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The Importance Of Play And Fun In Relational Trauma Recovery Work

The importance of play and fun in relational trauma recovery work. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

I have two friends in my life whose natural way of being in the world defaults to fun, play, and to moving towards what feels good to them.

They wear the colors, fabrics, and clothes they love, they take up the hobbies that their heart longs for, they fill their days and weeks with action and choices that feel good and fun and easy to them.

I marvel at these two friends of mine. 

Their default in life is to move towards joy and play.

The importance of play and fun in relational trauma recovery work. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

The Importance Of Play And Fun In Relational Trauma Recovery Work

Let me be clear: I do not do that.

I am the person who, at six years old, asked if I could be a Pilgrim for Halloween. A Pilgrim.

I am the person who, at age 10, was checking books out of the local island library about the sinking of the Titanic, the Salem Witch Trials, and the Holocaust.

I’m the person who, at 17 in her high school valedictorian speech, talked about the role we must all play in social justice and what collective responsibility looks like.

I’m the person who launched a trauma-informed therapy center when her daughter was three months old.

I am a person who defaults to hard work, self-sacrifice and confronting the hard and the unjust.

But defaulting to joy and play and ease?

No, that is not naturally me.

Seeking out joy and play is a life skill I’m still working on because I believe that actively building play and fun into life is a critical skill to develop, particularly when we come from adverse early beginnings.

To read more about my journey with this and what it actually means to develop the skill of seeking out fun and play, keep reading.

The importance of play and fun in relational trauma recovery work.

Following up from a few weeks ago when we talked about how building a beautiful adulthood for ourselves is the end goal of relational trauma recovery work, I firmly believe that actively seeking out and moving towards fun and play is an integral part of this end goal.

Why?

Because play and fun help create that sense of vitality and enlivenment that can so often help us feel as though we’re actually living, versus just treading water through our days.

Seeking out play and fun is, in my personal and professional experience, our natural state that we have as children (my daughter models this for me day in and day out), but when we go through traumatic early experiences, this normal and natural impulse may be impeded by how we self-organize to cope with that trauma.

So then, part of supporting ourselves as adults as we seek to heal and overcome our adverse beginnings is to recognize and undo any mental and behavioral conditioning that’s impeding that natural impulse inside of us.

Again, all with the end goal of helping ourselves feel as vital and enlivened as possible as adults, despite our adverse early beginnings.

But what the heck even feels like fun and play?

But what exactly *is* fun and play?

Fun and play. “What feels like fun and play to you?”

If you’re like me, this seemingly easy question can feel hard, murky, if not downright impossible to answer when you come from a relational trauma background.

Again, many of us, when coming from adverse early beginnings, may have been robbed of our childhood in some ways and found that that natural impulse to move towards play and fun got obscured by other ways we had to be (or imagined we had to be) in order to preserve our sense of belonging and safety with our families and communities of origin.

We may have shortchanged and devalued play and fun over other choices that kept us safe or that numbed or lessened the amount of suffering we felt back then.

So many of us arrive into adulthood and into relational trauma recovery work feeling blank when someone asks us, “What does fun and play feel like to you?”

And so, first, before offering up a wider definition of what fun and play mean, I want to first normalize and validate how hard it can feel to answer this question if you, like me, came and come from a relational trauma background.

I want to acknowledge too, that, even if you don’t come from a relational trauma background, it can still feel incredibly hard (if not impossible) to answer this question as an adult navigating this exhausting, demanding world that implicitly and explicitly demands our hours and days be Capitalistically “productive and worthy” and that denies us the appropriate amount of social and structural supports to rest and have space for more fun and play.

And finally, I want to name that, if you’re an adult raising small children while attempting to work in year two of a global pandemic, you’re probably so burned out and weary that you have zero mental or emotional energy available to remotely fathom how to answer this question.

Your only true hunger that you can pinpoint right now is for rest.

And I want to suggest that after you have met this need and tended to your burnout, you might have the mental and emotional bandwidth to answer what play and rest feel like for you. But probably not before.

So with all that said, recognizing that each of us may arrive at asking the question, “What feels like fun and play to you?” with different sources of impediment to an easy answer, I want to offer up a more expansive definition of fun and play can look like to help you brainstorm your own ideas about this.

A more expansive definition of fun and play.

First, as you think about what fun and play look like to you, I want you to consider that play and fun are subjective.

Meaning what feels like play and fun to you will be unique and not necessarily what play and fun may look like to me. 

For example, my three-year-old daughter’s subjective definition of fun is this: a playground. All playgrounds, all the time, wherever and however she can get them. 

And if she’s not physically on a playground, she wants to “play” building playgrounds for her Schleich animal figurines with her MagnaTiles. 

