Does Your Therapist Laugh with You?

She was a retired woman, a bit hard of hearing but quite pleasant. I saw her Monday afternoons, and she always opened our session by asking me about my weekend. One particular day, I answered this way:

          “Oh, we went to a tapas place.”

           “A topless place!

She shrieked the words, almost hysterical.

Well, eventually, I was able to calm her down. I repeated the problematic word and described the Spanish-style restaurant I’d referred to, not a burlesque show.

Did she ever look at me as she did before the misunderstanding? I sure hope so!

Another question: Is an occasional intentionally humorous quip from your counselor a good idea? What guidance might indicate when and how to use this form of conversation? Not everyone can or should.

Many therapists are serious, reserved, or seriously reserved. They view a “therapeutic distance” as if it is an ethical necessity accompanied by a subtle chill. Others never dismount their professional or “doctor” pedestal.

For those who use a strictly Freudian model, the patient is on a couch from which he cannot see the analyst. Without seeing him, the listener might miss or misinterpret the healer’s clever intent. Since the psychiatrist also remains quietly listening much of the time, he is a bit like the Wizard of Oz, a dignified magician behind a metaphorical screen.

I laughed a lot in my practice, as I hope my writing reveals. While I agree with the need to retain an element of professional detachment for everyone’s sake, I also know humanizing yourself has a place on flat ground. At times, bringing a smile salves a broken heart.

A practitioner’s infrequent levity can lighten the mood. If the client is weeping or relating something uncomfortable is not the moment to attempt this, but some others are.

To insert a giggle, you need to “read” the patient’s emotions and share a comfortable relationship. Thus, the healer must know the sufferer enough to understand when humor will work.

A chuckle should never come at the patient’s expense. Minimizing suffering while it is fresh is also to be avoided.

Making someone laugh is a gift. What’s more, I doubt whether anyone can be instructed in this talent. You have the knack, or you don’t.

My personal physician has it. Years ago, I went to JN with a skin complaint, and he referred me to a dermatologist. The specialist inspected my face and asserted I’d get skin cancer within 10 years.

No hesitation, no other possibilities, no doubts.

Not great news, either.

When I returned to my general practitioner, I reported what the man said. My doc responded, “Did he tell you the date?

I broke up. My internist lightened my worry with those six words. The other guy was wrong, by the way.

Comedians describe comedy as “tragedy plus time.They recognize many overwhelming wounds fade, to be laughed about later, sometimes much later if at all.

Well used, mirth permits people to recognize they remain capable of joy, even if for a second. Future happiness might therefore appear possible despite their current circumstances. When that awareness comes with the right touch of lightheartedness, it needn’t always be explained.

Not every unhappiness benefits from this remedy, but it sometimes opens the possibility of a new attitude toward our passage through life.

Jollity introduces the unspoken awareness that life is full of laughable indignities, near misses, and inevitable bruises that could have been much worse. We ruin our lives by making each one unforgettable and indelible, like covering every inch of ourselves with large and small frowning tattoos, all staring back at us.

We are such frail things at times. Comfort comes from knowing others are in the same club and just as vulnerable. By recognizing the absurdities of existence we fortify ourselves for the uncertain days ahead.

The human form is like a tiny spaceship launched without our permission by the folks called mom and dad. No trustworthy map presents itself. Unexpected comets, meteors, and black holes are dark surprises. Brighter and better ones include a moonlit night with someone you love.

Smiling at the small shocks and the narrow escapes allows relief from a dim view of what lies ahead. We even may learn how to prepare for challenging events by noting the errors of others, as well as our own.

Laugh when you can, including at yourself. Merriment and glee make life worth living as much as heroic accomplishments and the offspring who will speed our genes forward in their own spacecraft.

Our parents do right to send us off with hope, a hug, and a smile. What better way to launch the future?


The single-cell cartoon is Doctor Visit. Author and source unknown. Next comes Spirit of Civilization from Puck magazine, June 17, 1903, housed in the Library of Congress. Finally, Amazing Laughter, photographed by BMK in the Sculpture Park of Vancouver, Canada. It is the work of Yue Minjun. The last two of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

21 thoughts on “Does Your Therapist Laugh with You?

  1. Humor is the best medicine! I think that was or still is a column in the Reader’s Digest.


  2. Ricardo Azpiroz

    My therapist and I have made each other laugh every so often. It’s one of tiny joys of life.


  3. I frequently tell my healer that he could do “stand-up comedy.” We are a good match…I have the Irish wit and he has a Jewish wit and can mimic his Romanian Jewish great-grandmother’s Yiddish to a tee. This is how he warms me up for our session, and then he gets to work. He is full of warmth and personality, but when things are serious he is compassionate, but will lead me to see things in a way I have never considered. My psychiatrist who prescribes my OCD medication has a zero sense-of-humor, and I find his seriousness amusing because he is a caricature of himself. I have even considered he may have Asperger’s. There is nothing wrong with some levity in therapy because for me it humanizes the relationship and lessens the power imbalance a bit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • drgeraldstein

      The two of you sound like Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara or Burns and Allen. Perhaps there is a stand-up pair for you and your therapist in some other life where it isn’t an ethical violation. A warm-up act before the work begins is an interesting idea!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This is one’s for you:

    I’ll never forget the look on the cashier’s face, when she scanned the packet of bird seed and I asked her, “How long does it take for the birds to grow once I plant them?”

