A client comes in for his first counseling session. He has a carrot sticking up his nose and a banana in his left ear.
“Help!” the client cries. “Can you tell me what’s wrong with me?”
“Simple,” the counselor says calmly. “You’re not eating properly.”
Laughter is an essential part of the human experience, so it’s no coincidence that a profession that tries to make sense of the complexity and absurdity of human nature occasionally finds itself the butt of a joke or the punch line of a comic strip. In its ongoing quest to be “taken seriously,” however, the counseling profession seemingly sometimes forgets that humor can be a key component of wellness and even the therapeutic relationship.
The profession’s squeamishness with jokes arguably can be traced back to the image problem that psychotherapy has in the media, with TV show counselors often portrayed as zany bohemian personalities in offices full of waterfalls and wind chimes. If Tracey Ullman as Ally McBeal’s karaoke-singing shrink and Lisa Kudrow on her Web Therapy comedy series have served as our ambassadors to the world, then no wonder we’re so nervous.
Despite what television portrays, it’s no secret that counseling is serious business. Clients wouldn’t come to counselors searching for solutions if their problems were just everyday troubles that could be fixed with a pat on the back or a funny movie. An equally sobering reality is counselors’ duty to avoid doing harm to clients, which is infused in the profession’s ethics code. Counselor educators spend so much time drilling the principle of nonmaleficence into the heads of graduate students that there hardly seems space left for a crash course in comedy.
But the reality is that we live in a world that sometimes borders on the absurd. And when things don’t work out exactly like they’re supposed to, we can either run for cover or we can laugh about it. “Or, as Taylor Swift might say, ‘Shake it off,’” jokes Samuel Gladding, professor of counseling at Wake Forest University and a past president of the American Counseling Association. “Humor helps us shake things off. Anxiety decreases when we realize that we’re not perfect and that we don’t have to be. Humor gives us that right to laugh. It helps us see more of our humanity and realize that the world isn’t always a somber, serious place.”
Despite sometimes being shunned, the therapeutic use of humor is not a new idea in counseling, and its lengthy history in psychology ranges from the wacky to the profound. Sigmund Freud saw humor as a means of expressing thoughts in the unconscious that had been suppressed in society. Viktor Frankl afforded the hope that humor was a means to lift the human experience above even the most horrible suffering.
Of course, no character in the annals of therapeutic humor is as unforgettable as Albert Ellis. A firm believer that taking oneself too seriously was a sign of psychopathology, Ellis took his in-your-face techniques to an unprecedented level. His infamous “rational humorous songs” were meant to illuminate the absurdities of irrational thinking, even though their bawdy lyrics might make most counseling professionals cringe today. We can no more imagine an addictions counselor leading a recovery group in a rousing chorus of “Drinking Is The Thing for Me!” (sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle”) than we can picture anyone getting away with these tactics other than, well, Ellis himself.
By its very definition, humor is a lighthearted topic, but in the past few decades, science has taught us to consider its benefits a little more sincerely. “Humor is one of the handmaidens of wellness,” says Gladding, a frequent presenter on the subject. “The endorphins kick in, the heart rate is better and our breathing is deeper. There’s an old saying that those who laugh, last.”
Science also tells us there are health benefits to laughing or smiling even when we don’t feel like it. Take, for example, a 2012 study at the University of Kansas, where psychologists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman tested whether there is any truth to the phrase “grin and bear it.” Before completing short stress-inducing tasks, participants in the study were instructed to smile, to hold their face in a neutral expression or to hold chopsticks in their mouth to simulate a forced smile. Kraft and Pressman found that those who smiled or held chopsticks in their mouths experienced lower recovery heart rates compared with those who maintained neutral expressions. So, although it might sound odd, there seems to be some evidence that people who force themselves to smile in tough situations are healthier and probably happier.
“Before we even knew about the physical effects, Gordon Allport taught us that humor is a characteristic of healthy people,” Gladding says. “It helps with self-awareness, insight and tolerance, yet somehow we conceptualize counseling as serious and without those lighter moments.”
