Playfulness in Therapy

The Importance to Remain out of Focus: Playfulness in Therapy (In: The Japanese Journal of Play Therapy, 2011, Vol. 10, No. 1, p. 106 – 111)

«My mother locked me out on the balcony!» the twelve years old boy complains. He continues by telling me, that he did not do anything, is completely innocent. According to him his mother was against him mending his bicycle. She ignores his interest in bicycles! When a child tells us about an incident like that, we of course want to know, what happened. We ask questions and try to imagine, what had actually happened. There must have been a reason, why his mother locked him out. Mothers don’t usually lock out their children on the balcony and I know this mother not to be a nice, considerate person. In order to get to the roots of the issue I might challenge the child. Demand from him to relate again what had happened. I want to comprehend what went on between the boy and his mother. Was there a brawl? Did the boy misbehave? Did the mother or the boy have temper tantrum? In other words: I remain focused. I try to draw my attention to specific event and not get distracted or out of track.

The focused approach to challenges in our private and professional lives is generally considered as a powerful tool. In order to cope with a specific task or problem, we direct our energy to the specific problem. When we cook a meal, we pay attention to the menu, collect the necessary ingredients and study the recipe. When we fix our letter box, we choose the right bolts and use the correct hammer. The focused approach is valuable and important in order to cope with existential challenges  and problems. Thanks to the focused approach we avert dangers and make progress; many societal and private issues were solved because of our ability to concentrate. What we have to realize though: the focused approach is not a remedy for every issue. It is not a panacea for every problem and issue in our life. It is an approach to our private and professional issues, but in psychotherapy other approaches are equally valid. In psychotherapy the focused approach is not the only valid tool.

«You were locked out on the balcony? Balcony can crush! How did you feel? Did you feel like in a boat? Would you have liked to take off? Did you feel like in a prison or did you start to build a cosy home? I wish I would have a balcony!». When a patient voices a problem or relates an incident, we don’t always have to react sensible. As we know as a psychotherapist, on certain occasions we don’t need to know what happened. Instead of focusing we use the described scene as an opportunity to fool around and fantasize. Instead of focusing on the event we circle around it. We invite the patient to start imagining. Maybe the event can be the starting point for an dreamed boat trip to the Caribbean or the construction of a private palace. Maybe the incident at home can be an invitation to have a short talk about being confined or the places one could visit by bicycle. We are no focused, but have chosen a playful attitude.

Playfulness is a distinct attitude towards life. The Greek god Dionysus plays around with the women when he seduces them to go out into the woods in order to dance, sing and drink with him. He invites everyone to let loose, to forget about the restraints of civilization. When we are playful, we don’t concentrate on the actual issue, but its variation. Not what presents itself in the forefront is important, but what is possible on the sides. Steps are necessary in order to walk. It is considered sensible to make the steps, which are acquired, in the respective situation. You don’t jump or make a jig, when you go to a newsstand in order to buy the morning papers. People would consider you mad or at least slightly ‘out of step’. Yet: that is what the playful attitude is about. Playfulness means, that you allow yourself to be distracted and fool around. What you might do does not make sense, does not fit in to a thought category or a behaviour pattern. When we are playfull we dance, make that extra step and dare the unexpected.

Playfulness is an approach to life. Reality as defined is no longer defined by our cultural codes and personal expectations. What happens is considered as a stepping stone to the realm of what also might be possible. Facts are checked for loopholes for fantasies or theoretical possible events. When we are playful we dance, circumvent an event instead of starting an investigation. When we approach a task in a playful attitude we don’t concentrate on the actual issue, but look for variations and want to extend what happened or could have happened. Both attitudes serve a certain purpose. We don’t have to value playful and the serious, focused approach. What approach has to be chosen depends on the situation and challenges one wants to meet. In psychotherapy both approaches are important.

Living is about development. When children grow up, they need to find out who they are and what their potential is. They have to discover their dreams, fantasies, wishes, urges and desires. As an adult we want to know, if a certain job suits us, how we shall handle our personal lives and present ourselves to our friends and family. We are not just beings, which adapt to the codes and rules of society, but also have a responsibility to ourselves. Children need to learn to talk appropriately, read, write and behave according to the codes of the respective society. Don’t should not ask silly questions, should wait until everybody has their food on the plate before starting to eat, be punctual and should not hit their colleague in the face, when he insults them. When we are adults we need to address colleagues appropriately and fulfill our duties in our jobs. We all have to abide to a myriad of codes and integrate a lot of knowledge. We need to adapt. Because of the necessity to adapt education generally postulates a focused attitude. Teacher need to concentrate on the specific issues, they cannot just fool around with children. Lessons are defined by goals and clear tasks. When we take up a new job our tasks are defined and we are expected to work accordingly. The focused approach is prevalent. Schools or companies are not institutions, where playing around has top priority. The focused approach is powerful and certainly us to assimilate the codes of a certain society, but at the same time the focused approach has some dangers.