    Happy Father’s Day to you!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. What a wonderful post, Dr. Stein! Such a wonderful reminder to laugh – to break the tension, break us open, introduce perspective. I love your sentence, “Not every unhappiness benefits from this remedy, but it sometimes opens the possibility of a new attitude toward our passage through life.”

    As you know from my dad’s humor that I post every Sunday, there are so many great uses for humor. Sometimes it just makes us stop holding our breath so we can let out a big laugh.

    Loved this wise and fun post!! And so glad that the dermatologist was wrong. Happy Father’s Day, my friend!

    Liked by 2 people

    • drgeraldstein

      I am especially grateful for the last paragraph, Wynne. I am a man addicted to your dad’s humor. I hope your memories of him are all sweet ones.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Such a fun post, Dr. Stein 😀 Couldn’t help laughing out loud at your doctor’s question, “Did he tell you the date?” I’m hopeless at telling jokes and am always surprised when my sons crack up with laughter at something I’ve said. Humor is an excellent pressure release from the stressors of life. Happy Father’s Day to you!

    Liked by 2 people


    I always appreciated it when my doctors would crack a joke, even when I was going through something difficult, for it made me feel normal, not like an unhealthy specimen.

    Humor isn’t shared by all medical staff though. My daughter was just in the hospital getting her gallbladder removed, and post-op she needed magnesium and potassium. As the nurse was changing out a bag, I had quipped “Giving her a nice mocha Frappuccino?” She gave me a look lie I was questioning if she was poisoning my daughter, so I quickly had to say I was cracking a joke and that it sounded funny in my head. She gave me a disproving look. Didn’t try joking with her after that.

    You’re right, either you have it or you don’t!


  8. drgeraldstein

    I hope your daughter is OK, Tamara. Not to excuse the nurse, but medical professionals have been taxed by the pandemic, some to the point of giving up their profession. The nurse, however, clearly fell short. One funny or sad story I was told many years ago was that one psychiatrist told the head nurse in the psychiatric ward in a hospital to “keep my patients away from me!” Imagine that!


  9. I think laughing together is good… confirms relation and understanding. We both cuss too… for same above reason.


    • That cussing is very interesting to me, Laura. Of course, especially in these times, there is a lot to swear about, but I took care not to, with a few exceptions. My major exception was a quote I used from the best-known harmonica virtuoso of the 20th century, Larry Adler. No amount of elegant speech conveyed the meaning nearly so well as precisely what he said: “You should always have enough ‘fuck you’ money!”


  10. Sometimes my therapists laughs with me, and sometimes she laughs at me (depending on the context, and if it is therapeutic).

    My therapist helps me understand long-term relationships in a way I never understood it before (I have long-term relationships, but they were never really close). My therapist is the closest relationship I have with anyone at this moment in time, as I’ve lost a few close people in my past – some who have passed away, some whose political differences were dangerous for me to be around, and some who just moved on or ghosted.

    My therapist helps me to understand that it’s okay to be angry with her, as well as disappointed, happy, close, sad, and even giddy. Since 2019, my therapist and I have been able to express a wide range of emotions with one another, which has helped me tremendously.

    As a person with dissociative identity disorder, I have multiple parts (also called alternate personalities or “alters” in its shortened form). Such multiple parts typically handled my emotions. There’s a jokester and very bubbly alter named Gloria, for instance. She would handle humor, laughter, etc. Other alters handled more difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, etc. – but they handled it for different reasons, or different trauma triggers.

    Learning to be more aware of my alters as I remain present in the here-and-now (which is sometimes referred to as being “co-conscious), I have grown to accept seeing, hearing, and then expressing various emotions for myself. I not only have learned from my therapist, but I’ve also learned from my alters within. It’s kind of like being influenced by peers – you know, when you pick up certain mannerisms from those you spend the most time with. However, for me, it has to do with being more in tune with myself – all of me, which includes my alters/parts.

    Multiple forms of trauma in my past (sexual trauma, childhood trauma, military trauma, racial trauma, medical trauma) and ongoing present (racial trauma, medical trauma, to name just two that stand out today, which are sometimes referred to as “continuous traumatic stress”) have contributed to my dissociative disorder, or fragmented self. It’s sometimes challenging to laugh with or at someone, especially when that could bring up some deep issues such as being bullied in school, in the workplace, or even at home. Laughter wasn’t considered pleasant for me, and traumatic tickling in the form of sexual abuse and lack of bodily space also meant that the behavior, laughter, came with negative emotions and ongoing psychological consequences. Even today, when helping fields bring up preventative measures, the laughing emoticon is considered a negative.

    But one thing my therapist has helped me with was to see how laughter can stem from positive emotions as well. She explained the differences between our emotions and our behaviors, and how even anger could be seen as positive (e.g., not all anger leads to violence; some forms of anger leads to justice or becoming an advocate, for example). We learned to laugh at certain things in our lives, at certain present-day jokes, and even at ourselves. We learned to accept our therapist sometimes laughing at us when we do something or say something funny, and we also learned to voice when something our therapist said hurt our feelings.

    Therapy is truly a safe space to explore emotions and behaviors, including happiness and laughter, as examples of both.

    I just wished that I had more laughter growing up as a child, and especially with my parents. Sadly, emotions and the behaviors expressing them were frowned upon in my family. I’m still learning things I never got to learn as a child during my middle-age phase of life. That, itself, is bittersweet.


  11. You have clearly learned and grown together with your alters, DragonFly. Brava to the whole of you! Keep laughing!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s