It’s okay to laugh in therapy
“A day without laughter is a day wasted” – Charlie Chaplin
It’s 2001. I had just completed a year-long internship and was recently hired into my first “real” job at a community mental health clinic. I was eager to please and wanted to make a good impression. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember sharing a hearty laugh with a client who had long struggled with depression but was gradually finding her way back from it. After the session, a colleague stopped by my office to talk and mentioned the laughter. My automatic thinking was that I had done something wrong. Looking back, I had bought into the idea that a productive session was one with a lot of crying. I still remember what my colleague said; “By the time people come to see you, they’ve already cried their tears or they’re numb. You’re doing them a service by helping them to laugh again”.
Clients laugh for different reasons. Sometimes it defuses tension, covers other feelings, or modulates the pace. Humour can be a safe place to hide. Sometimes laughter emerges unexpected even in the toughest emotional material and conversations. It’s amazing to witness someone who has lost their sense of humour and ability to laugh find them again. Lightheartedness and being able to gently laugh at ourselves and life is often a sign of improvement. When I’m helping clients with anger and anxiety disorders, we can often enlist humour to “poke a hole” in these strong emotions.
Some clients, for their unique reasons, had to grow up too fast and didn’t develop much of a sense of humour. They have taught me that it’s never to late. One can still develop the ability to laugh. Others experience an intense pressure to be entertaining. Regaling with humour comes naturally to them and it’s easy to go along with it, but what they really need is the opportunity to be taken seriously. They often feel relief when I let them know they don’t have to entertain me.
Sometimes it is useful to look at the type of humour the client uses. Does it invite closeness and connection or does it push others away? Is it too self-deprecating (I’ll put myself down before you can)? Does it put down others (like a weapon and a shield)?
Perhaps what I love best about humour in therapy is the split second moment of “giving in” or surrendering to the laugh. This happens in couple therapy and highlights a strength of some couples. During or at the end of an emotionally charged session, one person makes a joke as an invitation to be emotionally close again. The partner has a choice of holding back or going with it, which makes the joker feel like a success in that moment.
I don’t think I’m particularly funny, but I do appreciate humour, have a taste for the absurd, and have a readiness or “will to laugh”. I value shared laughter at the “human moments” of therapy like the time I spit out a cough lozenge in the midst of a wise comment. I’ve also learned that sometimes you want to just leave humour alone and savor the momentary experience rather than analyze it.
How can you build more humour and laughter into your life?
Articles on humour
Laughter Yoga International