The Healing Power of Humor in Psychotherapy

As much as I enjoy making my video series about psychodynamic psychotherapy, I feel a low level of ongoing frustration beause I don’t come across as I do in other situations — either in a social context or when working with clients. That person in the videos seems so darn serious, in contrast to the way I experience myself in general. I don’t think I’m exceptionally witty or amusing but I do have a sense of humor. Yes, I’m a serious person in a global sense but I nonetheless smile quite a lot. Until recently, I’ve explained the contrast between on- and off-camera Joe in this way: it’s difficult to smile and be funny when you’re discussing deep pain.

Last week, it occurred to me that this can’t be entirely true because I often laugh with my clients. I wouldn’t make a joke if someone were crying or describing something especially painful, of course; but lately I’ve noticed that with someone I’ve known for more than a month or two, it’s not unusual for us to be laughing together. It’s not the dominant mood of the session, but at some point, one of us will make an observation that gets a smile or a chuckle from the other one. In times of crisis, the shared humor may disappear. When the work is going well and we’re both perceiving progress, we might laugh more than usual; but laughter is a feature of the work I do with every one of my clients.

Sometimes humor has its defensive aspects. Many years ago, I worked with a troubled young woman who was very difficult to reach. She would put on accents and pretend to be different eccentric characters; she was very good at it, quite funny, and used her humor to keep both of us at a distance from her pain. In my current practice, I work with a man whose life in many respects is lonely and full of pain; in our sessions, he keeps those feelings at bay through the use of humor. He laughs a lot and makes flip remarks that conceal a lot anger. We both recognize this defense and are usually able to get beyond it before the session ends.

But with other clients, the humor often feels healthy. The more I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to believe that shared laughter isn’t simply a by-product of my work but an essential part of the healing process. When a client says something funny and I laugh, I’m saying I like you and enjoy this work we’re doing together. If I make an ironic remark and my client finds it amusing, she’s telling me she likes me, too. As an aspect of the healing psychotherapy relationship, laughing along with a client often contains a feeling of mutual affection. Especially for people who suffer from basic or core shame resulting from failures of attachment early on, this affection can help to mitigate that damage and alleviate the most painful parts of shame.

The older I get, the less reserved I feel about expressing this view. For the most troubled clients, it is their relationship with a caring therapist (more than insight or cognitive skills) that leads to authentic healing. While the psychotherapy relationship can’t completely make up for an early deficit like having a severely narcissistic mother’, at its best, it can provide something that resembles what was missing. As I often do, I find the “still face” experiment to be helpful.

In the early moments in this video, it’s notable how much the mother smiles, how well she conveys the joy she feels in communicating with her baby. The baby smiles a lot, too. Infants are genetically pre-programmed for this kind of interaction with their mothers. When they receive it, development is optimal; when they don’t, as I’ve explained many times, the result is a core sense of internal defect that I refer to as basic shame.

You can’t completely erase this kind of shame, but the healing psychotherapy relationship goes quite a long way toward mitigating it. Shared laughter between client and therapist, when it expresses mutual affection, echoes that interaction between mother and baby in the video. It’s not the same thing, of course, but even when it comes 30, 40 or even 50 years later, shared laughter offers the client an experience that in important ways resembles the early one he or she missed. I think, in part, it’s because of the affection conveyed by the therapist’s laughter, the pleasure taken in working with the client.

When I think back to my own analysis, I can still remember sessions when we laughed together. I don’t necessarily recall what was so funny, but the memory of shared laughter is strong. Even at the time, it felt relieving of me: if my therapist and I could laugh together, it must mean that I wasn’t a total burden to him, that in spite of the emotional hell I sometimes put him through, he still took pleasure in our work together. In those moments, I felt that he liked me.

My analyst had a lively sense of humor, and so do I. Maybe some day, I’ll figure out how to convey it in one of my videos.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

Australia-New Zealand edition of TNYK

My book is now available in Australia and New Zealand through Pan Macmillan. Like the UK edition, this one differs from the one released by Touchstone in North America and conforms to different libel and…

The Father’s Gaze

I have a memory of my father from when I was about seven years old. Whether it is factually accurate, it is emotionally true. My mother was in Texas at the time following the death…

Amazon Reviews!

