How Do You Play?

Human beings are driven to love and to work, at least in Freud’s view. But in her recent book Beyond Love and Work the psychiatrist Lenore Terr suggests that the drive to play is at least as important to our full humanity.

“I have become convinced that play is crucial to successful, healthy adult living,” says Terr. Defining play as “activity aimed at having fun,” Terr notes that although play is pleasurable, “to an outside observer it often looks deadly serious….and…often requires intense concentration….When we play, we sense no limitations….We immerse ourselves in the act of play. And we become free.”

Most of us, says Terr, developed a particular favorite kind of play in childhood. Maybe you remember loving sports, or let’s-pretend, or board games, or collecting stamps or bottle caps or stuffed animals. Playful adults can often trace their choice of a satisfying career or a life passion to their favorite kind of childhood play. Work we love feels like play.

Play doesn’t always come easily to adults. In her book Terr points out that during certain critical periods, far too many of us give up on our play. One of the most common of these is adolescence. “Discouraged adolescents often garner praise for giving up on their play,” writes Terr. “‘I’m glad you’ve cut back your heavy schedule,’ says a headmaster. ‘Now you can really get to work,’ says a parent.

“Yes, much play does not flow automatically into acceptances to good colleges or unlimited career choices. But ongoing play through the teenage years accounts for an ongoing spirit of playfulness.” Terr believes that playfulness is a sign of emotional strength. “The psychologists and psychoanalysts of developmental staging may have been correct in their observation that teenagers tend to stop playing, but by now we can recognize that they were probably wrong in attributing this stoppage to an adolescent’s increasing thoughtfulness and maturity. In my view, it takes emotional maturity for a young person to withstand outside pressures to stop playing, and it takes fortitude to make the time for play. At crucial points in life — adolescence, for one, but also after tragedy, illness, retirement, and grave disappointment — it is tempting to quit.” And at any age, she says, “if a person stops playing, there will be an unfortunate change.”

When I was a child one of my greatest joys was to walk to a clearing in the woods behind my house, alone or with a friend. We’d sit and talk for hours on Lemonade Rock, a striated stone formation so wide several people could sit on it, and so high you could look down on a broad, sparkling stretch of the Hudson River. It was a sacred space, full of wonder and possibility, a place of both intensity and freedom. Today as I sit and talk with people in my consulting room, I am often reminded of Lemonade Rock. And so my work — our work together — is a kind of play. And almost always, one of the fruits of a successful therapy is a recovery or enhancement of joy and playfulness.

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