A laugh a day keeps the therapist away

One of my readers accused me of taking an easy swipe in last week’s blog, when I said my soul had as many sides as a Liberal Democrat in a hung Parliament.  She’s right.  On the one hand I was pushed for time – my mind went into lockdown and I couldn’t think of another multi-faceted character.  But mainly I wanted to get a laugh.  See, I’d just owned up to believing in the soul and felt compelled to clothe the nakedness of that confession in a laugh, however glib, out of date and, frankly, cheap.

It’s a compulsion, a nervous habit, a tic.  Over the years I’ve been challenged by practically all of my many therapists (what can I say, I kept believing I was cured) about my tendency to laugh things off.  You don’t take yourself seriously, they told me.  You’re diminishing your experience and your emotions, negating the past, they said.

At least, that’s roughly what they said.  My memory’s not all that hot so I don’t remember the precise words but the impression I came away with was that laughing at myself was a bad thing, making light of my feelings was a bad thing.  Never one to do things by halves I started to take myself so seriously I could have written a thesis on ‘The Trouble with Lorna’.  Talk about self-obsessed, I couldn’t burn toast or mislay a set of keys without turning it into an opportunity for a spot of self flagellation, aka analysis.

To try and remember precisely why my therapists gave laughing at myself such a bad rap, I checked it out online when I started writing this post.  I discovered that, far from being a sign there’s something seriously wrong with you, laughing is good for your health.  Apparently, it relaxes your body, boosts your immune system, releases loads of happy little endorphins and protects your heart.

It’s also an effective defence against life’s traumas and less dramatic but more persistent problems like embarrassment and insecurity.  That was it – my tendency to laugh things off was described as a defence mechanism against feelings like pain and fear.  Back then, when you went into therapy to expose the demons you’d shoved beneath the carpets of your immaculate house, defence mechanisms were bad guys. But times change and in the days of positive psychology, happiness theories and managing the messy old emotions that get in the way of being in full control of every aspect of your life, they’re the guys you want on your side.  What’s more, laughter – even at one’s own expense, especially at one’s own expense – is considered a mature defence mechanism.  It turns out joking about a trauma or disappointment is one of the best ways to get through it.

All of which is great but I’m wary about things that are alleged to be Good For You (been there, done that, I was the bore taking her own oatcakes and elderflower cordial to a dinner party because she was convinced she had a wheat allergy and that wine was giving her a yeast infection).  In fact, I’m wary of attaching the word health to anything – healthy relationships, healthy food, healthy work-life balance – because it assumes some norm, some gold standard by which we should all be able to measure how we love, eat and work.  As archetypal psychologist James Hillman insists, it also demonises our symptoms, seeing our depressions, anxiety and guilt as the enemy, something we need to get rid of or overcome.  Hillman treats symptoms as manifestations of soul – rather than try to cure them, he suggests, we should examine them with curiosity and interest.

Rather than laughter as medicine, then, how about thinking of laughter as the soul at work? (See how easily I’m handling the notion of soul this week?  Before you know it I’ll be channelling universal energy and calling myself an earth angel.)  Because we all know laughter can be cruel as well as joyous, is used to ridicule and scorn.  Who hasn’t laughed at a bad taste joke or had an outburst of inappropriate giggles? I don’t imagine the health police are referring to these types of laughter just as I don’t see them giving the thumbs up to the altogether dirtier laughs you’d get on a girls’ night out or, in the good old days, at a Bacchanalia.

What if dismissing those nervous little outbursts of mine was the wrong move, what if they actually contained a clue of sorts?  I snorted when my first husband proposed.  Understandably he was annoyed and I put it down to nerves but with the benefit of hindsight it’s obvious something in me had a sound grasp of the situation and provided the response I should have given – ‘You’ve got to be joking right?’

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~ by Lorna Thorpe on July 22, 2011.

3 Responses to “A laugh a day keeps the therapist away”

  1. AS Joni Mitchell put it: Onlu with your laughter can you win! But I still think it’s OK to take a swipe at the Lib Dems

  2. Thanks for this – I feel like i know exactly what you mean here. Sometimes the defence mechanisms are GOOD (!).
    I’m reading a great book by Julia Kristeva at the moment that claims the darkness in the soul could be as important as the light, and has something to tell us, if only we could learn to endure it.
    Very interesting stuff.
    Thanks for your post here and thanks for commenting on my blog.
    http://lisathatcher.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/feelings-and-why-you-may-not-have-any/

  3. Thanks Lisa. I’ve just run a quick google check on Julia Kristeva, who sounds really interesting – thanks for mentioning her. What’s the title of the book you’re reading?

    One of the people I’m always referring back to is James Hillman – he comes from a Jungian background, so comes at things from a different angle to Kristeva, I suspect but as I say in this post, he also claims we need to live with our symptoms, our darkness, rather than trying to get rid of it.

    Terrific as an idea, not so easy in practice.

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