Podcast #6: Play and Its Role in Relationships


If you prefer to read rather than listen, here is a transcript of the podcast.
(Also available in PDF format.)
Note: portions of the text may be slightly edited for clarity in written form.

Dr. Jerry: Good morning, this is Dr. Jerry, and I welcome you to, The Psychotherapist’s Corner 1490 WGCH. Last week I spoke about work, and how work helps us find our own competence. And yet how careful we have to be that if we lose our job for example, we don’t start feeling that we’ve lost all of our competence. In that instance, we want to avoid the thought that we have nothing to offer the world and consequently we have no way of supporting ourselves. In other words, we want to avoid a self-defeating attitude that can easily lead to depression. Understandable, but one has to try to avoid it.

Today I’m going to speak about a human quality that can lead us away from depression, and anxiety. I’m going to talk about a common activity, namely play, in a much wider context than we usually think about it. One of the essential aspects of enjoying our lives depends on our capacity to play. Incidentally, I just want to reiterate what I’ve mentioned in past shows. It was Sigmund Freud who spoke about one of the essential goals of life being able to love and to work, …to love and to work. The English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, I’ve mentioned him a few times added to that, the capacity to play. Within that context, that’s what I’ve been talking about these past few broadcasts. To love, and to work, and to play.

What do I mean by the capacity to play? Are we just talking about games? Not really, we’re talking about something that is particularly human. That is our capacity for sustained creative interaction with each other and with the world. I believe that play is creatively interacting with each other. Play is a special area in human experience. In it’s widest possible meaning, play has to do with something else we spoke about. Namely the way we humans create civilization. Civilization as you know, just doesn’t happen. We hopefully build it up, we homo sapiens insist on destroying it every couple of years, but we seem to recuperate and then continue to build it up.

Actually if we’re going to understand individual psychology, we have to understand it in such a wide cultural framework. No human being is self-created. We all function in a particular culture, we speak a particular language, and we live by certain beliefs. All of that is what we really mean by culture. That’s what creates civilization.

Play is another way we describing how we humans interact with each other. Not only on the game field, but in the fields of art and law, of education, of music and medicine, as well as and perhaps most importantly, in friendships and relationships. Now what do I mean by that? To answer that, I want to give my listeners a little quiz. What do you think is wrong with the following situation?

A young girl, let’s call her Margaret, any where between say five or six years old. Goes into her room and colors a picture. When she’s done, she excitedly comes out and gives it to her mother, and tells her mother, she made a picture for her. The mother, a person who’s dedicated to facts and rules, told Margaret…. no, she did had not made the picture; all she did was to color in some numbers on a page. Margaret, feeling dejected, returns to her room. If we put aside the mother’s bad manners, what else do you think is missing?

I’m actually sorry, on occasions, that this is not a call in show. since there are many possible answers to that question. But from my point of view, what is missing is an essentially element of play and also an essentially element of friendship and relationships. What the mother is missing is what we call a capacity for cross identification. Or to say the same thing in everyday language, the mother’s willingness as well as her ability to put herself, so to speak ,in her daughters shoes….to put herself in Margaret’s shoes.

The little girl wanted to give mommy a gift. She didn’t want a lesson about coloring by numbers, and original works of art. The mother in this story was functioning as just an outside observer. Not putting herself, so to speak in her daughter’s shoes. That’s a simple phrase obviously, and yet it has profound meaning. Before going further, again I keep returning. I hope I’m not burdening our listeners. I keep returning to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And as I mentioned last week, notice that when Snow White is brought in by the Seven Dwarfs and they tell her you can rest here, we’re going out to work. She makes dinner then she goes to sleep. She understands that when they come home, they’re going to be hungry. And so she’s anticipated their need and attempted to answer it. She put herself in their shoes. …this is a very simple sentence, but it is actually essential for civilization as well as a human accomplishment that we have to understand and develop within our-self.