Although the potential benefits are obvious, using humor in counseling is often easier said than done. Sometimes it takes more than a TV show or a New Yorker cartoon for humor to jump-start these effects. Thus, counselors inherit the challenge of determining whether their own funny insights can flip the switch for clients and lighten their perspective.
Terry Bordan, a professor of counseling at Long Island University and a member of ACA, recalls how she once worked with a client who blamed herself for all of her family’s problems. In the client’s mind, she was at fault for everything. So, Bordan turned to her and said, “But what about the economy?” The client seemed bewildered by this response, so Bordan replied, “Everything is your fault, and the economy is tanking. Surely you must have something to do with that.”
The client immediately began laughing, realizing the absurdity of her thinking. “Laughter is a way of celebrating and therapeutically engaging the absurdities of life,” Bordan says.
This type of humor, known as a paradoxical response, is a commonly used technique in counseling. For it to be effective, however, clinicians must first ensure that they have established good rapport with the client. Bordan notes that if a client doesn’t laugh, the intervention will backfire, leaving the person confused or disheartened.
Gladding affirms this judiciousness, noting that respect for the client should be valued above all. “But sometimes,” he says, “I’ll use it with somebody who just refuses to speak, like a teenager. I might say, ‘Wow, this is really bad because now you’re going to have to always order pizza online. You can’t call in.’ Just something like that.”
If humor could play such a potent role in the therapeutic relationship, why don’t graduate counseling programs or organizations that offer continuing education dedicate more time to addressing the topic? To begin, educators are not quite sure whether humor is a skill that can actually be taught.
“I don’t know if you can teach somebody to have a sense of humor,” Bordan says. “A counselor has to be their authentic self, and if humor isn’t part of your DNA, then you’re not going to be able to use it successfully. If there’s a spark, you can get more of a flame. But zero times a million still equals zero.”
Gladding suggests that counselor educators and supervisors can focus their energies on helping counselors become better at telling anecdotes or assembling a few jokes to use at appropriate times. But counselors should never feel pressured to be funny, he adds. “Just like some people are better athletes than others, some people are better at seeing the lighter, brighter side of life in a humorous way,” he says.
As for the graduate classroom, Bordan believes there is absolutely a place for humor. She says one of the nicest things a counseling student ever told her was that taking a class with her was like taking a class with Joan Rivers. “People take themselves too seriously, including researchers and educators. And humor is inherently not serious. So it’s almost a frivolous topic, and perhaps it’s shied away from in scholarship and in the classroom because of that,” Bordan says.
Eugene Goldin, a professor of counseling at Long Island University and co-author of an upcoming humor book with Bordan, advises that counselors must find a balance between using humor as a teaching tool and underscoring the seriousness of the work. “We don’t want to leave students with the impression that a client comes in and you start telling jokes right away,” Goldin says. “We downplay humor like we downplay self-disclosure as a counseling intervention when we’re teaching our students, because we don’t want the session to become all about them.”
As with any therapeutic technique, a host of multicultural concerns and considerations accompany the use of humor with clients. Humor is framed by culture and worldview, Goldin says, and it can do more harm than good if a client reacts with confusion or is deeply offended.
“Look at the climate right now,” Bordan adds. “What some people view as humor, others view as a call to war. You have to be so terribly careful and not become involved with something that might be viewed as irreverent.”
Research has found that when working with diverse populations, the counselor’s use of humor can help clients to perceive the counselor as their ally in the strange or potentially threatening environment of the consulting room. In a 2006 article in the Journal of Counseling & Development examining humor in counseling with African American college students, Linwood Vereen and his co-authors proposed that humor could help clients develop a sense of self-efficacy. They suggested that by allowing the counselor and client to process difficult subjects and challenges, humor could be a redemptive feature that promotes optimism and empowerment among diverse clients. They also warned, however, that a counselor’s use of humor could be insensitive and even harmful if it devalued a client’s concerns and experiences.
A double-edged sword
Therapeutic work can also benefit when counselors choose to incorporate humor into their own lives. After all, it can be difficult to see the lighter side of life when you meet with multiple clients each day who struggle with depression or self-doubt.
“Counseling is toxic in so many ways,” Gladding says. “It’s not that we invite toxicity into our lives, but listening to clients can kind of wear you down.” He notes that he will sometimes attend a comedy act or see a funny movie just to laugh, because it helps him feel more resilient.