For those of you who may have purchased your book through Amazon, need some verified reviews on that site. I realize that it takes time to finish reading the book, of course, but if you…

60 comments

    “When a client says something funny and I laugh, I’m saying I like you and enjoy this work we’re doing together.”

    I was smiling throughout the entire post. I used to feel so embarrassed sitting with my therapist. It’s a constant feeling of ‘less than’ whenever I’m around people and from never being fully accepted. It wasn’t until he left that I realized how important those little moments were or how tightly he held the therapeutic frame. Reading this post brought back so many good memories of our work together. I didnt have any friends before we met and after he left I realized how lonely I was and how I wanted to create relationships that were similar to ours only I would be able to receive many different things from a real friendship/relationship that I would not get from my therapist. I’ve noticed a change in my attitude and I have made attempts at friendship.

    Laughter and having someone ‘get me’ was really healing for me. Maybe for one of the videos your can do a ‘simulation’ of a therapy session. Maybe sit down with a friend and have a very loose script or treatment. Only specific points need to be memorized and mentioned.

    Calli, I think that shared laughter also has a way of “equalizing” the relationship, so that it mitigates the “less than” feeling you describe.

    I get the feeling that that you’ve got a sense of humour reading your blog.

    I love that you think humour is part of a healing relationship. Years ago I used to write on Alice Miller’s forum and I remember being disappointed when she wrote that she had no interest in humour because it deflected from pain.

    I wonder if playing with children can also go some way to healing attachment issues. I have one year old twins and having them laugh with me as we have fun together is wonderful. It feels very healing for me as my mother didn’t know how to play and I had a very serious childhood.

    I think many of us find healing when we play with our own children. I know that I did. It may not be the same thing as getting what we needed from our own parents but it sure helps!

    Dogs, too, can help heal attachment issues through play and humor. If you want a second chance at childhood, get a puppy and roll around on the ground with it. It made me feel like a happy six-year-old!

    The trouble with the camera is that, it isn’t a client, it cannot solicit mutual warmth, affection and sense of well being because it doesn’t have agency. The humor you mention in this post is authentic and spontaneous. If you tried to create it for a recording then it would be performative, and disingenuous. People do make comic ‘performances’, but as we very well know that’s something else, and often the work of those who who feel their lives to be empty and meaningless not least visible in a plethora of depressive illnesses and destructive attachments.

    As an undergraduate student, I was thought a great wit, a favorite at the Christmas bash when I gave a performance, impressions of our lecturers which solicited rapturous applause. And yet, outside of that ‘performative’ space, I was mostly looked to as the sad loner, out of the swim, but none the less a sage who could be called upon for an effortlessly bitter gobbet when a comic brush was necessary. Otherwise, people kept their distance, saw something caustic and cynical about my humor, and avoided those more benign everyday interactions with me, probably for fear that I would train the same satirical lens upon them as individuals.

    I have of course in recent years, relented. Don’t try and engineer humor, isn’t it great that there are at least some colourful moments peppering the relationship you have with your clients, and doesn’t it make for a welcome salve when perhaps both parties feel frustrated or burnt out. I’m away to the country in the morning, I’ll catch up on your good work at the end of the month.

    Yes, I do think that the “colourful moments” are a “welcome salve” in the presence of so much pain. I don’t think it’s merely defensive to take pleasure in something that feels good and brings us together.

    Work hard and make the best of your month in the country.