What makes cooperation possible from simple doing certain tasks together, to friendships, to relationships, is the ability an in obviously varying degrees to put ourselves in another persons shoes. To anticipate how they might feel if such and such happens. That is to understand their hopes and dreams, because we have hopes and dreams. And our hopes and dreams are community experiences, there not just selfish possessions.

That the mother in our story was not able to show Margaret this level of sensitivity is just sad. Given a history like that, unfortunately with a mom like that, such a child might very likely grow up with less capacity to understand capacity to understand those around her, her friends or family. That is , it might very well be harder for her to feel another persons insides so to speak. Sense her emotional insides were not recognized when she was growing up…her actions were categorized, her emotions were not recognized.

It’s very important when we raise children we do both. Obviously we have to teach them right and wrong as we understand right and wrong. Obviously we have to teach them reality. One stops at a red light, one doesn’t go through it because you feel like doing it. Obviously there’s a difference between a Van Gogh, and coloring by numbers. That’s secondary though to responding to a child’s emotions. When we can respond to a child’s emotions genuinely it will be much easier for us to teach them all the other things. If we don’t respond to a child’s emotions, it’s going to be much more difficult to teach them all the other things.

Now obviously one incident does not in itself predict future experiences. This Margaret might grow up because of her innocence deprivation; she might actually grow up to be extremely sensitive, recognizing that she hadn’t been given a level of sensitivity. But we try to avoid those extremes by being good enough parents.

I’m assuming for the sake of our discussion that the mother’s approach would be repeated obviously over and over again in different circumstances as the child develops. For that young child, for Margaret, her picture was the most wonderful gift in the world that she could possibly give her mother. Her mother’s focusing on the gift and informing her child that it’s not an original work of art, is an example of what we call, obsessive compulsive thinking. With just a little touch of the queen’s narcissism thrown in.

Usually when we suffer from obsessive-compulsive thinking, which means that everything gets categorized and organized. Everything is put in its place and the person, usually unconsciously extraordinarily proud of themselves for being so well organized and being so efficient. That’s what I mean by the queen’s narcissism. But when obsessive-compulsive mechanisms take over, and they take over quite a bit, we really lose a sense of our emotional connection first of all to our self, then to those around us.

Our relationships become organized rather than spontaneous, rather than a capacity of play. Play as I am using the term here. Coming together with another person in a kind of intermediate place. A little bit like a place of make-believe. Obsessive-compulsive mechanisms really force excessive self-preoccupation. In this case the mother had to make sure she was literally correct, and teaching her daughter the difference between an original work of art and her work of art, she missed the forest for the trees, unfortunately.

When we go to a movie or a play, when we listen to music or see art, in all it’s forms, when we read literature we are in a certain sense really going into a special world. A world that is not just our own imagination and yet is not just outside us functioning like things around us, like traffic moving around us. It’s like a middle world, it’s a middle world for lack of a better term, a middle world of make believe where the play is real, the novel is real, the music transports us. That is a world where we actually experience a different type of reality. Margaret in this short episode was entering that special world of creativity. Mother unfortunately didn’t know how to foster it.

This is the deepest meaning of play. How societies organize themselves comes from such a special in-between place. That’s why actually many of the old Greek philosophers said that one thing that helps civilizations is expose people to good music, to good plays, to good literature, I don’t mean by that highbrow, I just mean that which is real, which touches human beings on the inside, it gets us out of our self and into another persons shoes. That is the best anecdote to narcissism.

I’ve spoken a great deal about narcissism in these show so far, because I really feel as I have mentioned before a virulent virus that affects all of us. Not maliciously, we don’t chose to be narcissistic maliciously but our self-preoccupation gets in the way of hearing another person. Of putting our self in their shoes, of understanding where they are coming from, because they may happen to differ from us on opinions about child raising, opinions on people living together on political opinions, religious opinions.

