Mental health

The value of learning to laugh at ourselves

Kilday / MCT

Chicago Tribune

I have a friend who runs every day at 4 a.m., and another friend who does juice cleanses. With all due respect to these people, who are, in fact, a couple of my favorites, those are terrible ideas.

You know what’s a fantastic idea? Laughing at yourself. All of my favorite people laugh at themselves.

“Laughing at yourself is a way to up-regulate,” says clinical psychologist Hal Shorey. “Meaning if you’re feeling anxious or irritable or down on yourself, you can intentionally engage in a behavior that actually changes your physiology.”

(Take that, juice cleanse!)

Laughter fosters connection and emotional ties, too, he says. “Even if we’re not able to synchronize our thoughts with another person, we can synchronize our emotions if we’re both laughing.”

Especially at ourselves. Nothing says, “Look, I realize I’m a long way from perfect,” like a good laugh at your own expense. And nothing short-circuits an argument faster than admitting you’re a long way from perfect.

Laughing at ourselves is a skill we can acquire and sharpen, but Shorey says to do so with caution.

“You don’t want to laugh at yourself to excuse negative or inappropriate behavior. And just like people laugh at others in an aggressive, manipulative, judgmental way, we can also do that to ourselves.”

Less of that, please.

“You want to laugh at yourself in a way that says, ‘Wow, look at me still making mistakes after all these years. I am still a work in progress,’ ” Shorey says. “Laugh at yourself in a loving way that supports positive changes and doesn’t keep you stuck.”

The key is learning to gain some distance on vexing, but potentially laugh-worthy, situations.

“When we react to something with anxiety or irritability, we’re reacting less to what just happened and more to a whole drawn-out story we tell ourselves,” he says.

“Focus on the facts. If you make a mistake, instead of feeling depressed over what it all means, ask yourself, ‘What are the facts? I made a mistake and I have foibles.’ The rest is an elaboration.”

I tried this with my daughter’s bedroom. I interpret her clutter as evidence of my personal failings as both a mother and role model, and usually hang my head in shame as I beg her to rein in the chaos. Not this time.

What are the facts? Her socks and dolls and half-finished craft projects are strewn everywhere. That is all. Notions of her living forever amid squalor and expecting others to pick up after her well into adulthood are an elaboration.

I looked around, laughed (a little maniacally, I will admit) and closed her door.

We can also try, Shorey says, to observe ourselves from the perspective of a sympathetic third party. “Sit back and say, ‘Wow, look at me being really anxious and acting awkwardly. What a trip!’ Almost like you’re observing a favorite niece or nephew, watching them interact with others, watching them make mistakes. Instead of feeling critical or angry at them, you laugh in a loving way.

“All of it,” Shorey says, “is an attempt to take ourselves less seriously.”

Ourselves, our mistakes, our messes. With a little distance, they’re all pretty funny. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll never run out of material.

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