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Anxiety and Humour

By Russell Joseph BSc (Hons) MA PG Dip Psychotherapy MBACP
Russell Joseph offers Counselling, Psychology, Psychotherapy


An Exploration of the Relationship Between Humour and Anxiety within a Therapeutic Context



The motivation for this study has been an interest in humour's role concerning anxiety within psychotherapy. Such interest has been encouraged by my own experiences as both a recipient and donor of humour within a therapeutic setting. The fact that there are very few writings that specifically address the question of whether humour has a part to play in psychotherapy has also stimulated this work.
To begin with, this study will concentrate on exploring anxiety from several viewpoints in order to see how significant a part it plays within human existence. The existential perspective will be assessed in terms of elements that are external to the human being, such as the world in which he lives and the cultural values of the society of which he is a part. In contrast, the psychoanalytic position will emphasise anxiety’s role in the context of human development.
This thesis will attempt a broader perspective of the relationship between humour and anxiety than studies by the likes of Shurcliff (1968), Martin & Dobbin (1988) and Martin & Lefcourt (1983) which are limited to one criterion of assessment, which is the extent to which humour curbs the stressful aspects of particular life occurrences.
How existential anxiety can be a source for humour, will be explored in a literary context, by analysing its influence on the characters in Beckett’s (1965) work. The function of humour in provoking an alliance between the mother and her child that assuages his anxiety, will also be focused on by emphasising Lemma’s (2000) ideas. Humour will be used as an umbrella term, covering a range of therapeutic interactions by such figures as Yalom (1991), Spinelli (2000) and Freud, cited in Obholzer (1982). The effect of these interventions on their clients’ anxiety will be explored, in terms of the wider context of the therapeutic relationship, which existed between them and their clients.
The final chapter will look at how I have used humour in a therapeutic capacity, with one of my own clients. The reasons why I felt humour could have a positive effect on his anxiety, will be assessed in terms of his anxiety, as well as how he used humour . My humorous interventions will be related to relevant work on this subject, by such authors as Kline (1907), Rapp (1947) and Mindess (1993).



May’s Documentation of Philosophical Approaches to Anxiety
May’s Documentation of Cultural Influences on Anxiety
An Historical perspective on Cultural Anxiety
Humour’s Relationship to Anxiety within a Literary context
‘Waiting for Godot’ from a Sartrean perspective
‘Waiting for Godot’ from a Heideggerian perspective
A Humorous perspective of ‘Waiting for Godot’
How Humour could affect the ‘Waiting for Godot’ characters


The Psychoanalytic view of anxiety compared to the existential one
The psychoanalytic view of Anxiety
Birth Anxiety
Separation Anxiety
Castration Anxiety
The Oedipus Complex
The case of ‘Little Hans’
Humour as a product of the Super-ego’s attitude towards the Ego
The Determinants of the Super-ego’s character
The part Humour plays in healthy Mother-child relations


Examples of Humour in Psychotherapy
Existential Examples of Humour
Psychoanalytic Examples of Humour
The Playful Character of the Humour
Humour’s Place within the Therapeutic


The Relationship between Humour and Anxiety within a Therapeutic context
Humour in the form of Aesthetic References
Humour as Self-Deprecation of the Therapist
Humour as Relief from Sources of Anxiety
The Effects of my Humour on Michael




The focus for this chapter is the subject of anxiety which I will attempt to assess from a philosophical and a cultural perspective. By looking at it from a philosophical view, I will attempt to see what part it plays within the human being’s life in the context of the world in which he lives. I will also endeavour to see whether the cultural values of the society in which he lives affect the individual’s anxiety. This will be appraised in the context of society’s emphasis on the idea of the separate individual in terms of “competitive success“. The origins of “competitive success“ being a focal point for society will also be traced from the Renaissance to the present day via relevant economic and political changes.
I will endeavour to grasp the notion of philosophical anxiety from a literary perspective, namely Beckett’s work: ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1965). I will ( the purpose of this is to ) try to gauge the relationship between the characters’ anxiety and existential concepts of being. I will attempt ( AN attempt ) to clarify this relationship by concentrating on Sartre’s (2002) view of being, as well as his perception of nothingness and freedom. I will also assess how Heidegger’s views on existence may illuminate the ‘Waiting for Godot’ characters’ anxiety as well as their life as a whole.
I will assess in what ways the product of the ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1965) characters’ anxiety could be a source for humour. The speculative question of how humour could change these characters’ relationship to their anxiety is analysed by looking at relevant work of Freud (1928), Frankl (1967,1987) and May (1993).

May ‘s Documentation of Philosophical Approaches towards Anxiety

May manages, in The Meaning of Anxiety (1996, p205), to give a panoramic insight into the issue of anxiety. He does this by expanding upon the basic premise that anxiety is a given of human existence and by concentrating on how it has been interpreted in the fields of literature, political science and psychology to name but a few. However, I wish to concentrate on his philosophical and cultural approaches as they illuminate not only its significance as an integral part of human life per se, but also as an unavoidable consequence of life in a society that since the middle ages has emphasised the individual in economic terms.
Despite the fact that the seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza did not address the subject of anxiety explicitly, May includes him. One reason for this is that Spinoza’s (1910) analysis of fear with hope is the origin of one popular definition of anxiety that sees it as being synonymous with the conflict between these two emotions. However, for Spinoza (1910) cited in May (1996, p27), fear and hope exist co-dependently in the unsure human as they are both rooted in his uncertain sense of expectation. Both qualities are attributable to a mental weakness whose solution for Spinoza lay in logical thought. The following quote from Spinoza (1910) cited in May (1996, p27), explains the form that such thought takes, as “ [it] must enumerate and imagine the common perils of life and in what manner they must best be avoided and overcome by courage.” This view infers a tangible approach to sources of threat which also suggests an escape route from them.
The “common perils of life “ could be a source for anxiety in the sense that they could very easily provoke feelings of doubt and impotence as well as having a vague, ambiguous nature. My belief is that anxiety in society is either not acknowledged, or misinterpreted by relating it to specific sources. Therefore modern capitalistic society, instead of recognising the anxiety that van Deurzen-Smith (1997, p38) sees as “an inevitable part of human living”, prefers to restrict human existence to purely fiscal terms. One only has to watch television adverts for a couple of minutes to have one’s living room full of images of “shiny, happy people” (REM, 1991), whose contentment seems due to the security brought about by financial gain. Applying this to Spinoza’s (1910) equation would result in worries per se being curbed by being sufficiently strong to explore different monetary options. Such an approach could amount to a denial of the anxiety of life by translating it into a purely tangible form that can be cured through logical means.
Unlike Spinoza, Pascal (1946) anticipated the existential philosophy towards anxiety. He wrote about his fear (1946) cited in May (1996, p29) in the context of (pp.36, 37 ) “ the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not and which know not me.” Such a quote about fear corresponds to the characteristics of anxiety noted by May (1996, p205) as being “unspecific”, “ vague [and] objectless”. Since Pascal’s fear is not related to anything specific it also fits May’s description of anxiety as being characterised by a sense of doubt and powerlessness “in the face of danger“, as his description centres on being overwhelmed by such danger.
Still, the most direct correlation between Pascal’s reaction to his life and the existential school surely lies in his emphasis of its basic source as being external to the human being enduring it. Simply put this external cause is life itself. This view is expressed succinctly by van Deurzen
Smith (1997, p38) who states that “anxiety is seen as an inevitable part of human living.” Her description of anxiety as an accompaniment to (p38) “awareness of the fundamental lack of substance and security of the human condition” could be seen as a cause for Pascal’s feeling of being eclipsed by life.

May’s Documentation of Cultural Influences on Anxiety

By putting anxiety into a cultural setting, May is suggesting a relationship between the values of the society that the individual belongs to and his own anxiety. To make this connection is to adhere to a basic existential principle, because the source of the anxiety is to do with the society in which he lives and is therefore outside of the individual. He illustrates this by emphasising how great the onus is to fulfil (1996, p173) “competitive success” within society, which could translate into an anxiety resulting from awareness of the prospect of not accomplishing this requirement. A reason for success in this area being so significant and therefore failure being so threatening, is that such a goal has been internalised to the point that it has been equated with individual self worth.

An Historical Perspective on Cultural Anxiety

May emphasises the historical dimension in relation to cultural standards as it offers a perspective on the past cultural influences which determine the present ones. He therefore tracks society’s attitude towards “competitive success” through the ages and in so doing clarifies the contemporary stance towards it. “Competitive success” is a by-product of an approach in which the individual is emphasised as a separate entity, rather than as part of the whole that is society.
The Renaissance period in the fourteenth century was responsible for creating this thinking. May notes how, in sharp contrast to the middle ages where one’s function was as a constituent of the community, the idea of the potent individual reached fruition then. The cultural advancements of this time produced an environment in which the concept of the (1996, p179) “free, autonomous individual” prevailed. Radical economic and political reforms were seen as an effect of this concept of the individual. Also, the economic climate promoted this view of the individual by providing financial chances for those (1996, p179) “bold enough to take the risk.” During this time self-worth was equated with success which had a competitive element, as such accomplishment was seen in terms of exceeding others.
Nonetheless, May avers that there is a (1996, p182) “despair with nascent feelings of anxiety “ underlying the positive image of the free, potent individual. May claims that such anxiety is a product of the culture in which the individual functions. Its emphasis on separate achievement creates a setting in which the individual is on his own and such detachment from others results in an intense lack of support which creates anxiety. One means to assuage such anxiety in present society, with its accent on financial success, is to strive for such achievement which provokes acknowledgement from others. Even so, such a process entails (1996, p184) “aggression towards one’s [colleagues]” as this is a means of being acknowledged by them.
This process is characterised by what May (1996, p184) terms as “alienation from others” which exemplifies the unhealthy nature of the individual’s relationship with society. According to May, how the individual relates to society is indicative of how he relates to himself. Therefore, just as he sees others in terms of gaining (1996, p184) “wealth and power”, so these objectives dominate his own self-view. The person’s self-worth is reliant on his (1996, p184) “achieving competitive success” and failure to do so provokes feelings of inadequacy and despair. The fact is, that striving for success, in Kardner’s view (1945) cited in May (1996, p184), cannot be satisfied, as it is a never-ending process, never reaching a satisfactory conclusion. This helps to sustain state of anxiety within the human. The origins of this contemporary need lie in the Renaissance period where achievement occurred in the context of the individual on his own against his peer group. Therefore, gain reflected self-sufficiency, as well as a transcendence from one’s peers.
The economic advancements since the Renaissance were integral to the creation of what May (1996, p187) describes as “individual competitive ambition”. One of the premises for modern capitalism is the freedom of the individual to gain revenue which translates into power. Tawney (1920) cited in May (1996, p187), emphasised how “any authority [such as social value and function]” which could undermine a striving for personal wealth was rejected during industrialism. This quest for financial advancement was validated as benefiting society as a whole. Still, this economic emphasis has translated into work being assessed merely in terms of its financial elements, such as its salary. This emphasis has a competitive aspect to it, as one’s own fiscal position is seen in comparison to others.
Despite this emphasis on the autonomous individual, (May 1996, p189), “modern economic individualism” translates into the majority of labour working on the assets of a limited number of owners. Such a situation is conducive to anxiety for several significant reasons. Firstly, work’s worth has been reduced to merely financial concerns and therefore man has lost a valuable source of potency, which was satisfaction arising from the work itself. Unable to access his sense of security, man is naturally going to be more vulnerable to anxiety. Secondly, financial gain as a measure of self-worth is a bench mark that man has no control over, since it is external to him. This means that man lacks himself as a reference point for his own character as the criterion for this has been imposed upon him. This puts man in a very uncertain and therefore potentially anxiety-inducing situation. Thirdly, according to May (1996, p189) ultimate control over man’s financial fate lies with the “ few [ number of ] owners” who act as his employers and therefore provide him with his work opportunities. This means that his potential to work is taken out of his hands, which also puts him into an insecure position. The fact that modern society is built upon such financial foundations means, as far as anxiety is concerned, man can never find a totally satisfactory sense of freedom since the means to alleviate such anxiety are fiscal and therefore not of his own making. An anxiety-producing side effect is that, by attempting to alleviate such angst, man is helping to sustain the criteria which such a system needs in order to exist.

Humour’s Relationship to Anxiety within a Literary Context

Anxiety is a prime motivating force in Beckett’s play ‘ Waiting for Godot ‘ and in the context of the central characters’ existence and behaviour. Beckett’s work (1965) has a timeless quality to it, as there are no cultural references to ground it in any particular period. Their anxiety is therefore philosophical as it does not conform to any specific cultural phenomenon. For example, it would be inappropriate to see the characters’ emotional state as related in any way whatsoever to the competitive striving for economic success that May has documented so tirelessly (1996) as Beckett steers clear of such detail in his play. Instead, Pascal’s (1946) definition of man’s predicament as quoted by May (1996, p29) offers an apt reference point for the WFG characters. Vladimir’s and Estragon’s anxiety eclipses any particular event or person in their lives, since there is no suggestion, for example, that they are reacting to the behaviour of any particular person or event. Also, their not seeming to be in a specific place suggests an environment that is akin to a void, which is supported by the fact that the only non-human feature of their setting that is mentioned is a tree (1965, p19). Hence their world corresponds to the context which Pascal gives for man’s fear, which is an overriding sense of space. Such space does not provide man with a satisfactory means for defining himself and encourages impotence as he is, after all a mere grain of sand in the wider scheme of this reality.

