Games people play

Games people play

Having fun with others is a healthy way to build bonds and strengthen trust  

10/11/2012

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Dear Patti,
My father died when I was 7. Growing up, it was just me and my mother, who was wonderful and loving but strict in her emphasis on accomplishment and hard work. Even extracurricular activities like piano lessons and ballet were viewed as serious achievements. Later in life, she explained that her parenting style was to ensure I’d be independent, capable and strong if anything happened to her. I have to say, she did a good job; I’m all that.
 
A year ago, I married a fabulous man 15 years my senior. It’s often implied I have a father complex. Maybe so, but Steve is a great man I would’ve married if he was any reasonable age. He has two grown daughters who adore him and they’re all very playful together. They’re almost my age and they do silly, spontaneous things like meet each other for a banana split in the middle of the night at a 24-hour diner. They do lots of leisure activities together, too, like board games, kite-flying, setting up model trains, making art projects and surfing. 
 
When they engage in these just-for-fun activities, I find myself stiff and too serious. I remember doing very little of that growing up. Even as a child, I was very adult-like and regarded playing as stupid, unnecessary and lazy. Part of me feels left out and wants to join in, but part of me also feels awkward and thinks it’s a waste of time.
 
Steve and his girls accept me the way I am and don’t try to change me, but I know they wish I could lighten up and have more fun. Deep down, I do too. I’d like to be more spontaneous, playful and free, able to relax and enjoy myself more. Is it too late to learn such skills as an adult or even worth it?
— Holly

Dear Holly,
We’ve all heard the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While it may be more difficult to become playful as an adult, you can. It’s also your birthright. Every child, if allowed, can play. Part of the problem may be that you’re approaching this as another goal to accomplish, rather than playing simply because it feels good.  
 
When you’re engaged in self-chosen play, it’s done for the intrinsic pleasure of the experience and the power of being “in the moment.” Performance anxiety may be setting in because you’re trying to be a certain way for your new family and are judging and observing your own behavior rather than discovering who you really are and what you’ve always wanted to do. 
 
Without over-analyzing or worrying what others will think, start engaging — little by little — in activities for the sheer enjoyment of them and finding personal joy that comes from inside of you. Try solo and familial interests. Have you always wanted to paint pictures, salsa dance or collect Disney figurines? There’s no time like the present to get started.
 
As well as appealing to the child in you who’s always wanted to jump in a pile of leaves for the crazy fun of it, I will also appeal to the adult in you by pointing out the importance and benefits of adult play. Play is a necessary component of living, as it returns vital energy, alleviates boredom, releases tension, creates confidence and satisfies self-determination needs. Play can build character by developing persistence, competence, self-expression and mastery of challenges, as well as being a source of relaxation and stimulation. Play lets you contact deeper realms of creativity, improvisation and imagination. Wisdom, too, is often found in art and expression. After vacations from work, studies show that people return more inventive, productive and healthier, asking fewer sick days. 
 
Friends and families who play together say they feel greater intimacy, closeness and cohesiveness at a much easier and faster rate. By engaging in mutual fun, they create group solidarity, cooperation and teamwork. Playing together is an antidote to loneliness and isolation, bringing joy, vitality and resilience to relationships. Sharing laughter and fun with others promotes bonding and trust and strengthens a sense of community. 
Beyond all these excellent reasons for playing, play makes us happy! 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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