4 Steps to Being a More Playful Therapist

Playful-Golden-retriever-Puppies5087fa3391a4d7542372(By Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP)

Would it surprise you to learn that many therapists need to have more fun at work and in their lives? Take a moment and ask yourself: am I having as much fun as I want at home and at work? How much intention and attention do you give to solving this problem?

My clients and I laugh a lot. We do serious work, too. But I would say that we get more done and have a better time doing it, because there is a culture in my therapy room that includes fun and playfulness. There is a recent post on ACEP’s Facebook page from comedian Jim Carrey. It is one of the most widely seen posts we have ever done. Why? In part because Carrey is so funny. He talks about how humor helps everyone’s inner light shine more brightly. I love that!

I used to run workshops on improvisation for therapists at various conferences. Then I teamed up with Elaine Braff and led the “Power of Play” workshops for therapists. This led to a book for therapists who work with couples titled, We’re No Fun Any More. In the last chapter of the book we spent considerable energy talking about the playful therapist and how to be more playful. The following paragraphs come from the book.

Playful therapists model comfort with their inner creativity and playfulness through demeanor, attitudes, words, and actions. Hopefully they do this both in their personal and professional lives. It is likely that we have our own inhibitions, and therefore, we should seek opportunities for growth in this area. More than one therapist has commented to us that he struggles with a professional super-ego that tells him in a deep booming voice, “You should not act that way. Be professional. Be serious. Be proper.” Other therapists longingly lament, “Oh having more fun in my life and even with my clients sounds so appealing! Somehow, I just don’t do it. I am so busy. I get so bogged down.”

Perhaps clinicians are very much like the couples, who because of the weight of their perceived responsibilities, are “no fun any more”. We assert that because clinicians feel so restricted, stuck in repetition, and frustrated with the results of their efforts, many get burned out. A clinician who is excited, creative, spontaneous, and experiencing the rewards of successful results with clients usually feels more happy and alive in his work.

Without further ado, here are four things you can do to create a more playful culture in your office.

1. Let clients know that humor is welcome by having several books of cartoons in your waiting room. I have The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbs. Have pieces of art in your waiting room or office that are playful. Definitely no Munch paintings.

2. Become more aware of your playful self. Be mindful of your thoughts during sessions, and pay special attention to images and ideas that are more playful, “strange” or funny. Do you think of lines from a sitcom? Does a song ever come into your mind? Do you ever feel the urge to say “that reminds me of a story…” ? What do you do with those things? Do you say them out loud? Do you squelch them? How do you feel about yourself when they happen? Do you worry that if you say it out loud you might offend your client(s)? Find out where your growing edge is on this issue. Are there certain topics that you are more or less playful about?

3. After you have done #2, experiment with pushing the envelope in some way – not a lot, a little. What happens? How do you feel and respond to the push? How does your client respond? Does the relationship between you feel more real or less real? Do you feel anxiety or internal resistance? If so, perhaps some EP work on those feelings and the events that underlie them would be helpful. Consider your relationship to playfulness outside the treatment room as well. Can you play with that growing edge?

4. There are many facets to being more playful. So far, I have focused on the more humorous side. But there is also a more dramatic side to play. For instance, do you ever engage your clients with stories, metaphors or activities? In this mode, being playful refers to generating new and novel experiences that have meaningful and long-lasting impact. If you work with couples, do you ever have the couple embrace in a full hug for one minute? That will generate some experience!

I often tell clients this story: A man (or woman) goes to a doctor and asks for help with headaches. The doctor asks, “When do you get the headaches?” The patient answers, “Every time I hit my head with a hammer!” We usually chuckle and then talk about how the client metaphorically hits himself or herself in the head with a hammer. This image or phrase is like a “musical hook” that is easy to remember, like the four notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. You can hear them now, can’t you? I want my clients to remember the therapeutic hook outside the office. The goal is to help the client catch themselves doing things that don’t work and then bringing that to the treatment.

What do you already do along these lines? What stories do you already tell? Give yourself permission to do more. Can you take the most important ideas that you want clients to learn and create a hook around each one? If it is an activity, ask the client if he or she would be willing to try an experiment. Assuming they say yes, have them do the activity and then discuss.

Western culture puts a heavy emphasis on seriousness and work. I think very few of us would say that we should be more serious and more earnest in our lives. I am always a little amazed at how most of us would agree that we need to play, laugh and be joyful more often, both at work and at home. Hopefully, this article can help nudge you in that direction.

Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP

Author, Tools for Transforming Trauma and We’re No Fun Anymore

ACEP Executive Director



  1. Philippe Isler says:

    Great post, Bob. Thank you for the reminder. Playfulness is a conduit for, and a sign of, energy flowing. This is what I call the level of embodying what we do. If our intention is to help unblock/facilitate energy flow in our clients, then it is useful (imperative?) that we facilitate that in ourselves, and giving ourselves permission to tune into and express our own unique playfulness is a very important part of that. Being lively is being alive!

    • Yes Phillipe, While the book itself only mention’s EP in passing. At a deeper level it is all about flow. Playfulness is both a sign of flow and it facilitates flow.

  2. Having more fun is important in and occupation, such as psychotherapy.

    The other thing is doing therapy over and over and getting bored to some degree. The way to get less bored is to get very interesting information and get more skilled at doing therapy.

    There are numerous, psychotherapist who found that energy psychology treatments meet both of these needs.

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