Getting back to humor – I was digging around into the scientific background on why humor is so important. I had recalled one time reading on Christine Hartline’s edrefferal.com that one of the characteristics of a good therapist is that he/she can use humor. Why does this matter?
There are numerous biological reasons why humor and laughter are helpful, but here are some other potential reasons why humor can have an impact:
HUMOR AND PERSPECTIVE
I think my humor about my own eating disorder behavior, when shared wisely with a patient who is struggling, can help to build perspective. I recall in one talk I attended given by Craig Johnson, he said that mental health had to do with having perspective. I thought it was a terrific definition of mental health. Humor really requires the use of perspective. For someone to see me as a clinician able to look at myself and even laugh at some of my former beliefs, not only am I adding to perspective, I am also role modeling humility.
My favorite definition of humility is from Thom Rutledge, co-author of Life without ED. His definition says that when you have humility you realize you are no better or no worse than anyone else. The ability for you or I to model humility can be powerful for the patient. In order to recover, our patients must all at once be able to stay in tact and cohesive, while also bearing their soul and giving up their way of coping. Humility, knowing they are no better or worse than I am, and I am no better or worse than they are, can allow them to have reverence for the seriousness of their eating disorder and an ability to accept help without spinning into self loathing. It is crucial to help patients know that they are no better or worse than we are, though they may still need our help.
This use of humor in therapy, and how it connects to humility in therapy can be very effective. I find that when I am able share the story of having once said to my college roommate, in the most serious and self-condemning way, “I see no reason to have bread in this house” and then find humor in this – maybe my patient can also find humor in how outrageous it is to not allow yourself to eat something as basic to life as bread. Through this we are creating a deeper connection. In addition to this connection, we are building perspective, changing some brain chemistry, stepping outside of a symptom and looking at it together. And when they see that I eat bread, and I am okay with eating bread, this means something to the patient.
Peter Ustinov said: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” How true this is! The ability to share a laugh with me, while I share my own prior eating disorder thought or behavior, I am saying to the patient all at once, “Look – I was there and I had those thoughts, and look at me now, I am not being controlled by these thoughts. I am eating bread and I am okay, and you can be okay eating bread too!”
This is in no way intended to mean the eating disorder is something humorous. I am talking about finding ways out of the eating disorder controlling a person’s every move. Using humor is absolutely wrong if the patient is too far into the illness to experience what you are sharing about yourself as funny. In this case it would be contraindicated because it would be a DE-connector (versus a connector.)
But, humor can be a great and healthy connector. Winston Churchill said, “A joke is a very serious thing.” So while it may be funny, when we are able to laugh together about one of my former eating disorder thoughts or beliefs, we are often noting the deeper issues at hand, and I am creating hope and maybe a path, which my patients have described as a powerful shared experience.