‘Waiting for Godot’ from a Sartrean perspective

Sartre has been accorded the status of a significant existential thinker primarily because of his work ‘Being and Nothingness’ which, according to Warnock (Sartre, 2002, pviii), explores most of the concepts upon which this philosophy of life are founded. Warnock (1986, p93) observes that Sartre’s ( 2002) work is devoted to the subject of Being, particularly from the perspective of “human existence”. Sartre distinguishes two main types of being, namely “being-for- itself” and “being-in-itself“. What distinguishes these two states is consciousness, in the sense that a “being-in-itself” lacks this facility, whilst in a “being-for-itself“ awareness is centred on the potential to be in this non-conscious state at the same time as rejecting it. Seemingly, the defining character of “being-in-itself”, apart from being the polar opposite of “being-for-itself“, is its lack of character. As Sartre (2002, p630) states: “strictly speaking we can say of it only that it is.” This statement implies an intense superficiality of character to the point that there is no substance beneath the appearance of the “being-in-itself“.
I think that it is fair to say that Vladimir and Estragon do not fit this description, as their behaviour reflects human qualities such as humour and compassion, as well as an awareness of others’ character traits. This is shown in the beginning of this piece by Vladimir, who yearns for some physical contact with his partner Estragon after his absence, stating (1965, p9) : “ Get up till I embrace you.” Nevertheless, Estragon does not comply with Vladimir’s wish, which provokes Vladimir to parody what he sees as his partner’s supercilious aloofness referring to him as (1965, p9) “ His Highness“. A “Being-in-itself“ would lack Vladimir’s awareness of such traits which would seem to underlie his sarcastic humour in this instance. Similarly, the outrage that Vladimir expresses in response to a stranger’s treatment of his servant shows a humane concern for human kind. Vladimir exclaims that (1965, p27): “It’s a scandal . . . to treat a man. . . like that“ in response to Pozzo’s cruelty to his servant Lucky. Such conduct on Vladimir’s part shows a recognition for another’s suffering which belies any “being-in-itself“ state with its overwhelming lack of awareness.
The concepts of nothingness and freedom, as they figure in Sartre’s thinking, allow insight into the reality of Vladimir’s and Estragon’s lives. Fundamental to the state of “being-for-itself“ is the notion of “nothingness” which is described by Warnock (1986, p94) “as the space which [separates] them from Beings-in-themselves.” Therefore this nothingness is external to the “Being-for-itself“ but on another level it actually determines the form that the human’s existence takes. As Warnock (1986, p94) states the “nothingness“ inside the human being equals “an emptiness . . . which he [attempts ] to fill by his . . . actions [ and ] thoughts.” Therefore this internal nothingness defines the human’s freedom to fulfil his own potential, since, as Warnock ( 1986, p94 ) observed, he is “free to fill [ it ] . . . in whatever way he chooses.”
Sartre (2002) equates this freedom with action and choice, as well as accentuating the feelings of anxiety that accompany it. Sartre ( ibid. ,p439) describes freedom as being experienced by an existent’s action, presumably because the person is free to act or not as the case may be. Through action different options reveal themselves which he can either choose or reject. Freedom is fraught with anxiety according to Sartre ( ibid. p629 ) because the choices that are fundamental to it are devoid of the support of either a past or a future. The reason for this is that such choices can only be truly assessed by the person confronted by them in terms of themselves. Vladimir and Estragon seem to be prime examples of the Sartrean concept identified by Warnock (1986, p98) as “Bad Faith“, since she equated this with a denial of one’s “ [endless] freedom“ in the hope of avoiding the anxiety that accompanies this recognition.
This is shown by their yearning to be in a “Being-in-itself“ state. An example of this is their not taking responsibility for their own lives, which is tantamount to a denial of their own freedom to decide their own potential themselves. This is confirmed by Sartre’s (2002, p634) description of responsibility in terms of “consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or object.” By putting the onus on someone else to find the answer to their lives the WFG characters are clearly abdicating such responsibility. This denial of responsibility is demonstrated by the following dialogue, in Beckett’s (1965, p18) work, between Vladimir and Estragon:
“ Vladimir : Well ? What to do ?
Estragon : Don’t lets do anything. It’s safe.
Vladimir : Let’s wait and see what he says
Estragon : Who ?
Vladimir : Godot . “

The option of inactivity chosen here is echoed by the constant affirmations of inertia shown by these characters’ repeated statements that there’s (pp.9,11,19,21 & 23) “nothing to be done.” In acting in this way Vladimir and Estragon would seem to be negating their own freedom to fulfil their own potential through action and thought. By behaving in this way they would seem to be attempting to escape the anxiety that is integral to such freedom. This is shown here by their refusal to do anything without Godot’s guidance.

‘Waiting for Godot’ from a Heideggerian perspective

Like Sartre, Heidegger was dedicated to the subject of ‘being’ and his understanding of this subject, as shown in ‘Being and Time’ (2003) not only helped to create basic existential principles, but also provides illumination into the lives of the Waiting for Godot characters and the way that anxiety affects them. As noted by Warnock (1986, p50) the context that Heidegger conceived for “human being” was the world in which the person lived. This is clarified by Heidegger’s term for “human being” which as Warnock (1986, p 50) stated is “Dasein“ which means “being there.” This means, according to Warnock (1986, p50), that Heidegger only perceived of a human being in terms of the environment which he inhabits. Therefore, the relationship between the human being and the world in which he lives determines the form that his life takes. According to Warnock (1986, p53) the word “concern“ is a synonym for the value that the human attaches to this association. Warnock (1986, p54) defined the human’s concern with his world in terms of the “the possibilities“ which are open to him, which fit into the categories “of authentic and inauthentic existence.”
I think that clarifying the meaning of these types of existence enables some perspective on the form that the lives of the ‘ Waiting for Godot ‘ characters take, as well as the part that anxiety plays in such lives. An authentic existence is based, according to Warnock (1986, p55 ), on a recognition of “ the fact that each human being is [distinct from others] and . . . has his own (potential to realise].” The main feature of this type of being is its solitary nature, in the sense that the human being is solely responsible for fulfilling his own potential as he is unsupported by others. Warnock (1986, pp. 57, 58) equated this state with anxiety and the cause for this is the human being’s “ unsupported and isolated “ state, which means “that he [alone] is the source of [the world’s] reality.”
There are several ways in which the ‘Waiting for Godot’ characters attempt to avoid the anxiety that is integral to an authentic existence and this is shown by their satisfying various criteria for an inauthentic existence. Perhaps the most blatant way of their embracing an inauthentic existence is shown by the fact that they are passively waiting for a mythical force without whom they are seemingly incapacitated. The following dialogue in Beckett (1965, pp 20, 21) shows their reliance on Godot:
“ Estragon: I’m asking you if we’re tied.
. . . . .
Vladimir: To Godot ? Tied to Godot ? . . . No question of it . “

The fact that they will not do anything without Godot seems a clear denial of the view that they are solely responsible for realising their own potential. If they grasped the belief that they were solely accountable for their own lives they would not wait for Godot to give them direction because they would be too busy pursuing their potential on their own. The fact that there is no logical reason given in Beckett’s (1965) work for Godot having anymore idea than them of how they can find their way to Damascus on the surface, seems to confirm the ridiculous nature of their faith in him. However such faith would seem to make sense if seen as a reflection of the strength of the anxiety that they attach to a solitary existence .
Warnock (1986, p57) sees anxiety as a motivating force for “ [succumbing to the aspects) of inauthentic existence [such as) the trivial [and) the social .” The inconsequential nature of the ‘ Waiting for Godot ’ s’ characters’ lives would seem to be shown by their having fully embraced the maxim that Vladimir states to his companion Estragon (p10): “never neglect the little things of life.” Their having adopted this dictum to an absurd extreme seems to be shown by their apparent full engagement by whatever is in their view, regardless of its importance. This is shown by their preoccupation with such matters as (p20) the identity of the vegetables that they ate, (p68) Estragon’s preference for certain types of radish and (p62) their past activities in the Macon Country. The fact that Vladimir and Estragon are omnipresent companions to one another shows that they are living a social life since they never appear in this work alone.
Warnock (1986, p57 ) described an “ inauthentic existence” in terms of “a fallen state” which is exemplified by “ man [disregarding ] the reality of his own relation to the world.” The apparent lack of an internal filter system that would enable Vladimir and Estragon to prioritise aspects of their awareness instead of being flooded by such elements, has resulted, as has been shown, in their engagement with the trivial. It would seem that Vladimir and Estragon are too busy being preoccupied with such aspects to actually contemplate the question of what the “ [ actuality] of [their ] own [association] to the world” is. Also their absorption of the trivial could make it difficult for them to pursue the issue of their “own relation to the world” because of the serious character of this question and their being acclimatised to the inconsequential.

A Humorous perspective of ‘Waiting for Godot‘

According to the Chambers’s Dictionary definition, humour is “a mental quality which apprehends and delights in the ludicrous (and mirthful).” Therefore, according to this description, Vladimir’s and Estragon’s existence could be a source for humour if its nature was found to be absurd. The most feasible reason for their lives being what they are is their rejection of an authentic existence because of the anxiety that underlies its solitary and unsupported nature. There is no other explanation offered by Beckett for his characters’ conduct, in the sense that there is no mention of an explicit motive. Nor is there any hint that they are actually attempting to escape any specific thing through their approach to life.
Their stagnant position is shown by their fully endorsing the maxim that there’s (pp.11, 21) “nothing to be done.” Also, the fact that the main characters as suggested by the play’s title are merely “waiting for Godot“ rather than actively seeking him out is another measure of just how passive their existence would seem to be. A motive for such behaviour ‘s inauthentic character could be the attempted avoidance of the anxiety that underlies a life built around trying to fulfil the possibilities open to them in the world, due to the isolated, solitary nature of such an undertaking.
The ridiculous nature of Vladimir’s behaviour would seem to be due to its contradicting so fully his potential to make something of his life. This could be shown by what the following infers concerning his quality of character. In the second act (p80 ) after having confirmed that he knows the answer to the question of “what [they are] doing here” Vladimir states: “the hours are long, under these conditions, and constrain us to beguile them with proceedings which . . . may at first sight seem reasonable, until they become a habit. You may say that it is to prevent our reason from foundering. But has it not long been straying in the night without end of the abyssal depths?” Vladimir’s turn of phrase is eloquent and shows profound insight into the detrimental effects on their rationality of their constant “waiting for Godot”. This statement therefore reflects his perception and intelligence which make his resignation to merely wait for Godot, rather than use these characteristics in a constructive way, all the more puzzling.
Another expression of their absurdity is the form that their interaction together takes. The following fragment (p20) typifies the cross-purpose form that their discourse often takes:
“ Estragon ( chewing) : I asked you a question .
Vladimir : Ah.
Estragon : Did you reply ?
Vladimir : How’s the carrot.
Estragon : It’s a carrot. “

Here each character follows his own agenda to the point that the other is ignored. Vladimir does this by not acknowledging Estragon’s previous question, preferring instead to talk about Estragon’s carrot. Estragon, in turn does not answer Valdimir’s query concerning the quality of the carrot. Their dialogue seems to satisfy several of the criteria for inauthenticity in the sense that its nature seems trivial and also it could be seen as an example of their, in Warnock’s (1986, p57) phrase “[disregarding] the reality of [their] own relation to the world.” One reason for each party continuing a monologue in the other’s presence could be that their own individual anxiety is so great that it dominates to the point that they are deaf to the other.
The apparent illogical and ludicrous of this conversation seems to be confirmed when put into the context of Buber’s criteria for meeting between human beings which are discussed in his dialogue with Rogers (1997). There are two kinds of meeting that Buber identifies here, namely the “ I-Thou” and the “ I-It “ types. The former is defined as one in which the other (p42) is experienced in a whole way and there are no restricting boundaries to the interaction between the two. The “ I-It “ way of relating differs in that the other is seen as an object who is to be used in some way or other. What seems striking about the previous discourse between Vladimir and Estragon is that there is no attempt to have an “ I-thou “, “ I-It “ or “ I-Anything “ interaction for the simple reason that they are not relating to one another but rather carrying on separate monologues in the other’s presence. My belief is that the absurdity of such behaviour lies in their refusal to acknowledge the pleasurable and educational possibilities that lie in true communication between two people.
These two examples of the ‘Waiting for Godot’ characters’ behaviour could be, according to the Chambers’s Dictionary definition of humour, a source of amusement to the reader, as they seem to fulfil the features of absurdity upon which this description is built. In the first instance, the absurdity lies in their passive existence, which would seem to contradict their human potential . In the second example, the ridiculous character of their dialogue seems to be due to two people carrying on a crossfire communication which serves no useful purpose. However, anxiety could be seen as the basic source of the humour since the characters ‘ absurd behaviour seems to be as a consequence of attempting to evade the stressful aspects of an authentic existence.
Nevertheless, the characters themselves on the whole do not respond in a humorous way to the nature of their being. This is a shame, because as the writings of Freud (1928), May (1993) and Frankl (1967, 1987) seem to suggest, humour could be an effective tool in their making some significant headway in confronting the stifling source of their anxiety.

How Humour could affect the ‘Waiting for Godot’ characters

Freud (1928, p2) writes about humour in the context of “ [it having] a liberating element . . . [that manifests itself in] the ego’s victorious assertion of its own invulnerability.” Freud’s clarifies why this is so in the example he gives of a man about to be hanged. In Freud’s example, a man about to be hanged (ibid. ,p2) “on a Monday “ states: “ it doesn’t worry me. What does it matter, after all, if a fellow like me is hanged ? The world won’t come to an end.”
I think this provides a pertinent metaphor for what our ‘Waiting for Godot‘ friends lack. If this scenario is applied to Vladimir and Estragon then it is not the prospect of hanging which is the focal point of their lives, but rather the possibility of a “being-for-itself“, authentic existence. This is shown by the main object of their life being the avoidance of this in the form of waiting for Godot. Anxiety links these characters with the criminal , as theirs is so great that they dare not confront its source, in contrast to him who through his humorous attitude manages to detach himself from what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly anxiety-ridden situation. Therefore, if they shared his humorous faculty, like him they would be able to not just address but also transcend the potentially anxiety inducing circumstances of their life.
May (1993) echoes Freud’s emphasis on humour as a protective mechanism enabling the Self to affirm itself. This occurs in the sense of humour enabling us (p61) “to experience ourselves as subjects who are not swallowed up in the objective situation.” The detachment that is implied by this statement is a theme that May reiterates in terms of the space that humour creates, allowing the person to observe the difficulty from the sidelines. A humorous approach therefore translates into not being suffocated by a problem, but rather standing strong in the face of it. Thus according to May’s definition, humour could give Vladimir and Estragon the equipment to face and assert themselves in the face of the anxiety that an authentic existence provokes in them .
Frankl (1967) seems to broaden the perspective of humour by equating it with meaning. For Frankl (1967, p12) “ meaning sets the pace for being,” which translates into it being a determining factor for existence which provides the outlet for the self to express itself. He expanded upon the means by which life finds meaning in the context of (ibid., p24) :
(i) What man contributes “ to the world in terms [of his] creation.”
(ii) By what he gains from “ the world “ through his “experience“.
(iii) The approach that he takes “ towards suffering “.
The anxiety that the WFG characters attach to a “being-for-itself“ existence translates into their rejecting its tenets to the point that they emphatically fail to fulfil the above criteria. In particular, their renouncement of action and freedom means that they are not actively engaged in the world around them, which results in their neither contributing to nor deriving anything substantial from their environment. Also, their intense yearning to be on autopilot in the form of a “being-in-itself“ amounts to their wishing to be oblivious to their suffering, as they evade this issue by investing so wholeheartedly in Godot as the determining force for their life.
The stagnating effects of the WFG characters’ disowning a “being-for-itself “ existence, could be countered by their adoption of a humorous approach, such as described by Frankl. Like Freud, he emphasised (ibid., p4) its potency in enabling man to detach himself from something, thereby enabling him to view himself “in a more detached way “. So Frankl’s view of humour as being able to facilitate a distancing effect from a source of anxiety suggests its potential use for Vladimir and Estragon in much the same way as for the criminal in Freud’s (1928) example. Also, by using humour as a vehicle for gaining a sense of freedom from the object of their angst, there could be more opportunity for them to embrace a meaningful existence according to Frankl’s guidelines. This could be due to their energies having a fresh outlet, as their previous use in the avoidance of their anxiety would now be redundant. Free from the sources of their anxiety, they could now be free to engage with the world in a way that could facilitate their finding some sense of meaning from it.
The potential of humour being an effective tool for Vladimir and Estragon is supported by Frankl’s account of concentration life in “ Man’s Search for Meaning “. Such an environment provided a context of unbearable anxiety as shown by the descriptions of death and brutality served to the inmates on a daily basis. Frankl (1987, p42) described humour here as being a contributing factor in the quest for “self-preservation“, as it would presumably provide an escape route from the ubiquitous source of anxiety that was death. If humour could provide relief from such an angst-ridden setting then, hypothetically speaking, it could fulfil the same function for Vladimir and Estragon as long as they were receptive to it.


