We live in a serious world. Terrorism, genocide, climate change, disease, systematic oppression, financial crises- it can all feel like too much at times. Life is hard, not just for our clients, but for ourselves as well. Sure, as responsible adults, we are serious about our lives because we have all kinds of obligations and challenges that need to be tended to daily. Yet what if our seriousness, in all of its enormity, tips the scale to the point of utter disequilibrium? Is that the point of no return, a place from which we cannot recover? And in this somber state, what chance at happiness do we have?
These are questions that have flooded my mind at various stages of my adult life, especially after I became a parent and my responsibilities increased twenty fold. How many times have my kids begged me to play hide and seek only to be met with another “no” because I have to prepare dinner? How many evenings before going to bed did my kids’ requests for tickles go unmet, because I was anxious for them to get to sleep so I could attend to my “to do” list? I realize now that at these critical junctures my kids were teaching me all I needed to know about keeping my scale from tipping too far in one direction.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a workshop on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction with Elisha Goldstein, an expert in the field of mindfulness. Goldstein emphasized the importance of play in the context of personal life and career; he deemed it “ a natural anti-depressant”. To drive this point home, he asked us to engage with a partner in a word game. The object was to have a conversation, but each sentence had to start with the letter that had finished off our partner’s sentence. It turned out to be quite difficult, and quite hilarious. Before long, the room was filled with laughter and everyone loosened up; the game had created a jovial atmosphere and had made strangers into friends.
In his book, Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, Elisha Goldstein describes play as “a flexible state of mind in which you are presently engaged in some freely chosen and potentially purposeless activity that you find interesting, enjoyable, and satisfying”. He touts the importance of play because it has tremendous benefits like stress reduction, creativity, productivity, openness, and rejuvenation.
In the clinical world, the misconception is that games and play are reserved for clients who are children and teens. Our adult clients can also benefit from playful interaction, especially when it comes to building rapport in the therapeutic relationship. Moreover, making space for play in the therapeutic environment is good modeling for our clients; it shows them that they can approach their life with earnestness, but still have fun at the same time. In essence, we are demonstrating the value of having balance in our lives.
As therapists, we absorb so much pain and intensity in our work, so it is even more imperative that we hit the “pause” button and engage in some play ourselves. The question is, how can we be conscious about infusing a sense of play into our lives and our work? Here are a few suggestions:
1/ Remember what types of play you enjoyed as a child. Where can you make space for this activity in your schedule, and how can you make it a priority?
2/ Try to schedule your playtime so you don’t ignore it. Put that bowling date on the calendar, or sign up for that ceramics class.
3/ Give yourself permission to be silly and purposeless. Play hopscotch! Have a dance party! Make an obstacle course for your kids and join in!
4/ Acknowledge when life feels way too serious and overwhelming. Take a few minutes to make silly faces at yourself in the mirror or sing at the top of your lungs to diffuse the situation.
5/ Integrate a bit of play into your therapy practice, especially if you are first getting to know a client and could use some icebreakers, if your client has anxiety and needs to loosen up, or if you are at an impasse with a client and the mood needs to shift. Try something kinesthetic, like engaging a client in free association while tossing a ball or hopping on one foot.
6/ Recognize the value of smiling and laughter in our interactions with clients, friends, and loved ones.
Taking advantage of the opportunities for play keeps our scale balanced. A little bit of play goes a long way towards creating joy in our lives, and keeping us feeling vibrant, regardless of our age. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Goldstein, E. (2015) Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion. New York, NY: Atria Books.
Caryn Malkus, MA