Humor In Theory

Some therapists perceive humor as primarily a form of acting out; hence, some disapprove of its use, while others find value in it to varying degrees (Fehr, 1999, 2003). Much like all else that comes up in groups, whether humor is useful or not depends on how and when it is expressed, as well as if it is processed.

For purposes of this discussion, humor is loosely defined as the quality of seeing things as amusing, comic, or playful. I am primarily suggesting using the humor that can be found inherently in a group's interactions to help develop a more useful perspective to what is happening in the group and with its members. Klein (1987), in The Healing Power of Humor, writes about finding humor in everyday life as well as amidst upsets and trauma. He describes using humor as a way to expand our perspective so we remember that life is more than whatever problem is before us. Although jokes or humorous short stories can bring perspective, I rarely use them. They too easily pull people away from what is happening in the group in the moment.

Humor can be initiated in a group by the members, by the therapist, or simply be a spontaneous reaction to events in the group. When initiated by the therapist, humor is an intervention that involves some level of therapist self-disclosure. What is disclosed are usually not details of the therapist's life, but more how he or she relates with others in the moment. It is also role modeling, in addition to the work being done.


Although I believe humor can be used appropriately in most situations, this discussion is focused on its use in outpatient, in-depth psychotherapy and support groups. The specific nature of the groups, (e.g., heterogeneous psychotherapy men's, women's, cancer support, lesbian mothers, veterans, teens in a group home, Latina physicians, people in recovery, etc.), will determine the specific things that members find amusing and what humor is appropriate, rather than whether or not it can be used at all.

The following examples of effective use of humor come from small outpatient process groups of six to eight gay-identified men that I have run in San Francisco for almost thirty years. The age range has varied, with men generally in their thirties to sixties. Most are in the normal/neurotic range of diagnosis, but usually there are one or two with borderline personalities, who tend to spice things up.

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