It was found that both the philosophical and cultural views of anxiety emphasise its omnipresent nature. The philosophical perspective attributes this to the human being’s vulnerability in the context of the world in which he lives. Society’s cultural accent on “competitive success“ encourages anxiety because, in striving for this goal, the individual is alone and unsupported. The concept of “Competitive success“ began during the Renaissance period when achievement was equated with individual financial attainment .
The ‘Waiting for Godot’s’ characters’ anxiety in its general nature was philosophical. Sartre’s perspective on their anxiety equates it with their attempt to avoid a conscious, “Being-for-itself“ state. The motivation for this could have been to escape the nothingness and freedom that defines such a state. The anxiety is a product of the individual being alone and unsupported by time, in his freedom to fill his internal nothingness through action. A Heideggerian view would equate their embracement of an inauthentic existence with an attempted eschewal of the anxiety- provoking isolation of an authentic life. The result of their trying to escape a “Being-for-itself“, authentic position was their passing responsibility for their lives to Godot.
The humour could be seen to lie in the ‘ Waiting for Godot ‘ characters’ denial of their human potential to the extent of being stagnant and also their ignoring of one another. Such behaviour could be seen to satisfy the criterion for humour of absurdity. Interestingly, anxiety could be seen as the underlying cause for such humour as their absurd behaviour could be seen as a product of their trying to avoid it. Humour could have a positive effect on these characters’ lives for several reasons, which have been documented by Freud (1928 ), May (1993) and Frankl (1967, 1987). According to Freud (1928) it allows a detachment from sources of anxiety. May (1993) sees humour as providing the means to assert oneself rather than being overwhelmed by anxiety. Frankl (1967 ) confirmed Freud’s view of humour’s potential to encourage a separation from anxiety as well as having a rejuvenating effect, since their energy would be freed from trying to suppress their anxiety.



A brief comparison between the different ways that the subject of anxiety is viewed by the existential and psychoanalytic schools of therapy will be broached. The stance of these different therapeutic camps will be represented by the views of significant figures within them, such as van Deurzen - Smith (1997) on the one hand and Freud (1916-17) on the other.
The psychoanalytic position will be expounded upon in terms of the relations between the different psychic agencies as this will enable clarification of the Freudian view of humour’s relationship to anxiety. Universal causes of anxiety connected to human development will also be explored in terms of the mother child alliance via Winnicott ‘s (1990, p57) definition of the “good enough mother “. Freud’s famous case of “Little Hans“ (1909) will be documented to show the potentially damaging effect of the Oedipus complex on a young child’s anxiety in terms of how Hans ‘ ego defended itself against the abnormal workings of his Id, without the support of a benign Superego.
The role of the Oedipus complex in the creation of the Superego will be examined as well. Also, its influence (as well as that of the child’s parents) in the overall shaping of the Superego’s nature will be explored. The subject of what shapes the Superego’s nature will be emphasised, since according to Freud this psychic agent’s approach towards the Ego determines the potential for humour in the human .
How humour is reflective of a certain Superego/ Ego relationship will be probed by focusing on Freud’s (1928) practical example of how humour manifests itself in relation to someone facing a potentially anxiety inducing scenario. The effects of a healthy relationship between the Ego and the Superego are assessed in terms of how it can lead to a conservation of energy in terms of the Id’s instinctual activity. What such activity means with respect to “sadistic or masochistic . . instinctual drives“ will be explored via Dooley (1934, p50).
The implications of a good mother-child relationship will be looked at, in respect of the child’s Ego being strong enough to survive its environment. The positive effects of humour on the child’s defensive mechanisms will also be assessed. Finally, Lemma’s (2000) work will be used to document the part humour plays in how a “good enough“ mother communicates to her child through such actions as “claiming“ and smiling.

The Psychoanalytic view of Anxiety as compared to the Existential one

The role that anxiety plays in the respective schools of existential and psychoanalytic therapy is a reflection of fundamental differences in these schools that cuts to the core of their different perspectives on how humans function in the world. The existential approach is neatly summed up by van Deurzen-Smith (1997, p38) who equates anxiety as not just an “ an inevitable part of human living“ but also symptomatic of “people [being] . . . aware of themselves . . . [and their] vulnerability when confronted with the possibility of [their] death. It is therefore the sine qua non of facing life and finding oneself.” Even though Freud acknowledges realistic anxiety he certainly does not elevate it to the extent that van Deurzen-Smith does. He describes it as being (1916-17, p441) “ very rational and intelligible“ and relates it to “external danger“ rather than an authentic existence as van Deurzen -Smith does. Perhaps, it is constructive to see Freud’s view of anxiety primarily in the context of how the human’s psyche responds to internal anxiety. The case of “Little Hans“ will be explored in terms of this subject as well as pinpointing the potential obstacle to human development that anxiety can cause. Such a view is based on human development as seen in the context of overcoming the anxieties attached to the progressive periods of maturation as represented by birth, separation and the oedipal phase .

The Psychoanalytic view of Anxiety

A psychoanalytic perspective on anxiety may emphasise the interaction between the Ego and its psychic relatives: the Id and the Superego, in addition to reality itself. For the sake of clarity it may be helpful to clarify these terms for the reader. The Ego is seen as being synonymous with the “self“ which Reber (1985, p228) states as being concerned “with reality“ and the personality’s “defence mechanisms“. In its relations with the Id and the Superego its role is to maintain some sense of equilibrium between their respective demands. The Id is an expression for the most primitive, instinctual part of the psyche and Reber (1985, p402) defines it in terms of its libidinal energy which in pure psychoanalytic terminology is sexual but has been expanded to cover “any psychic energy “. On the other hand, the Superego has been described as an internalised parent which is logical as Reber (1985, p746) equates it with sustaining “ethical and moral“ standards within the Ego. As will be seen these psychic agents in addition to reality itself play an integral part in causing and alleviating anxiety.
An assessment of the core sources of anxiety as identified by Freud allows illumination of the part played by these psychic agents in this context, as well as the defence mechanisms used to control it. It also enables clarification of the relationship between humour and anxiety as humour is according to Freud (1905, p233) “ the highest of [the] defensive processes.” According to Freudian thought the Super-ego’s attitude to the Ego, as will be shown later, is integral to the creation of humour. The core origins of anxiety identified by Freud (1926, 1932) are related to birth, subsequent maternal separation, castration and reality itself. The ideal of the “good- enough“ mother as explained by Winnicott (1990, p57) is fundamental in providing the child with the means for developing healthy defence devices for coping with such anxiety. As I will endeavour to show subsequently, humour belongs somewhere in the concept of a “good enough“ mother.

Birth Anxiety

For Freud (1926, p130) birth represents “the first experience of anxiety which an individual goes through“ and as such this event sets a precedent for subsequent anxiety states, in particular those attached to maternal separation and castration. Freud (1932, p 126) characterises birth as a “ traumatic moment“ and his emphasis on the inability of the baby to “ master“ the “highly tense excitation“ that it represents, is a sign of the impotence of the newborn baby in the face of his initial separation from his mother. This parting has thrown the baby into a world that he has not yet developed the resources for dealing with. Reber (1985, p95) attributed this separation, which is representative of the first attack on the psyche, to “being summarily expelled from the comfort of the womb into a hostile, non-gratifying world.” The fact that the baby makes this contact with the external world on his own, makes Freud’s description of it as traumatic understandable, which in turn gives some measure of the strength of the anxiety involved. As already noted, the intense danger and therefore, anxiety that the baby feels when born, parallels his primitive state.
The newborn’s lack of prior knowledge of his surroundings means that he is deprived of contact with objects whose familiarity could have a reassuring effect. Freud (1926, p135) also, draws attention to this undeveloped condition in terms of the newborn’s lack of awareness of the potentially life- threatening situation in which he finds himself. His descriptions (1926, 1932, 1916) of it relate its cause to a purely external factor, namely the baby’s helplessness in relation to a world that he faces on his own. Winnicott (1990, p41) confirms Freud’s equation of birth trauma with environmental factors, when he states that this anxiety

Is based on fear of annihilation, whose source presumably lies with the world outside of the baby.

Separation Anxiety

The relationship between the baby and his mother illuminates both the commonality and the differences between birth and separation anxiety. According to Freud (1926, p137), the common ground between these kinds of anxiety lies in the “tension“ that the baby is subjected to, as a result of his emotional “needs“ being unfulfilled by the presence of his mother. In this state the baby is compelled to dispel an intense level of “stimulation“ due to his needs not being met by his mother. The theme of development seems reflective of the main difference between these respective types of anxiety. Freud (1926, p170) states that the new born baby, unlike his older version has no perception of his mother as an object which means that she cannot be “missed “. This contrasts with the baby who has experience of his maternal object satisfying his needs, since his anxiety has progressed from being a mere product of disruption to his energy levels, to the actual absence of his mother. By perceiving his mother’s absence as dangerous and responding with anxiety, the baby is, in effect, protecting himself from the disruption to his energy levels that would otherwise ensue. This behaviour contrasts to that of the new-born baby, because the older child has matured, to the point that he has a greater authority concerning his situation, since he has a clear idea of what he needs in order for his anxiety to be relieved and he is using such anxiety to avoid disruption to his energy levels.
Freud (1916, p455) sees the frustrated libido as a product of the baby’s subsequent separation from his mother. The baby’s mother is the outlet for his libido which takes the form of a yearning for her. This maternal desire being unsatisfied, provokes its transformation “ into anxiety“, which is an appropriate reflection of the child’s sense of helplessness in the face of his mother’s absence. After all, as Freud (1916, p455), notes no other person can take the place of the baby’s mother, because the baby lacks this affectionate bond with other people who consequently appear as unfamiliar and frightening. This ‘separation anxiety’ occurs during the baby’s formative years and is synonymous with the anxiety provoked in the baby concerning the potential loss of his mother object. Freud (1932, p120) sees this anxiety as an expression of the child’s uncertainty concerning whether his emotional requirements will be fulfilled which Obviously cannot happen in the mother’s absence. Freud (1926, p137) also equates this anxiety with a desperation on the child’s part which reflects his immature state as he has not yet learnt any other way of dealing with this situation.

Castration Anxiety

There seems to be a clear connection between this ‘separation anxiety’ and a child’s fears of castration. Freud (1926, p138), clarifies that both forms of anxiety are synonymous with dread concerning separation. Only a child’s castration anxiety does not revolve around a fear of being separated from his mother but from part of himself, namely his genitals. Nonetheless these forms of anxiety are connected in another way, as Freud (1926, p139) explains when he refers to Ferenczi [1925 ]. The association that Ferenczi observes centres around the fact that if a boy is castrated then he loses the literal means of being able to physically bond with his mother, or female surrogates of her for that matter. Thus, castration is symbolic of an additional separation from his mother.

The Oedipus Complex

Freud (1932, p119) sees the boy’s fear of castration as resulting from his Oedipal wishes towards his mother. According to Reber (1985) the Oedipus Complex occurs during the years of three to five and Freud (1926a, p32) describes it as a situation in which the child’s closest relation becomes the outlet for his sexual desires, which in the case of the boy is his mother. His father is seen as the main competition for his mother’s love and is therefore viewed in an aggressive way. Freud (1932, p118 ) views the origins of the child’s anxiety in the context of his Oedipus Complex. The source of the boy’s angst is twofold. Initially, it is a reaction against his libidinal desire for his mother which he can evade by abandoning the source of his desire. It is also an external danger that is rooted in the boy’s fear of forfeiting his genitals, as retribution for his affectionate feelings towards his mother.
This fear of castration has been described by Freud (1926, p114), as a defence against the “Oedipus complex“. Freud (1932, p163) clarified what the effect of the fear of castration actually is. The danger of the boy losing his genitals provokes him to reject his Oedipal desires towards his mother and the accompanying wish for his father, who is the main competitor for her affections to die. This happens during a period of development after the Oedipal phase at roughly the ages of four to five. With girls, the father is the object of her libidinal wishes and the mother is seen as a rival for his affection. As Freud (1932, p119) explains, the castration complex in females takes the form of a phobia concerning the “loss“ of parental love, which is encouraged by the mother’s absence from her girl. Freud (1926, p114) characterised this period as the “latency period“ and has attributed the creation of the Superego, as well as the moral growth of the ego to it. Generally speaking, the “Oedipus Complex “ is overcome, allowing the boy to progress to the next phase of sexual development, which is the latency period preceding the onset of puberty.

The Case of ‘Little Hans‘

The Freudian case study of Little Hans (1909), exemplifies the Ego ‘s defensive mechanisms against the Id’s instinctual impulses, in the light of this Complex. This case is also useful in clarifying the shortcomings of the Ego in this role, as it lacks the backing of a supportive Superego, that could counter the anxiety provoked by the Id’s libidinal wishes, with humour. The reason for this, was that Hans, as a five year old boy, was stuck in the Oedipal phase, too young to have developed a Superego. As Freud stated (1925, p59 ), “ the superego is the heir of the Oedipus complex“. Hans’ response of anxiety put into motion the process of repression of the libido’s Oedipal wishes.
Freud (1926, p101), explains how the Oedipus Complex affected his patient, Little Hans, in the sense that it provoked an intense aggression and jealousy towards his father, whose relationship with his wife, proved an unmovable obstacle for Hans’ libidinal fixation with his mother. Interestingly, such negative feelings contradicted his conscious affection for his father. The Ego’s defensive reaction to the conflict caused by Hans’ aggressive “instinctual impulses“ towards his father, was to transform them into an external fear of horses that could be evaded by his staying indoors.
Freud (1926, p102) focused on how Hans attempted to make the “murderous impulse of [ his ] Oedipus complex“ to his father manageable, by transferring it onto other objects such as a friend hurting himself and another one disappearing. By so doing, his Ego was attempting to evade the conflict caused by such feelings, as well as the punishment that would accompany them. Nonetheless, in Little Hans (1909) the hostile libidinal wishes that the subject held towards his father were reversed and took the form of vengeance, in the shape of Hans being injured by a horse. Freud (1926, p106) sees the fear of this animal as a product of “the sadistic phase of the libido“. Freud notes that the fear of being injured by a horse, represented not only a repression of hostile instinctual feelings that Hans had towards his father but also positive, affectionate ones. Freud drew attention to the potency of Little Hans’ phobia as a defensive response on his ego’s part to his libidinal wishes, since it not only acted as a repression of his unconscious feelings to his father, but also his Oedipal wishes towards his mother.
Freud (1926, pp 107, 108) states that the underlying motive for Hans’ repression was a phobia of being castrated. The terror of being bitten by a horse, was due to fear of the horse castrating him. Of course, the real, unconscious fear of castration lay with the father doing this as an act of revenge for Hans’ Oedipal wishes towards his wife. Freud states that Hans’ fear of horses was determined by anxiety which was a response to the fear of castration. As Freud (1926, p109) explains, the origins of fears relating to castration lie with the Ego’s reaction of anxiety to the needs of the libido.
Although, as Freud (1925, p37) states the Oedipus Complex is normally worked through and undergoes a radical change allowing the infant to progress to the latency period of sexual development. As Freud clarifies (1932, p124) this involves the destruction of the underlying “ instinctual impulse“ at the heart of the libido’s attachment to the infant’s parent. Of course, all this implies that neurotic defence mechanisms being provoked as a result of the Oedipus phase is an exceptional occurrence.

