I’m taking a play therapy weekend seminar course this month. I actually never intended to work with youth in a therapeutic setting, despite my expansive work experience in children and adolescent jobs. Their limitations in cognitive capacities and attention spans make for a painstakingly slow therapeutic process, and so much of their progress relies on external factors, such as parental involvement.
Because children cannot verbally express their feelings and thoughts the same way adults can, they use experiential methods through creative means of play, art, movement, writing, etc. From these techniques, therapists interpret themes and meanings recurrent in the child’s life. Simply getting on the floor and playing and interacting with a child reveals a variety of clues, from attachment styles, boundaries, depression and anxiety, familial dysfunction, etc.
So far, I am loving the unconventionality and spontaneity in this class.
I think we universally find children fascinating because we all experienced childhood. And we all played once. Before we developed our filters, strengthened our egos, and adopted acceptable societal norms, we led lives dictated by our unconscious brains and our self-centered worlds. We had invisible friends and cherished toys; we spent uninhibited hours climbing trees or chasing butterflies. The reality of existence hadn’t jaded us yet; and even if we had suffered trauma, our developmental stage shielded and protected us from being able to understand the full magnitude of its effects yet.
Despite their surroundings or resources, children are intuitive and constantly strive to increase their sense of happiness, safety, and enjoyment. They take what they like and leave the rest. They rely on their senses, rather than logic and rules, to understand the world around them. I believe they want to feel good, and, despite any stressors, limitations, or restrictions, they place that need above anything else.
At some point in our lives, we just stop playing. We stop imagining and we stop living in the world of make-believe. We grow up, mature, and become adults bound by rules, expectations, discipline, and structure. With adulthood comes transformation and growth. With adulthood comes the disintegration of the intuition.
Today, in class, I reflected on both my inner child and my intuition. Before the influence of perfectionism, control, and insecurity affected my decision-making and emotions, I just played. I just lived in the present moment. I knew how to simply be. I think those lines became blurred during adolescence. The transition of developmental stages scared me: my body was changing, my friends were changing, my idea of what constituted as fun was changing. The world felt different: smaller, harsher, and more complex. People seemed to want more out of me, and I was eager to please and perform at my best. But, I didn’t feel confident in these changes. I didn’t know who I was. I started listening to society and believed that I needed to conform to its expectations for me. These covert changes told me to put away my stuffed animals, put on “cool” clothes and learn to wear makeup. Playing became hanging out, girls and boys began to hold each other’s hands on the playground, and those innocent, imaginative days became a blissful montage of my past.
Today, in class, we drew pictures. We scribbled and cut and glued. We played with toys. We created and imagined. We learned how to be therapists, but we also learned how to be children again. How to enter back into the childlike state we all once lived in. How to revert back to simplicity and abstraction. How to rely on intuition, rather than wisdom.
The timing for this course is perfect, for these lessons are so synonymous with my recovery journey. Healing of the eating disorder pathology involves trusting intuition, practicing mindfulness, living in a present state of being, and constantly striving towards adding whatever feels good and eliminating whatever feels bad.
Healing of anything requires those elements.
Children want to heal themselves whenever they hurt: they immediately seek attention and assistance. They avoid pain at all costs, because suffering seems unfathomable. They want bandaids, kisses on their wounds, nurturing hugs,reassurance and love, and then, they want to resume on with their playing. They notice pain, handle pain, and then move on from pain. The dwelling stage does not exist yet.
At one point, do we change from fearing physical aches, stabs, and wounds to literally chasing them by tormenting and punishing our bodies?
At one point, does pain become acceptable? Or addictive? Or part of our existence?
At one point, do we linger and dwell on pain, holding onto it until it becomes too unbearable to let go, for we fear what its absence will bring?
Maybe it’s when when we decide we no longer believe we deserve childlike happiness and self-love. Maybe it’s when we associate self-induced harm as an appropriate means to cope with the turmoil of the world…to cope with the events and stressors usually out of our control. Maybe it’s when we develop futuristic thinking and start to compare the unknown with a dangerous and terrifying place…and so, we decide the familiarity of pain and discomfort must be better than the risk of feeling even worse.
Maybe it’s when we perceive the world as a menacing and rigid place, rather than a limitless universe dictated by the sheer pureness of our own imaginations.
Maybe it’s when everyone else becomes more important than ourselves.
Children fear the demons and monsters they believe exist in the exterior world. A simple check under the bed and reassuring word from a loved one alleviates their worries. We, however, fear the demons and monsters existing in our interior world–the fear lies within. And when we fear ourselves, when we are constantly holding our breaths and walking through life with careful planning, racing minds, and doubtful senses, how can we ever rely on our intuition to guide us to the happiness, freedom, and joy we once held with sticky, fingerprinted hands?