There are many aspects of being a mental health practitioner that no one really talks about. This piece is about one such aspect.
It's about humour in the therapy room and how humour can express health, humanity, and humility like no other force.
Despite its long psychoanalytic history as (mature) defence, humour has also been studied in other contexts and for serving other functions.
Laughter is Health
Research over the last several decades (probably starting with Norman Cousins’ self-initiated experience with laughter-as-medicine in the mid-1960s) has shown that deep laughter is stress-busting, immune-enhancing, and restorative to the mind and body.
So letting your guard down and engaging in a few belly laughs with your clients may actually serve to slow the stress hormone cascade for everyone in the room.
Imagine (or perhaps you already readily witness) the positive effects that humour might also have on your clients’ sense of safety and ease and on the quality of the therapeutic relationship.
But laughter serves a few other functions too. These are functions that are specific to the intimacy of the space between therapist and client.
Laughter is Humanity
As mental health practitioners, we are privileged beyond imagination to be able to share in another’s deepest, darkest, and most desirous states.
But with this privilege comes an immeasurable heaviness for experiencing another’s raw humanity.
And by sitting with our clients in this way, we too sit with ourselves. Because, after all, we are completely and utterly interconnected.
So, to paraphrase famed writer and philosopher, Aldous Huxley, we must tread and cope lightly because of the mere fact of darkness all around us.
From this vantage point then, finding humour in the world and laughing with (and of course not at) your clients becomes an expression of being human together.
Have you ever shared a genuine humorous moment with a client to find a deeper connection afterward? The therapeutic relationship may indeed be filled with greater ease after authentic laughter that is shared and mutually appreciated.
But forced humour and laughter or therapists’ “joke telling” may not have this same effect. Sometimes that even backfires.
And so we can look for more natural opportunities during which humour may arise so that we can connect to our shared humanity and keep things lighter than they might otherwise be.
This leads us to our final aspect (at least for now) of how laughter might be considered within the therapeutic context.
Laughter is Humility
English writer and Renaissance man, G.K. Chesterton, wrote in Heretics, “…Steveson had found that the secret of life lies in laughter and humility.”
We simply cannot take ourselves as seriously as our problems would have us believe. So in the therapy room, humour and laughter are wonderful ways to "knock ourselves down a notch" vis-a-vis importance and seriousness.
Humour can act like an antidote for ego and gravity. It loosens us up and lets some lightness in. Letting laughter fill up the therapy room from time to time may be an important indication that you, as a helper, are viewing yourself with modesty rather than as "the one" who has to make everything better.
Some Self-Reflections and Food for Thought
Do you like to laugh with your clients? Only with certain clients?
I find that it takes getting to know each client as a well-rounded person to then know what is kosher to laugh about and what is relatively off limits.
For example, I laugh (and am quite silly) with a client about a TV show we both love. We both quote from this show at random and at “strategic” times, and this almost always brings the room into greater synchrony and levity.
If a client is prone to humour and laughter, do you find yourself letting loose more freely or are you guarded for particular reasons?
Does it bug you to have some clients be so serious all the time?
Do you hold a belief that dictates humour and laughter are antithetical to good therapy? Or perhaps it’s quite the opposite for you.
Finally, what do you like to laugh about with your clients?
Whatever your feelings about humour in the therapy room, asking yourself these and other related questions can help you and your clients harness the powerful forces of laughter for maximum therapeutic benefit.
Dr. Matt Hersh is an American psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher in the Boston area. He integrates mindfulness, positive psychology, and energy-based methods for the treatment for anxiety and related difficulties. Dr. Hersh is also the founder of The Thriving Therapist, a web-based holistic resource for mental health professionals’ self-care cultivation, burnout prevention, and thriving inspiration.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke. Mayo Clinic 2016 [Internet]. [cited 2017 Feb 17]; Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456.
Huxley, A. Island. New York: Harper Collins. 1962.
Chesterson, GK. Heretics. Creativespace Independent Publishing. 2011:54.