When we approach psyche, focused attitude is not sufficient. The problem is, that when we focus we restrict ourselves. We automatically choose a limited viewpoint. We adapt to outward issues. We concentrate on what we think is important and leave out possible other variations. Craziness is excluded. We preconceive the task and event, with which we are dealing. We envisage the event according to the rules and regulations and decide in our heads beforehand what we want to see. Details, which are not part of our preconceived patterns, are overseen. Maybe the colour of the door to the balcony is also important or maybe a memory, which emerges while the boy was locked. Being focused helps getting a task well done. We achieve goals and become competent, but we have to realize, that this powerful attitude is based on a reduction of life’s complexities and offerings. We restrict the scale of our perception. We deliberately choose this attitude in order to solve a certain problem or understand a certain event. The focused attitude is what children are confronted with in school and we are confronted with in our professional lives. In psychotherapy it should not dominate. Often playfulness is a more powerful tool.

Uncovering reasons for maladaptive behaviour

«Yes! Thank you, everything is fine!» the eleven-year-­old boy answers diligently. He sits on a chair in front of me, his legs and arms crossed. He was sent to me because of school refusal. In the mornings he can’t get up and go to school. His parents are deeply worried and the teacher does his best to persuade him, to overcome his resistance. Their efforts are in vain. All the talking shows no results. The young boy is determined not to visit school anymore. Has he been traumatized? Is he being bullied? What is worrying the child? In face-to-face talks he will not divulge anything. His mouth remains shut, while his demeanour is still impeccable. When I ask him why he does not want to visit school he reacts with a baffled look. «I don’t know! I guess school is shit!».

In therapy we are again and again confronted with such situations. Grown ups, children or adolescents are struggling with a problem, a resistance or anxiety, which they consciously don’t understand. Their issue is beyond their mental capacity. Of course they might give an answer. But in many cases they sound very shallow. Often their consciousness rejects the behaviour they demonstrate. In theory this boy wishes to go to school, would like to see his colleagues and learn something. His conscious attitude is not in accordance with his actual behaviour, similar to someone, who would love to give up smoking but still buys a pack of cigarettes everyday. We humans are often a contradiction in ourselves and don’t know, what has actually driven us or what our motives are.

Self-image: a necessary delusion?

In order to understand this discrepancy, we have to dwell deeper. We have to consider the role and function of our self-image. We all have an image of ourselves. We attribute features, competences and weaknesses to ourselves. We construct an image about who we are and which personality traits are typical for us. We define goals and explain decisions. According to the Livingstone-Smith our self-image does not mirror who we actually are. The way we describe ourselves is not the way we function. We might insist, that we are friendly, dynamic and adamant, where in reality our behaviour is erratic and we are often stubborn. The way we perceive ourselves is not the way we really behave. The reason: our self-image is not here to give an accurate account of our personality, but to make life with us possible. Our self-image has to delude us. Its task is to sooth us and make it possible for us to adapt to life around us. The way we think we are, is not the way we really are. Our self-image excludes many aspects, qualities and problematic sides of our personality. Our self-image is not bound to our souls, but the performances in our society. We construct a self-image in order to move around in the respective society around us, to feel accepted and competent. The agenda of soul is often forgotten. When we therefore identify goals, devise values and plans, we might deceive ourselves. In many cases it does not matter. The problem is, that sometimes other or deeper needs become stronger. We can’t trick ourselves all the time. In some cases another, hidden motive emerges and takes command, while the self-image is lost for explanations. Consciously the boy insists, that he would love to visit school, but his actual statement is just a reference to what the people around what to hear. He reinstates the words of his teachers and parents. His conscious attitude is no more than a reference to his peers. His behaviour indicates, that something else, hidden inside him is prevalent.

In cases like these playfulness might be indicated. When we concentrated on a singular issue, then there is a danger, that the deeper causes of his reactions remain uncovered. Pondering on the issues out of place. It is time to play and let loose. The concentrated, conscious attitude has to be replaced by a frisky, impish mood. We might progress, when we stop staring at the problem and concentrating. Psyche demands, that we choose another strategy.

Playfulness is primarily a question of attitude. When we are playful we have to get ourselves in other mood, stop putting on a serious demeanour. We have to allow the odd idea and the bizarre association. As a therapist we can help, by circumvented the issue, going astray, using associations and loose connections. In order to be playful we need the right setting. We as a therapist, as well as the patient should be invited to be playful. An aseptic, clinical surrounding often hinders us. The fantasies don’t flow, when everything is in order and all items around serve a defined purpose. Too much tidiness and pre-sett consultation rooms often block people. They fall into the adaption trap and refuse being playful.