Humour as a product of the Superego’s attitude to the Ego

According to Freud (1916, p 457), the origins of the Superego lie in the dissolution of the Oedipus Complex and its constituent parts. Its four constituents are defined by the child’s feelings towards his parents. Freud (1916, pp 455, 457 ) explains that when the Oedipus complex comes to an end its four aspects are reduced to two, one a father association and the other a mother affiliation. Each identification retains positive “object- relations“ towards both parents. This positive attitude towards the parents is the catalyst for the creation within the ego of a Superego .
The Superego’s relationship with the Ego, is the main motivating force for the creation of a humorous response, to aspects of the person’s environment. I think that Freud’s example (1928, pp.1, 2 ,3), can be used to clarify the mechanisms, which underlie a healthy Ego - Superego relationship, which acts to demean the instinctual impulses of the Id, which would otherwise have a negative effect on the personality. In this illustration a criminal is about to be hanged, but rises to his circumstances magnificently by stating: “ well this a good beginning to the week“. He later adopts the attitude that because the world will not be affected by his death it is really of negligible importance. His humorous equation of his execution with the start of his week, as well as the world as a whole, is made possible by the fact that his Superego in Freud’s (1928, p5) view, is rejecting “reality and serving an illusion “, in an attempt to comfort an otherwise “ intimidated ego “. How this comes about, is elucidated by Dooley ‘s (1934, p49) expansion of pertinent Freudian (1928) ideas. The criminal’s Superego, acts to cushion the Ego, from the effects of the reality of his impending execution. It does this by displacing the libidinal energy, that is attached by the Ego to this event, onto itself. This results in the affects of the execution passing from the Ego, to the Superego. This process is made possible, by the fact that (as already mentioned ) the Ego’s perspective of the world has been changed from the harsh reality of the criminal’s fate, to a fantasy in which his life is trivial and therefore not worthy of upset.
Dooley (1934, p50) identifies two features of the Superego’s attitude towards the Ego, that characterise the beneficial effects of humour. First and foremost it elevates the concept of “ littleness “ to the point that it applies not just to the the Superego’s view of the Ego, but also to the world in which the Ego functions. With this attitude in place, the Ego has two good reasons not to take life too seriously, which after all characterises the humorous approach. Firstly, the Ego adopts the Superego’s view of itself, as an entity whose concerns are insignificant and secondly, it sees the corresponding concerns of its environment as equally trivial. Importantly, the Ego finds enjoyment in this perception of “littleness“. Secondly, as has been mentioned the Superego is skilled at substituting a “fantasy “ view of the world, for the actual “ reality “. This view encourages a playful attitude towards its elements. Clearly the criminal about to be executed, exemplifies a humorous attitude that shares these qualities.
Another important effect of humour, that is shown by Freud’s criminal scenario lies in what Freud (1905 , p 118), has classified as a saving in “psychical expenditure“. The function of this “psychical expenditure“ of energy by the Ego, is the repression of the instinctual activity of the Id. The form that such instinctual activity takes is described by Dooley (1934, p50), as the creation “of threatening instinctual drives of a sadistic or masochistic [ trait ]”. Winterstein (1934, p304 ) elaborates the meaning of such drives to the Ego, explaining that they take the form of demands of either a sadistic, or masochistic character. In the previously mentioned Freudian scenario, the drive would be of a masochistic streak, since most people in our hero’s situation are likely to feel what Winterstein (1934, p304) describes as “pity, pain, fright [ and ] horror.” Therefore what is endangered here is the Ego’s “narcissistic masculinity“. But, the criminal’s humour acts as a force to redirect the instinctual drives, from the Id to the Superego, which has the effect of reducing their potency, to the point that they are no longer threatening, but rather a harmless source for thought, for the Ego. If the product of these drives had been allowed to remain in the Id, then the Ego would have been forced to respond to them, by attempting to suppress them. The Ego’s reaction to the Id’s Oedipus wishes exemplifies this process. Consequently, the humour has a placebo effect on what would otherwise be destructive instinctual drives.
Freud (1905, p 148) emphasises the fact that “ psychical energy “ is allowed a “free [ release ] “ in humorous laughter. This release of energy, accompanies the movement of the libidinal drive, to the Superego, because in this location it is no longer the Ego’s priority and as a result, it is free from attempting to suppress it. Freud (1905, p149) accentuated humorous laughter, as being an expression of the release of the energy, that would otherwise be spent on the suppression of such drives. Freud (1905, pp 152 , 154) states criteria for the successful release of psychic energy, through humorous laughter, which involves it not being diverted into thought, or “conscious attention“. It is a shame that Freud’s criminal has not sufficient time to fully enjoy the psychic energy that he is saving via his humorous approach to his fate. Pleasure is equated by Freud (1905, p185) with the freeing of psychic energy, from “the lifting of inhibitions [ via humour ]“, which suggests that our criminal friend has a surplus of such energy.
The Superego’s relationship to its psychic kin, which is the catalyst for humour happening is neatly summed up by Grotjahn (1957, p21), who states: “in the humorous attitude, the Superego relates itself to the Ego like a good parent to a child: lenient, understanding , forgiving , kind.” This would seem to be fully descriptive of the alliance between the criminal’s psychic relatives. Traditional Freudian thinking suggests that the leniency of the rogue’s Superego, was generated by an exceptionally healthy parental upbringing. Why his parents’ affection towards him, did not translate into him finding a more worthwhile career is altogether another question. With his Superego’s support, his Ego is strengthened in a number of ways. This relationship is the catalyst, for the diminution of the facts of his life, allowing them to cause him enjoyment. His humorous attitude, allows his Ego detachment, from the rather momentous fact of his impending death, which would not occur, if it was engaged in the suppression, or denial of instinctual drives provoked by this event. Such drives are not the Ego’s concern, because as has been explained the Superego takes over their management.

The determinants of the Superego’s character

It is very difficult to say with any certainty what the future implications of the Oedipus Complex are as regards the Superego’s character. A hypothetical view is that the severity which this psychic agency used in order to suppress the libidinal impulses of the Id towards the child’s father could have a knock on effect in terms of the future harshness of this agent towards the Ego. Simply put this idea means that the harsher the Superego was during the Oedipal phase the more likely it is to be severe in the future. Walder is referred to by Dooley (1934, p57) as suggesting that if the “superego . . . [was] too strict [as a result] of childhood conflicts . . . [ then ] humor may not develop”. The source for such harshness would obviously be its fellow psychic agent the Ego and such a harsh attitude contradicts that on the part of the Superego that underlies humour, which is confirmed by Freud’s (1928, p5) statement that “ [ the superego ] in humour, speaks such kindly words of comfort to the . . . ego“.
Yet, the Superego’s harshness in suppressing the Oedipal Complex, may be less significant than the attitude of the child’s parents towards him in his formative years, in determining his humour . This is suggested by Reber (1985, p746) who writes that “the super-ego is assumed to develop in response to the punishments and rewards of significant persons (usually the parents)“. It follows from this that if they have a benign, supportive attitude towards their child this will be replicated by the Superego in his attitude towards the Ego. As Freud (1928,p4) states, the Superego’s behaviour to the Ego reflects how “the parents (or the father) treated the child in his [infancy ].”
Freud (1932, p121) states that the circumstances relating to the causes of anxiety, such as birth, separation and the Oedipus complex, lose their significance due “ to the strengthening of the ego “. The maternal relationship can be seen, as providing the means for the Ego to become capable of surmounting the settings that cause such anxiety. This is confirmed by Winnicott (1990, p 41), who relates the infant’s primeval condition, to the evolving character of his defensive resources, in relation to his Ego. The development of the Ego’s defence mechanisms is based on the child’s relationship with his mother, to the point that only after he achieves some independence from her will he have any psychic sources of defence. How the mother relates and interacts with her child influences the character of his Superego as well as creating Ego strength. The following section, documents some of the positive ways in which a mother can employ humour when interacting with her baby with the ensuing effect of promoting thesegoals.

The part Humour plays in healthy Mother-Child relations

Lemma ( 2000) documents in a thorough way how humour plays an integral part in a good maternal relationship which in turn provides the child with the resources to manage his anxiety. By being independent of his parents the infant is losing the need of an exclusive relationship with his mother which forms the basis for the Oedipus Complex. If he is independent then the child can accept what Britton (1989) describes as the actuality of his mother’s alliance with her father. One way of the child being encouraged to move from his mother into the world outside this relationship is through what Alvarez (1992) describes as “claiming“. This relates to the mother showing curiosity and awe towards external objects when she is with the baby and the effect of this is to stimulate the baby into wanting to discover the world for himself apart from his mother. Lemma (2000, p50) equates the mother’s ability to express amusement at “ learning “ by using “play and humour “ as a stimulant for the baby to become an autonomous individual.
The earliest interactions between the mother and her baby facilitate the baby’s sense of humour. Tucherman (1998) sees the “smiling encounters“ between the mother and child as signifying the mother’s affection towards her child. Lemma (2000, p50) differentiates between Duchenne and other types of smiling. Duchenne smiling is characterised by movement upwards in both “ the lip corners and the cheeks“ which signifies a positive experience. Such smiling between the mother and her child is reflective of an affirmative connection between them. The types of communication that the mother and baby participate in include touching, smiling and speech. Lemma (2000, p 50 ) observes that there is a structure of passivity and “engagement“ in the communication. This is crucial for the management of the baby’s physical and emotional organisation and it provides the means for self-adjustment on his part. As Condon and Sander (1974) have noted what each party gives to the process results in each party being able to regulate the level of interaction. Stern (1985) equates the “peek-a-boo “ game with intense feelings of excitement , pleasure and emotion that the baby needs the mother for, since he would be unable to do this on his own.
Humour plays an integral part in such interactions which have a crucial function in helping the baby to control his emotions. Such interaction is therefore relevant to the anxieties that the baby experiences in his formative years. The baby’s capacity to grow which covers Ego development is facilitated by his mother creating an environment that is based on what Lemma (2000, p51) calls a “we “ component namely an interaction between the child and his mother . This exchange amounts to the control of emotional states “through the flowing . . . of information from perceptual systems and affective displays.” An important aspect of this interaction is that the mother affects how the baby feels by expressing her emotional state to him. Also the mother provides the setting for much of what the baby feels. As Brazelton and Cramer (1991) note the baby’s ability for understanding and “emotion“ is facilitated by the provision of “a safe, predictable relationship“. The extent of the interaction will decide whether the baby’s feelings can be accepted and integrated. As Lemma states “ timing“ is a crucial element of this.


Unsurprisingly, the existential position towards anxiety as personified by van Deurzen-Smith sees it in an external way, namely as reflective of an engagement between the human and the world around him. In contrast, the psychoanalytic focus is more orientated towards the internal sense of the human being as it is related to such concepts as human maturation as well as the interrelations between the basic psychic agencies .
According to Freud, the mother child relationship is of fundamental significance in the first stage of anxiety originating from birth, which is due to the child’s need for reassurance from her in light of his finding himself in the new environment of the world. Separation anxiety was seen as indicative of the child’s not having gained sufficient independence from his mother in order to make his own way in the world around him. The next stage of anxiety derives from fear of castration which plays a part in the Oedipal phase. This occurs between the ages of 3 to 5 years and here the object of the anxiety is the mother which is rooted in the Id’s craving for her. The anxiety is caused not only by an attempt to distract from the intensity of this desire, but also by the fear of being castrated as punishment for it. The extremity of fear that can be caused by the Oedipal Complex was shown by the Freud case of “ little Hans“.
The influence of the Oedipus Complex in determining the Superego’s nature, in terms of its severity, was speculated upon. Freud saw humour as a product of the Superego’s attitude to the Ego and yet, the potential of the Oedipal Complex to shape the future severity of the Superego, as compared to the parents’ approach to their child was unresolved .
The last section concentrated on the effect of the mother’s positive humour towards her baby. The mother’s smiling and touching her baby, for instance, assuages the baby’s formative anxiety. Such behaviour, as well as conduct that de-emphasises the baby’s aloneness in the environment, can be seen as the catalyst for a “safe predictable relationship“ that acts as a stepping stone for the baby to become an adult who can handle anxiety.




The focal point for this chapter will be the effect that humour has on anxiety within a therapeutic context. This question will be explored by looking at the part humour and anxiety played within the Spinelli, Yalom and Freud therapeutic encounters explored here. I think that one purpose of concentrating on their work could be that the humour featured in their therapy, as well as their clients’ anxiety covers a broad range which could reflect the true nature of the question of what humour’s relationship to anxiety actually is within a therapeutic setting.
Work by van Deurzen-Smith (1997) that could be useful for illuminating the significance of anxiety for one of Spinelli’s clients will be looked at. Heidegger’s (2003) stance on the purpose of “idle talk“ will be focused on as it may illuminate how one of Yalom’s clients evaded the anxiety of her life.
The view that humour shares certain qualities with the concept of play will be explored initially by focusing on definitions of play that emphasize its teasing nature as well as its connection with trust and growth that Lemma (2000) and Perls (1992 ) respectively emphasized. The apparently contrasting effect between the existential therapist’s “playful“ therapy and Freud’s jocular interractions will be accentuated.The subject matter for the last section is basically philosophical since it will concentrate on Heuscher’s (1993) intepretation of one of Kierkegaard’s objects of life. Heuscher focuses on the detrimental effect of people disregarding their self due to their intense anxiety. How these therapists’ humour has seemed to have either hindered or helped in the quest to obtain a truer sense of self, will be assessed in the context of the setting that it may have helped create for the individual therapeutic relationships.

Examples of Humour in Psychotherapy

The main purpose of this section is to clarify the relationship between humour and anxiety within the context of therapy. This is not an easy task for several reasons. In the context of published accounts of therapy, humour seems to be accorded a stigmatised status as it is barely mentioned. Maybe the cause for this lies in the belief that something as mundane as humour simply has no place in a relationship that frequently acts as a catalyst for profound changes in the client’s life. Thus it could detract from the seriousness of the therapeutic process. Still , my belief is that such thinking is misguided, since humour frequently figures in the work of such influential therapists as Freud, Spinelli and Yalom and furthermore it would often seem to play some part in a change in the client’s relationship to his anxiety. Nevertheless, the therapeutic encounters featured here serve to show how difficult it is to quantify with any precision what effect humour actually has on the client’s changed position to his anxiety, as other factors in the therapeutic relationship could be influential in facilitating such a shift. Also, the case studies of the previously mentioned therapists illustrate how lacking in rigidity humour’s relationship to anxiety actually is. A contributing factor to this situation is that the different therapeutic schools’ differing approaches towards anxiety do not result in humour being practised in a specific way within that school. If this did occur then the humour practised could follow a certain pattern as determined by that school’s standpoint towards anxiety and its consistency could therefore make it easier to gauge its effect on the client’s anxiety. However, with humour barely being recognised in the current therapeutic climate as having an impact upon anxiety such a situation seems a long way off.

