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Therapy is a serious business. Clients come to talk about depression, anxiety, grief, low self-esteem, anger, jealousy and countless other challenging topics. As a therapist, my role is to help the client explore these issues in a safe, non-judgemental and supportive environment. There is not always room for levity or humour.

Sometimes we use humour to mask how we are feeling. We might joke about something in an attempt to shrug it off or to convince others (and, perhaps, ourselves) that we’re okay.

The situation we find ourselves in might be so distressing and so challenging to our sense of self that we use humour as a means of protecting ourselves. At other times, making light of something can actually prevent us from getting to grips with it… we joke about things in order to keep our emotions about them at arm’s length. 

In a therapeutic sense, this use of humour is not necessarily ideal. Whilst it might keep us ‘safe’ in the short term, the problem is that such a jocular approach will prevent us from being in touch with what we are really feeling.

However, once in a while there comes a session where, for one reason or another, the client cracks a joke or makes a witty observation. The clouds lift, sunlight pours through and both the client and I allow ourselves a moment or two of laughter. Such moments of connection should not be quickly dismissed.

When we share a moment of warmth and humour with someone, the relational bonds grow stronger and we get closer to the other person. When we laugh in the presence of another we are, in a sense, letting our guard down. We relax and show a little more of our true self in the relationship.

Laughter in a therapeutic setting can therefore be seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, humour can be detrimental to the therapeutic process if it is used to prevent us from really engaging with our emotions. On the other hand, it can be a wonderful means of bringing people together and forging a strong, empathic relationship.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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