It's a good sign when therapy is discovered as joyful “inter-play” between therapist and client. On the lighter side of this principle, Play evokes humor, lightheartedness, a willingness to make mistakes, and the ability to laugh at oneself.
Play allows us to acquaint ourselves to our limits, and even our stupidity, without being so dominated by the inner critic. Too much seriousness in the developmental process results in stagnation and perfectionism as it subverts gratitude.
When children play, we can note two things: first, there is spontaneous expression occurring. This suggests there is full engagement with the present moment while the child is repeatedly surprised by the discovery of what might emerge next.
Second, there are implicit and sometimes explicit rules to the game being played. This creates containment and boundary. And as development occurs, the games change, select boundaries become arbitrary. Even the rules are subjected to scrutiny which is, in short, a deliberately developmental move.
Similarly, Serious Play in psychotherapy is the co-enactment of novelty resulting from the therapeutic encounter. It’s the game of everything the client and therapist have done in collaboration to bring about new and more adaptive ways for the client to organize experience.
Play is also what is done to see the limits of old rules of the game and to allow higher order games to emerge. In short, while therapy can and should “break (maladaptive) frames”, Serious Play also includes the process of discovering and enacting more evolved “frames”. (For more on frames, refer to my first principle of Deliberately Developmental Psychology, Engagement).
Regarding Play, I’d like to introduce an orienting philosophy given to us by Hegel, the German philosopher from the 1800’s. The “Hegelian Dialectic” is a useful concept to understand because it applies globally to how development works. It will become clear how the dialectic is a good map of Play co-enacted in therapy and is a component of all Deliberately Developmental Practice.
Hegel’s dialectic is based on the premise that change and progress- both inner and outer- occur through a process of contradiction and resolution. The two sides of a dialectic, Hegel says, are the thesis (current identification with idea or worldview) and the antithesis (a conflicting idea or worldview).
The tension between them eventually results in a breakthrough resolution, the novel emergence of a synthesis of the two. This process leading to novel emergence is none other than Play, or the enactment of a new solution, idea or worldview.
So, in summary, a thesis in regards to therapy is the current way a client organizes experience or worldview. The antithesis is any information that disrupts or destabilizes that organization of experience or worldview. This is the game we are routinely Playing.
Let’s take a simple example: Fred’s worldview, his game, is generally at the modern-rational level and he’s a CEO of a successful business. In terms of the numbers, he’s nailing it. His thesis is that if he continues to lead the organization in the same way, he will continue to nail it.
But in recent months his leadership style is being questioned by the board. He’s had some HR complaints about his treatment of females in the company. While he’s not been accused of sexual harassment or outright discrimination, he’s noting an encroaching internal and external pressure to look at any shadow he might have that makes his female employees uncomfortable with him.
Fred can’t keep nailing it if he doesn’t find a way to clean this up and enact a novel worldview. But he’s currently caught in between a modern-rational values system where his employees simply did what he asked (thesis) and a postmodern-egalitarian values system where there is a demand for equal respect and inclusion for all (antithesis).
Fred will need to grow but he can’t yet see how giving up his thesis (namely his power) will serve him or his company. How will he nail it if he has to spend so much of his time managing an egalitarian team as well as become more sensitive to the impact of power structures?
And yet, if he does not rise to this challenge, many of his valuable employees could quit. He’s also becoming aware that his style is not allowing some females in the company to reach their potential or to make their greatest contributions.
In therapy, Fred will be encouraged in a variety of ways to experience the tension between his thesis, which keeps him in his current worldview, and his antithesis which is disrupting it or showing that it has limits. A third option or synthesis, which has not yet disclosed itself is needed. Perhaps a good intervention for Fred would be to tussle with, “What does ‘nailing it’ mean today?”
Any tension you might be feeling right now, being Fred’s new synthesis has not yet arisen, is exactly the tension Hegel is pointing to!
Now, according to Hegel, if any thesis can be contradicted by an antithesis, we must accept that the thesis can not be completely true. He stressed that the first step to a new synthesis is letting go of the thesis and entering the unknown. In therapy, this is where some big league Serious Play is enacted. If we believe we know the outcome, we are not yet fully Playing but re-enacting what is already known and likely swinging back and forth between the thesis and antithesis.
Letting go of one’s thesis in therapy most often begins with a feeling of fear. Frames are being broken up. And remember, the ego’s job is to preserve homeostasis, to hold on to what is known. This kind of fear often deepens to experiences of confusion, disorientation, and unfamiliarity because one is headed toward the unknown which is by definition a space which lacks the thesis, antithesis or synthesis.
Unless I sense that a client is going to become destabilized in a way that is harmful (severe dissociation, psychosis, or splitting) I highly encourage the process of moving into the unknown. Interventions can include Engagement such as directing a client’s attention with reassurance to stay with the disorientation, or Non-Interference such as remaining passively aware and joining the client in the silence of the void. One doesn’t know what is going to happen, it’s the space where Play emerges from.
That said, a full resolution of a dialectic is not needed for Serious Play to occur in psychotherapy. It’s happening all the time! Good psychotherapy includes not only healing versions of oneself that are wounded but trying on new ones while not yet having to let go of the old.
For example, a therapist might say, “Imagine what it would be like to have the conversation of breaking up with your partner” or “visualize what life would be like if you no longer had that belief” or “What’s one step you could take toward that goal?” I recently heard that one good reason a young couple might get a dog is to try out what it might be like to have children!
Inside the therapy room, all modalities elicit some form of Play. For example, some psychodrama therapists will encourage clients to act out a new ending to a past hurt. Cognitive therapists might offer skills in visualizing a future self taking up a wanted action.
At other times, a therapist might step into the role of the antithesis and challenge a client to role play different scenarios which creates the needed tension of thesis and antithesis. In Gestalt therapy, the empty chair is a perfect representation of thesis and antithesis. And in the psychodynamic tradition, the relationship between the client and therapist (i.e.transference) is examined which elicits the unconscious games being played.
Some therapy traditions such as the cognitive-behavioral schools encourage homework outside the therapy room. I find that in certain cases, even the process of collaborating with clients to generate ideas for homework can be a particularly compelling source of Play. Oftentimes clients can see the antithesis for themselves in thinking about or doing the thing they do not want to do (but really should).
Exercise: Reflect on your last therapy session. How were you co-enacting Serious (or not so serious) Play with your therapist? Can you find examples of thesis and antithesis? What games were you consciously enacting? Were you open to discovering unconscious games being played? What games were your therapist enacting?