Does the thought of beginning therapy make you feel scared or anxious? These unnamed fears about what will be revealed on the other side of the therapist’s door might stop you in your tracks from receiving the benefits inside. There is a fear that you might “lose yourself”. This fear is grounded in not knowing what will become of “me”: What will I have to give up, how will I live without those things, and what will remain? I propose a way to allay those fears. Think of therapy as creative play. The process of talk therapy is an act of play, an act of creating something from within. When we are deeply engaged in “play” we take risks and often find ourselves transformed by playing the “game” of life.
Stephen Nachmanovitch states in his book “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art” that “Each piece of music is play, each dance, each drawing, each episode of life, reflects our own mind back at us, complete with all its imperfections, exactly as it is.”
Play as an Antidote to Stress
American psychologist Dr. Charles E. Schaefer, recognized as “The Father of Play Therapy”, stated that play expands self-expression, self-knowledge, and self-actualization. When we allow ourselves to play we are connecting to our inner joy and it results in positive connection to people, it stimulates creative thinking and regulates our emotions. It's often the most powerful antidote to stress. Therapy as play allows us to create a distance between our problems so we can see them objectively and it allows us to mentally digest an overwhelming life experience.
The Healing Properties of Self-Narration
In talk therapy, we can allow ourselves an opportunity to become the storytellers, the narrators of our own beautiful life novels. We can lay our tales at our therapist’s feet like short stories that are yearning for discovery and deconstruction. When we can re-enact and re-tell the chapters of our life we are engaged in creatively expressing our inner worlds. We are learning to share and hear our own stories.
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Plato
One eight-year-old girl’s comments on play reflect its cathartic release of anxiety, “In play, I turn myself inside out and give myself a shake, shake, shake, and finally I’m glad all over that I am me.”
When we play, we shift towards process rather than product. When we begin to play or create, we tap into our individuality. Stephen Nachmanovitch, a musician, author, computer artist, and educator, says that we begin to dialogue with ourselves as we participate in the act of play: “As our playing, writing, speaking, drawing, or dancing unfolds, the inner unconscious logic of our being begins to show through and mold the material. This rich, deep patterning is the original nature that impresses itself like a seal upon everything we do or are.”
Creativity at Play
If we approach our struggles like an artist looking to express our inner worlds through the medium of paint, dance, music, literature we might find the ideal vehicle to reflect on ourselves. When we play, we are calling on our inherent creativity that is the central source of meaning in our lives. Using our creativity feels like we are living our lives more fully. Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., an associate research scientist for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, found that people who engaged in everyday forms of creativity like making a collage, playing an instrument, taking photographs, writing article or stories displayed the characteristics of being curious, open-minded, positive, energetic and persistent.
People who used their creativity daily expressed feeling an increased sense of well-being and personal growth compared to their colleague’s/classmates. Creating is the therapeutic gateway experience that relieves suffering. In “The Psychology of Creative Writing” by Scott Barry Kaufman and James C. Kaufman they discuss how expressive writing increases immune system functioning.
The Mask of the Outer Canvas
Whatever we create in life is a reflection of our internal makeup and experience in the world, whether it is poetry, literature, art, sculpture, or the nature of our relationships with others or with our work. The masks we chose to wear both shield and reveal our true nature. We imagine that we are doing a great job hiding our troubles behind a chosen persona but we tend to give ourselves away. We leave clues and hints as to who we are by how we present ourselves in the world. Our masks are merely imprints of our true self’s character. Walking down the streets of Seattle, it is not uncommon for me to look at what personality masks others are “wearing” and imagine their personality – their true nature – based on that presentation. We look to what is outside to give us an idea of what is inside, as our outside is naturally an expression of the inner self.
The outer canvas of ourselves that we show to the world can easily be interpreted by others. In play we allow our masks to slip away as we give ourselves over to the present moment and the process of creative self-expression.
Therapy Play Date
I believe therapy is the perfect place where we can play. Therapy is the stage, the therapist your audience and the time is yours to present your self-narration to a trusted listener in an environment of acceptance.
D.W. Winnicott, in Playing and Reality, describes it as, “bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play. It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”
Counseling involves the participation of both the client and the therapist. It is a process of leaning into one another in which the therapist provides a safe space in which the true self can emerge.
This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play. Alan Watts