Humour in Therapy. By Ann Shearer (May 2008)


Humour in Therapy

Ann Shearer


Copyright © Ann Shearer 2008, 2020

The philosopher Simon Critchley (2002) says of humour that it is ‘an exemplary practice because it is a universal human activity that invites us to become philosophical spectators upon our lives.’ It ‘both reveals the situation and indicates how that situation might be changed.’ [...] But this can only happen, as any comic knows, if the timing is right. […] [W]e can imagine how Demeter would have reacted if the timing of Iambe/Baubos joke [in the Homeric Hymn] had been wrong […] In different translations, Iambe is described as perceptive, sage, careful, trusty, diligent; in her lovely version Jules Cashford (2003) calls her so sensitive and thoughtful’. When therapists can bring these qualities to their humour, then it may do its work, as this client found in her conversations with Anthony Stadlen (2006: 18-20):

Sometimes he laughed. He laughed at my saying, for, perhaps, the twentieth time, that I suspected him of sleeping, or that I thought that he found his books hugely more interesting than my boring thoughts. Laughter in these circumstances might seem callous. In fact, it was always an instantaneous relief. His laughter somehow invited me to take a look, with him, at my ideas, helping me see that they were not based on reality. The laughter, somehow, was one of the ways that he treated me as an equal, not a lesser being: in that he was saying that we could laugh together. This had the effect of robbing these negative thoughts of their power, at least for that moment. Then he would help me work out where they came from.

So humour gives us a distance on ourselves and our distress. It is an equaliser in the always power-shadowed therapeutic relationship. And above all, it brings us back to relationship. (What quality do the lonely-heart advertisers seek above all in potential partners? GSOH’.) Humour brings us into relationship with ourselves, with each other and the rest of the human race as well.

This may not take much. Humour may evoke a guffaw, a belly-laugh. But it doesnt have to. Iambes limping gait lends itself to the poetry of contentment as well as passion, gentle nostalgia as well as full-blown tragedy. Those archaic gods are rarely splitting their sides. Most often, they are simply smiling. [As Critchley reminds us], human existence is framed by the smile of the newborn baby and the one which follows the throes of death.

How can [humour] not, then, be welcome in the consulting room, banana skins and all?

Note (2020)
Anthony Stadlen

This extract is from Shearer 2008 (20-21).
The client she quotes is Client 4 in Stadlen (2006: 18-20) and Client 3 in the page immediately above this page on this blogsite: What are Daseinsanalysis, existential psychotherapy, existential family therapy? Anthony Stadlen introduces his clients’ own accounts.
Ann Shearer also discusses this clients account in a different context (2016: 94-5).]


Cashford, J. (2003. The Homeric Hymns. London: Penguin
Critchley, S. (2002).  On Humour. London and New York: Routledge
Shearer, A. (2008). Doctor, Doctor...’ Association of Independent Psychotherapists Newsletter (May 2008: 18-21)
Shearer, A. (2016). Why Dont Psychotherapists Laugh? Enjoyment and the Consulting Room. London and New York: Routledge
Stadlen, A. (2006). Why I am not a health professional. Hermeneutic Circular: Newsletter of the Society for Existential Analysis. (November 2006: 16-20). See also the version on this blogsite: Why I am not a health professional (2006)

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