One has to be particularly careful, I think, in political and religious opinions that we try to stay with the facts and not with the kind of narcissistic fortress that we build around us, because it won’t really help us. The mother in our story didn’t go along with Margaret’s make believe. She didn’t put herself, as I mentioned, in her daughter’s shoes. She didn’t feel her daughter’s generosity or foster her budding creativity. That’s what I mean by obsessive compulsive. She missed all that, she simply named what was going on, but she missed the reality. She focused just on the object. There was no common ground between mother and daughter where they could meet, and in a sense play make believe together. You can imagine something like the following.

The mother saying, oh, what a beautiful painting you are going to be an absolutely great artist some day. Mommy loves your gift, thank you so much. Now it’s possible the girl, Margaret could grow up to be a great artist, not likely but quite possibly, so here mother is not giving her reality, she’s giving her an emotional gift of encouragement, of creativity and she’s saying I’m going to play make believe with you. But it’s not the make believe of frivolous nonsense it’s the make believe that builds up our sense of self worth.

Many times when you’re working with adults and they have very little self worth, this is not something that can be addressed with just formulas. And it certainly can’t be addressed with drugs. It has to be addressed by them going back an understanding perhaps how they were treated, not with any sense of judging their parents and pinning the tail on their parents. I don’t mean it that way at all. But going back and kind of digging and understanding that maybe mom or dad were just not able to respond to something inside. Maybe they were so concerned with putting food on the table, with raising one’s brothers and sisters, with surviving their own relationship that they were just not able to create that special in between place. And it’s that special in-between place where we learn how to feel real and how to have self worth. That’s what we need, self worth.

Only when we play make believe so to speak, only when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes, can we experience some sense of other people’s needs and not just our own. I’m not knocking our own needs obviously, but our own needs if you just step back a little bit, more times than not are communal, they’re not just selfish.

As we know now in this present economic nightmare that we’re living through, our economic needs are communal, somehow we forgot that, and people just took the money and ran, like Woody Allen’s old movie. Everyone thought the goal was take the money and run. Well when we take the money and run we all suffer and perhaps if we can come through this and learn that it’s not quite that simple that there’s a community aspect even to business. There’s a community aspect even to supporting our self, even to personal saving there’s a community aspect. Why we might improve our selves and our culture at the same time.

Play is our capacity to meet others on common ground, i.e., we’re all in this together. When we are free and not oppressed by mere functions of just doing things..
But let me take a break now, and I’ll be back in just a minute.

Dr. Jerry: Hi, this is Dr. Jerry talking to you again from The Psychotherapist’s Corner. Now more specifically we’re talking this morning about play. When we watch sports events, particularly if you’re involved with sports, when we watch sports events we can feel the victories, particularly if it’s a team that we support. And unfortunately we can feel the defeat as well, as if they are our own. The victories are our own, and the defeats are our own. Now why is that possible, how is that possible?

It’s possible because of what we’re talking about this morning. Cross identification, we’re on that field. We not only admire our hero’s competence and prowess and expertise, but somehow part of us is out there on the ice with them, on the field with them, that’s cross-identification. True we admire their skill as I just mentioned. But we put ourselves in their shoes as well.

Greedy people, are not just persons who may hoard things and not share, they are greedy because they make no effort to put themselves in another persons shoes. The normal meaning of greedy is someone who hoards everything from them self. The most dangerous thing we can hoard is our emotional sympathy, our capacity for empathy…our capacity for cross identification.

Spouses can be ungenerous with each other. Not just on how they may handle the household finances, but in withholding a willingness to understand their spouse’s emotional history, and therefore to have more generosity toward them. Putting yourself in your spouse’s shoes is, so to speak, one of the best ways to resolving difficulties. Every couple brings their personal history to their marriage. Every couple when they get married particularly when they have children, they are reliving part of their childhood with the children they have. They are reliving part of their childhood in the role that they play, man or woman. That is, how they experience their fathers or their mothers. That’s okay, as long as you know it. Unfortunately many couples can acknowledge that somewhat, but they really don’t understand that if a husband, for example, has had a very demanding mother, for example, a mother who for what ever reason was terribly preoccupied when the child when he was growing up and he had to do a lot of work around the house …maybe make supper now and then… do a lot of the cleaning, because mother was out doing a hundred different things. In that situation for the husband to be somewhat withholding from his wife is not necessarily mean. In that situation the husband is reliving an expectation from a woman that he hasn’t quite brought to consciousness yet. A wife can help a husband in that situation by understanding where he’s coming from. Putting herself in his shoes, and then trying to work it out from there.

