Can Therapists “have fun” in Sessions with their Clients?

When I tell some of my much-more experienced and older professional colleagues about the fact that I actually enjoy – and most of the time even dare to have fun in – my psychotherapy/counselling sessions, they’d look at me as if I just told them that COVID-19 is about freedom of choice.

“How many years have you been practicing?” the older wise ones would ask wryly, assuming that my “naivete” is because of my age or the fact that my passion for helping people has yet to be marred by the trauma and mental anguish that is the world of psychotherapy and clinical counselling.

“Oh,” my incredulous peers would wonder aloud, “I guess you work a lot with kids.”

“That’s fine,” the more authoritative ones would start, “However, I hope you do understand the serious nature of our work.” More often than not, they’d follow their scorn with a blunt look of disapproval while delivering a lecture of how it is imperative that I remain serious in sessions so as to not inadvertently come across as invalidating, dismissive, or flat-out offensive to clients coming to us with grave issues.

How I envision what “fun” would do in therapy.

Since when did feeling excited and happy to see your clients become so unprofessional?

Since when did using humour and jokes in therapy with your clients become synonymous with trivializing emotional distress and difficult experiences?

Since when did the concept of fun and hard work become mutually-exclusive in therapy?

What they think “fun” would do to my sessions

I understand that inappropriate application of fun and humour can very much lead to misunderstandings. At times, there will be clients who simply want to maintain a solemn air in session and find even light-hearted words to be unwelcomed. As a professional helper, my responsibility is to respect the wishes of these clients and to stay with the mood they want to conduct the sessions in.

For my other regulars/long-term clients with whom I have switched to telehealth since the start of the pandemic, it has become an inside joke that our sessions have become a source of curiosity to their family and friends who overhear our laughter and could not understand “what could be so funny in therapy?” As for my family or other people who know about my work, rather than asking, “how was work?” they would ask, “did you have fun today?” As an advocate of positive psychology, I believe in relishing the therapeutic experience rather than “suffering” through therapy. From my own experiences with clients, use of fun has the following advantages:

  • It can build rapport and strengthen therapeutic connections.
  • It provides some respite from the difficult feelings we have been working on and allows clients to feel more at ease to return to their lives outside of sessions.
  • It facilitates progress and learning.
  • It makes some particularly sensitive topics easier to approach for clients who would not otherwise be emotionally ready.
  • It reinforces the resilience in clients.
  • It reduces the stigmatism and prejudice against therapy and normalizes mental health.
  • It helps clients who wish to be more open about mental health and therapy to be more comfortable in sharing with their families and friends, especially if the latter are against professional help.
  • It makes me a more effective helper because it helps my enjoyment of my time with clients.

Of course, do not just take my word for it: research on positive interventions also supports the use of humor and aspects of fun, such as amusement and cheerfulness, to create more positive and helpful experiences (e.g., Ruch & Hofmann, 2012). When used appropriately, it becomes an adaptive tool to cope with stress and to enhance well-being (e.g., Proyer et al., 2011) by not only reducing negative emotions but by also inducing positive ones.

Rather than being a believer of a pathogenic approach that views mental health as merely the absence of illnesses, I am a proponent of a salutogeic approach that includes positive states and functioning as an integral part of mental health (Keyes & Simoes, 2012). With this mindset, you can tell why I am definitely down for having fun in therapy, which is part of what helps me truly enjoy my work.

Is it just all fun in therapy with Me then? Of course not!

All fun and no work would not make our sessions very effective and defeats the purpose of our professional relationship – that is, one based on a need as well as provision for an important self-care and treatment service. I strive to always keep this concept in mind, even when I am laughing my head off with my clients in session everyday. However, I know that I am not in the helping field to become a grumpy, burnt-out therapist who sees clients as simply the number of appointments and hours, but people I actually enjoy working with on a regular basis because of how much fun we have in sessions. I am proud of having the feature of “fun” as part of my brand. Most importantly, I know that, in the long term, having fun in therapy is mutually-beneficial and will help me retain that motivation to help people without risking my passion to become diluted by age or experience.  

References

Keyes, C.L.M., & Simoes, E.J. (2012). To flourish or not: positive mental health and all-cause mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 102(11), 2164-2172. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.300918

Proyer, R. T., Gander, W., Wyss, T., & Ruch, W. (2011). The relation of character strengths to past, present and future life satisfaction among German-speaking women. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3, 370–384. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01060.x.

Ruch, W., & Hofmann, J. (2012). A temperament approach to humor. In P. Gremigni (Ed.), Humor and health promotion (pp. 79–113). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

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