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On Becoming a Psychohumorist: The Art and Application of Healing Humor

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

(A shorter version of this article first appeared in Paradigm Magazine, Fall 1997.)

Budget cuts, reductions in resources and reimbursements, loss of patients and key personnel ... "managed scare." In today's health care climate, it's not just downsizing, it's downright "frightsizing." Which is why now, more than ever, we need to bring humor and laughter into our personal, professional and organizational lives.

Burnout Battlefront Humor

I recall a stress workshop I did with VA Hospital Head Nurses. These women were feeling stretched to the limit by demanding doctors, impatient patients and visitors, staff productivity and morale pressures, not enough supplies, difficulty communicating with the administration, etc. The tension in the room both crackled and hung heavy like an impending storm or siege. Then each nurse thunderously barked her name and work station: Johnson, W-14, Thomas, W-16, Sanders, W-20, etc. I reflexively responded: "It sounds like you're reporting from your battle stations." The spontaneous and palpable sighs and nodding heads let me know I was psychologically on target.

At the same time, these nurses knew how to circle their medicine carts against these perceived antagonists or, at least, to defuse momentarily their "combat fatigue" with some "M*A*S*H" humor. The nurses' favorite supervisory battle cry: "Do your eight and hit the gate," "Nine to five and stay alive." Hey, she who laughs last...lasts!

Transforming Humor

However, there are limitations to this kind of survival humor and the respite it provides. Such humor, based on frustration and aggression, while understandable, too easily results in an "us against them" mindset. Overt conflict or passive-aggressive behavior patterns spilling into operations and work relations is almost predictable.

From my perspective as a long (and still) standing speaker, workshop leader and consultant on reorganizational stress, anger, team communications and humor here is the challenge: to transform that individual and group aggressive energy (or apathy, helplessness, etc.) and dark or covert humor into open, supportive venting followed by creative problem-solving interaction. An organizational humor catalyst orchestrates a learning setting whereby: a) issues and ideas get raised gradually in a safe yet real manner and b) workshop participants undergo an evolution - from seriously motivated observers to thoughtful and playful, task- and emotion-oriented problem-solvers.

Transforming darkness or heaviness into lightness and enlightenment is no trivial quest. As that great humanitarian and undaunted, perceptual pioneer, Helen Keller, observed:

"The world is so full of care and sorrow that it is a gracious debt we owe to one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks."

The Path of Healing Humor

Ironically, the mental and allied health professional often working the battlefronts of "care and sorrow," along with those of rage, loss, addiction and shame, is primed for making the transition from psychotherapist to healing humorist. As the groundbreaking film director and comedic genius, Charlie Chaplin, observed: "A paradoxical thing is that in making comedy the tragic is precisely which arouses the funny...we have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and (in order) not to go crazy." (Or, at least, not too crazy...author's preference.)

So how to become a "psychohumorist?" Can you blend a touch of personal craziness, an appreciation for absurdity or contradiction, and an ability to verbally and non-verbally express your comfort with neurosis, empathy for pain and acceptance of conflict? (Of course, this capacity for acceptance is both for oneself as well as for and with others.) Throw into this psychological and communicational gumbo a sense of timing and..."voila." You now have a recipe for serious and luminous lunacy. And, as a purposefully playful catalyst, you will help folks acknowledge, explore, gently laugh at and even, at times, transcend their own fears, flaws and foibles. (The old "Ha-ha" to "Aha!" and back again trick.)

Self-recognition through laughter is vital yet, clearly, not sufficient. The fundamental goals of the organizational healing humorist - from workshop leader or conflict mediator to meeting participant or facilitator - are interactive. They involve strengthening mutual understanding, shared enjoyment and productive collaboration among diverse and often competing people, programs and departments. (Rather critical objectives in today's "do more with less" climate.)

Some Psychohumorist Techniques and Strategies

I'd like to share three successive "stress and humor" workshop interventions for quickly engaging and loosening up an audience, modeling playfulness and motivating serious fun and group creativity. These techniques will illustrate both conceptual and applied strategies (and, hopefully, a couple of good one-liners) of a psychohumorist.