Existential Examples of Humour

Spinelli’s (2000) collection of therapeutic meetings seems a good place to begin, as both anxiety and humour are constants within such encounters. In the first narrative, ‘Growing Old Disgracefully’ that most existential of concepts, death anxiety, seems to act as a force for much of the client’s behaviour, since it sets the theme for this piece as Spinelli (ps 9-12 ) explores it in some depth in the beginning, which would be illogical if this was irrelevant to his client. In his apparent determination to suppress it, Mr Jones obsessively engaged in activities that result in him being, in his own phrase (p13) “ as fit as a fiddle.” These included his (p16) “ [engaging] in satisfactory sexual relations [with his wife] at least four times a week“, as well as practising sports on a regular and intense basis to the point that he was willing (p18) “ to take the place of his son as team member “ when due to illness his son could not fulfill his sporting duties.
But, despite his resolve to deny the onset of his old age and, by implication, his death anxiety, Mr Jones suffered physical abnormalities which ranged from constant (p14) “stomach tension and convulsions . . .bursts of breathlessness, hair loss, insomnia [to] general unspecified anxiety .” Although Spinelli does not explicitly see these as psychosomatic symptoms of an attempt to suppress an underlying death anxiety, such an explanation is congruent to the overall tone of this piece.
Significantly it is not humour per se that acts as the catalyst for Mr Jones’ changed relationship towards his anxiety but rather his watching the film “ Mommie Dearest “ with his family. This movie provides an accurate metaphor for the client as the heroine’s behaviour replicates his own. Joan Crawford believed that no-one in the studio audience would notice the difference between her (a woman in her sixties) and her daughter, a young lady whose part she was playing in a television soap. Yet, mutual laughter between the therapist and his client followed Mr Jones’ realisation that Joan Crawford’s age-denying action mirrored his own willingness to replace his son in his school football team. This was the pre-cursor for the client’s profound revelation that his family would love him even if he did acknowledge his age and acted accordingly. This awareness acted as the initial motivation Mr Jones needed to come to terms with his age
and, by implication, his own mortality. As a result of his exploration of this awareness his anxiety was significantly ameliorated.
The mutual laughter between the therapist and the client in this instance accompanied Mr Jones’s conclusion concerning his behaviour which was the first stage in his recovery from his anxiety. Thus the laughter was a signal that a significant change was, in the words of Sam Cooke, “gonna come“ as regards the client’s anxiety.
Spinelli’s (2000) sixth narrative, ‘A Life Divided’ apparently deals with an anxiety that found its expression through physical disorders. From (p138) “her early twenties . . . [Jennifer suffered] from anorexia nervosa “ which was sufficiently serious to warrant her being “hospitalised in a private clinic.” Her physical self-image was not the only source for her anxiety as tension was an integral part of her parental relations which may have been exacerbated by her (ibid.) “secretive ‘ binge’ and ‘ vomit ‘ cycle . . . [which persuaded] her that she had become bulimic.” Spinelli’s existential perspective on her eating disorder saw it as a distraction from greater anxieties connected to the way that she related to the world as a whole. This belief may have determined the form of Spinelli’s therapy in the sense that he endeavoured to provide a setting which encouraged a dialogue to occur whose prime subject matter was Jennifer’s relationship with the world in general.
Humour could be seen as encouraging an environment conducive to this aim, as it was a constant feature of their dialogue together. Jennifer laughed at Spinelli’s clarification concerning their respective responses to their mistakes. He stated that the difference lies in the fact that unlike her, he (p145) “can forgive [himself for past blunders]“ to which she laughed stating “that’s why you’re a therapist and I’m a client.” This was a reflection of the relaxed therapeutic atmosphere and is therefore pertinent to the therapy in general. This setting enabled exploration of what would become a cornerstone of the therapy. (Interestingly, just prior to Jennifer first revealing her “dual“ existence to Spinelli, she giggled. This could be a clear example of laughter offsetting the anxiety involved in disclosing this information for the first time). Jennifer actually lived her life as two people: firstly, naturally enough, as her namesake and then as Susie, who she saw as being more “intelligent“ and more socially relaxed. This last difference is shown by her statement that Jennifer is fearful that people will (p150) “destroy her .”
The therapeutic discussion subsequent to this revelation featured several examples of humour. When speaking as Susie, Jennifer expressed satisfaction with a chuckle at Spinelli’s confusion at her “existence“. Spinelli answers Susie’s jokey assertion that he is the expert and should therefore know whether Jennifer needs to be contacted as regards Susie’s communication to him, by stating that she is as well. Susie’s reply was a laughing (p151) “ touche’ !” The final moment of humour between the parties was mutual laughter at Spinelli’s quip that Jennifer’s belief that it is not her but her alter-ego who has sex with her boyfriend (p154) “would take [him] by surprise!“
The subjects here were talking for the first time about the client’s two identities in the world as a whole. Jennifer’s describes herself to Spinelli as (p155) “schizophrenic“ and her illustration of this through the aforementioned dialogue may have been fraught with anxiety for her, not least because no-one else knew. His client’s` gradual expression of her (p142) “previously unstated concerns and anxieties “ and “her“ final gratitude to Spinelli two years after the fact suggests that their relationship with its humorous character had helped her.
Like Spinelli, Yalom is an existential pioneer whose 1989 work also gives a candid account of his therapeutic practice. This work shares with Spinelli’s a constant attention to anxiety and yet humour would appear to have a more obvious place within it. Yalom’s initial description of Betty, The Fat Lady‘ is full of cruel humour since she is (p 89) “the little fat woman cartoon figure in the movie Mary Poppins.” Such humour contrasts to that shown by Betty herself whose obvious purpose would seem to be the provision of an escape route from the nitty-gritty of her existence which is characterised by (p90) “[deep depression which manifests itself in a wish to be] dead.” Her humour is evident in her ( ibid.) “gay chatty tone“ which seems to be a clear denial of the actuality of her life . It is also expressed overtly in her (ibid) “joke telling“. At heart, Betty’s humour seems integral to the way that she expresses herself as shown by (p91) “her silly commentary “ as well as the previously mentioned “gay chatty tone”. In fact if Betty had been born in the East End of London rather than America she could well have provided the inspiration for Chas & Dave’s Cockney, sing-a-long Classic “ Rabbit”.
Heidegger ‘s (2003) view of the role of language as an indicator of man’s attitude towards elements of his existence seems applicable to Betty. Of particular relevance is Heidegger’s concept of (2003, p211) “ ’ idle talk’ [“ Gerede“]“. Stephen Mulhall ‘s explanation (2000) centres on the concept of dialogue in terms of its (p106) “object“ and fundamental to this is the notion of (p 105) “disclosedness”. This equation relates to the broader question of (p105) “Dasein’ s (a sense of ‘ being there ‘)everyday mode of being.” Small talk is indicative of an indolent attitude towards life’s objects since it infers an approach in which one retreats from working to discover the object’s true nature. Mulhall explains this tendency in terms of adopting an unoriginal and impersonal attitude, hence the object is seen in the context of (p 106) “what is claimed about it.” An implication of choosing this approach could be that the anxiety that may be attached to the true nature of such objects is evaded. The longer this trend continues for, the more ingrained it becomes until eventually the said human (ibid. ) “seems to [himself] to understand whatever is talked about . . . just as [he is] failing to do so.”
Yalom’s view that (p92) “ [their] initial . . . ‘cocktail chatter‘ [was] indefinitely prolonged . . . [and even progress beyond this] would remain fused to the surface of things“ seems a neat illustration of Heidegger’s small talk concept. A constant emphasis of her dialogue is the flippant and the trivial - for instance the (p 92) “ tedious detail . . . [of her ] work.” According to Heidegger’s model such expression would save Betty from the chore of grappling with the deeper questions with regards to what her life might actually mean. Hence, she provided herself with a means of distraction from the toil and, as will be shown, anxiety, of disclosing to herself the actual character of the objects in her life. According to Yalom she did this by fully embracing the claim that life is tolerated through the avoidance of the profound or the serious. Her concentration on (p92) “pounds, diets, petty grievances, and the reasons she did not join an aerobics class“ suggests this.
The change in the nature of her dialogue was provoked by Yalom asking her (p98 ) “ why [it was] so necessary to entertain [him]?” There is an implied reference here to her superficial, silly conversation. For some reason this question provokes anxiety in her to the point that ( ibid.) “she seemed staggered . . . and retreated by sinking into her body. Wiping her brow . . . [and stalling] for time.” But, she complied with Yalom’s request to be able to express to her instances when she was guilty of this type of behaviour, with the result that the “entertaining“ soon stopped and the small talk was banished.
The form of the therapy now became diametrically opposed to its earlier version, since its subject matter now covered what seemed like a large part of the existential spectrum. Betty’s dialogue became the raw source of her anxieties namely her dread at becoming (p100) “ too dependent on therapy “ which reflected her frustration with the ephemeral nature she felt her ( ibid.) future “friendships“ would take. She also revealed anxieties synonymous with her fear of death which she equated with losing weight, since this evoked her father’s physical deterioration during his eventually fatal cancer. Initially her death fears centred on her father, which provided the cue for her own realisation concerning her own mortality. This revelation happened in a dream in which a voice from the Great Above told her (p110) “ ‘ you’re next .‘ “ She then said to Yalom in the reality of the surgery (ibid. ) “ You think I’m crazy?” His response was an ironic quip about her (p110 ] “ [not having] the knack for [craziness] “ which provoked her to smile. Humour and anxiety seem clearly inter- linked here and perhaps this was made possible with the anchor of the therapeutic alliance, since it seems likely that Yalom’s quip would have provoked nothing in the first stages of their “relationship“ due to her intense distancing ways which implied an immature relationship to start with.
Their last exchange covers Betty’s challenges to Yalom and here her interaction is humorous, which totally transcends her former tone which evoked the notion of a patient whose reverence for her therapist makes her somehow impotent. Here she uses humour as a tool to mock Yalom. This reaches its apotheosis when she breaks his rather lame response to her accusation that he (p 115) “never touched her . . . in a year and a half . . . Not even a handshake!“ Her reaction to his defence about (p116) “psychiatrists [not] ordinarily touching their-- “ is a comparison between him and (ibid.) “Pinocchio.” This shows a switch in power in their association for which her humour is a vehicle. Therefore her changed humour actually signified her increased power in the relationship as in her life as a whole, reflected most significantly by her managing to lose approximately two- fifths of her former body weight. This was in sharp contrast to her earlier humour, which acted as a conduit for her small talk, which helped to sustain her flaccid attitude towards her life objects. Thus, initially, her humour gave her the means to remain stuck -- a lonely victim of the world’s contempt for obese women to the extent that (p89) “she had no life“ which was reflected by her impotence within the therapy. Still , progress came with the rejection of such humour which freed her to confront, and therefore progress with, the anxiety in her life.
In Yalom’s fifth Narrative (1989) I never thought it would happen to me’ anxiety, although a feature of the client’s life, initially plays a lesser part than with Betty. Superficially at least it does not figure in her existence; indeed Elva’s affluent life style would seem to act as an effective cushion from it as (p145) “she had always lived in the privileged circle.” However, this changes when she is robbed of her purse which facilitates her fall from this former charmed existence as it provoked “ [her to lose] her belief . . . in her personal invulnerability . She felt stripped , ordinary, unprotected .” For Yalom the loss of her purse also acts as an analogy for the fact that she will also lose her life. When discussing the implications of (p149) “the purse snatching“ Yalom stated that (p150) “ it’s hard . . . to accept that all these afflictions - aging, loss, death - are going to happen . . . “ Therefore the loss of her purse is equated by Yalom with the ultimate and most anxiety provoking loss - that of life itself.
The changes that this robbery provoked in Elva comply with van Deurzen-Smith’s (1997) views concerning the nature of anxiety. Her definition of anxiety equates it with the (p38) “ [ discomfort that is part and parcel ] of people [becoming] aware of themselves.” The focal point for this self awareness is knowledge of (ibid.) “ the possibility of one’s death.” The effect of the robbery on Elva satisfies van Deurzen -Smith’s anxiety criteria since it caused her to lose the protective shell provided by her charmed existence to the extent she became as “stripped, ordinary [and] unprotected “ as everyone else. Yalom’s assertion that (p149) “she saw through her own illusions [in terms of her] sense of specialness“ shows she was aware of the effect of loss on her self. Also, his description of her (p149) “suffering“ as a result of the loss of the purse could be seen as a more intense version of the “unease “ that van Deurzen-Smith equates with anxiety. Yalom connected the anxiety caused by Elva’s purse robbery with the same concept that van Deurzen-Smith sites as underlying any anxiety: namely perception of one’s own mortality.
Yalom described a humorous incident between himself and Elva as (p148) “ the turning point“ in their therapeutic partnership. Her statement that she had (ibid. ) “whomped the shit out of [a nephew at Golf]“ provoked much hilarity in Yalom which created mutual laughter in the short as well as the long term as it filtered into every subsequent session. This humour acted as a stepping stone for an enjoyable therapeutic relationship which contrasted with its earlier form which Yalom equated with an endurance test dominated by (p148) “irritation.” Thus it seems reasonable to assume that, without this humorous incident, the alliance might not have been altered to the point that it afforded Yalom the opportunity to draw attention to the deeper implications of loss and also anxiety of the purse robbery. It also seems reasonable to conclude that without such exploration her relationship to her life and her anxiety may not have changed (for the better).

