Use of Humor
Updated: Jul 8
The above-featured photo was taken when I lived in a children’s home during my either grade year. The boy displayed with me, who I’ll call “Axl,” after his favorite vocalist of the same name, was a friend of mine and we lived together in a cottage (house). He was in sixth grade.
At the time, there were four cottages on campus with each containing a husband and wife who oversaw each home. Local Churches of Christ sponsored the children’s home and as residents we were required to attend church services and various youth functions.
On many occasions, Axl and I had lengthy discussions about shared frustrations regarding our parents. Essentially, we both expressed frustration with life for having been in the care of parents who we thought didn’t love us.
It was while in the children’s home, during the ‘90s, that I began what is now referred to as life coaching—the process of providing guidance and encouragement to people on matters having to do with personal challenges, career, etc. Yes, even a child can function as a coach.
A number of residents on campus shared with me some of the most disturbing tales I’d heard in regards to the capacity for human beings to neglect and abuse children in ways I care not to repeat herein. Besides, those stories aren’t mine to tell.
Back then, I didn’t understand why other children and eventually some adults confided in me. All the same, I listened to problems, provided recommendations for what solutions I thought may be helpful, and encouraged others in the interest of hopefulness.
At any rate, the above photo was taken during a banquet to honor a husband and wife who sponsored me when in the home. A kind couple, they fostered children and even adopted two kids.
Axl and I wanted to take a photo that we thought would inadequately represent the proper decorum of the event. Why not depict me as riding a dead steer, with Axl branding me instead of the animal, as I elevated my freehand, per rules of the rodeo?
The absurdity of the photo when juxtaposed with the chaos Axl and I experienced in life competently represents humor—the quality of being amusing or comedic, especially as expressed in literature, speech, or behavior. We laughed in spite of the pain we experienced.
A number of years following the banquet, when Axl and I were out of the home and attending high school, Axl took his own life. Regrettably, he couldn’t laugh in contempt of suffering any longer.
For Axl, here are the words he once introduced to me when the opportunity presented itself to offer support: “So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way. ‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever, even cold November rain.”
Many years after my friend completed suicide, I continued coaching people. In high school, I purchased a beeper and it was briefly used as an improvised crisis hotline.
During that time, I also befriended a number of gang members. I would take food to them, give them rides, and perform various other tasks while also encouraging them not to give up on the idea of a better life.
For validated members who had lengthy criminal histories, they were some of the most loyal and funny people I knew. It took many years for me to realize that humor may have been one of the only elements of relief used by people I knew from various gang sets.
It was then that I earned the name “2-Nice” for how I treated gang members when so many others within society shunned my friends. Not long after graduating high school, I entered the United States Marine Corps (USMC).
There, I learned more about Marine counseling techniques which were similar to coaching. Rather than merely providing guidance and encouragement, one source states:
The purpose of counseling is to ensure, by mutual understanding, that the efforts of leaders and their Marines are continuously directed toward increased unit readiness and effective individual performance.
This form of military counseling isn’t to be confused with mental health counseling—the provision of assistance and guidance in resolving personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties, especially by a professional. Nonetheless, I shaped my understanding about coaching through USMC counseling.
Something I appreciated about Marine counseling is how use of humor was incorporated with the lessons I was taught. For instance, I learned how to serve “shit sandwiches” when providing correction to junior Marines.
Basically, I would issue a reprimand sandwiched between two compliments. For example:
Hey, private Schmuckatelli, your uniform looks squared away! Well done. Now, I wanted to take a moment to discuss your unauthorized absence. I’m to understand that on the way to work today, you received four simultaneous flats? Extraordinary! I’d be inclined to overlook this momentous event that happens to so few people if it weren’t for the fact that you used a similar excuse last month when you were late. Forget the whole thing about excuses being like assholes and they all stink, because your justification is little more than a shitty alibi for piss poor performance, Marine! From here on out, I expect that Bibendum himself will bless you with the good fortune for us to not have to discuss this matter. Understood? Ok, one last thing. The other day, I noticed how you helped that little old lady cross the street. Steller performance, Devil Dog!
Humor regarding both the period of instruction and employment of this technique affords an opportunity for lessons to be embedded in the memory. I’ve not since forgotten the shit sandwich.
