A few years ago, I was taking my little nephew for a walk in his stroller while on a visit to Germany. I started running down the street, making race car noises and he was giggling and laughing loudly. Then this couple stepped out in front of us and blocked the path. I tried to play with them and made revving noises while I waited for them to move. But they wouldn’t. They just stood there, frozen and annoyed and wouldn’t let me pass or get out of the way. It sort of killed the momentum and I remember getting quite annoyed with them. Why did they have to be so grumpy? Why couldn’t they just play along?
It wasn’t until a couple of days later (I was slower at this back then) that I started to ponder why I had allowed their behavior to bother me at all. I could’ve easily continued to play, pretending they were stop signs or statues or something. But they were being staunch, serious adults (they were my age, BTW, not old biddies) and that made me self-conscious of what a kid I was being. Suddenly, I felt the need to be more grown up, and it was THIS thought that annoyed me. The idea that it wasn’t ok to be silly and giddy and playful. What an awful feeling thought.
We are here to play
Whoever decided that we had to grow up and be serious as we got older got it wrong. Never mind all the studies that show that we are more productive when we’re in a state of play, that our creativity and problem solving abilities soar or that we’re much better able to handle stress. All of those are great reasons to play. But really, I only need one: It feels really, really good. Who We Really Are loves to play. When we are silly, when we play like children, when we use our imaginations and turn our everyday environments into what we want them to be, when we actively defy our training to “face reality”, we are actually much closer to our natural state than at any other time. Playing is who we are, which is why it feels to damn good.
Why we don’t play more
So, why don’t we play more? Because we’re taught not to. We’re taught that it’s not appropriate, that it’s not professional, not grown up. We’re told that there’s no time for that (playing is a waste of time, apparently), that we have to be serious, knuckle down, plow through the unpleasant business of what we have to do to get where we want to go, even if it makes us terribly unhappy to do so.
I’ve always had a tendency to play, to be silly, to make jokes (why are the most inappropriate jokes the funniest?). But for many years, I did my best to suppress it. When it did leak out, as it inevitably had to, I’d spend a few minutes being silly, making people laugh, only to have some grumpy robot tell me to “grow up”. And that would stop me in my tracks. I’d see myself through their eyes and imagine how silly I looked. I’d remember that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I had to conform. I had to let all my colors drain out of me and become gray, faded, washed out, boring, tired, sad, stoic, emotionless, humorless, passionless, lifeless. I’d feel ashamed of my silly side, like one of those dreams where you’re at school or work and you suddenly realize that you’re totally naked. I’d slipped and lost myself in the moment, like an unruly child who had to be tamed and controlled. And that’s precisely what I tried to do – I tried to control my happy nature. And boy did it cost me dearly.
A self imposed prison
But, while I felt like I was in prison, like I wasn’t allowed to be who I really was, it was really me who was placing that restriction on myself. I was trying to conform to other people’s rules, to other people’s beliefs that I could not get ahead and make money, make a contribution to society, or be accepted by others, while being silly. Sure, there were exceptions, like being a comedian, but that was show business. I couldn’t have a normal job and make a decent living while being silly. I couldn’t meet my boyfriend’s parents, get a car loan, go to dinner at a nice restaurant, or stand in line at the bank and be a person who also loved to play. It just wasn’t done. Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking about coming to my corporate job wearing a tutu or making fart noises during a business meeting (although, seriously, that would’ve improved many of the meetings I had to attend). I’m talking about allowing myself to be playful when I should’ve felt safe to do so.
I worked in a corporate culture that didn’t allow playfulness. Fair enough. The problem was twofold:
- I had the belief that this is how it was – that other companies were the same and that I’d better learn to suppress this side of myself if I wanted to be successful anywhere.
- I took on the corporate persona, and didn’t drop it when I left the office. It impacted my playfulness even when I wasn’t at work (which wasn’t all that often, to be fair).
The main limiting belief running underneath all of this was that it mattered what others thought. I needed them to approve of me so that I could be successful. Me getting what I wanted was dependent on their opinion of me. And since they didn’t like silliness, that part of me had to stay hidden.
The small but growing rebellion
So, that’s how I rolled. For years. I did my best to conform, ignoring how awful it made me feel. My silliness would squish out from time to time, though, in small but rebellious ways.