Psychoanalytic examples of humour

It is fair to suppose, from some of his patients’ accounts of his treatment of them, that Freud was a humorous psychoanalyst. The Wolfman is perhaps the most famous psychoanalytic work; its fame lying in its complexity and introduction of basic Freudian ideals. Freud’s own version, (1918) in style at least, is a rather objective piece whose fundamental purpose would seem to clarify, and expound on, basic Freudian treatment criteria such as the potentially beneficial effect of transference to the analyst.
However, the patient’s own memories, as related to Karin Obholzer (1982), offer a different account of proceedings since humour is mentioned on several occasions. It is clear from the Wolfman’s personal recollections to Obholzer that Freud’s humour played a part in the setting of the treatment as Freud is described as (p 32) “witty . . . [and] intelligent.” Perhaps Freud’s stated opinion to his patient that (p32) “you were lucky that your father died, otherwise you would never have become well“ best illustrates this. The equation of what is generally seen as a tragic event with good fortune satisfies the characteristic of “mental . . . acumen“ that is used in The Shorter Oxford Dictionary’s (1950) definition of wit and is supported by the patient’s unhealthy elationship to his father. This is confirmed in the Wolfman’s view of his father when he stated (p137) “ If one considers someone who is no father as father . . . the end result cannot be good.” Freud ‘s work: ‘Jokes and their relation to the unconscious’ (2001) confirms his observation’s witty status in the sense of it being related but not quite in the same family as (p 140) “intelligence, [and] imagination”.
Obholzer’s (1982, p138) report of an actual joke told by the Wolfman has several interesting interpretations. As the Wolfman remembered “I just happen to remember, I once told Freud a joke that I heard . . . And he laughed . He really enjoyed it because the joke was so anti religious.” Gardiner’s (1973) work clarifies the Wolfman’s love-hate relationship with religion. Despite the fact that the adult Wolfman stated that (p9) “ I gradually became very religious myself“, religion in his earlier days was a source of extreme trauma for him. This is clear in his description of it being a source of intense torture for him, as his doubts concerning its validity suggested a lack of faith which he (ibid.) “felt . . .was a terrible sin.” If the Wolfman was not actually amused by this jest then Freud’s amusement may not just have reflected his own enjoyment but could also be seen as an encouragement to his patient to overcome his traumatic religious relationship through humour.
There is a commonality between the two stated examples of humour here in the sense that, like religion, the Wolfman’s dead father was a source of extreme anxiety for him. Freud (1918, p265) noted “ [his] first anxiety-dream [ as representing ] the fear of his father, which from that time forward . . . dominated his life.” More specifically he connected this fear with the Wolfman’s father’s tendency to (p263) “indulge in affectionate abuse“ which manifested itself in the threat “to gobble him up.” Dooley (1934,p49) summarised Freud’s view on the effect of humour as the creation of an “attitude [in which the person] reduces his own ego to the childish level . . . [as well as] greatly expand [ing his] superego”. This transformation has the effect of minimising “[the ego’s] dangers and sufferings [to a] laughably insignificant [level]”. Both of Freud’s humorous remarks can be seen in this context as they were responses to aspects of his patient’s life that caused him great anxiety and, if his humour was successful, then this anxiety as a problem of his ego would be reduced to a trivial level by the expansion of his Superego. Both these sources of anxiety were ameliorated by the Wolfman’s analysis.
J Wortis’ (1954) biographical account of his therapeutic relationship with Freud also offers interesting clues as to how he used humour in relation to his client’s anxiety. The context of Wortis’ analysis was that (pvii ) “ [he was] a young psychiatrist under the guidance and sponsorship of Havelock Ellis and Adolf Meyer.” They acted as mentors to him in his chosen career as well as encouraging his analysis with Freud in their letters to him. To begin with, it is important to put Wortis’ anxiety into perspective. Initially, his wish was (p11) “ to [embark] upon a didactic analysis“ as a means of familiarising himself with (ibid.) “its theories“. This along with Wortis’ belief that he (p16) “ was not a neurotic“ suggests that his anxiety, such that it was, was of a mundane, unexceptional character. Significantly, Freud’s letter to Wortis suggested as much in his description of him (p13) “as a talented pupil [rather than as] a patient.”
This impression is born out by his view of the cause of former problems within his life. He described his (p21) “neurosis“ in the context of being (ibid.) “lost [when finding himself] in the big new hospital . . . [bereft of his] old and dearest friends“ which seems a perfectly normal reaction to strange and unfamiliar circumstances faced on one’s own as is (p23) “[his] uncertainty about leaving [his] wife when [he] first came to study in Europe.” His subsequent statement about (p27) “[past] anxieties [not seeming] any longer of any real consequence“ also supports the view of him as relatively free of intense neurosis or anxiety.
Even though Wortis did not explicitly state that Freud, himself, was a source of anxiety for him, I think that some of the material points to this having been the case. During two particular sessions Wortis showed such a reverential and apologetic attitude towards his analyst that he seemed akin to a pupil excessively concerned with complying with his master’s wishes because to do otherwise would offend him. During the 29th October, 1934 session Wortis stated that (p50) “ [he] took advantage of Freud’s permission to read his works again.” He subsequently said, apropos of no preceding statement on Freud’s part, that (pp 50, 51) “I am sorry if I have been stubborn and superior, and make slow headway in accepting your ideas.” His apologetic attitude re-emerged in the 31st October 1934 session in the context of Freud perhaps feeling that the analysis could end when he said (p58 ): “ I would be sorry if the analysis had to stop [and] would do what I could to cooperate and would always be ready to change my views.” Later, during the same meeting, (ibid.) “ [he] promised . . . to try to be good .” During this session Freud stated (ibid.) “you ought to understand that I am not interested in passing judgement on you.” This remark infers that Wortis saw Freud as someone who has the power to make declarations on his character as a judge would and anxiety would seem a natural by-product of this.
One purpose of the humorous story that Freud told Wortis could have been to ameliorate any anxiety his analysand had concerning their relationship. In this story a member of (p108) “the army . . . was lazy . . . [but] intelligent.” His indolence resulted in his failing to load a cannon properly. As a result of this, an officer advised him to leave (p109) “ the army . . . [and then] buy [himself] a cannon and [become self-employed].” This tale could be analogous to Wortis’ analysis, since the soldier’s laziness could parallel Wortis’ reluctance to grasp analytic concepts because of the work this would have involved. The soldier ‘s unsatisfactory relationship with the army could be seen as a metaphor for Wortis’ analysis whose didactic nature points to it not having been a proper analysis to begin with, lacking as it did substantial neuroses to be cured. Therefore, by following the soldier’s example, Wortis would be free not only of the anxieties of his analytic relationship, but also have a more satisfactory outlet for his energies. To conclude then, Freud’s story was an attempt to make Wortis aware of the reality of their relationship. Unfortunately Freud’s vignette seemed to have fallen on deaf ears as it provoked no comment from Wortis.
P Roazen’s (1995) work is a compendium of accounts from Freud’s former patients’ that offers insight into his working practices. Mark Brunswick’s recollections in particular point to Freud being unmindful of the potentially damaging effect of his humour. The circumstances of Brunswick’s analysis were unusual, since Freud saw both him and his brother separately but during the same period of time. Mark ‘s reason for seeing Freud was to help with his (p75) “ ‘severe character disorders‘ “ which Freud equated with his (p72) “neurosis in damned up libido“ which manifested itself in “compulsive masturbation“. Freud’s posthumous work (1938) was felt by both Mark and Roazen to have been based on Mark’s infant neuroses. Since anxiety was seen by Freud (Reber,1995) as a product of neurosis it seems fair to use these terms interchangeably here. Therefore in Freud’s (1938) view, Mark’s anxiety was as a result of his ego being compelled to respond to the demands put on it, firstly (p275) by its “powerful instinctual [drives]“ and secondly by (ibid.) “an experience“ that suggests that the fulfilment of these “instinctual demands“ will provoke “real danger.” According to Freud the split caused by the Ego needing to be attentive to both these factors (p276) “never heals“. Thus Mark Brunswick, when first seen by Freud, was someone who was particularly susceptible to Ego conflicts that sustain intense anxiety.
In the light of this the comical remark of Freud’s to Mark (Roazen,1995, p74), stating: “what have you and Ruth done to me! Your brother is the most boring person!“ seems strange in its insensitivity to Mark’s vulnerability to anxiety. According to Mark its effect was to (ibid) “ [feed] his long-standing jealousy of David “. Such envy could be rooted in an anxiety about not being good enough to measure up to the standards set by his brother. It seems fair to conclude that this humorous remark on Freud’s part failed primarily because its motive was selfish, since it provided a means for his own exasperation with having Mark’s brother David as an analysand and in so doing he neglected to take account of Mark’s neurotic nature, which was likely to be fuelled by reference to familial relations. Freud’s negligent use of humour in this instance therefore seems a prime example of (ps49-50) “ [practising] humor indiscriminately “ that Herbert Strean warns against in his 1994 work.

The Playful Character of the Humour

I think that there is a playful quality to much of the aforementioned examples of humour in the sense that much of it challenges the clients’ view-point in an apparently good-natured way . Yet it would seem that the consequences of such a “playful“ approach vary to a considerable extent in the existential and psychoanalytic case studies. I aver that there is an underlying playful quality to some of Spinelli’s humour which is shown by his response to Susie’s stated opinion that he is the expert by stating that she is as well. The sense of play here lies in his good natured diversion from her view. Also, Yalom‘s disagreement with Betty’s assertion that he sees her as being (1989, p110) “crazy“ could be seen as seen as playful in the sense that by contradicting her (in a light hearted manner) he is challenging her view of his concept of her. These therapeutic interactions overlap with the concept of play for several reasons, one of which is to do with the therapeutic relationship .
Lemma’s (2000, p62) traces the origins of play to the baby’s first environment, the one between him and his mother. Lemma recalls Winnicott’s belief that play is a product of (p63) “ trust in the environment“ in which this maternal relationship occurs. Spinelli’s and Yalom’s playful remarks could have reflected a trust since their clients’ dialogue were a conduit for intimate and personal details. This is confirmed by Jennifer who had sufficient faith in Spinelli to reveal the innermost secret of her dual existence and the nature of Betty’s disclosure as already covered. (Interestingly enough, although Spinelli’s alliance with Mr Jones reflected such an atmosphere as shown by his reliance on Spinelli’s judgement as regards a suitable film to watch, there were no mentioned instances on Spinelli’s part of playful humour towards this client). According to Lemma (p63) play provides the medium for dealing with “what is serious or, as Freud put it, what is ‘real.’“ This is clearly illustrated in the laughter that accompanied both Mr Jones’ realisation of the age defiance at the heart of his existence and Jennifer’s entrustment of her double life with Spinelli.
Perls (1992) equated play with “happiness of growth [that] denies stagnation“. This would seem most descriptive of Yalom’s relationship with Betty since his denial of her “craziness“ occured after the relationship had progressed from its initial unsatisfactory state when Betty’s insistence on the trivial worked as a stultifying force. The progress that Spinelli’s clients made in their therapy which provided a means for a healthier relationship to their anxiety could also be seen to exemplify this.
Even so, Freud’s playful humour could be said to have missed the mark on occasion to the point that its effects contradicted those connected with the positive aspects of play. One interpretation for this is that, although there was a playful element to two particular responses on his part to his clients Wortis and Brunswick, they failed because they lacked the support of a solid therapeutic relationship. His careless remark to Mark Brunswick about his brother being (Roazen,1995, p74) “boring“ could be seen as an instance of him teasing Mark about his fraternal relationship, but it only resulted in an exacerbation of his anxious state . Thus the therapeutic relationship in this case did not adequately protect Mark against the effects of this quip which may have been due to Mark not having trusted Freud’s motives for making this remark in the first place. Speculative though this explanation is, it suggests their relationship may have lacked some fundamental and necessary quality. Freud’s army analogy as related to Wortis (1954, pp 108-109) contrasted with the Brunswick incident, since its seems to have had very little, if any, actual effect. The analogy fitted a criterion of play in its challenging meaning since it could have provided Freud with a means of defying Wortis’ positive view of their relationship. Yet, it seemed to fall flat due its nature being perhaps too personal which would make it incongruent to the nature of the relationship which was described as being an (p11) “ [academic] analysis.”

Humour’s place within the Therapeutic Relationship

Heuscher (1993) offers an illuminating perspective of Kierkegaard’s view of understanding human nature which puts it into the context of (p206) “gaining or regaining a genuine sense of Self.” Heuscher broadens this concept so that it does not just apply to the philosophical or the existential by emphasising the (p207) “harm of forgetting [the self]“ in terms “of patients who . . . suffer [from] neuroses“. A translation of this “forgetting“ that resonates for the characters in the aforementioned therapeutic accounts is that their self has been distracted from expressing its true nature because of their difficulties with anxiety. A case in point is Mr Jones (‘Growing Old Disgracefully‘) who is so determined to deny his anxiety of death that he lives a charade more suitable for a man half his age. By behaving in this way his actual self-old age and all could be denied.
I think that the therapeutic relationship in terms of the verbal interaction between Spinelli and his clients provided a catalyst for them to discover a greater sense of their self as it did (with one or two notable exceptions) for the rest of the clients covered in this chapter. My view is that the setting that Spinelli (and the other therapists) created for the therapeutic relationship determined the extent to which they could reveal the sources of their anxieties. For example, in his first meeting with Mr Jones his client asked him (p15) “where do you want me to begin, doc ?” to which Spinelli answers “anywhere you want “. If, instead of this laissez faire approach, Spinelli had imposed his own agenda on his client, then this could have provoked anxiety that in turn could have inhibited him. The candour with which Mr Jones expressed his past and current life concerns from (p15) “[his hatred with] the way [he was]“ to his (p23) “ [being] sickened by . . . his father’s sudden deterioration “ suggests that he felt sufficiently relaxed within the therapeutic environment to express such material.
Spinelli’s humour could be seen as a further measure to encourage Mr Jones to feel at ease with his intense insight regarding his family’s loving attitude towards him, despite his age. Spinelli’s laughter may have assuaged the anxiety of his client’s realisation, because laughter has been attributed with creating a commonality between the two parties within a therapeutic alliance. This is important because it is likely that the client felt alone in his realisation concerning his age-defying conduct and this sense of aloneness could have been diminished by Spinelli making his laughter communal . This is the gist of Strean’s (1994,p110) argument, as he sees humour as creating “a recognition” of “being people together in the world .” Hence, when Spinelli reciprocated Jones’ laughter, he was encouraging him to feel less alone in his pain. Being equipped with this shared sense of self could have contributed to Jones finding the impetus to come to terms with his actual self, as defined by his years and anxieties.
My belief is that the humour in ‘A Life Divided‘ is both reflective of, and a facilitator for, a relaxed and trusting relationship that managed to create a welcoming effect for subject matter that may otherwise have been too stressful to be confronted. It was through the exploration of such material that Jennifer could gain some sense of the part of her self that was represented by the (p142) “previously unstated concerns and anxieties“. Therefore, the therapeutic relationship gave her the opportunity to get in touch with the sources of anxiety within her life which amounted to her making contact with aspects of herself that she had previously repressed. Humour was a constant of the dialogue in which the sources of her anxiety were broached, such as her boyfriend’s potential response to the identity of his sexual partner (p154) and Spinelli being the expert.
In contrast to Spinelli’s clients, the humour shown by Yalom’s client Betty could have sabotaged any attempts within the relationship for the effective exploration of the sources of her anxiety and by implication her self. Initially, Betty’s attitude to the therapeutic relationship could be summed up by her assertion that she (p98) “[did not] see anything wrong with having some fun.” In spite of this, Yalom (p91) “ [ refused] to be coerced into laughing with her“ instead of which he successfully changed the focus to the serious, which in her case was the raw source of her anxieties. This enabled her true self to be revealed as a lonely being defined by her anxieties which centred around death and (p107) “sexual practice“. This points to humour potentially having a destructive effect, since it could have been used as a means of warding off the anxiety of being fully engaged in the world without which the self could seen to be stagnant.
Elva’s humour differed to Betty’s as it was shared by Yalom and contributed directly to a relaxed and enjoyable therapeutic relationship. This allowed a thorough exploration of the meaning of her purse being stolen in terms of the anxiety that underpinned her existence. Like Betty, without such exploration part of herself, may have been kept in the closet unknown to her and inaccessible to everyone else. Therefore it seems fair to say that without such humour a different atmosphere would have been created that would not necessarily be conducive to such self-discovery. It seems fair to conclude that the effect of Freud’s humour varied intensely in all three of the aforementioned psychoanalytic studies which may subsequently have affected the extent to which their “Selves“ were inhibited by anxiety. The character of the therapeutic relationship seemed to have had a great influence on the effect that Freud’s humour had on his clients’ respective anxiety. Mark Brunswick illustrates how careless humour on Freud’s part most probably had a detrimental effect on the nature of his anxiety and an admittedly speculative reason for this was the lack of trust within the relationship. Freud’s teasing about Mark’s brother being (Roazen,1995, p74) “boring“ possibly renewed and exacerbated existing anxiety concerning his brother. One reason for this is that he may not have had faith in the generosity of Freud’s reasons for such a quip. Therefore, Freud’s humorous remark may have acted to add to the anxieties from which his ego was already suffering. Obviously, if this was the case, then his ego’s anxiety workload could have been so excessive that it would have been unable to develop via engagement in other aspects of the world. This would make Heuscher ‘s (1993, p206) concept of “regaining a genuine sense of self“ null and void.
Out of all the examples of therapy looked at so far, Wortis ‘ (1954) seems exceptional as it evokes the possibility of Freud’s humour having had no effect on his client’s anxiety or indeed his self. The chances were that Wortis’ undergoing a (Wortis, 1954, p11) “didactic analysis“ with Freud, determined their relationship as an educational teacher-pupil one which would leave no room for anxieties to be curbed by humour or any other means for that matter. I think that this is a fair conclusion on the basis that Wortis does not put Freud’s playful analogy concerning a lazy soldier (Wortis,1954 , pp108, 109) into an anxiety-based context in the session in which it occurred or in any later meetings between them. Thus it seems a rather pointless exercise to speculate on the difference that Freud’s humorous metaphor may have had as regards Wortis’ discovering a sense of self as there is no suggestion that Freud’s humour in this case actually had any effect whatsoever.
It seems reasonable to suppose that the therapeutic setting that existed between Freud and the Wolfman was sufficiently relaxed for sources of anxiety to be addressed in a way that not only did not exacerbate them but actually led to their improvement. For example, the therapeutic relationship was sufficiently easygoing for the Wolfman to be able to express a joke on religion to Freud and for him to respond with laughter. Another aspect that suggests that the therapeutic environment was a positive, relaxed one was the positive transference that the Wolfman had towards Freud. Freud’s report that (1918, p366) “ the patient has felt normal“ since his first two periods of treatment suggests that there was a good transference towards him on the Wolfman’s part. Freud’s belief that the analysis’ outcome was built on transference towards the therapist supports the notion of a positive transference as the analysis had been successful. Naturally, the environment in which therapy occurred affected the transference and the Wolfman’s assertion that (Gardiner,1973, p30) “ [Freud] had a magnetism or better, an aura that was very pleasant and positive“, suggests that he managed to create such an atmosphere. There seems no valid reason why Freud’s humour should not have encouraged this creation. The aforementioned report from Freud on the Wolfman’s normality suggests that the analysis allowed the Wolfman some freedom from his neuroses which gave him some opportunity for gaining a sense of self free from such illnesses. His later improved relationship towards religion in particular supports this .