Though I wonder if Schmuckatelli still remembers my coaching—because yes, that was an actual excuse one of my Marines once used—I imagine he appreciated the comedy more so than if I would’ve served a shit corndog (you can imagine that one on your own).
Working in the field of military police (MP), Marines were at times exposed to catastrophic scenes whereby serious bodily injury and death were encountered. To cope with these situations, we used gallows humor—grim and ironic humor in desperate or hopeless situations.
Herein, I won’t share gruesome details of what I observed and experienced as an MP. Nevertheless, if it weren’t for an ability to compartmentalize traumatic situations and use humor, I have no idea how I would’ve competently carried out my duties.
Transitioning from the Corps, I began working in the field of nuclear security. At the time, I dealt with having been kicked out of the USMC, gone through a divorce, and I experienced the steadily emptying of a proverbial box of agony in which sectionalized trauma was stored.
Through it all, I found humor to be an invaluable tool to help process the dismal events I faced. Still, it grew exceedingly difficult to help others when I could barely help myself.
I had posttraumatic stress disorder which was incurred in childhood, aggravated by military service, and exacerbated without proper treatment post-service. Despite everything, I was still ridin’ while striking a rodeo pose, because absurdity juxtaposed with chaos was peculiarly comfortable to me.
After completing a degree for a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education, with a focus on justice administration, I entered graduate school for counseling. There, I learned about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), originated by Albert Ellis.
People disturb themselves, they don’t get disturbed—that’s psychoanalytic nonsense. They disturb themselves largely by what they tell themselves. And they first take adversities, hassles, problems of life seriously—which is good, but then they take it too seriously and lose their sense of humor. So we have many cognitive thinking techniques, many experiential, emotive, feeling techniques, and many behavioral. But one of the ones that overlap is humor, because it’s a thinking technique that interrupts your nutty thinking, and it’s a feeling technique, and it’s also behavioral—it pushes you on.
Graduating with a degree for a Master of Arts in Counseling, I didn’t pursue certification to practice REBT. Still, when coaching others, I found that humor helped to solidify lessons surrounding guidance and encouragement for people who I coached.
According to a source from The Albert Ellis Institute, “Humor can be a powerful aspect of developing a strong therapeutic alliance with a client and as a means to help clients change unhelpful attitudes.” Another tool Ellis was said to use relates to profanity.
In my youth, my late stepmother frequently reminded me, “Cusswords are used by those who fail to articulate themselves.” However, when shit got real, she could curse with the best of those who she criticized.
When considering which therapeutic style I wanted to practice, I concluded that artificial representations of human interaction didn’t appeal to me. As a veteran, former MP, and having worked in the field of nuclear security, I didn’t relate to carefully manicured personas.
Likewise, I stem from a childhood in which profanity was used quite regularly. Unlike so many of the other psychotherapists I’ve observed who may say things like, “Aww, jinkies! I’m flabbergasted by what I’m hearing,” that fake shit doesn’t resonate with me.
Per one source, “there is indeed evidence of higher therapeutic ratings and other perceived beneficial effects (than counselling under conditions of non-profanity) to suggest counselor swearing could serve as a clinical tool with the potential to promote therapeutic ends.”
I find it less cumbersome to be myself, use cusswords and humor at times, and allow a client to decide whether or not my approach to therapy is desirable. After all, I don’t market myself as the be-all, end-all source of mental health care or coaching services.
During my graduate studies for social work, I recall an instructor advising the class that profanity could be perceived as off-putting by clients, as we were discouraged from cussing. As well, she instructed that humor was an ego defense mechanism and students were advised not to use this tool.
Have I followed her instruction? As my step-aunt used to say, “Not just ‘no,’ but hell no!” Further, in the words of Social Distortion, and having graduated with a degree for a Master of Science in Social Work, “So I’ve wasted all of my time. I’m leaving you far behind!”
Eventually, I earned certification to practice REBT from The Albert Ellis Institute. Since then, I’ve used humor, profanity, and other tools to help people improve their level of functioning and quality of life.
Reader, do you prefer a mental health practitioner who is plastic (fake) and dry (boring)? If so, I’m not the provider for whom you’re looking. For anyone else, would you like to know more about my approach to psychotherapy?
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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