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.