proximity of these circles, triangles, squares and rectangles to identify or ‘map out’ significant relationships.  It is important when doing a social atom to use names, initials, or in some other way identify who each symbol represents, as you place these shapes on the page.  A full social atom can become confusing, and who each symbol represents can sometimes blur if they are not named as they are placed. It is also very important that clients work in pencil, as this process often includes making shifts or changes from an initial placement, or need to adapt relationships between others as influencing on our own social atom. 

When this part of the social atom is completed, it is valuable to ask the client, “Look this over, and see if you have left anyone out…”  Once this is done, members can begin to process both the content and their experience of developing their social atom. This would complete a social atom at its simplest level. 

At the same time, several variations or extensions can add to the richness of an individual’s social atom.  Sometimes, relationships experience a significant deepening or distancing.  The person completing his or her social atom can draw small arrows coming out of these individual’s symbols. These arrows are either pointed towards the symbol representing the client, [to show when the relationship is becoming significantly closer], or pointing away from the client, [if the relationship is cooling down or becoming more distant or conflicted].  No arrow signifies a relationship in which there is no significant shift at present, but simply the ebb and flow that is part of most relationships. 

Another powerful direction is to have the person choose three different colored pens or markers.  First, ask them to outline the symbol corresponding to themselves within the social atom using one color. This helps to focus on the individual, as this atom represents his or her social/relational world.  Using a second color, ask them to outline the symbol for the relationship they would most want to see changed.  [This could represent improving, ending, or some other significant shift] The third color is used to mark the person who is most supportive within their social atom.  Alternatively, with a higher functioning client, you can ask them to use the third color to outline the symbol representing the relationship they want to change, and feel they are capable of changing at this present time.  This might be the same individual as they chose for the previous criterion or it might be a different one.  

Another intervention is to have the client look at his or her social atom, and do brief, directed writing.  This might include naming strengths in recovery, supports after treatment, values represented within the social atom, etc.

Once you have taken the client through any additional steps or variations, have the client date the page, and begin to explore the social atom collaboratively with your client.  You can ask her or him to speak briefly about the relationships with each member of their social atom. 

In exploring the social atom, there are several facets to observe.  Be aware of the degree of fullness.  Is their social atom almost empty?  Is it crowded?  Watch for any patterns regarding gender or age.  Are there overriding themes, such as focusing strictly on family, work related relationships, a lack of close friends?  Are the relationships that are most significant to the individual supporting health and wellness or creating stress and conflict?  Often, as a client explores this with you, you can invite the person to make his or her own insights regarding this map of their relational world.  In terms of treatment planning, you might invite the person to be curious as to which relationships could be addressed to improve the person’s life.  Is a person living in a situation with strong or weak supports?  You might want to invite her or him to consider who could be added to the social atom to help fill it out in a healthy manner.  If a person has recently moved, entered treatment or stopped some addictive behavior/substance, what gaps will be left in his or her social atom?  Where have they placed their hopes and dreams?  There are many other observations that you will make and that the client will make, as you work with individuals and their social atoms.  For someone in a weak or vulnerable place, there can be a focus on where the person feels cared for or empowered as a means of increasing feelings of safety. 

At times there may be a reason for a focused social atom.  Asking for an image of what a social atom will be in the future (two weeks, three months, a year) can give information regarding the person’s sense of hope or hopelessness.  Do they even feel they have a future?  A person can complete a workplace social atom, or a treatment community social atom or a fantasy projection of their social atom when they would be at their healthiest.   

The social atom is a safe structure to engage with a client.  It is focused and contained.  Examining their social & relational world from a fresh perspective sometimes frees a person to begin discussing relationship issues more openly.  In doing intervention work, the social atom can help to identify problem areas (who was harmed or upset by the problematic behavior?) enablers (who would ignore or excuse your behaviors?) and supports (who are the people who affirm you, with whom you feel safe?)  It can be a stepping-stone to what is often difficult to put into words: “Where in this framework do you find your spirituality?”

Some psychodramatists use alternative structures, such as paper with concentric circles marked on it.  There are alternative ways to code relationships that are conflictual, reciprocal, or uneven.  The format described above developed primarily through developing social atoms with clients in a residential program.

Moreno compared these systems with actual atoms, recognizing that social atoms become social molecules, part of a larger structure of psychological and social networks.  For example, when a couple marries, they each bring their individual social atoms into proximity and create their social molecule. These can connect to additional social atoms and molecules, and become part of our identity as a community, increasing to the largest configuration, society itself. 

A truly therapeutic procedure cannot have less an objective than the whole of mankind. 

JL Moreno from Who Shall Survive

Stephen Kopp, MS, TEP

[email protected]

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