I have been accused by nearly everyone I know of being too humorous. I’m not alone, of course. Many people find it necessary to constantly inject humor into their routine daily affairs. Do any of us ever stop to ask ourselves why?
I first became suspicious of my humor soon after getting married. My wife was probably the first person who made me question what was lurking behind, or beneath, my humor. Since then, my priest and one of my psychology professors have been instrumental in focusing my attention on the issue. Then last summer I read Freud’s work, “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” and, finally, I think my lightning fast mind is starting to get it.
Anyone who has read anything by Freud knows that he attempts to relate all psychological antics to the pursuit of pleasure, and more specifically, the pleasure experienced or denied during childhood. Humor endeavors to do just this. In Freud’s words:
“the euphoria we wish to reach by these means (the comic, jokes, and humor) is nothing other than the mood of a period of life in which we were accustomed to deal with our psychical work in general with a small expenditure of energy—the mood of our childhood, when we were ignorant of the comic, were incapable of jokes and when we had no need of humor to make us feel happy in our life.”
In short, as we develop and experience life’s trials and suffering our psyche attempts to out maneuver pain, insecurity, and sadness. Humor is a safe and easy way to attain this happiness on the cheap.
In my own case, I have come to find that I often use humor for two primary reasons: (1) to deflect, and (2) to derail.
In deflecting Freud said, “humor is a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of the distressing affects that interfere with it; it acts as a substitute for the generation of these affects, it puts itself in their place.” In other words, humor can work as a deflection, or substitute, for the inevitable confrontation with emotional pains by deferring them for another time; for a time when one is stronger (a time which may or may not ever come).
Many would look at all forms of deflection as maladaptive behavior, but I disagree. Deflection by way of humor can serve as a major asset in one’s emotional well-being, particularly in one’s formative years. Using humor to deflect allowed me to endure incredibly difficult periods of life. Growing up in my situation, humor was for me an adaptive behavior. “The small contributions of humor,” writes Freud, “that we produce ourselves are as a rule made at the cost of anger—instead of getting angry.” I would add: humor is produced in us at the cost of psychosis—instead of going crazy. But at some point using anything as a means of emotional deflection is a mark of pathology. At some point one needs to confront those things deep within that are being shielded by these sorts of cheap emotional copouts.
Those who use humor on a consistent basis will understand this one immediately. Have you ever used humor in a conversation to derail what you perceive to be, or could be, an awkward moment? We all have. However, if you find yourself doing this even when no awkward moment is coming, but rather use it to create one, you, friend, are using humor as a defense mechanism.
I mentioned that my wife was one of the first people to bring to my attention my problem with humor—it was for this reason. Growing up I learned to use humor as a sort of catch all social-problem-solver, which is probably fine when you’re in high school, but when you’re married it’s a killer. Humor always allowed me to engage in relationships without risk. Using humor I was able to derail conversations before they ever got too deep, thus keeping people at arm’s length; keeping them at a safe distance emotionally. Unfortunately, this behavior continued into my marriage (unwittingly) and became a barricade to intimacy. One of the things I desire most in life—true communion with my wife—was being frustrated by my subconscious fear of vulnerability, displayed by way of humor.
Since coming to the realization of just how pervasive my use of humor as a means of deflection and derailment is, I have learned a lot about myself. I learned that humor is not a general sign that everything is fine, but rather the opposite: that a collection of fears and insecurities, which I had deferred confronting, have piled high thanks to my instinctual default to humor for so many years. I am just now beginning to reverse the process. A simple awareness and self-auditing is, for me, a good portion of the battle. If I am honest enough to continuously catch myself in the act of deflecting or derailing it is an opportunity to choose to be different; choose to take a risk; choose to be vulnerable with others.
At the end of the day, though, I thank God that He allowed me humor as a means of coping. It is a far more advantageous behavior than acting out in anger and vengeance. And I thank God for allowing me the clarity to see when humor has changed from friend to foe, and I owe a lot of the clarity to Freud. Few have ever accused Freud of being an agent of God’s wisdom, but on this count I’ll count him in.
Thanks for reading.