I’ve learned that being a therapist is a bit like being an improvisational actor: we need to have a sense of what the situation calls for and adapt our lines on the spot. So while some clients respond to more heart-centered interventions, other clients respond better to play and humor, which engage the emotional brain, too. For me, getting comfortable using play, irreverence, and humor to spur clients into change was more challenging than delivering heart-centered interventions with more emotional expression. However, I began the process gradually by asking a few clients whether they wanted to try something new in our sessions. If they agreed, I invited them to “get into character” with me. It seemed risky at first, but my clients enjoyed being jocular and engaging in lighthearted role-play to work through difficult emotions. This newly spirited way of doing therapy inspired positive changes, not only for my clients, but also for me. Instead of leaving my office feeling drained and discouraged, as I often had before, I’d leave feeling energized and uplifted.
Michael is a good example of a client who responded positively to my being more playful in our sessions. We’d been working together for a while on his struggles with alcoholism and a debilitating phobia of driving over bridges. Unfortunately, this phobia had shrunk his world, since our town is nicknamed Bridge City and you can hardly go anywhere without driving over a lake or the Tennessee River.
In our sessions, Michael often wore a mask of arrogance and loved to distract me with sarcastic comments anytime we got close to exploring his inner terror and pain. One day, he started by saying, “Ah, I see you’re wearing new boots today. Is that what you do with the money from our sessions? Or are you wearing those because you think you’re going to kick my butt today with some psychomumbo jumbo?”
To motivate Michael, I realized we had to play and have some fun so he didn’t feel threatened. I knew that playing would help my own emotional brain avoid feeling threatened by his unnerving comments. So I laughed and replied, “Yeah. I’ve got a challenge for you. I know you want to test me to see if I know what I’m doing and if this therapy thing has been worth your money. I think you’re ready to cross a few small bridges on foot between now and our next session. You can start out with the little footbridge that crosses the creek in the park a couple of blocks from my office. I’ll even meet you there in my kick-ass boots, if you like.”
He laughed and said in a mocking voice, “No, Miss Courtney, I don’t need you to hold my hand. I can do it all by my wittle self.”
Then I teased him and said, “I know you can do it, but I bet you won’t.”
“I’ll bet I will,” he responded, smiling. “I’ll take a picture on my phone to prove it to you, Miss Smarty Pants.”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe it. I bet you $50 you won’t do it.”
“You’re on, lady,” he said, shaking his fist at me. “If I do it, you’ll give me $50 off this session?”
I nodded and said, “Yes, sir, I will. But I don’t have to worry about it because you’re so stubborn I know you won’t do it.”
He leapt from the sofa. “Well, I’ll go do it right now and show you! I want my $50!” With that he drove right over to the park, marched across the bridge, and texted me a picture of him standing on the other side with his tongue sticking out.
He returned to my office within 25 minutes, grinning from ear to ear. Since we still had a few minutes left in his session, I invited him to sit down and handed him $50. As he reached out to take the money, his hands were trembling and his face was flushed. He gave me a brief hug and began to cry. “Thank you,” he said. “You got me all caught up in that. It’s just now hitting me what I did. I really did it! I can do this.”
I smiled, and said, “Yes, Michael, you absolutely can. We just had to find something more emotionally compelling than your fear to get you to take a risk.”
Over time, a series of similar therapeutic experiences we did together revealed the deeper root of his fears—a long-held presumption that people and the world would always hurt and disappoint him. He realized he coped by not taking risks and “not believing in anything,” so he could avoid further disappointment. Once Michael could put words to this largely nonverbal, deeply felt reality, which had been overshadowing everything in his life, it became less daunting to him. In our last session, he commented, “Yeah, people can hurt and disappoint you. Nothing is ever guaranteed in life, but you do the best you can. The experience of going for what I want is still worth it. I can at least believe in that.”
Many of us were motivated to become therapists because of our emotional experiences with trauma, suffering, and adversity. We understand these things deeply, and I’d venture that most of us chose this profession for emotional rather than intellectual reasons. We didn’t just want to be smarter: we wanted to help people heal and make the world a better place.
As therapists, we’re not looking for a mundane 9-to-5 job, and our clients aren’t looking for a nice, empathic listener or a dry analyst. They want someone who not only understands their pain, but also respectfully leads, pushes, and compels them to do what’s in their best interest. For some, that fits the definition of being a coach rather than a therapist, yet I believe it’s our training as psychotherapists and our comprehension of the psychological roots of emotion that allow us to be more effective than motivational coaches at facilitating deep change. We understand that healing doesn’t come through simple goal setting, treatment planning, and accountability. True healing occurs when we’re passionately committed to illuminating that spark of light within our clients’ hearts—something we now know ignites new pathways in the emotional brain. Even the tiniest spark can ignite the healing process, as we ourselves become the experience that causes the change, taking our clients to emotional places where they’ve never been before. It can be challenging as we develop the courage to be more demonstrative, provocative, and playful, but the transformative results this produces in our clients, and in ourselves, are worth it.
It isn’t enough to be a kind, supportive guide on clients’ journeys. We have to be a provocative guide, creating experiences that trigger their curiosity and desire to know more. The experiences we create have to go beyond the intellect to reach a deeply human place, prompting clients to believe they can relate to themselves and the world in a new way. Following this approach, good therapy can often look like performance art, rather than a rational discussion. But let’s face it: to get the emotional brain to pay attention to what we’re saying and to keep clients coming back to our offices, the therapy experience has to be at least twice as interesting as the problem.
Courtney Armstrong, LPC, trains mental health professionals in creative techniques for healing trauma and is the author of The Therapeutic “Aha!”: 10 Strategies for Getting Your Clients Unstuck and Transforming Traumatic Grief.
This blog is excerpted from the article, "Creating Adventure and Play in Therapy," by Courtney Armstrong. The full version is available in the July/August 2013 issue, Searching for the Therapeutic 'Aha': Brain Science and Clinical Breakthroughs.
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