by Gwen McCauley, guest blogger
It was 1995. I was 47. I had recently received the biggest promotion of my life through hard work, dedication and a strategic mind. And I discovered in a moment of devastating insight that I was unable to play. What the hell was wrong with me?
My executive team had one of those team-building events so popular then. Are they still? Our first evening was to get to know one another. Yay. We were to find others with similar interests and spend the evening doing whatever. I stood helplessly and watched as my colleagues split into small groups to play bridge, work a jigsaw puzzle, shoot pool or play board games.
And there I stood; frozen to the spot, watching people laugh with one another, effortlessly considering their options, their ability to do a variety of fun things, while I felt an overwhelming urge to scoot into the kitchen, pick up a cloth and get busy.
My life flashed before me: a parade of family gatherings, weddings, picnics, and work parties scrolled by, all with me being helpful and useful from the working side of the counter. I was laughing, seemed to be enjoying myself, but was always serving others. I realized that all my life my definition of ‘having fun’ had been making myself useful while others played. People only accepted me if I was useful.
I was horrified. That startling moment showed me how deeply my need to be useful ran — and how equally shallow was my ability to be playful in the way most ‘normal’ people were. I realized my ability to connect deeply with others was impeded.
I simply wasn’t able to kick back and enjoy myself.
So I committed myself to learning how to do that: to play. To figuring out how to be playful, to be okay with not always being of use, to allowing myself to matter for no other reason than I breathe. And if nobody liked me, well I’d deal with that.
It was a years long process involving workshops, writing poetry, and learning to paint. I discovered James Carse’s fantastic little book Finite & Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. It rocked my world to its core.
Not only did I begin to see myself and others in a different light, I discovered a path into that mystery called being playful. I knew intuitively that play was critical for deep relaxation and stress reduction. I hadn’t realized how important it was to letting go of corrosive anger, to connecting deeply with people, to radiating positivity and to remaining physically and psychologically robust.
Remaining mindful was critical to the becoming playful process: to notice my need to ‘be useful’ as and when it moved deep inside; to sit with the urge and its accompanying awkwardness and discomfort; to let myself play instead of work and be willing to accept other people’s perceived judgement – which was seldom negative, I discovered.
And to learn to bask in the love they showered on me in the more and more frequent moments of shared intimacy. Playing with people is deeply intimate, I discovered. You are vulnerable when you play; barriers must, by definition, be down.
Today, I am playful even with serious things. I laugh deeply, richly, and supportively. I am known for my smile, my laugh, and my willingness to engage. Unlike back then when my superficial capacity to smile, be optimistic and to laugh was great camouflage for my deep need to always be of use, today I am an invitation to playfulness. It resonates with people in a wonderful way.
If playing in life is a challenge for you, a good starting point might be to discover what drives your inability to play. What is your inner seriousness in service of? How does it continue to benefit you?
Gwen McCauley: writer, author, life coach. Gwen helps businesses and academics present themselves to a lay audience. She writes about personal growth, sexuality and aging, Gwen splits her time between Halifax, Nova Scotia — Canada’s Ocean Playground and the Algarve, Portugal. www.gwenmccauley.ca