    Many times, I have been very happy that you, Warren, are not the author of this blog. Lol. Don’t take me wrong- I understand you, but I am sure glad Joe Burgo does not write like that. :)

    Hi, Joe,

    It’s interesting that you write about this in therapy. I had a therapist, through a community health team that I felt a very close connection to – it was very healing for me during a very difficult time. However, my depression wasn’t moving – he is not to blame, it’s just where I was at the time. Anyway, he was able to refer me to a psychiatrist at CAMH in Toronto and it was via video link. When I first began seeing this Dr. he never smiled – this is a serious situation when someone is feeling suicidal, nothing to laugh about.
    Skip forward to the last few months. I am feeling better now , not in that dark spot and so now, sometimes he laughs – now that I am making jokes. He actually was laughing quite a bit during one appointment. He felt that I was feeling neglected by him, that I felt that I didn’t get enough of his attention. At the end of the session, while I was talking he reached for a stapler and then realizing what he had done began laughing uncontrollably. Was it funny – yes. Was I bothered by it – somewhat, but not as much as I used to – I acknowledge that it was not his intention to offend me. But he felt comfortable enough in my improvement to laugh about it.
    Besides that – he has commented that every time I see him I appear to be smiling more and more. I think part of that is the fact that he is now smiling back at me.
    I told my therapist that the psychiatrist smiles and laughs and he replied in disbelief – that with every time he sees him he never smiles. But in the beginning of a new theraputic relationship you don’t expect the person on the other side to be smiling or cracking jokes. But it does feel good when you reach that point in therapy when the smiles, jokes and light laughter make an appearance.

    It’s interesting that we view smiling and laughing as a sign of improvement. On the one hand, it seems really obvious — of course it’s “better” to be happy than sad — but on the other, it’s easy to miss the importance of taking pleasure in one another’s company and how much those shared moment can mean.

    Great post, Dr. Burgo. Your description exactly captures the value of humor in the therapeutic relationship. I spent most of my session yesterday smiling or laughing with my therapist, and while we both recognize that a form of defense is involved, sessions like that help me get through the more gruelling ones, like the previous week’s, which I cried through non-stop. Humor is also a way to get to some truths that would be harder to face if they were presented in a more serious way. As an example, while we were talking about a persistent bad behavior of mine yesterday, my therapist suggested that it was like I was saying “NO!” (said the way a petulant two-year-old might say it). I smiled at the suggestion, and then said, “I think that makes it pretty clear the age that my development is arrested at.” While we both laughed, afterwards I saw that that was exactly the point, but I know I would have become defensive if we had not been able to make it funny. I also know that the smiling back and forth affirms our enjoyment of each other’s company and reminds me that I am more than the sum of my symptoms and disorders. My therapist says our smiling at each other makes things “softer,” and as someone more used to sharp edges, that has a therapeutic benefit all of its own. Your post also gave me a new perspective on your videos, which, I have to be honest, made me a little scared of therapy when I first watched them several months ago at the beginning of my own therapy. I’ve since learned from reading your many personal stories on this site that you struggle with many of the same emotions your readers do. It’s good to know you enjoy a laugh, too!

    “Humor is also a way to get to some truths that would be harder to face if they were presented in a more serious way.”

    I think this is a really good point. I often make interpretations in the same way that your therapist does — the one about saying “NO!” like a two-year-old — in a humorous way; unconsciously, I think my goal is to “take the edge off.”

    I never thought that a loving and fun therapist was very important but now that I think about it, the moments of laughter I shared with my therapist are indeed the most memorable (only to be tainted by feelings of embarrasment for laughing like a sissy).

    Regarding your videos, this is probably a silly idea, but maybe if you give your camera a name it will feel less like an object and more like a person.

    I don’t think it’s a silly suggestion. A number of friends have told me I should imagine talking to an actual person that I know, which isn’t all that different from giving the camera a name.

    Too often we take things far too seriously. I did a meditation retreat a year or so ago where people were trying way too hard to be ideal meditators. They would say what they thought they should say, force themselves in the posture, and try to control their minds. Like the “healing achievers” I’ve encountered in group therapy at some points; those that think that after a certain amount of therapy and workshops on their resume they can get the label of “healed”. So I brought a remote controlled fart machine, put it beside the meditation cushion of the person up front and triggered the remote after a couple days. The result was a great disparity of confusion and amusement. Some people were a little offended, some were relaxing and smiling. I got scolded a little. But it drastically changed the mood, and helped people relax after that little “breath of wind”.