1. Setting the Stage through Ebb and Flow. After a somewhat compelling and humorous opening (such as the VA Head Nurses scenario) I quickly engage an audience with questions that allow for spontaneous and individual association, e.g., "What's the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word 'stress'?" Picking up on the group's responses, I further elaborate the dual nature of stress smoke signals. For example, we establish that under significant stress people may sleep too much or, conversely, know all the best buys at 3 AM on the QVC cable shopping channel. (Psychohumor Tip: Identify with, yet surprise, your audience or playfully challenge their expectations.)

Or, with another complex stress reaction, I poll the participants: "Be honest, how many people overeat at times to numb stress?" After general sheepish acknowledgment, I ask the others, "When stressed, how many folks lose their appetite and eat less?" Upon seeing a few fluttering hands, I cry out, "Of course, we hate these people." (And the audience breaks out in knowing laughter.)

Eventually, I run down "The Four Stages of Burnout," which really grabs people's attention: "Gulp...he's talking about me!" While the overall mood gets a bit somber, I still break in with the unexpected or the exaggerated. For example, after exaggerating the labored, deep sighing of an exhausted individual, (and then leading a group sigh) I ask the audience, "When do you hear people caught up in deep or heavy breathing and sighing?...Other than when you call those 1-900 numbers, of course." (By the way, the straight answer I provide is, "when encountering individuals dealing with poignant loss, such as grieving family members at a funeral.")

With these scenarios, I hope I've illustrated the principle, along with techniques, of ongoing ebb and flow - between the serious and the humorous, the predictable and the unexpected, and between sharing information and evoking group association and participation. I like keeping an audience on the motivational edge. Under states of acute or optimal physiological arousal, people are primed to break their own or the group's tension with humor. Just give them a laughing chance.

2. Modeling Playfulness and Challenging Voices of Inhibition. After completing the presentation on "The Four Stages of Burnout," invariably, a palpable silence envelops the room. I immediately comment, "Now that I've depressed everybody." A nervous laughter breaks out. I then sort of apologize and say, "Let me try to lighten up the atmosphere." Suddenly, I put on a Blues Brothers hat, black sunglasses, and grab my black tambourine. (As a psychohumorist, you don't always have to reinvent the wheel. Just be surprising.)

As disbelieving stares pinball across the room, I explain: "It's a secret identity (which you might wish I had kept secret). I'm pioneering the field of psychologically humorous rap music. And as a therapist I call it, what else, 'Shrink Rap' Productions!" Immediately it's a contest...whether I get more laughs or groans. And then I break into "The Stress Doc's Stress Rap." Here's an abridged version:

When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside?
Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide?
And it's not just men so proud and tight lipped
For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette...

Well the boss makes demands yet gives little control
So you pray on chocolate and wish life were dull.
But office desk's a mess, often skipping meals
Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels...

Now I made you feel guilty, you want to confess
Better you should practice the art of "safe stress!"

© "Shrink Rap" Productions 1992

I think you get the concept. Actually, all kinds of folks really go for the rap. Of course, upon finishing, and after the clapping has subsided, I say, "Hey, you can't fool me. I can tell when an audience is applauding from relief." (And in some ways they truly are. The earlier tension resulting from reviewing the burnout stages is now broken.)

People enjoy and are more receptive to a serious message when it's gift wrapped with humor. The rap also works for other reasons. First, my doing a "Shrink Rap" with "music," in costume is as paradoxical and absurd as it sounds. Some people initially laugh at me; some immediately enjoy the silliness. But after awhile, almost all appreciate that I'm having a grand time just letting it hang out. I'm not particularly worried about looking and sounding ridiculous. And, in the end, I can even poke good-natured fun at my singing. If I'm not taking myself soooo serious, maybe audience members, too, can be a little less hard on themselves.

I believe I'm modeling some real gifts of the psychohumorist: the capacity for self-effacing humor - based on ego strength and the awareness of limitations, not deprecation - along with the loosening of inhibition and lowering the volume of rigid or judgmental inner voices. (In fact, I close the rap routine by claiming, "After years of all kinds of therapy, what this proves is my having one singular accomplishment: absolutely no appropriate sense of shame!")

