Permission to Play

6 minutes Written by Peter Schmitt

A little over a year ago, a client surprised me with a simple observation that dramatically impacted how I view therapy. As we sat across from each other he told me, “I feel like my ability to be playful is deeply connected to my mental health.” I had never considered this connection before, but as he said this I sensed that there was a profound truth to his statement. The two ideas fit together so naturally — when we experience a state of playfulness, it can feel uplifting and joyful. Likewise, when we experience a state of calm and well-being, it can allow us to access playful parts of ourselves. I then began to notice this theme arising in my other sessions, and wondered if my client had touched on something of universal importance.

A healthy childhood is critically dependent on play. We encourage and foster childhood play and see it as foundational to their growth as social beings. Through games, fantasy, and use of imagination, we learn how to socialize with others, problem solve, think creatively, and experience joy. Play allows us to try on different identities and roles, and in doing so we become more familiar and connected with different parts of ourselves. For many of us, reflecting on positive moments from our childhood brings about memories of play. 

However, trauma, in any of its forms, can keep us from connecting with the ability to play. Far too often, oppressive social dynamics–such as gender and sexual norms, racism, and class–can constrain and inhibit  our ability to freely engage in play. Children of virtually any age can pick up on social pressures, and limit their self-expression to avoid risking physical or emotional harm to self. We can be made to experience feelings such as shame and guilt for enjoying play. Being able to truly play requires that we feel safe to be vulnerable, and if a child’s environment is fundamentally insecure, it may not provide the opportunity to engage in play in a safe manner. The loss of play is the loss of an incredible opportunity — not just in childhood, but throughout the lifespan — to continue learning, growing, and connecting with our authentic selves.

Despite the shortcomings that may exist in creating space for children to play, there is at least a broad consensus that there should be space made within childhood for playfulness. Yet, there seems to be no such consensus for providing space in adulthood. The responsibilities of adult life can drain our energy or will to allow ourselves to become lost in a game or fantasy. Social scripts about the identities we hold may tell us that it makes us “less of” the person we’re expected to be if we engage in play. The same pressures we first pick up on as children around social roles, gender norms, sexual expression, and race, can become even more deeply ingrained in us over time. Or, in a very telling statement on expectations for adults, we can simply be told that we’re being “childish.” 

These criticisms of play reflect what is actually a great benefit of being playful — that it allows us to disconnect from the scripts about who or how we are supposed to be, and allows us to just be. Letting go of self-consciousness, allowing vulnerability, and trying on different identities, roles, and personas through play allows us to come into deeper contact with who we actually are. Much like the imaginative play of children, play as adults can allow us to discover new, exciting, and authentic parts of ourselves. The world of role-playing games, for example, can be a space to safely explore one’s sexual and gender identity. Creative play through music and art can allow us to tap directly into our raw emotional experiences. Sex and physical intimacy is one of the most significant forms of play for adults, and the capacity to bring vulnerability and playfulness to sex can be a gateway to deeply fulfilling sexual experiences.

Yet, as most of us have experienced, allowing ourselves to just be in an experience can feel incredibly challenging. When external and internal pressures push us away from accessing our playful sides, we may seek to reclaim it by using substances that reduce our inhibitions. In many cases, reducing or eliminating substance use can feel daunting not just because of giving up the substance itself, but also because we give up a means of accessing parts of ourselves that we struggle to come into contact with while sober. Use of drugs like alcohol, methamphetamine, ecstasy, or others may reflect a powerful desire to contact playful parts of the self that are otherwise suppressed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but all too often we see that play becomes dependent on substances to disinhibit the self. 

Therapy can be a means of re-engaging in play, and one of the major questions of therapy might be framed as, “How have I been told it is unsafe to access my playful self?” This can be a painfully emotional question to explore, and may bring about difficult or traumatic memories from the earliest stages of life into the present day. This question can also be a means of tapping into the multitude of narratives we experience every day that exert social pressure and influence on us, ranging from experiences within family, to friendships, to romantic relationships, even to the influence of mass media and capitalism. It can be a gentle gateway into a recognition of parts of the self that have been sacrificed or repressed.

Perhaps therapy’s power rests in reconnecting us with those sacrificed, repressed, or “left behind” parts. Therapy is not only about understanding ourselves, our histories, and our experiences, but also creating and sharing new experiences in the moment. It can be a means of inviting parts of ourselves that may be locked out from our daily experience back into a safe space, and playing with the very idea of becoming playful again. The therapeutic relationship can serve as a playground for the self, where you can actually experience that vulnerability, connectedness, and excitement of play in the presence of another. It is a space to let go of the “shoulds” of life and reconnect with who we are when we allow ourselves to just be. 

For many of us, it can be incredibly rare as adults to have a space held for us where we can try to let go of social pressure, responsibility, scripts and expectations, and allow ourselves to just be.  My hope for all my clients is that they can use our work together as a place to practice this vulnerable and connected way of being, reintegrate these lost parts of themselves into their everyday lives, and leave therapy having given themselves permission to play.

Avatar Peter Schmitt

Written by Peter Schmitt

Peter Schmitt is a therapist in New York who specializes in couples and individual therapy.