I’ve got to be honest: all of this isn’t that much fun for me. And that’s okay. I still take her to playgrounds all the time and I’ve become masterful at building MagnaTile playgrounds for her. And while I love seeing her happy, these activities don’t fill my cup.

Similarly, I have a highly extroverted best friend who finds it fun to gather groups of people together while she hosts events (this was, of course, in pre-pandemic times). 

But, for me as a hardcore introvert, this does not feel like play and fun. The last time I hosted an event was my own baby shower and it took quite a bit out of me to do it. 

So again, there’s no one definitive definition of fun and play. It’s going to be totally subjective for you.

Next, I want you to consider that play and fun are ever-changing. 

What feels like fun and play to you at one point in your life may very well not feel like fun and play at another time.

For example, when I was in my late twenties, play and fun felt like staying up to midnight, gathering around the firepits at Esalen under the stars, talking and singing, walking home in the wee small hours to grab a few hours of rest before work.

Now, peeking around the corner at 40, shortchanging my sleep in any way does not feel like play and fun.

And while that memory is romantic to revisit, I know for a fact that I would not choose it now at this age with the set of responsibilities I hold now. So again, play and fun change as we age and evolve, the definition of what feels like fun and play to us will be ever-changing.

Next, I want you to consider that play and fun don’t have to be a stand-alone, single-focus event (like a hobby or a single activity we do at one time). 

Instead, I think play and fun can involve stacking functions.

Stacking functions is a term borrowed from the permaculture movement to describe how you can combine and plan elements together to yield the highest output. 

While this primarily is used to describe plotting and planning with food forests and gardens, I think of it in terms of the question, “And how can I combine fun and play into obligatory responsibilities I hold anyway?”

In this way, I’m doing something that needs to get done but also incorporating elements of fun and play into it.

For example: Listening to Outlander on Audible when doing dishes or folding laundry, being deliciously entertained even while I do chores. 

Or organizing my daughter’s clothing in her closet to hang by rainbow hues so I’m visually delighted even as I’m working towards household organization. 

Or Voxer’ing with my best girlfriend as I run around and tidy the house. 

My definition of fun and play invites the possibility that this can co-exist with the things we otherwise have to do in our lives.

And finally, the last element of a more expansive definition of fun and play that I’d like you to consider is this: fun and play can happen in small nibbles versus big, grandiose movements.

Few of us have the time and space to cultivate big, grandiose play and fun events (like a hot air balloon ride over the Arizona desert, or a kid-free multi-week trip to a Japanese zen retreat). 

So instead, consider that fun and play can happen in small nibbles and that we can actively, daily cultivate this.

For instance, this might look like choosing a 90’s music Peloton ride over heavy metal (because 90’s music simply makes you happy). 

Or this can look like watching Modern Family over Handmaid’s Tale in the evening before bed – moving towards light and ease versus dark and heavy. 

Or perhaps this looks like streaming a Disney playlist that evokes early childhood nostalgia on the radio versus NPR during your morning commute.

Fun and play don’t have to be big and grandiose (though that’s totally fine if it is!): it can happen in small nibbles, too, and it still absolutely counts.

What does it mean to actively develop this skill of seeking out fun and play?

So now, sitting with a more expansive definition of fun and play and recognizing that fun and play is subjective, ever-changing, totally permissible if it comes with stacking functions and if it happens in small nibbles, I’ll ask you again:

What does fun and play look like to you and how much are you building this into your daily life?

If you’re still struggling to answer this question, here are some further prompts for you to consider:

  • What evokes delight, aliveness, joy, happiness, or even contentment for you? Can you see any of these things as potential sources of fun and play?
  • Ask, what used to light you up? What did you love as a kid and teen? If you can’t remember, who can you ask who might remember instead? What do childhood pictures show you about what it seems like you used to enjoy?
  • If you still have no clue, could you treat yourself like you would your beloved child and consider exposing yourself to a wide range of potential interests and hobbies so you can get to know what evokes positive feelings in you now as an adult (for instance: taking a horseback riding lesson, signing up for guitar or singing lessons, buying watercolors and watching Youtube tutorials).
  • If you do know what fun and play look like for you, what would it take to weave this into your daily life more? What is stopping you from doing this? What stories do you have about the value of fun and play that might be limiting how much you let yourself have this?

This list of questions and prompts is just the tip of the iceberg: I delve into this topic with my therapy clients and my online course students at greater length.

So if you’re curious about receiving support around this topic – or around any other component of relational trauma recovery work – please reach out to my offices. I’d be honored to support you.

But for now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Do you know what fun and play looks like for you? What are some of the activities, hobbies, and choices that you make on a daily basis that help bring you more joy and play into your adult life? How – if at all – has incorporating more fun and play into your adult life supported your healing journey?

If you feel so inclined, please leave a comment below so our community of 20,000+ blog readers can benefit from your wisdom and life experience.

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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