When I’ve spoken of sweeping the chimney and understanding and cleaning out all memories, or confronting old patterns I had such situations in mind.. I was also focusing on the need to feel the sunlight of others in our life.

One of the basic goals of any psychotherapy should be to help us cross identify with others. It has to make cooperation pleasant, make friendship mutual and in this context make play as we’ve talked about it possible. One reason why raising adolescents is so difficult is that adolescents have little capacity to put themselves in their parent’s shoes. They’re just getting use to their own sort of speak. And another person’s shoes are alien and different and consequently cooperation to an adolescent seems like capitulation. Once a person is more stable in who they are, they can play at being another person, they can play at being another person…they can cross identify without feeling depleted, rather they feel expanded.

If we cannot love generously, if we cannot work competently, if we cannot play freely, then we have some wires crossed in the grid-work of our lives. And when that happens we’re usually not much help to our friends, families or the particular society we’re living in. Yet only by being a help to all those around us, I believe, will we be on our way to feeling real, and I’ve spoken about that repeatedly, to feeling alive, despite all the sorrow and setbacks that every one of us go through. Feeling alive doesn’t mean skipping down the yellow brick road happily ever after, that’s only in the movies.

What I’m saying here is that sensible happiness is not a private possession but an accomplishment within the small and large societies that we live in. I enjoy a sports victory with my fellow fans. I share my happiness over a child’s accomplishments with my spouse. I clap together with others in the theater, or at the end of a good speech. Because of this basic capacity we have which I have called cross identification. Cross identification again doesn’t mean I relinquish my sense of self. I’m not talking about that. I’m not saying I’m less important than someone else.

In the example I mentioned before a wife or a husband, has to try to understand where their spouse is coming from. That is not saying that the wife or husband is less important. It means I won’t understand their communications unless I know the context. Unless I, in a sense, talk from their place. I listen to them, and I’m also talking from their place. I grasp that, oh, you know the reason why he’s so reluctant to help me with the household cleaning is because my poor husband had to do the house cleaning between 12 and 16 because his mother forgot to do it, or whatever. So let me not regard that as just being mean to me or not being helpful to me. Let me understand that maybe I can talk to him about that and maybe we can bring it out into the sunlight.

Out of the chimney, into the sunlight. That’s what we’re doing in therapy. Out of the chimney, out of the soot, soot that is dangerous for us. That can build up and destroy the house, into the sunlight of awareness.

Awareness helps a great deal. I clap together with others in the theater, at the end of a good speech. Because of this basic capacity we have which I’ve called cross identification. If you think about it also, every atom in our body is connected with every other atom in the universe. That is just remarkable, I get dizzy when I think of that. Every atom in our body is connected with every other atom in the universe. That’s what we mean by cross identification….that we are ultimately connected.. Quantum physics says that we all live as if we’re all separate little systems. Ourselves are separate systems, our countries, and our societies are all separate little systems, and out planet is a separate system, etc., etc. The reality is the opposite, there is only one system, and that is the cosmos. And everything is connected with everything else. Even our rather insignificant planet given the extent of the universe, our planet is very insignificant, and therefore we should understand ourselves and correct the queen’s narcissism with that awareness. If the planet is insignificant, we can think about our own personal importance.

Well if we can bring that awareness down to our personal lives, we will have accomplished a great deal. We, as I have said before, we will not fell depleted, I am convinced, we will feel expanded.

Thank you for listening this morning, this is Dr. Jerry, The Psychotherapist’s Corner, 1490 WGCH, talk to you next week.

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