And speaking of therapy, even Sigmund Freud, himself, might have acknowledged the potential contributions of a healing humorist. For Freud, a noted student of humor and wit, the capacity for mature humor - by which he meant internalizing the encouragement of our efforts and the gentle tolerance of our failures - is perhaps the greatest gift parental figures can bestow upon a child. (Or a psychohumorist upon a colleague or client.)

3. Small Group Discussion and Drawing Exercise. The foundation for the most interactive intervention is now in place. The two existing pillars being: a) the ongoing use of ebb and flow to engage, heighten and sustain audience attention and identification and b) the gradual building of a poignantly playful and seriously absurd atmosphere. The participants are ready for a moderately risk-taking and maximally rewarding problem-solving experience.

I can only sketch this three-parter. (For a more detailed description of the exercise and it's operational procedures, feel free to call or e-mail me. See end of article for those particulars.) First I break up the audience into teams of three or four. Try to have disparate people or department personnel working together. Then I ask participants to discuss the sources of stress and conflict in the organization or department. I remind folks that this isn't "true confessions." People are to share only at a level which feels comfortable. After ten minutes of discussion, the team proceeds to generate a group picture or composite of the individual stress scenarios. (Large flip chart paper and a colorful variety of markers are provided.)

Believe me, I've seen it all: sinking ships, stalking dinosaurs, wildly rampaging twisters, exploding castles, barren deserts and consuming black holes; all sorts of chained bodies and contorted faces (along with a lot of "bad hair days"). Adults seem to divide between those who get excited at the prospect of drawing and the greater number who become self-consciously anxious. To clarify task instructions and reduce performance anxiety, I describe a vivid group design from a previous workshop in addition to reassuring participants that I myself am a graduate of The Institute for the Graphically-Impaired. Stick figures are just fine.

The drawing phase is also limited to about ten minuites. In both segments, I periodically give time limit reminders. This invariably heightens arousal level and task focus.

You'll have to take my word...but the evolution of shared energy in the room is remarkable. From tentative small group discussion to more open, relaxed sharing; from hovering at the edge of the paper (like a reluctant diver on a high board) to a group now frolicking in a body of images and colors of their own making. The decibel level of laughter increases as the images take exaggerated and symbolic shape and direction.

Finally, we do a "show-guess-and tell," whereby the teams pridefully display their colorful composites (perhaps "darkly bright crystals," to modify Ms. Keller's metaphor) while the entire audience free associates to each of the drawings. People can project their perceptions, biases and fantasies onto the pictures. This last interactive-feedback segment becomes a free associative, supportive and playfully aggressive large group catharsis.

Before closing the experience, I ask the audience to reflect on what made the exercise valuable and enjoyable. Here's a condensed consensus list:

a) an opportunity to share real feelings and discover you are not alone, and a greater understanding of the stressors other people and departments are encountering,

b) the realization that "drawing out" feelings, especially angry ones, allows for lampooning, relief and fun,

c) the process of exaggerated drawing allows one to see some of the absurdity in the situation, to take persons and things less personally, while putting events in proportion or a more objective perspective; there's a feeling, even if momentary, of increased control,

d) there was no one right answer, everybody's experience and input was valuable,

e) the exercise was an uncommon mix of both emotional process and being kept on task, and

f) there was creative energy and a chance for true teamwork.

So the exercise enables participants to vent, to gain support and insight while generating laughter and group synergy. In fact, this exercise often breaks the ice between individuals, status hierarchies, sections, departments, etc. It facilitates beginning conflict resolution during the program and also sets the stage for future collaborative problem-solving.

End Game

With the three interventions, a playful and uncommon time and safe space have evolved that allows workshop participants and groups to move beyond frustration and the realm of aggressive humor. Both as individuals and team members, people are now exploring and experiencing themselves as well as colleagues in the role of healing humorist.

In conclusion, today's "managed scare" and "frightsizing" climate is a call for both professional action and health care community healing. Help yourself and your organization bring the specter of downsizing down to size...Discover the art, path and spirit of the psychohumorist. Seek the higher power of humor: "May the Farce Be with You!"