Freud on Humor, and some Personal Insights

Freud CartoonI 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.

13 thoughts on “Freud on Humor, and some Personal Insights

  1. Yes Eric, it’s good to recognise how many guises our fear uses, then we have a better chance of dealing with it. Jokes used in the right way are great fun though aren’t they. I have been frustrated and irritated by my husband’s humour when I have wanted to be serious, but I am also very grateful for it. We often laugh at ourselves!

    • Yes, this study has helped me to be aware of the times that I’m using humor to cover for pain and insecurities; however, I’m just a humorous person by nature. I have no intention of abandoning it. I just want to master it, rather than allowing it to master me. Know what I mean?

      Always a pleasure, Dichasium.

  2. Well said Eric. The more you experience in this profession, the more aware you can become. “Mastering” it may be another of saying becoming more authentic.


  3. I for one could use some humour in my life. Everybody around me is so serious. I too grew up in a difficult situation and my brothers and I used humour a lot to escape our bleak realities. Unfortunetly, my older brother died recently and now I constantly crave humour. Thank God, I teach young children and they always put a smile on my face.

  4. I became aware today that I had used humor in place of setting a proper boundary for myself. I had texted a comment in response to a very inappropriate text I had received and did it in a joking manner. I realized that I don’t take myself seriously enough at times and use awkward jokes in place of taking care of myself. While I don’t want to create uncomfortable confrontation, I am now aware that I need to use other more appropriate skills to communicate my own levels of comfort in relationship with others. And to value myself enough to take it seriously.

    I googled “humor to deflect” and your blog was the first thing to come up. Thank you for writing this. I know that God directed me directly to this and I found it very helpful.

    • Thank you Wendy. Your post reminds me of myself. I think sometimes I do the same thing because I already have so much conflict I’m working on that I don’t want new conflict “projects” from random people to work on. Blowing it off with humor is a cheap way out.

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  7. Thanks for this post Eric. I would like to know if your wife had some kind of skill to deal with your humour when you used it to avoid intimacy. I’m constantly in this position with my partner, and although I love his humour and we connect a lot with humour it can get frustrating when I try to have a serious and deep conversation. Would you be able to share any tips please?

  8. Nadine, wow, what a great question.

    I might need more time to reflect on this and perhaps even ask my wife what she remembers, but I can tell you it took not months but years for it to really sink in for me. If your partner is using it for a psychological defense mechanism it will be a tough egg to crack because, like wearing colored glasses, the world appears a certain way due to underlying psychological reasons and his use of humor is no different. It responds as a matter of instinct and probably feels as natural as anything. I suggest having a very intentional conversation, or two, or twenty, about this with him in order to stir up his awareness – and not a matter of guilt. Get his agreement to become conscious of himself, to notice when he uses it and why, and have him agree to allow you to point it out when you experience it so that he can dial into it without him getting upset with you.

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