    I told them that I think it’s a humanizing idea and great spiritual truth that even the Buddha farted.

    That’s very funny! I know what you mean about the “healing achievers.” They take themselves far too seriously.

    But if you do the videos yourself, you are alone at the time of recording – and I think humor has something to do with human interaction. How about having someone to talk to in the videos?

    Hey J, Your post is thought provoking and personally open as ever!
    This comment feels right-on! I’m pretty sure you & I’d feel and be much more our usual selves, i.e.playful & laughing, in the presence of another person, especially one we like. Dramatic acting may seem inappropriate for us therapists, but when what I’m saying is authentically me, I frame that dramatic emphasis as “projecting” my voice and feelings out to the folks in the back row of the audience. Professionals experienced in radio work make constant gestures “as though” their audience were in the room with them, in order to bridge the electronic gap. It feels to me like a kind of altered state, in which I’m “pretending” so intensely that my presentation becomes comfortable play, much like playing pretend-games with a pre-schooler.
    Entering the other’s world as if I’m equally involved as the child, or as I imagine/want the viewer/listener to be, seems an ethical and possibly necessary, certainly useful, way to get through to anyone I’m talking on the phone with, or to an unseen audience. Dr b

    I’m going to take all this good advice and do my next video on dependency issues in psychotherapy soon. I’m really going to try to see if I can make a difference.

    Hi Joseph
    I am a big fan of yours. If I could make a suggestion for your problem it would be to introduce an’other’ person to your online videos; because trying to relate to a computer does not stimulate, what we know in the conversational model, as the third. Put plainly, how can you expect to be you when the self is created in relation to the other. I feel that the only way to show your true self is to have another person present where they bring you out and you bring them out and together you are present.
    I hope that this finds you well, Isaac.

    Hi Dr. Burgo,

    I returned to therapy last week after a self imposed break, and there was a lot of laughter at the end of the session. I saw it as my therapist forgiving me for leaving. It was remarkable, and the healing power of it took my breath away and filled me with hope.

    Thank you for this post.

    Do you think you’d feel more comfortable & natural if you had a partner with you in the videos… An interviewer of sorts who you would speak your planned content to, rather than speaking to an inanimate camera? As an MFT Intern, I have appreciated your psychodynamic therapy series; I hope you will continue adding to it.

    As I said it another reply, the problem is that I then have to depend on someone else to show up. I’m going to keep working on it solo.

    I’ve only started reading your blog in the last few weeks and have found it very powerful. I’ve been in therapy for a long time, most of it with the same therapist, and what you write here struck me so much because this is exactly how I feel about the humor we share. My psychiatrist once asked me what I thought was the most helpful part of therapy and, without even thinking twice, I told him it was the healing relationship. Of course, then I had to second-guess myself later and wonder if that sounded stupid but no, it’s exactly right. That’s why it’s so important to find the right person to work with – it can make all the difference in the world.

    While it may violate confidentiality to video a patient, perhaps a few minutes of an exchange with a colleague talking about your shared experiences would give us that picture of you. Great post – enjoyed this very much.

    I’ve only just started therapy for the first time (4 months now), and even though I am very lost and horrified by recent discoveries, I am very glad that my therapist and I can laugh together. Sometimes humor is the only thing left for a moment, injecting a little bit of the mental oxygen that affords me the opportunity to regroup until I can put something into better perspective.

    Sometimes, though, funny is just plain funny. I relish humor.

    Thank you for your work.

    This seems exactly true to me — all of what you say here. I also think that in addition to the sense of affection and mutual enjoyment, eliciting a spontaneous laugh is one of the most obvious ways for a client to see that she is having an effect on the therapist.

    I’m so glad to read this. I’ve often thought of how different you appear in your videos from the way you come across in your writing. The picture you have of yourself on this site is usually how I imagine you look while I’m reading and the videos have been so somber by comparison!

