Back in the days when I was a pirate, I remember there were some fierce battles. They played a significant part in a wider conflict that has formed a background to my whole life ever since.
Of course, my pirate days were long ago…
In fact, I must have been only about five years old at the time I’m thinking of. Our ship was an old table in the yard. An observer would have seen a bunch of little kids running around, yelling, clambering on to the table and jumping off it again. That’s one way of interpreting what was going on — nothing more meaningful than some little kids running around the yard yelling.
Our own way of interpreting it at the time was as a game. At five, you have some idea of what’s real and what’s not. There’s no sense in which the ship could be said to be a delusion. It was deliberate make-believe, designed to be scary-exciting.
A third way of interpreting it is that little kids do things like that to develop their social skills, to practise managing conflict. It’s in that sense that the pirate battles were part of a larger conflict that has formed a background to my whole life ever since.
If I can now log on to some website or attend a meeting and express an opinion, and have it fiercely disagreed with by someone else, and stand my ground just as fiercely, it’s probably something to do with learning as a little kid that I could yell at another little kid, and he yell back, and no real harm would come of it. It’s a sense of the interplay between cooperation and conflict that goes back to childhood games.
It’s the same for everyone. Whether or not you were a pirate, you certainly learned to manage social cooperation and conflict through play.
The point about this that I want to focus on is that the make-believe interpretation is not the thing you learn. By playing at being pirates we did not learn to be real pirates. We learned something else that we were not aware of learning, something deeper that it would not have been possible to learn explicitly.
Twenty years later
Very approximately twenty years later I remember playing again. This time it was scary-exciting in a different way, and different in a more fundamental way too.
The scary-exciting part this time was because of the video cameras in the room, the microphones, the people behind the one-way glass watching every move and recording every word, the detailed analysis that would follow.
Again, there are three interpretations. The trivial interpretation is that here were a bunch of people playing around in the video suite (and not doing very well at it).
The make-believe was that we were counsellor and client. At times, doing this, I would play the counsellor, and times I would play the client. This deliberate make-believe was an exercise that formed part of a training course.
The learning theory interpretation was that by doing this as part of our training course we would learn to be real counsellors.
Did you spot the difference? By playing at being counsellors we thought we were learning to be real counsellors. But by playing at being a pirates we were not learning to be a real pirates. That’s not how play works.
What happens in make-believe (or ‘role play’ as it’s called in training) is that you act a part. You don’t actually become the part. It’s not a delusion. You simply create a pretend reality on top of real reality. There are two layers of reality.
On the surface, you are the person you are pretending to be. Below the surface, you remain yourself. In a training course, it’s unusual for anyone to be very good at acting. The surface layer is thin, and the real person shows through.
It’s the same with even the most acclaimed actors of stage and screen. Only very rarely do you see a famous actor so heavily made up, and acting the part so completely, that you have no idea who the actor is, or even whether it is an actor at all.
In the case of a trainee counsellor in a role-play exercise, the difference between the layers is subtle. On the surface, you’re trying to act in the way you think a counsellor would behave. Underneath you’re a wannabe counsellor — not quite the same, but not perhaps so very different.
In the case of the client in a role-play exercise, the difference can be very great. On the surface, for example, you might be playing the part of an old man worried about retirement. Underneath, you might be a young man looking forward to a new career.
The presence of two layers creates a deep ambiguity in role-play training exercises. Which layer do you attend to?
The surface layers, the roles, are often shallow because the people playing the parts are not professional actors. The only way to make the exercise work is for both players to play along and help each other out.
The trouble is, playing-along with make-believe (known as ‘collusion’) is one of the most dangerous faults in counselling or psychotherapy. It destroys the value of the relationship by distorting it to fulfil expectations, so that everyone feels good but nothing really changes.
For example, suppose you are counselling the old man worried about retirement. And suppose you detect a glimmer of excitement and anticipation in the way he says something. Is that because the old man is really looking forward to retirement in some ways? Or is it because the young man playing the part is letting the act slip so that his own real feelings can be seen?
