Serious Play

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My philosophy on counselling, psychotherapy and coaching.

I call it Serious Play.

The line between counselling and coaching is fluid. It’s a dance between safety and empowerment.


Let’s make a start on this and where to begin, she wondered. I want this writing to be playful she said, creating a goal for her writing and giving herself permission to play and walk her talk. It doesn’t need to be perfect and good enough sounds good enough to me. I want it to be fun 🤩. It’s all about permission isn’t it? she thought to herself. Yes, a voice within answered but it is also about loving limits because you wouldn’t be able to feel your strength without it. Freedom you can find within safe boundaries.

I want to be someone who helps others from a place of love and safety to experience liberation by supporting the discovery and integration of our many parts. Promoting a change of the internal dialogue to work for the self instead of against it.
By doing that we return home to our creativity and can bring our unique gifts into this world.

Love and play are the same word in Sanskrit and the word is “Lila”.

Fun and joyfulness are essential for me and I would love my clients to find that within themselves, to remember what it felt like to wake up in the morning, full of excitement to learn, play, explore and create. Feeling immersed in the experience, in the flow and time just seems to vanish. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written a whole book about the flow experience and the secrets of happiness. Time is a convention, an invention of society and Alan Watts, who is one of my personal heroes said “Time doesn’t exist in the natural world, only rhythm. Breathe in, breathe out, don’t cling to life, let it go and it comes back to you like the breath.”

I am asking the reader to forgive if I don’t sound english at times, because I am not. I am sitting on the fence between cultures and maybe you need to fill in some gaps with your imagination. Sometimes it is good to be the outsider as only from the outside is it possible to see the big picture and I believe we have to go into the wilderness to truly know how to do society.

On the Voice Dialogue international Website, Voice Dialogue/Psychology of Selves (developed by Hal and Sidra Stone two American jungian analysts), I described my approach as playful. Taking things seriously but not too seriously. Welcoming all human experience. Therapy to me is two people playing and one helps the other to get into the flow again where the flow got stuck. Brian Sutton-Smith said:“Play isn’t the opposite of work, the opposite of play is depression.“ Marshall B. Rosenberg the founder of Nonviolent Communication said “We shouldn’t do anything that isn’t play”.
Work and play don’t contradict. We have a life while we work and wouldn’t it be a shame if your life only happens at the weekends.

When I talk about working playfully I do not mean childish silliness or toxic positivity but meaningful deep and fulfilling interaction and seriousness is part of the game too.
I would describe my approach best as integrative, existential, humanistic and impacted by the gestalt approach. In chapter one of “The Art of Play” Adam Blatner writes :”The value of imaginative play maybe understood more fully in the context of the union of a holistic, integrative psychology with a philosophy that focuses on the creative process as a central element”.

I work phenomenological and in the here and now. It doesn’t really matter what time to focus on, all times exist in the now and when it’s time to return to the past it will be in the now. I invite experiments, to grow awareness, creating space around the story we are identifying with, to strengthen the witness within and discover the self behind our conditioning and learned behaviours and adaptions. As a basis to good therapy, I embrace Carl Rogers core conditions as essential to build a trusting, confidential and safe relationship.

If I talk in the words of Al Pesso who developed Pesso-Boyden system psychomotor therapy, I create a possibility sphere, a sphere to try out the new without any consequences to the real world. When we are in a non judgemental environment is it possible to let yourself go and play and “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.“ Donald Winnicott

I wrote earlier about no consequences to the real world and herein lies a paradox. Because it does leave an impact. It is like in the old french film “Children of Paradise” what happens in life then happens on stage, and what happens on stage happens later in life. We prepare in our imagination, it’s a rehearsal in mind to prepare for future actions. Einstein talked about the importance of the imagination as being more powerful than knowledge. If I know something to be true then it manifests and this relates to the power beliefs are holding over us in our day to day reality, as we know for example from self fulfilling prophecy and CBT. People say „be careful what you wish for it might become reality.“ And Henry Ford said ” Wether you think you can or think you can’t you are right.”

Athletes and sports people go through their movements in their imagination in order to prepare the body to perform in exactly this way. Having trained as a Laban Movement Analyst I can confirm that. I can do the same movement using lots of effort or imagine to find spacial support, being pulled, and suddenly the same movement feels effortless.

As kids we can be anyone, we like pretending being anyone we want to be and maybe this is where NLP comes from 😉 originally. I invite the clients imagination by using storytelling, metaphors , making use of my sand tray if the client is open for this. I use humour to add joy and lightness to the the process, without minimising the clients experience and when appropriate. I believe in strengthening the clients resources as fundamental, we all will have some positive experience to look back to and there is always one cell in the body that might feel well and can become a source to more well-being.

I use techniques from NLP for anchoring these positive feelings deeper into the clients neurology supported by slow pursuit eye movements, called SPEM’s.