Sand play tries to set an appropriate surrounding. When the patient enters a room and sees a dozen of toys, strange figures and familiar items, then his imagination might be aroused. He remembers long gone events or has crazy associations. When the patient can browse, investigate the items and peruse at liberty, he is playing with his imagination. His mental activities then don’t abide to a clear pattern, but create their own connections. The toys, dolls, figures and heirlooms allow the expansion of the topic the patient is dealing with. In Mythodrama a similar approach is chosen. Instead of attractive items a distinct story is presented. The story is selected according to the perceived problem, challenge or issue the patient is dealing with. If the patient is suffering loss, then maybe a story, which clandestinely deals with loss, is chosen. If anger is an issue, then the story might indicate rage. The stories are presented by heart, through a film or maybe with the help of pictures. The purpose of the stories is to help the patient to open up, cross borders and activate the imagination. The story serves as an incentive to expand the range of his or her mental activities. Again: Playfulness is envisaged. We want the patient to think playful mentally. Often a story is chosen, which is set in an alien scene, contains odd characters and absurd details. It can be a fairy tales from another culture, a made up story or a myth. The reason is, that we tend to identify familiar stories our preconceived ideas. The story fits the cognitive patterns, which are dominant in the society we are part of. When a story is familiar, it does not confuse us, but we hear it according to the cognitive codes and adhered values, which define our surrounding. For instance: if m Switzerland we hear a story about a man and woman living at home, then immediately we think of role models, the allocated task and stereotypes. Men should also do their share in the household, women are often depressed, when their activities are restricted to home etc. We read the story according to the political correct codes. Unusual settings, unexpected developments or bizarre scenes are excluded. In order to activate imagination, the story has to contain mental movers. Parts of the story cannot be understood in a conventional way. They irritate and might even infuriate the listener. Why does the captain on the boat in a story suddenly dress up as a ballerina? What is the purpose of the cat paw on the kitchen table? The stories need to contain elements, which cannot be understood immediately, because understanding might lead to closure. Mental movers evoke cognitive dissonances and might start the patient to think in another direction, play with his mind set. In Mythodrama the patient or the group finishes the story. He or she hears the story up to a certain point. Just before an impending climax the story is broken off. The story remains unfinished. The group or the patient then has to imagine how the story could go on. They then might paint their endings or act them out.

In sand play and Mythodrama the patient is invited to distance himself from his normal thinking habits; he or she should cross mental borders and become a little bit crazy, in order to uncover what is going on inside him-or herself. Playing is a means to open up and get in contact with unconscious elements of our psyche. By playing thought control looses some of its power and unconscious motives and element might emerge. Therapy then moves on beyond adaption.

Both in Mythodrama and Sandplay the played out scenes are then closely analysed. The fantasies and the scenes, which the patients developed, are viewed like dreams. Often they reveal what is going on inside the respective human being. Unconsciously he or she presents his inner life. The boy, in which life everything seemed in order presented an interesting end to a story: He vanished in a tree, taking with him some toys and a mobile phone. The phone was important, because he wanted to stay in contact with an colleague, who had been expulsed from school. Thanks to this information his school refusal could be understood as a reaction to the dismal of a friend. He missed his friend and plans they had shared and was afraid, he would encounter the same fate.

If we are serious, we should be playful

The majority of our private and professional tasks require a focused approach. Playfulness would be considered superficial and not being serious. In therapy it is not the same. There we should be able to switch our attitudes. During certain session we should act playful in order to be serious. Playfulness is a possibility to get in contact with hidden issues, blocked emotion and shameful topic.

Playfulness needs a ritual

We cannot be playful by order. Normally we try to be serious, to concentrate on our challenges and tasks. In order to get into a playful mood we need ritual. We cannot rely on our will alone when we try to be playful. Our consciousness alone is usually not strong enough to change our behaviour. If the setting and the hours expect playfulness, then this might instigate a change of attitude. The session and rooms are perceived as an possibility to be playful, a little bit crazy in order to be normal.

Playfulness is an attitude and not a technique

In order to be playful we need to distance ourselves from expectations and functions, which are radiated to us. A chair invites us to sit down, a glass of water is there to drink and a book to be read. When we are playful we don’t do the expected, but invent a variation. We use the chair as an absent partner, see the glass of water as a poisonous drink or turn the book into a hat. Playfulness is a way of reinventing the world around. If we are capable to do this depends on our attitude and not a specific technique. You cannot give instructions to be playful, but just let loose and give it a try.

Playfulness needs grounding

Finally: playfulness needs grounding. Playfulness cannot be the answer to many of our challenges and issues in our lives, but we need playfulness in order to empower ourselves, get new ideas and in connection with ourselves. After play comes work, we have to get grounded again. In therapy that means we have lead the patient back to the everyday issues, which he or she deals or struggles with. Playing can invigorate our lives, when we are ready to bridge the two worlds.

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