In a role-play exercise you have to play safe and ignore the underneath layer. If you attend to the underneath layer and start being real, the make-believe might collapse and you’ll end up rolling on the floor laughing — an undignified end to the exercise that’s likely to end up on YouTube if it’s being videoed.
From the other perspective, suppose you are playing the counsellor. And suppose you have an intuition, a suspicion, a hunch about this client. Dare you express it? Again, in a role-play exercise it’s too risky. If you say something that deviates from the script you might exceed the acting skills of your make-believe client and the role-play might collapse.
So again, in order to preserve the role-play, in order to collude, you have to suppress your innermost feelings about the client and stick to the script.
All this means trouble when you try to use the skills you have learned in real life, because you have been taught to do the opposite of what’s really required.
When a real-life client expresses inner feelings that conflict with the outward reality, what’s really required is for you to be sensitive to your client’s inner feelings, to acknowledge them and respond to them. But what you have learned in training is to ignore them.
When you become aware of your own inner feelings about a real-life client, your intuition, your suspicions, and your hunches, what’s really required is for you to share these feelings and explore them with your client. But what you have learned in training is to suppress them.
When you are tempted to collude with a client to make the session conform to expectations, what’s really required is for you to sense that and break the spell. You have to ask where the session would go if you were not colluding…and then go there. If it ends up with you both rolling on the floor laughing, or both in tears, or anything else, that’s just the way it goes.
Another aspect of role-play training exercises is that they lack real purpose. In real life, clients in counselling and patients in therapy are driven to be there because something is wrong with their lives.
That driving force is specifically related to the content of the sessions. For example, if a man is worried about retirement and you end up having a conversation about his mother, you had better have a good explanation for why his mother is connected with his worries. His worries are the driver for him to be there, and you have no business messing with other aspects of his life.
But in a role-play training exercise the driver is unrelated to the content of the session. Participants are there because it’s a course requirement, or because it’s fun.
So by taking part in role-play training exercises you learn that it’s OK to do this without any driving reason, without any clear rationale or outcome. Again, you’re being taught the opposite of what’s required in real life.
There’s a tradition in certain forms of psychotherapy for practitioners (counsellors or therapists) to have therapy themselves continuously, or for long periods.
Practitioners who conform to this tradition are putting themselves at risk in an environment that is similar to role-play. There is a similar lack of driving purpose, and a similar temptation to collude.
It is no surprise that these long-term pseudo-therapeutic relationships tend to exacerbate life’s minor niggles in order to have something to talk about in the sessions. There’s often no real-life problem that is beyond the ‘client’ to resolve or recover from as an individual. Using pseudo-therapy to address minor niggles undermines the pseudo-client’s individual resilience and judgement.
At the same time these relationships tend to avoid resolving any real issues that do arise. Doing that would lead to a feeling of closure that would bring the relationship to an end. The continuing relationship is the foremost requirement, therefore closure cannot be allowed to happen.
The effect on real clients or patients can be equally destructive. A member of the public turns up hoping for help to solve a specific real-life problem, but the therapist has been having weekly sessions for many years in which no specific real-life problem is ever fully addressed. Even if the therapist once had real skills, they are likely to have been inactivated by this. Clients or patients risk being drawn into unproductive, never-ending pseudo-therapy too.
The solutions to these problems are tough.
Therapists who take part in a tradition of having continuous therapy themselves need to recover from their addiction. That’s probably like suggesting to an alcoholic that they should throw away their can or bottle. Moving on to find some kind of normal emotional life can be very, very hard.
Training exercises need to be designed very cleverly and carefully so that participants find themselves in situations where they can really develop sensitivity to inner feelings. Trainees who find themselves in ambiguous role-play exercises need to speak out against lazy course design, and discover ways to learn real skills. Playing at being a pirate does not teach you piracy.