Using Humor to Disguise Fear or Terror

“Oh, Peter, of course I understand. And I approve. I’m a realist. Man has always insisted on making an ass of himself. Oh, come now, we must never lose our sense of humour. Still, I’ve always loved the tale of Tristan and Isolde. It’s the most beautiful story ever told – next to that of Mickey and Minnie Mouse” – Ellsworth Toohey (From “The Fountainhead”)

I have been reflecting on this idea a lot as I consider how I wound up in a gaslighting and abusive relationship and stayed on for as long as I did.

Upon exiting this relationship, something in me became unlocked, and I started writing a lot of poems – here’s one of them titled “How Abuse Starts”

It’s funny
It’s fun
It’s exhilarating
It’s dangerous
It’s evil
It’s routine

Feels like home

One of the key reasons why a woman may find herself attracted to a man is if the man is able to make her laugh. Incidentally, when a man wants to win a woman over, he often goes out of his way to make her laugh, and it works. We are attracted to humour because it is often seen as a marker of confidence, intelligence and charm. Laughter is deeply associated with pleasure and happiness. It activates the limbic system in our brain – the lower order center for emotional processing and causes the amygdala to release endorphins – a feel good hormone. On an interpersonal level, laughter signals acceptance and positive interactions. It is the lubricant in conversations and the analgesic to humdrum small talk. It cuts through our superficial defences and touches our emotional core, so there is a very primal aspect to it.

People who can make us laugh at ourselves get even more stripes. Think about the Canadian comedian Russell Peter. In a podcast interview with Jordan B Peterson, Jordan wryly noted that Russell Peter’s jokes which “insult one ethnic group after another” drew a multicultural audience which would be “waiting with bated breath for their turn to be insulted.” Russell Peter responded with a resounding “Yes” to this rather bizarre observation, to which Jordan said “what do you make of that and how the hell do you get away with it?”

Russell explained that when he talks about a certain group of people, he talks about them from their perspective, not his perspective – the way they read it is “this guy actually understands us, we can’t be offended because he just said something only we should know about ourselves – which means he’s either an insider, or he’s really paid a lot of attention to us, so one way or the other, they know it’s done as a tribute, as opposed to making fun of us. They think, ‘how did he know that? Okay we can trust this guy’ ”

Therein lies the rub – when you feel seen, heard and felt, you develop trust toward the person making you feel that way – your humanity is being acknowledged and it touches your soul. When you are able to apply humour in a way that makes the other party feel acknowledged, the Endorphine rush from laughter elevates the experience of being seen, heard and felt, and that makes you much more open and trusting of the person that tickles your funny bone. If you are the funny guy, you have hit the human jackpot, in my case, as my ex-husband has well and truly milked me for my inheritance, the phenomenon is more literal than figurative.

But my question today is “How do we allow humour to be a stand-in or an escape from dealing with difficult things with integrity and honesty? I think of situations where we laugh out of a sense of awkward discomfort because we cannot believe what the other party is saying. We do not know what to make of the situation, or if we do, we are afraid to confront them or hold them accountable, instead we dismiss and deny by laughing, as if automatically assuming that they meant what they said as a joke – when deep down inside, we know it is not.

The more you do this, instead of calling out what you see and feel discomfited by, the more it eats away away at your true sense of self and wholeness. It eats away at your confidence.

I think of situations in my own marriage where I lost touch with my feelings of fear and what those feeling were trying to tell me when I would let myself get distracted with my husband’s absurd jokes and inane but nonetheless amusing behaviours. In these instances I believe I was using humour to hide terror and fear – the fear and terror of knowing that my husband did not have my back, and that he was just using me for as long as I was complicit in not naming and calling out his covert abuse.

I think of how we can make fun of ourselves as a way of avoiding our own deeper more intense emotions – we dismiss, trivialise, stick our heads in the soil like the proverbial ostrich just to get away from the true feelings hiding behind that wry facade, or goofy humour. Over time, repeated behavioural habits of masking deeper emotions with humour results in us being tone deaf to our own emotions. It makes us blind to reality while robbing us from the joy of living out our true self.

I personally think that when you hit the point where you think anything is fair game for a joke, you have hit a new level of delusion. Horace Walpole, an 18th Century writer and historian, said “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think.”

This has been quoted to me on occasion when I shared with some friends how I felt about certain events in my life. Instead of showing empathy and holding space for me to articulate my thoughts and feelings without judgement, they told me in essence to “think more and feel less”

There have been other friends who have said to me, “Don’t think so much” or “Don’t overthink it.” I personally think that saying things like that just shuts people down emotionally and shames them. It is easier to tell someone not to overthink than to say what you actually mean: “I’m sorry to hear that that you’re struggling, but I don’t really want to know the full length and breath of what you’re dealing with, so I will just ask you not to overthink it.”

It is hurtful at worst, and insensitive at best.

To be fully human, we have to be able to be fully open to our feelings and emotions and examine the length and breadth of them. This is crucial in gaining more knowledge of ourselves. When you try to trivialise or minimise your emotions, you are denying a part of who you are.

It is one thing to feel your feelings and observe them, it’s another thing to fuse with your emotions and allow them to define who you are. The former is healthy and the latter is unhealthy. For example, if you think to yourself when feeling triggered, “I am angry” it is quite different from telling yourself, “I am feeling angry” – there is a space that is created between you and your emotions when you recognise that you are just feeling an emotion, rather than being owned or defined by it.

When we are able to hold space for ourselves to feel our emotions fully and articulate them, whether to a trusted friend or in a journal entry, that is when we will be more self-aware and able to extend that same love and self-awareness to others as well.

Let humour have its place in the world. But let us not use humour to avoid the hard work of dealing with loss and working through grief and unprocessed trauma.

“Laughter cannot mask a heavy heart. When the laughter ends, the grief remains” Proverbs 14:13

References

Peterson, Jordan, host. “S4E24: How We’re Breeding Narcissists| Russell Peters & Jordan Peterson – MP Podcast.” The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast, Season 4, episode 24, MP Podcast

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. New York, Penguin Random House, 1943

David, Susan A. Emotional agility: get unstuck, embrace change, and thrive in work and life. New York, Penguin Random House, 2016

Cardoso, Silvia. Our Ancient Laughing Brain. New York, The Dana Press, 2017

The Living Bible, Tyndale House Publishers, 1971.