Stuart Brown found out in the “Neuroscience of Play” that it is a survival function and that rats without a cortex will engage in social play. I wonder if it has to do with the superior colliculus, a structure in the midbrain that is the only part of the brain next to the neocortex that consists of grey matter and is able to produce electrical gamma waves. Antonio Damasio speculated about it being the seat of consciousness.

From my personal experience training as a clown and improvisational performer I know how improvisational theatre can strengthen and awaken the witness within us and help us to get in touch with and integrate parts.
I become aware of what’s going on inside of me and then I play it, instead of it plays me, and suddenly I am no more identified , more in control and with choice. It’s like in these gestalt images where you can see two pictures in one image, once you have seen both you can’t return to not seeing both. I can adopt the roles I dislike, be the one I judge, and start taking their medicine on in homeopathic doses.
I can start to take responsibility and move from a victim position to a more empowered position.
In my practise I sometimes meet clients that are identified with the part of them themselves that is a pleaser, and while it is nice to please other people it comes at a cost when pleasing feels not in our control but a compulsion.
Then sudden outbursts of anger appear on the other side or the experience that the people around them are all angry. It’s a fine balance and if it was a seesaw with pleasing on one side and anger on the other, then I need to own them both to keep that balance. Anger is not a bad thing. It’s our powerhouse. It’s a signpost that something is not going right for us. It’s a protector that if disowned runs wild and becomes destructive. It’s life force, and in the right place it is valuable. Anger takes care of our boundaries and is the only emotions that can break through shame. We have to have it in our emotional vocabulary or we become too vulnerable to survive. I think it doesn’t deserve it’s bad reputation. We can move a lot with anger but I want to mention that scientific research has shown we do jump much higher on joy.
Joy is what I want to promote. Finding meaning, pleasure and satisfaction in this life and holding up the possibility of that experience for my clients.

“Balance. It was all about balance. That had been one of the first things that she had learned: the centre of the seesaw has neither up nor down, but upness and downness flow through it while it remains unmoved. You had to be the centre of the seesaw so the pain flowed through you, not into you. It was very hard. But she could do it!”
Terry Pratchett

Play is a language that crosses the barrier between species. Play allows many different perspectives to be true and hold value. Play is deep and beyond all polarity.
A universal language.

I remember from Stuart Browns book “Play” the story of a hungry polar bear coming close to the village for food and meeting a husky dog. The husky dog showed signs of play and instead of being eaten they started to play. The bear felt nurtured by the playfulness over the need to eat, and returned many times for more.

Play is nurturing like love.

Stuart Brown describes how the eye gaze between mother and baby evokes spontaneous joy as grounding of play.
The right cortex of mother and child are in atunement, which is the basis for emotional regulation.

Looking at polyvagal theory there is one string that exists only in humans, the SES social engagement system. We are not born with that, it develops by mimicking the facial expressions of our primary caregivers.
The play-process needs to be reinforced in our life cycle for new connections to grow. We develop resilience and emotional flexibility which is needed in an ever changing world.
We need to be able to regulate our emotions and think outside of the box in order to create a more sane society. Who can manage the self is truly ready for building a more healthy society.

Now you might understand why I stretch play and playfulness much.
Einstein talked a lot about the imagination and phrased creativity as the best use of the imagination, and anxiety as the worst use of our imagination. We are the only species that can switch on an anxiety response by thought alone. We are also the only species that can act and take on different roles and perspectives. We are creators , we create our own realities according to what is stored in our memories, with the possibility for directed change, making use of growing awareness, consciousness and finding more choice. There is a necessity of play in order to expand and develop. We are multidimensional beings playing many different roles in our life. We grow by understanding these roles and becoming creative with them. We can learn to enrich our life and be more in the driving seat of our experience.

“Theatre has saved my soul” and helped me immensely to become who I am today;
on the journey in this endless act of becoming.
I share the view of trans personal thinkers like Ken Wilber of seeing the universe as a creative process, partaking in a great awakening and co-creating.