Gladding also acknowledges that humor can help prevent counselors from taking themselves too seriously when they make a mistake. He shares the story of how a misunderstanding turned from daunting to funny in his own practice. “Once I was working with a person of color, and she kept saying, ‘I really despise WASPs.’ I’m an Anglo-Saxon-looking guy, and I kept thinking, ‘Oh my goodness.’ What I didn’t realize was that behind the curtains, there were a number of wasps in the room. Then I [finally] realized she wasn’t talking about me at all. And I just had to laugh at myself and tell her I finally understood what she was saying.”
But there can also be a dark side to humor in the counseling room, particularly if clinicians make jokes when they feel uncomfortable or resort to sarcasm if they’re in a bad mood. Through
supervision and self-reflection, counselors should examine when and how they try to be funny. If they’re using sarcasm or dark or risqué humor, then it’s probably not for the betterment of their clients.
“Humor is a double-edge sword,” Gladding warns. “It can hurt or it can heal. If I’m taking inventory of the types of humor that I’m using and I’m finding that I’m putting people down or distracting from what we’re trying to accomplish, then I need to do something else. I need to ask myself whether it’s about [my] self-enhancement or the client’s self-enhancement.”
Incorporating a therapeutic use of humor into counseling practice is about taking small steps. Clinicians shouldn’t feel like they’re trying out for Saturday Night Live or altering their personalities to try to be funny. After all, the therapeutic use of self, including humor, is all about being authentic. The counselors interviewed for this article recommend the following strategies that clinicians and their clients can use to tap into humor as a wellness practice.
Assign humor homework. Gladding shares that he has assigned homework that involves laughter to his clients. “I ask them what they’d like to read or watch — maybe a favorite author or a comedian,” he says. If the client can’t think of anything, Gladding recommends funny but innocuous classic comedies featuring the Marx Brothers or the Keystone Cops.
Schedule time to be silly. Bordan says we should all — meaning counselors and clients — take time out of the day to laugh. “Just do something foolish and silly, whether it’s watching something funny on television or playing with a pet,” she says. “Or maybe just force yourself to laugh. Laughter is contagious, and we benefit when we dedicate part of our day to the practice.”
Use humor as a diagnostic tool. Assessing the role of humor in a client’s life can be an incredibly meaningful tool for counselors, Bordan advises. “Even if that client has no sense of humor, it is a diagnostic clue that can be used in assessing what is going on with [that person],” she says. If a client tends to use sarcasm or cynicism as a self-protective mechanism, then the counselor might be wise to avoid using humor as a tool with that particular client.
Use humor to change perspective. In a 2006 article co-authored with Goldin, Bordan and Gladding, Daniel Araoz recommended having clients see their life through the eyes of a cartoonist. This approach is meant not to devalue a client’s experiences but rather to increase awareness. “To uncover another level of reality in what happens around us is a special characteristic of a large part of what’s humorous and has a unique poetic quality,” Araoz wrote. “It may also be a demonstration of a very wise attitude: to see below the surface, to make the unconscious conscious.”
Mark teaching points with laughter. For counselor educators, humor can hammer down important points in the lesson. “Whenever we hear certain songs,” Gladding says, “we remember certain events that were happening in our lives at the time. When we punctuate a lesson with humor, the same process occurs. We make a mark where students can remember.”
Seek feedback. If a counselor wants to experiment with humor, it’s important to take baby steps. “Get feedback from clients and from supervisors about your own particular therapeutic use of self,” Goldin recommends. He emphasizes that counselors should never force techniques involving humor if they don’t come naturally. “The use of humor is about the client,” Bordan adds. “You’re not in a comedy club waiting for applause.”
When asked, Gladding admitted to feeling pressure to be funny when he presents on the topic of humor at professional counseling conferences. But he finds that starting off with a joke is great way to grab the attention of the audience. Here’s one he shared with me:
What did the math book say to the counseling book?
“Oh, man, I’ve got problems.”
So what did the counseling book say to the math book?
“It’s OK. I’m solution-focused.”
Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com