The therapeutic work of Spinelli, Yalom and Freud serve to show how complicated and multi-dimensional the relationship between anxiety and humour can be within a therapeutic context. For example, Spinelli’s humour could be seen to have contributed to a therapeutic atmosphere sufficiently relaxed for the expression of the clients’ anxiety. This seemed to be a necessary part of the process for coping in a constructive way with such anxiety. In contrast, Yalom’s client Betty used humour to evade her life and its intense anxiety. Only when this negative humour was stopped could the therapy start, which included the constructive facing of her anxiety. Interestingly, the humour used by her in the last session pointed to a reversal in the relationship’s power from the therapist to her, the client. Freud’s humour could be seen to have positive, negative and indifferent effects. Humour in ‘The Wolfman’ provoked a relaxed atmosphere, that the client was appreciative of and seemed to be a contributing factor to a better relationship with the Wolfman’s anxiety. Compared to which Mark Brunswick ‘s sibling neurosis semed to be encouraged by Freud’s sarcastic reference to Mark’s brother. On the other hand, Freud’s witty humour with J Wortis apparently had no effect atall.
The humour practiced by these therapists clearly had playful elements. Each of these therapists to a lesser, or greater extent, teased their clients. The positive and progressive parts of the therapeutic relationships of Yalom , Spinelli and Freud were congruous to Perls’ view of play as embracing growth. The humour here both helped and hindered in their clients’ quest to gain a greater sense of self. A sense of self here meant one that was not totally held to ransom by the clients’ anxiety. This seemed to be achieved with clients of both Yalom and Spinelli as well as with the Wolfman. However, Freud’s careless humour with Mark Brunswick seemed to have helped encourage his sibling anxiety.




The focus for this chapter will be my own experience of how humour may affect anxiety in the context of my own practice as a therapist. The source for this will be a client whom I have seen in a therapeutic capacity since July 2001. The reason for my thinking that my work with this client could shed some light on this question is due to the prominence of anxiety within his life. Also, his own humorous approach to sources of his angst encouraged me to feel that my own humour could lead to an improved relationship vis-a -vis his anxiety.. However the type of humour advocated by the “Provocative Therapy“ approach was not used because of my doubts about its validity for my client. Such concerns were due to the potential damage that I felt that it could have done, which will be discussed by focusing on work by Kubie (1971) and Saper (1988).
My humour was designed to assuage his anxiety and the form that it took broadly speaking was threefold. I used it as an outlet for aesthetic references as well as a means of deprecating myself as a therapist. The third category was the use of humour as a potential relief from sources of his anxiety. The first type partly fits the description of Greenwald (1967) singing a Beatles song that had been spontaneously provoked in him by his client’s self-pitying dialogue. According to Mindess (1976) its positive effects included it being the catalyst for greater perception on the client’s part towards his anxiety, as well as relief from such tension in the form of laughter. My self -deprecating humour was designed to introduce the reality of the therapeutic situation to my client which perhaps could have provided him with a constructive counterpoint to his internal anxiety. Also I felt that such humour on my part may have undermined any tension he may have had in our relationship because of how he may have viewed me. My attempts to make Michael laugh were grounded in Rapp’s (1947) view of mirth stimulating a “release“ from anxiety. The intensity of his anxiety concerning certain women made me feel that humour as a form of relief may have been valid here.
The penultimate section will speculate on how my humour may have affected his anxiety in the short as well as the long term. The main means by which this will be done will be a comparison of his dialogue in the earlier and later stages of our therapy together. The means of assessment will be: whether he expressed a broader perspective on sources of his anxiety and if he had become more humorous as a whole.

The Relationship between Humour and Anxiety in a Therapeutic context

The subject matter for this chapter is one of my own clients to whom I have given therapy on a once-weekly basis, from July 2001 to the present day. The therapy occurs at a drop-in-centre whose avowed purpose is to revitalise those who have formerly received treatment in various mental health settings. In order to ensure the client’s anonymity and the confidentiality of his material I am changing his name here to Michael. Michael was born in London in 1945 and was referred to me by the manager of the centre as someone who suffered from extreme anxiety to the point of being paranoid. The focus for such paranoia was his belief that strangers perceived him as being homosexual and would verbally abuse him as a result. He had suffered two nervous breakdowns which had resulted in him being hospitalised in 1986 and 1993. The cause of the second one was triggered off by his being overwhelmed to the point of being incapacitated by his fears concerning people who he believed were going to murder him. I think that he is an appropriate focal point for this section for several reasons. Firstly he is someone who seems to suffer greatly from anxiety and secondly, humour has been used by both of us in our dialogue together over the course of our relationship.
I think that it would be a good idea to clarify to the reader why I felt that there was a possibility of Michael being receptive to a therapeutic approach that included humour. This is not an easy question to answer with any certainty since there are no widely accepted criteria as regards which types of clients may benefit from humour . Nonetheless, there were several reasons why I felt that there was some potential for humour on my part to provoke some change in his relationship to his anxiety. The main rationale was that Michael himself used humour as a reaction against sources of anxiety within his life. For instance, in a session between us on the 23 rd November 2001 he told me of a play that he was writing that was based on a family that comprised of characters such as “Vince Bin“ and “Plug Hole”, who in Michael’s words functioned as parodies of “all those small-minded people with their stupid jobs and their homophobic attitude towards me“. I thought that Michael’s play was significant in terms of his attitude towards such causes of his anxiety, since it seemed that he was not just succumbing to them, but was actually attempting, through humour, to portray such sources in a way that would make them less threatening to him .
He would sometimes go into “Bin“ mode with me and this involved his adopting a yobbish voice which ranted in a sexist, homophobic and thoroughly obnoxious way. I found such rants amusing due to their absurd and exaggerated nature and the impression given was of a more intense, South London, version of the northern comic Bernard Manning. Thus my thinking was that, by being humorous with Michael, I would not only be conducting myself in a way that was familiar to him, I would also potentially be nurturing the seed of his own humour to the point that a more potent relationship with his own anxiety could be reached. In outlining my approach I will draw on the writings of Mindess (1976), Rapp (1947), Baker (1993) and Farrelly and Matthews (1981) who concentrate on how a humorous therapeutic approach can have a beneficial effect on a client’s anxiety.
I did not feel that it would be fair for me to use my material with Michael for this dissertation without his prior consent and knowledge. This was the reason for my broach-ing the subject in a therapy session between us in November 2002. I started this session by asking him whether it was acceptable to him, for me to use some of our dialogue together for a thesis that I was doing on humour’s relationship to anxiety. I was careful to emphasise the fact that neither his name, nor the name of the place where we met would be revealed. He agreed to my request in a rather stoic way. I was also careful to monitor his subsequent behaviour towards me and mine to him, in order to see whether his being used in this capacity had affected our therapeutic relationship. I did not see that my revelation to him concerning this work had any subsequent effect on either our behaviour towards one another, or the relationship as a whole.
The following dialogue on Michael’s part occurred on the 20 th July 2001 and I think it serves to show both the sources and seriousness of his anxiety. Also, I feel that it provides a means for me to partly clarify the context of my own humorous interventions with him.
“ Friday I was on the train and there were all these rowdy men and women with their feet on the seats and they were drinking spirits and talking a lot of rubbish - it was virtually a sex party with clothes on and all of a sudden there’s this shout: “poof“! This guy who’s been leading the dance as it were looks round at me with a contemptuous grin and he points me out to this girl who’s sitting opposite me and she’s looking at me stony faced. They were quite vociferous and presumably they are people who have been gossiped to by these other people who know who I am. They are probably friends of people on the council estate where I lived five years ago and received all types of horrible abuse and contempt. Very nasty vindictive people who were out to kill me”.
I think that paranoia pervaded this statement in the form of Michael’s fears concerning strangers “who were out to kill [him]“. Also, I think that he felt persecuted by such people in terms of what they conceived his sexuality to be. I think that it is fair to equate Michael’s reaction with anxiety since he had previously been hospitalised as a result of a nervous breakdown emanating from his apparent delusions concerning strangers wishing him dead, as well as their apparent belief that he was a homosexual. I think that anxiety played an omnipotent role in his life during our therapy together and its main source seemed to be how people viewed him. This was shown in our subsequent sessions together dating from as recently as August 2003 when Michael would concentrate on strangers in the form of builders, cab drivers and supermarket workers who apparently enjoyed ridiculing him for what they conceived his sexuality to be.
I felt that it might have been inappropriate, as well as potentially damaging, for me to have practised humour in the setting of such expressions of anxiety on his part. The purpose of Provocative therapy as described by Farrelly (1981, p 678) is “ to exaggerate and [exacerbate] various situations [in order to get] the client to see the humour and nonsense of his well-established position.” Hypothetically, then, such a therapy if applied to Michael could have been the catalyst for him to see the absurdity of his paranoid fears concerning people in society. Nonetheless I did not attempt such an approach with Michael. Firstly, I am not experienced in the practise of this school of therapy and therefore would not feel comfortable in applying it to the sources of Michael’s paranoia . Also, I find it difficult to understand how my client’s paranoia at this time could be effectively exaggerated as it seemed to be so strong anyway.
Kubie’s (1971) and Saper’s (1988) work identifies some of the dangers of humour which I think also explain my rejection of it in the context of the above and similar rants on Michael’s part against people who he held paranoid beliefs against. Saper (p312) emphasises the invalidity of using humour which “ humiliates . . . or undermines self-esteem“. I think putting Michael’s suffering into a humorous perspective could well fulfil this function, since it could result in the ridicule of his beliefs and by implication his character, of which they are a part. Kubie (p863) warns against “treating [the client’s] suffering in [a] cavalier [way]“ which provokes “resentment“ and (p864) “the effects are . . . often unpredictably dangerous.” Treating Michael’s suffering with humour could perhaps infer a disdainful attitude towards it, since it could act as a denial of the seriousness of such suffering and this in turn could lead to the negative effects that Kubie states.
Although, for the reasons already stated, I did not respond with humour to Michael’s expressions of paranoia and anxiety, in other circumstances I found space for humour in my interactions with him. Such humour basically fitted into three categories which were :
(1) Humour in the form of Aesthetic references, (2) Humour as Self-deprecation of the therapist and (3) Humour as Relief from the sources of his anxiety. I think it would be helpful to explain to the reader the thinking behind the practice of each type . Also I think it is important for examples of such humour to be assessed in terms of what change, if any, they provoked in terms of Michael’s relationship to his anxiety.