And how do we learn to create? I think spontaneous creation is what we are and we need to learn how to get out of the way, undo our blockages and limiting beliefs and allow to express what is already within us, then the expansion starts to happen naturally. And because we are all different there are no recipes on how to do that and it is handy to have a multitude of tools available to play with; supporting the individual in finding his/her own way. In the field between the therapist role and the client role a new reality emerges.
A co-creation where I see my role in facilitating that process
providing a space, psycho education, kindling curiosity in the client to learn about and then express the selves.
I am committed to a process of life long learning.
Talking about my tools so far, I have studied psychology for 6 years at Bremen University and didn’t finish to write my dissertation. I have done it all, but didn’t write the dissertation. Why? Was it that my mum died? That I don’t enjoy writing, because I had a shaming teacher? My underlying omnipotence that makes it difficult for me to complete? Probably a bit of all of these. And while I was studying I read Paul Feyerabend who calls himself the fool of science methodology. I vividly remember the message that I got out of his writings “That science is nothing else then a belief system”, born out of culture and no different to Astrology. I remember it being pretty anarchic with the title “Against method”. He phrased the term „Anything goes“ and it left a deep impression on me. Feyerabend was talking about systems theory and how naive it is to belief you can change the system by being a part of it. At that time I was deeply frustrated with university and the fact that they didn’t put into action what they were teaching. Looking at the idea of a conformed brain , having walked the conventional academic way, I felt repelled by the thought of psychologists not having done their own emotional work, using their favourite defence mechanism of intellectualisation. I don’t feel like that anymore today and maybe I was just fighting my father in authority. Feyerabend said if you have suffered to become a part of the academic world you will no longer change it but defend it for that reason. It made sense to me and I rejected the entrance card to the academic world. If you want an honest answer what I identify best with, talking about labels that we get given like psychologist, psychotherapist, counsellor, coach, I would call myself a fool. Sadly the archetype of the fool holds many negative connotations.

“All the world’s a stage,
and all the men and women merely players“
From “As you like it” Shakespeare

Doesn’t that sound like “Anything goes”

But enough of that , I didn’t sign up to help people to fit back into “The Insanity of Normality” which is the title of another book that influenced me by the psychoanalyst Arno Grün. In his book he asks fundamental questions of what is normality and how it can be measured. If I think about that, a fairytale comes to mind -the emperor’s new clothes seems to be a good metaphor to differentiate between normality and truth and I support my clients to find their truth , speak it and then live it.

„Play transcends all disciplines, if not all discipline.“Spariosu 1989

Speaking truth – talking helps or “cleaning up, waking up, growing up” Ken Wilber

Next to some tools I have in my toolbox let’s get to the simple question why verbalising our emotional experience in itself helps. It is a bifocal process, the same as exposure therapy with distraction Bandura said. While you talk about the content of events you re-experience unprocessed emotions from the past in combination with the safety in the presence of the therapist and this safety gets associated with that experience and wired in. Verbalising emotional content with the support of the therapist helps the brain processing.
We have come to discover methods that can work faster to release overwhelming emotions but again it isn’t always right for everyone and I pick my clients up from where they are. There is a difference between someone opening their story for the first time and someone who has told it many times.
I have told my story many times and sometimes I felt re-traumatised by that. It felt like going the same roads in my brain all over again. Playing with my story on stage, yes- I didn’t feel it to be real anymore but still training the same neuro-pathways.
Looking at the experience from Al Pesso and Diane Boyden, working with dancers, the expression of the traumatic experience in a performance can create the fulfilment in itself and becomes art, but it doesn’t always resolve the underlying issue. The process of creating a personalised piece of theatre that happens in the hypothetical past with role players, playing ideal figures that were needed in the past, felt appealing to me to create an alternative memory the client can fall back onto. The right brain doesn’t know about time which makes such operation possible.
When we go to the cinema we belief what we see for the time being.
I trained in Pesso-Boyden therapy because it involves the body and the felt experience as part of the therapeutic process, knowing that the skin of our body got 900 million receptors to inform the brain. I use these tools engaging the imagination and the felt sense to create a different experience.
We don’t know what feels right until we meet it.
The body knows and we have a genetic expectation of what to expect if things were right.
Like a tree seedling we grow best with the right amount of good soil, sun, rain and wind.
The client and I then co create and ideal experience to counter the past event.
We find out how that would have felt like, then we take a mental snapshot of the ideal situation and place that with an image of the client at the age it was needed. It needs to be believable to work and if we made it believable then its likely to be stored right next to the old memory in the brain as alternative.
There is a lot that can be done these days, there are many powerful therapies and coaching tools available and I used to say jokingly “It is all the same shit”.
Many roads lead to Rome and which one is chosen lies in the hands of the client.
I hope I can do my bit to grow more consciousness and integration and support my clients on the way to have a more satisfying life experience.

Everything is interconnected. We are all one in the end.

I will return and update this with my growing awareness.😉

Stephen Nachmanovitch 1990 Free Play
Brian Sutton-Smith, 1997 The Ambiguity of Play
Winnicott 1971 Playing and reality
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990 Flow
Marshall B. Rosenberg NVC
Adam Blatner 1988 The Art of Play
Albert Einstein 1931 In Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms
Mihai Spariosu 1989 Dionysus Reborn
Carl Rogers 1996 On Becoming a Person
Stuart Brown 2009 Play
Antonio R. Damasio · 2000 The Feeling of what Happens
Paul Feyerabend 1993 Against Method
Hans Peter Duerr 1985
Dreamtime Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilisation
Al Pesso 2013 Sharing the practical Wisdom
Arno Gruen 1992
The Insanity of Normality: Realism as Sickness
Ken Wilber 2000 Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy
Alan Watts 1975 Time