    In my own therapy, I’ve found that I feel the most connected to my therapist when we’re sharing laughter. I always thought that it would happen when I was sharing something intimate, but it really is the laughter that cements our relationship.

    I’ll admit that when I’m not in a good place emotionally, hearing him laugh with other clients can be painful. I think it’s because I’m envious of the other client’s apparent lightheartedness and relationship with MY therapist. Yeah, I’m working on that…

    How is it that you’re hearing him laugh with other clients? Bad sound-proofing while you’re in the waiting room?

    He has white noise machines, but they don’t entirely cover laughter. It’s the only thing that’s audible from the waiting room. I’d prefer not to hear it at all, but I don’t know how much more he can control it.

    I found your video when the guy (sorry can’t remember his name) was interviewing you regarding empathy, the most relaxed for you. I also saw some humour there when you said everyone would benefit from therapy, then you kind of smirked. At least it made me laugh.

    It’s much easier when I’m relating to someone else, naturally. It’s the inanimate object that’s the problem.

    Maybe not the inate object, Burgo, but rather self conciousness. Whereas when speaking to a person , we focus on the face og the other, and we see ourselves welcome, perhaps even highly appreciated. The inate object gives ample room for the self (the superego/ or the parent).

    Just a thought . Feel free to delete.

    Hello Dr. Burgo,
    As a viewer watching your videos vs reading your posts it is interesting to experience the difference in the the way you come across in your videos. It seems to me that your profession has ingrained in you the highly skilled arts of observation and intuition and response, and you must be so much in the listener/observer role. And when you do respond it is probably very intentional and in direct response to what you are sensing in the other persons body language, facial expressions, tone and a million other tiny clues that you have just trained yourself to respond to….You get none of these signals from a camera! I think you also have trained yourself to be incredibly genuine in your responses and this is also difficult when looking at a camera. How do you respond in a genuine thoughtful heart felt way to a piece of plastic and metal? It just feels dishonest and superficial at some level. I’m sure you will get better and I certainly hope you don’t stop the videos, they are very helpful.
    I am a big fan of humor and laughing! Therapy can be so intense and it is such a great way sometimes to soften that intensity. It really is a beautiful feeling to have your therapist genuinely laugh at a joke. I never thought of it in that baby/mom way but I see a lot of those little smiley moments between babies and their parents at my job and it is impossible not to feel warm inside when observing these interactions. I guess those interactions with my therapist did feel healing in a way.
    One thing I sometimes wonder about is sarcastic humor. I use this kind of humor a lot but I feel it is kind of angry or caustic sometimes. Especially on the internet (on blogs like this) sarcasm seems to get a bit lost in translation when facial expressions and tones can’t be shared.

    Thanks, Kim. You’re obviously right about relating to a piece of plastic and metal! Hard to be genuine (although do those TV reporters manage to do it?).

    As for sarcasm, I think it usually contains a lot of anger. It’s also a very protected mode of communication, don’t you think? Sarcastic people don’t seem the least bit vulnerable, at least not to me.

    I have been reading this website for over 8 months. I have appreciated both the content and your generosity.

    So, I do lots of training and videos online. I have a couple of thoughts.
    Making a video seem real and personal when the subject matter is difficult,
    can be hard. Have you tried recording your video’s with an audience in front
    of you off camera for you to talk to and make eye contact with, even if it’s only 1 or 2 people, that could help.

    Have you tried an interview style in your video’s.
    Where someone asks you the questions from off camera and you respond.
    Also try standing vs sitting when you do your videos and see how it feels.

    I think those are both good suggestions. Thanks. The problem is the logistics: it takes a lot more coordinating to get other people to show up. Right now, I can shoot and edit a video whenever I happen to have free time.

    Why do you think so much of the psychological literature about narcissistic parents focus on narcissistic mothers? I find a VAST majority of the literature is about narcissistic mothers. Is it because narcissistic mothers are more common or because the nature of the mother-child relationship is so much more important that it has much more potential of causing damage than the nature of the father-child relationship does?