- I had an amazing, sexy, colorful, very expensive shoe collection. Oh my GAWD they were fabulous. Unfortunately, most of these shoes went to better homes after I lost weight. I actually went down a shoe size and my gorgeous heels no longer fit. I didn’t feel the need to replace them, though.
- I had a bald friend and whenever I saw him, I pretended to wax and buff his head, complete with squeaka-sweaka noises. It made me giggle until I nearly peed. I couldn’t not do it. Thankfully, he tolerated me.
- Whenever I came across stuffed animals, I’d make them have inappropriate conversations (I’d do the voices), then dance and then do dirty, dirty things to each other, complete with porno noises. Ok, I still do that. I just can’t help it. Don’t judge me. (And no, I don’t do this in front of kids.)
- I’d sometimes start giggling for no apparent reason (I’d have an absurd thought of some kind) and then wouldn’t be able to stop, or even breathe long enough to explain what the hell was so funny. Mind you, this didn’t happen at work, but on the rare occasion that I’d relax a bit. It was as though all the laughter got stored up when I didn’t let it out and then just burst forth all at once. I’d laugh so long and hard that others would start laughing just because they saw me. They caught the laughter. It was as though it had to come out.
None of these little ways of rebellion were enough to undo the damage that suppressing my real personality was doing, but they did at least relieve the pressure here and there.
And then I realized something…
All those grumpy robot people who loved to criticize the “immature” and silly, were just incredibly unhappy. And when an unhappy person is faced with someone who is having a good time for no apparent reason, it makes them feel their unhappiness more acutely than ever. But, because they don’t have the self awareness to realize that how they feel is their own responsibility, they exercise the only option they think they have: they do their best to shame the happy person into being just as miserable as they are, so that they don’t have to feel their own depression as much.
Everyone wants to play. Most people just don’t think they’re allowed to.
Deep down, the grumpy robots want to play too, but they believe that they have to conform. They’ve let themselves become grey. And they resent anyone who dares to flaunt their colors, who dares to be silly and playful and to feel free. The silly have what the grumpy want but think they can’t have. And if they can’t have it, then no one should, damn it.
This realization set me free, not all at once, mind you, but over the next few months. I relaxed more, found ways to let my personality out in ways that weren’t inappropriate (again, no fart noises in business meetings). I laughed more easily, didn’t take things so seriously, smiled a lot more, hugged more easily, threw away the grey suit and put on the colored-y one.
What good could come of all that playing?
And, as I played more, as I let Who I Really Am come out more and more, my life started to change. Sure, I made other changes as well, had other realizations, but this was a big one, linked directly to my willingness and ability to be truly authentic. I eventually left that corporate world. I now get paid to speak my mind, to be myself. My readers and clients actually appreciate my silly sense of humor. When I see a child and the opportunity is right (i.e. their parents won’t think I’m a kidnapper), I play as fiercely and with as much commitment as another kid would. I still do the dirty, dirty stuffed animal thing (I truly can’t help myself. It’s just too funny. Maybe someday I’ll make a video…), I play with my food (oh hell yes, I do), I dance while walking down the street (I don’t mean that I walk with a bop in my step. I mean I start to actually shake it if the song grips me), I crack jokes whenever they occur to me, I even use humor in my coaching to highlight the absurdity of a belief or to diffuse potentially tense moments. And because I do this, not to be noticed or to rebel, but rather just as a natural expression of Who I Really Am, I no longer get chastised for it. I’m not aware of those who disapprove (I wouldn’t care if I was). I’m no longer embarrassed. I no longer meet up with the grumpy robots. Now, I meet up with others who also like to play, others who are silly and colorful and unafraid to be who they really are. Now, I’m no longer in prison. I’m no longer grey.
I don’t care if others don’t let themselves play. I don’t care if they won’t allow themselves to walk barefoot, or roll down a hill, or make revving engine noises when they pretend that a small boy’s stoller is a race car, or allow themselves to share in the giggling delight of that child when they do so. Just because they live in a grey prison of their own making, doesn’t mean that I have to. Won’t you join me? Let go and play together! You know, if you think you can handle it… 😉