April 18, 2016
Ann Shearer writes about her new book “Why Don’t Psychotherapists Laugh? Enjoyment and the Consulting Room” which is published on 21 April. It is available at Routledge (use promo code FLR40 for a 20% discount)
This is a book about an extraordinarily neglected and still controversial subject. ‘Everyone knows’ that a sense of humour and capacity for enjoyment are among life’s greatest blessings, giving a perspective that helps us take ourselves just seriously enough, deal with everyday ups and downs and keep hope alive through major trials. A GSOH is what the advertising lonely-hearts seek in their possible partners: they and countless long-time couples too know that an ability to see the humorous side of things both creates and sustains relationship. A perspective on ourselves and our situation, a fostering of hope and relationship, a balanced appreciation of life’s enjoyments as well as its tragedies: the more we think about what humour can bring, the more puzzling it becomes that these ‘therapeutic’ benefits are so little written about and discussed by some of the very people you’d think might wish to foster them.
The first nudge towards exploring my puzzlement came all of eight years ago, when the Association of Independent Psychotherapists asked me to contribute to a talk on ‘The Uses and Abuses of Humour in Psychotherapy’. I was intrigued: come to think of it, how much ‘good humour’ had I found in theoretical writings and case reports? My first explorations have been amply confirmed: not very much. At the least, we can say there’s a theoretical and institutional bias towards the tragic that is bound to carry a story about the ‘right’ way to be a therapist (and a patient too).
Why should this be? The conventions of therapeutic ‘neutrality’ embodied in ‘technique’ must surely play a part: the more strictly practitioners adhere to these the less likely they’ll be to offer a self-revealing smile, or laugh, or to risk the always unpredictable reaction to humour’s boundary-breaking unruliness. They may take pride in their own stoic capacity to withstand the negative transference and discount the positive and enjoyable as mere avoidance. This may suit practitioners who tend to see the world as a grim and melancholy place. (Therapists are more likely than others, it’s said, to remember their own childhoods as unhappy.)
But what does this bias towards the tragic mean to patients and clients? Will they find a balance to the often painful exploration of their unhappiness, and the encouragement of hope and enjoyment that a shared moment of humour can bring? Will they, come to that, find encouragement to explore humour’s cruel and savage aspects and so learn more about their own dark shadows – and withstand the power shadow of psychotherapy itself? What patients have had to say about their consulting room experiences of humour and the lack of it was illuminating here , and led to a central question which I’m hardly the first to ask: what really is ‘therapeutic’ about this strange relationship? I hope that the book will contribute some new perspectives to this continuing debate – for therapists, people who consult them and anyone interested to learn more about the always-edgy nature of humour, its psychological benefits and its dangers.