Dear Therapist:

Thank you so much for your weekly column. I enjoy hearing your different perspectives. I was wondering if lekavod Purim you could share your thoughts on humor and mental health. Does a good sense of humor help people in dealing with difficulties? How does this work? Is this something that can be developed or do you either have it or not? Additionally, I think for most of us we imagine therapy as a serious somber thing, is this accurate or can humor actually be used for benefit during therapy? 



Conventional wisdom would suggest that a good sense of humor can help people in many different areas. It would stand to reason that feelings like anxiety and depression could be mitigated by the right kind of humor.

What is the right kind of humor? There are various types. Like with any quality, we each have a unique combination of styles and levels of humor. There is no objective “good” sense of humor. We each enjoy what we enjoy. One person’s silly humor can help them to feel better about an issue or situation. Another person’s analytical humor can help them to see things from a clearer yet less solemn perspective.

I think that the question is where a person’s humor is coming from. In general, did they develop this type of humor in order to deal with emotions? In a particular situation, how do they use their humor?

Let’s imagine two types of instances. In the first example, I developed a corny sense of humor simply because I’ve always enjoyed that kind of humor. I am expected to speak publicly today and I feel anxious. I recognize that my anxiety is coming from a fear of the unknown, and that this is a one-time issue for me. I use my corny sense of humor to poke fun at the situation and at my illogical fear. This reduces my anxiety, allowing me to speak well without much anxiety.

In this circumstance, my anxiety is not an underlying issue. I haven’t “created” my corny sense of humor specifically to deal with anxiety. Therefore, my natural humor is helping me to ease appropriate feelings that are heightened in one particular situation. This is a normal and healthy way of using humor to help reduce anxiety.

In another example, I have always had low self-confidence and self-esteem. Beginning in childhood, I felt like I wasn’t good enough and constantly felt like others were putting me down. To deal with this, I developed a self-deprecating sense of humor. This allowed me to put myself down before anyone else could, thus “taking control” of the problem. Unfortunately, this only swept the problem under the rug. Therefore, instead of acknowledging my feelings of insecurity and resolving them, I rely on humor to “protect” me.

So, humor can be helpful when used properly. If we apply humor to situations to gain better perspective or to get past a temporary situation-specific emotion, this can be useful. If, however, we are using humor (or anything else) to suppress our emotions, this is unhealthy; in the long run, it will likely cause us more harm than good.

With regard to therapy sessions being a somber affair, this is definitely not necessarily the case. Firstly, every therapist has a different style, and it is your right to see a therapist that conforms to your style. More importantly, your therapy session is just that—yours. If a somber tone is set by the therapist, this doesn’t mean that you need to abide by this mood. Feel free to change the tone. If the therapist is uncomfortable with this, that probably speaks more to their issues than to yours.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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