    The latter. I think that the most severe damage takes place in the first two years of life when mothers are typically more important. Not that a narcissistic father can’t do a lot of damage, as well, but I think it’s the failure of maternal empathy in infancy that causes so much trouble.

    I’d love to see the warmth and, yes, humor that you show in your writing appear in your invaluable phychotherapy videos. Since you prefer the freedom of doing them alone, perhaps you need to do a lot of practice so that you do become friends with that hunk of plastic and metal. Talk to it daily, whether it is the draft of the next lecture in the series, or a one-sided discussion of your thoughts about this blog, your book, or the weather. Anything so that you become relaxed with the camera and it becomes your friend.

    Maybe your difficulty with the camera is because on a subconscious level it reminds you of your narcissistic mother? Just a thought…

    It is particularly uncanny that I decided to read this today, 12/5. I had my children removed due to domestic violence 10 years ago and received monthly supervised visitation after 6 and 1/2 year battle with d.c.f.s. They were convinced that my bi-polar disorder was the real crime even though father was arrested, convicted, etc.
    My son aged out of the system in August and has been coming over every weekend even though he resides with his guardians. Too much, too soon after, too long… I guess to sum it up he had a severe ptsd episode that lasted 2 days. He begged me to just stay with him, it was frightening, heartwrenching, and I managed to maintain a stable persona for him, took hem to my psychiatrist of 12yrs.
    Going on, we left with my doctor as my sons new doctor, feeling human again, and he wanted Starbuck’s.
    While driving him home in rush hour, stuck at a train, everyone mad and honking, we were cracking jokes and laughing. A quality that he shares with me is the funny effect of shock value on people. Bear in mind we also can read people well so I don’t suggest just anyone try it.
    He suddenlt leaned out the car window and said, “hey baby, do you want a date” to an extremely attactive, much too older woman for him driving a $6-digit vehicle. She turned and looked and I was laughing quite heartily and reached to him and ‘makeshift’ smacked him on the back of the head and said to her, please excuse my son, he is extremely disabled. She pulled a little closer to us and started laughing hysterically and said, “you know what, my husband is the mayor and I want to thank you because I reeeaallly needed that laugh. You two have just made my day!” My son and I pulled away and when she passed by we all waved and were still laughing.
    Needless to say, the nervousness of him going home after 4 entire days, shutting phone off, and fearful to call his other parents was gone with the wind.
    All ended well, to sum up, I am tired and it was a very long weekend, but it cheers me to think how many will laugh at this story for many years. Our personality and humor in life has to be maintained and utilized in order to not sink into ourselves in misery. We all have 24 hours and what we do with it can ‘leave a mark’ to be passed on and payed forward.
    Thank you for your article,
    Vicki

    After having to recently part from my therapist of three years, I find myself trying to hang on to warm memories. The times of laughter definitely stand out. I know what you mean about shared affection. Enjoying one another fostered our bond. I am so grateful for the experience.

    Dr. Burgo:

    You stated that you found the ‘still face’ experiment to be helpful. I watched the video and it seemed the ‘still face’ caused such anguish to the child. I may have misunderstood, but could you explain how it is helpful in therapy?

    Thank you,
    Teresa

    Helpful for my understanding (not for therapy) because it shows how agonizing the failure of attachment can be.

    humour has really helped my relationship both with my therapist and psychiatric nurse, who diffuses the anger i have presented by humour, not many people could do that to me without me feeling laughed at but somehos partic my nurse has, i think it is cos he is good at laughing at himself and does it in a kind way to himself,

    i tend to leave much more relaxed telephone messages to those i know as i almost naturally imagine/feel like im talking to them as im leaving the message, i can even bring in humour on them,

    would you be able to imagine a small audience of two or three people as you talk, like you aer sendinng a video message to that small audience, that would help you relax?, just like in public speaking it helps to pick out faces in the audience and talk to them for a moment,

    good television people talking to the camera make you feel as if they are talking to you personally,

    you may have to meet and get to know a few of your audience to be able to do that?

    just some thoughts,

    x

    great! hey, we could all send you photos of ourselves for you to use as visual aids, you might not be able to stop laughing then though!!

    hari, your comment brought forth a hearty chuckle in me.

