Humor helps you stay resilient in the face of life’s challenges. But there are times when humor is not healthy—and that’s when it is used as a cover for avoiding, rather than coping with, painful emotions. Laughter can be a disguise for feelings of hurt, fear, anger, and disappointment that you don’t want to feel or don’t know how to express.
You can be funny about the truth, but covering up the truth isn’t funny. When you use humor and playfulness as a cover for other emotions, you create confusion and mistrust in your relationships. The following are examples of misplaced humor:
Mike is a constant jokester. Nothing ever seems to get him down and he never takes anything seriously. No matter what happens to him or to anyone else, he makes a joke out of the situation. In reality, Mike is terrified of intimacy and commitment in his relationships, and uses humor to avoid uncomfortable feelings and to keep others at arm’s length.
Sharon is often jealous and possessive with her boyfriend John, but she has never learned to openly discuss her insecurities and fears. Instead, she uses what she thinks is humor to express her feelings. Her jokes, however, usually having a biting, almost hostile edge to them, and John doesn’t find them funny at all. Instead of laughing, he often responds with a quiet coldness or withdrawal.
For clues as to whether humor is being used to conceal other emotions, ask yourself:
Is the joke at another person or group’s expense? Does it tear down and divide, rather than build up and unite?
Are you truly trying to share a mutual laugh, or do you have another agenda (getting a criticism in, putting the other person in their place, proving that you’re in the right, etc.)?
Do you often use humor to put yourself down? There’s nothing wrong with good-naturedly poking fun at yourself, but frequent self-disparaging jokes may be a defense mechanism for low self-esteem and insecurity.
Is humor your default, even in serious situations that call for sensitivity and maturity? Have you been told by more than one person that your jokes are inappropriate or ill-timed?
Do other people take you seriously? Or do they see you as a clown, maybe good for a laugh, but not someone to depend on in difficult times?
Tip 3: Develop a smarter sense of humor
Some find it easier than others to use humor, especially in tense situations. If your efforts aren’t going over well, the following tips may help.
Monitor nonverbal cues. If someone isn’t enjoying your attempts at humor, you’ll be able to tell from their body language. Does their smile seem fake or forced? Are they leaning away from you or leaning towards you, encouraging you to continue?
Avoid mean-spirited humor. It may work for some comedians on stage, but used one-on-one, it will not only fall flat but may also damage your relationship. Saying something hurtful or insulting, even when framed as a joke, may alienate the other person and weaken the bond between you.
Create inside jokes. An inside joke is something that only the two of you understand. It can often be reduced to a word or short phrase that reminds you both of a funny incident or amusing story, and is usually guaranteed to generate a smile or laugh from the other person. When two people are the only ones “in” on the joke, it can create intimacy and draw you together.