Moving from shame to connection through play

Shame is fundamentally disconnecting. The person feeling shame is often acutely aware of their own perceived flaws and inadequacies, and may misinterpret attempts from others to connect with them. For example, a person feeling shame may interpret another’s warm smile as condescending or ridiculing. Or they may accurately interpret the other person’s caring expression, but be so locked into their own internal experience that they are not able to feel the other person’s warmth or benefit from it.

When a client is locked in shame, we as therapists may feel like we are walking a behavioral tightrope. We want to reinforce moves toward connection, but the reinforcement itself may be simultaneously shaming, as in the warm smile example. Given that we are aiming for increasing psychological flexibility for ourselves and our clients, we may not want to hang out on the tightrope for too long. 

I had a supervisor in graduate school who liked to say, “I bet you half of these clients would be better served by going to the ballroom dancing place across the street.” This is the same supervisor who created a very official-looking “Draw a picture of a cowboy form.” The instructions read, “Use the space below to draw a picture of a cowboy.” He had a reputation in the community for being a gifted therapist, probably in part because of his ability to playfully engage with people even in the toughest situations.

How can we harness the power of play in order to heal shame?

Bessel van der Kolk’s relatively new book, The Body Keeps the Score, gives a beautiful example of the healing power of play in action:

Some gifted people who work with trauma survivors know how to do so intuitively. Steve Gross used to run the play program at the Trauma Center. Steve often walked around the clinic with a brightly colored beach ball and when he saw angry or frozen kids in the waiting room, he would flash them a big smile. The kids rarely responded. Then a little later, he would return and "accidentally" drop his ball close to where a kid was sitting. As Steve leaned over to pick it up, he'd nudge it gently toward the kid, who'd usually give a halfhearted push in return. Gradually Steve got a back-and-forth going, and before long you'd see smiles on both faces.

From simple, rhythmically attuned movements, Steve had created a small, safe place where the social engagement system could begin to reemerge. In the same way, severely traumatized people may get more out of simply helping to arrange chairs before a meeting or joining others in tapping out a musical rhythm on the chair seats than they would from sitting in those same chairs and discussing the failures in their life. 

Do you use play in your work with shame-prone and traumatized clients? We’d love to hear about it!

Check out the book The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk.

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