    Looking at a portrait does something to most of us. A long time ago , in a rather sad ego state , I used to look at a picture of “Pinky Brewster” ( Soleil Moon frye abt seven years old) and her warm smiling expression made me feel good.

    What about uncontrolled laughing. When my therapist comes to get me from the waiting room I start laughing, laughing down the hallway to his office and then I sit in the chair laughing into my scarf. He sarts laughing too because it is contagious. Sometimes he does a short CBT lecture on the white board to distract me or justs starts talking. I want to cry because I can not stop and it is embarassing. It does not happen everytime. From what I researched laughing is a release of emotion.

    It could mean many things. It could be a defense against contact, of course, but it might also be an expression of joy at seeing your therapist.

    I struggle, as a clinician in the mental health field, to be comfortable with humor. I just realized this after reading your post. I do laugh with clients when it is appropriate quite often actually, but I almost squirm inside. How come? I don’t really understand it.

    I had one client, in particular, who made jokes more than the norm and who I seemed to have an unusual connection with compared to anyone else I’d worked with in the past. He was at times, inappropriate, with sexually suggestive comments or flirtations. I would be very uncomfortable but try to redirect toward the reason for our meeting. If I asked him why he made the comment or what his intention was, he would blow it off as if I was reading into things. Nonetheless, I felt very out of control with this client and he did not respect my boundaries. I still found myself connecting with him and being able to laugh at jokes that were not sexually suggestive.

    Why did I have such a strong reaction to this individual? Is there something in me that is unresolved or would anyone feel this way? I found myself wanting to “rescue” him from the past pain he obviously held that came up during our sessions alternating with anger and frustration when he continued to try to cross my boundaries. I was also deeply worried that I would say the wrong thing or not be “helpful enough”. I intellectually recognized that countertransference/transference was involved, but emotionally I felt almost violated or like he had latched onto me and I could not breathe. I fantasized about what I could say to him that might relieve myself of the confusion about these complicated feelings – these fantasies of verbal exchanges alternated between expressions of deep anger and deep concern. I never expressed them, of course.

    I did seek supervision to work through this, but I still have never been able to feel comfortable with humor with any clients and often find myself being rigid and trying to place strong boundaries. I’m concerned I will hurt clients by not being emotionally available or being inflexible…

    Any thoughts? Was this particular client using humor to deflect pain and how do you tell the difference between this deflection and just a personality trait? What is the best way to respond to a client who uses humor to create distance from their pain? I felt like no matter what I said it was the wrong thing.

    Thank you for listening

    It sounds to me like your client was definitely using humor to evade pain, rather than to make an emotional connection. I’ve had clients who’ve done the same thing; I tend to laugh, and then follow-up with something like this: “You’ve got a great sense of humor and you can easily get me to laugh, but I’m not sure that’s what is best for you. It feels to me like you’re using humor to keep us both from going deeper into something painful.”

    As for your feeling violated, that sounds as if there may have been something even more intense going on but I don’t have enough information to say what it might be.

    Dear Dr. Burgo,
    thanks for another amazing article of yours!
    What I’m wondering now, some weeks or even months after having read it the first time, is if the healthy humor you describe here, this feeling of mutual affection, this “saying ‘I like you and enjoy this work we’re doing together'” is the same phenomenon you portraited in your article “The Up-Regulation of Joy”. First I would think I had experienced both in my sessions and consider them as two different situations. Lately I’ve been questioning whether it’s not one and the same process.
    I’m aware of the fact that the distinction actually may be blurred and what really matters is not the definition, but rather having been as lucky as to experience both. I’m just curious to learn more about how it works.

    I think they are related but distinct processes. Upregulating joy involves actually trying to boost or intensify a latent feeling of joy that the client may have trouble experiencing fully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.