Humour in the form of Aesthetic References

Mindess (1976, p337) emphasised the tendency that Greenwald (1967) described of aspects of “song titles or movie titles” occurring to him during patients’ conversations. Greenwald (1967) related an incident when “a patient was complaining about the difficulty he had preparing for an examination and I started to sing . . . a song made popular by the Beatles: ‘ It’s been a hard day’s night, And I’ve been working like a dawg‘.“ This provoked laughter in the patient as well as an insight into his “pitying himself“ which implied a yearning “for sympathy“. It would seem that Greenwald’s humorous response may have fulfilled several functions. Firstly, it would appear to have provided his patient with what Mindess (1976, p335) sees as another way of responding to “circumstances that we normally experience as being depressing“. The alternative is to see the source for such depression as an outlet for amusement which seems to have happened in Greenwald’s example since the patient could now laugh at circumstances which had previously provoked anxiety in him. Secondly, this example seemed to have realised a characteristic of humour that Mindess (1976, p334) noted which was to “ [reveal] hidden truths“. The concealed truth in this case could have been the patient’s motives for complaining about his revision difficulties which, according to Greenwald, revolved around a tendency to engage in self-pity, as well as a wish for sympathy. Another source of appeal for me of Greenwald’s humorous response was that it seemed to be of a good natured character, since its purpose did not seem to be the derision of the client, or his beliefs. It is for these reasons that I spontaneously shared with Michael on several occasions the televisual, movie and artistic images that he had stimulated me to think of.
In August 2002, an interaction occurred between myself and Michael that I felt could have satisfied the same criteria as Greenwald’s Beatles impersonation seemed to. The subject matter for this session was how he lived his life as a whole, since he spoke about how he would sit alone for much of his time “brooding, thinking and [anxiously] contemplating his life“. As Michael spoke I imagined a statue of a man bent over with his head resting on his fist. I decided to share the fruit of my imagination with Michael and said: “ the image that comes to mind is the statue that screws his hand into his head “. Michael responded by smiling wanly and then said: “ there is that“.
I felt that this aesthetic image of a statue obsessively screwing his fist into his forehead was amusing and therefore, in theory at least, could have provided Michael with an alternative means of reacting to his stagnant, introspective situation in life, which was with mirth. Also this image may have revealed to Michael the actuality of his existence, since he spent much time being frustrated and anxious rather than “grabbing the nettle“ that was his life and actually living it through an active engagement with those around him. I also felt that this image of the statue evoked the solitary, stagnant position that my client seemed to be in for much of the time.
However, it seemed that this attempt at humour fell rather flat, since it did not provoke significant amusement nor was there any reason for thinking that it had provoked any change in him since it did not seem to influence the subject matter of the rest of his dialogue in this or subsequent sessions.
There were two other examples of my using humour in the form of film and televisual references. The focal point for such humour was my client’s feelings concerning a relationship that he had with a woman to whom he wished to communicate his true feelings. The thought of being candid with this woman about his desires towards her provoked anxiety in him. There were several reasons for my using humour in this setting. I thought that humour could act as a vehicle for communicating my position towards his anxiety in this instance. Baker (1993, p953) described humour as potentially implying “[a sense of being] at ease in the midst of [the client’s] suffering“ which I think is descriptive of how I felt concerning Michael’s anxiety in this context. Also I thought that my humorous remarks tended to have what Mindess (1976, p337) described as a “light -hearted“ quality to them since in their flippancy they rejected the serious, anxious stance that Michael had. By having this approach towards Michael’s painful relationship, as well as being relaxed in the midst of such pain, I thought I could be encouraging him to adopt a similar attitude .
The first instance occurred in October 2001 when Michael spoke in a nervous way about his wish to have an intimate, personal relationship with a lady that he knew. He felt apprehension about how he should go about revealing his feelings to her and he asked me: “what can I say ? I like you and I want to sleep with you“? I responded by saying: “I don’t think so, it sounds too “Woody Allen“ to me“. Michael responded by laughing. In August 2002, he spoke to me about a frustrating relationship that he was having with another lady. He told me that he was anxious about the state of this friendship with this female friend, Betty, since he did not know what he could do to provoke her to have a sexual relationship with him. I responded by saying: “that perhaps you need to be Frank Spencer”! This quip was a reference to a comic character on television whose partner was called Betty. As with the first example Michael responded with laughter.

Humour as Self-Deprecation of the Therapist

There were several instances in my therapy sessions with Michael when I would use humour to gently mock myself. I thought that such humour was partly determined by the content of the material that Michael had brought to me. I felt that my mild, self-deprecatory remarks were an appropriate response to examples of Michael’s dialogue which implied that he was expecting me to provide him with an answer to his life. Also, I believe that such conduct on my behalf was a reflection of the relaxed and spontaneous nature of the therapeutic relationship, since such humour was not contrived.
SelF-deprecating humour on the therapist’s part has several purposes which Mindess (1976), Dewane (1978) and Farrelly and Matthews (1981) have written about. Mindess (1993, p338) suggested that the most potent way of therapists activating humour in their clients is by “[sustaining a humorous] outlook on [themselves].” Having a sense of humour in Mindess’ view enables us to cut to the core of our very existence in the sense that it encourages (p338) “a clear awareness of our common absurdities.” He also suggests that humour gives us a broader sense of reality to the extent (p338) “that nothing is exactly as it seems“. The appeal of humour, then, in Mindess ‘ view is that it enables us to feel a part of the human race, as well as providing a different perspective on life which could give us a necessary form of relief from a particular situation.
Dewane (1978, p510) emphasises another, potentially, positive effect of therapeutic humour by quoting Roncoli (1974) who states that it can make the therapist “[seem] imperfect, fallible and human.” A constructive effect of the therapist portraying himself in this way could be to send the message to his client that his own fallibility was acceptable. If this were the case then this could cause him to have a more relaxed self-view.
I think that self directed humour exemplifies what Farrelly and Matthews (1981, p687) described as “ridicule“ in the sense that “[the therapeutic] role and “professional dignity “ are [being lampooned].” I think that this could have a helpful effect in terms of the therapeutic relationship because, by undermining his status as an expert, the therapist could be closing the professional distance between himself and the client which could undermine any anxiety that the client had concerning the therapy. It is for these reasons that I lampooned myself on several occasions with Michael.
During our dialogue together in February 2003 he expressed rage and pain at having spent a large proportion of his sixty years doing menial work that demeaned him. He also expressed doubt and fear with regard to whether there was sufficient time left for him to achieve his artistic and literary potential. At this point I apologised for not having a time-machine handy of the kind that H. G. Wells had written about. Therefore I was unable to turn back the years for him. He seemed to find this mildly amusing.
I think that by mentioning the time-machine I was trying to change Michael’s mood, to replace his anxiety with mirth which could have meant that his anxious introspection was relieved by a literary reference that provoked him to broaden his outlook. His subsequent emphasis on what work may be available for him within the fields of theatre and music suggested that my reference could have provoked a different outlook. I feel that, on the surface at least, my time-machine quote may have been a step in the right direction in terms of the features of humour as noted by Mindess (1976). By describing myself in a facetious, self-deprecating way to my client I was challenging his often-stated view of me as an all-knowing expert who had the answers to all his problems. If he took this on board he would have a sense that there was another side to my character which would have the effect of my not appearing (p338) “exactly as [I had previously seemed to him]”. I believe that the humour underpinning my self definition lay in the absurd nature of the comparison between myself and a figment of nineteenth century literature. Also I think that this remark complied with Farrelly and Matthews’s (1981) view of therapeutic lampooning in the sense that it was an attempt to emphasise the common ground that lay between us, with the desired effect of the therapeutic distance and attached anxiety being lessened.
In an encounter between us in December 2001 my client referred to someone who “was scruffy and had spiky hair“ yet managed to “get the ladies“ to which I responded by saying that “my hair is unbrushed and my sartorial sense is rather lacking today”. This remark amused Michael and it was an effort on my part to satisfy Dewane’s (1978) criteria for the therapist to emphasise his own flawed nature and therefore make the client more comfortable with his own. Also, its intention was to distract his attention from his fantasy concerning this unkempt character and to bring his attention to the actuality of the therapeutic setting of which I was a part. By calling attention to myself in this way I was reminding my client that there was a human being sitting in front of him which I feel could have helped to ground him in the reality of the therapeutic setting. Hypothetically, then, such awareness could have curbed his flights into paranoid fantasy and anxiety.

Humour as Relief from the sources of his Anxiety

Humour in terms of laughter, was seen by Rapp (1947, p209) as having positive effects in the sense that it represents “a feeling of relaxation“ as well a form of “release.“ He emphasised Bain’s (1876) philosophical view of laughter as a relief, due to it being a reaction to “a certain posture of rigid constraint“ that accompanies the serious nature of life’s circumstances. He also equated it with a childish approach to life. Rapp (1947,p210) also focused on Freud (1905) who confirmed these theories of laughter, seeing the release in terms of “ a discharge [ of ] psychic energy “ that was presumably used previously in the suppression of tension.
I think that the concept of laughter evoking a release of tension is congruent to a theory of humour that equates it with freedom. Kline (1907, p435) describes how a trivial “incident“ in a “court of justice“ provokes “laughter“. The reason for this could be that the humorous incident could provoke freedom from the rigidly, serious nature of the court environment. I think that it is valid to stretch this metaphor so it applies to anxiety as a whole. In such a context humour could be seen to provide a certain amount of freedom from the confines of such anxiety. Kline ( ibid.,p436) expands upon this notion of freedom by emphasising the irreverent nature of humour since it “dares to defy the world order with impunity,“ as well as being reassuring in sustaining awareness of an “[ephemeral] escape from . . . life. “ Kline (ibid., p 438) also accentuated the fact that the “relief“ provided by “humour“ occurs with a minimal amount of “expenditure of energy “. Therefore I thought it would be a good idea to use humour with Michael in order to make him to laugh, so that, hypothetically speaking, some kind of relief from his anxiety could occur .
In Michael’s life women represented an intense source of anxiety to him. It seemed to me that his lack of experience with them had given him a distorted view that was more a product of fantasy than of actual reality. During a dialogue between us in May 2002 he spoke with great anxiety about a lady with whom he did not feel he could have sex. I ventured that a reason for his not managing to consummate the relationship could have been that he “would not be able to think of enough women when he got on the job“. This provoked much hilarity in my client, as did my questions concerning another female who was a source of much disquiet for my client when he attempted to see her in a sexual light. This happened in a session occurring in June 2003 when he spoke about her intense mood swings and my response was to ask him “whether she had a screw loose“? The following week he spoke about her driving him to college to which I added: “she has her uses“. He laughed at this rather sarcastic remark.
I think that there was a commonality to his mirth at my quips concerning his relationships. The purpose of my humour was to offer him an alternative outlook on these women and Michael’s relationship with them that was based on external reality. I think that these flippant remarks were an attempt to provide him with relief from his own anxiety- ridden perspective of them which was partly caused by the challenge of sexual intimacy with them. This explained my references to one of them “having her uses“. Also, my questioning of the sanity of one of them, as well as focusing on her not sexually exciting my client, could be seen in a similar vein. I think that my flippant comments were an attempt to give Michael relief from what Bain (1876) cited in Kline (1947,p209) described as “a certain posture of rigid constraint“, as Michael’s view of women as sources of anxiety seemed inflexible in its one-dimensional character.
By offering Michael a perception of women that in its disrespectful character contrasted with his own anxious view, I was trying to give him a sense of freedom from this view. The irreverent nature of my remarks seemed to comply with the feature of humour that Kline (1907, p437) described as “ [a] sense of freedom“ which occurs with (p436) “experience that dares to defy the world order“. Here the established perspective of Michael’s view was contradicted and another one was offered which could have given him a sense of liberty if he took it on board. By focusing in a facetious way on the actuality of these women and Michael’s relationship with them the content of his view was being challenged. This may have communicated to him that there was another way of responding to women and if he embraced this he would have achieved some sense of freedom from the effects of his own anxiety dominated perception of them.

The Effects of My Humour on Michael

There was some evidence to suggest, in our subsequent meetings together, that the humour mentioned here had provoked a different relationship in Michael towards his anxiety. The sources of his anxiety that were explored here which covered his life as a whole, as well as women that he knew, seemed to be somewhat diminished in their effect. This view was supported by his later descriptions of people in general, as being less fraught with both worry and frustration. For example, his view of people seemed to be less paranoid during 2003, because he did not mention anyone having a contract on his life as he had before. There was something to suggest that his relaxed relationship with me had provoked a more relaxed approach to other people. In August 2003, he talked about all the people “out there“ who saw him as “being queer“ in terms of them not just being “one dimensional but having lives“. The suggestion here seemed to be that he was beginning to recognise that people had another function apart from vilifying him. This example could suggest a less anxious approach on Michael’s part towards the imagined persecutory forces in his life.
It seemed that Michael was somewhat able to replace his serious, anxious stance towards women with the more flippant one that I encouraged by my mentioning various comedy characters. Therefore, it seemed that he had partly embraced amusement as an alternative way of reacting to his life situations. I think that there is some possibility in the future of Michael finding some meaning below the surface of his life anxieties, which would imply his having a more powerful position towards them.
My self-deprecating humour, as previously stated, was designed to make Michael more relaxed with his own fallibility. In the first year of therapy, he stated on several occasions that Shakespeare and Harold Pinter were inferior playwrights to himself. However, such delusions of grandeur were not expressed subsequent to this, which I think reflected a more relaxed self-view. I think that the fact that he no longer overtly equated himself with such aesthetic figures, could have implied a greater acceptance of himself and his fallibilities, since on the surface at least, he was not avoiding the actuality of himself.
I think that the fact that my humour often provoked laughter in Michael shows that its function as a “release“ from anxiety as described by Rapp (1947, p209), was partly fulfilled. His laughter could have been a measure that he had achieved some sense of freedom from the sources of his anxiety, since his means of responding to them was expanded, to the extent that he could use amusement. Nonetheless, I think that its function as a source of relief for Michael from the sources of his anxiety, was limited to instances when I emphasised the comical aspects of various aspects of his life.
One aim of my therapy with Michael, was to give him a sense of humour whose object was himself. If this had happened, then he could have gained in Mindess’ (1976, p338) description, “a clear [perception] of our common absurdities.” Hypothetically, this could have given him a broader outlook on life including the sources of his anxiety, as well as making him feel he shared some commonality with those around him. Even though Michael had not managed to laugh at himself in our therapy together up until September 2003, I felt there was some potential for this to be achieved in the future. I think that his more relaxed self-view, was indicative of a step in the direction of gaining a self-deprecating sense of humour.
The ultimate aim of my using humour with Michael, was to change his relationship with his anxiety in a profound and fundamental way. The relevant role model for this, is the criminal who Freud (1928) wrote about, since this character had the ability to be calm in the face of life circumstances that would normally arouse anxiety. Therefore, if Michael had gained a humorous character like this Freudian figure, the former sources of his anxiety would be demeaned by his Superego to the extent that they would become trivial, allowing a response to them that included amusement . Whether he could become more humorous, to the point that he could voluntarily laugh and find pleasure in the sources that had formerly provoked angst in him, is an open question for which the answer lies in our subsequent therapy together.


I think that one of the reasons that I used humour with Michael, is that it has played a constructive part in my own therapy. I think that humour has encouraged me to engage with my own therapy, because it has enhanced the relationship that I have with my own therapist. One of the ways that it has achieved this, is by providing me with a means to relate to my own therapist not as a distant expert, but as a fellow human being. I think that our therapeutic relationship has played a supportive role in helping me to deal with my own anxieties, because it has given me an outlet that is sufficiently relaxed for exploration of them. Also, the wit of my therapist has helped to draw me in to the therapy, which has had the beneficial effect of reducing the agendas that I might otherwise have concerning it.
The rationale behind the humour that I used with Michael, was that it was of a good natured type, that would not threaten him and therefore exacerbate the anxieties that he already had, concerning his relationship with the world around him. By using aesthetic references, I was aiming to give him a broader perspective on the sources of his anxieties that could encompass the comical and absurd. I believe that my self-deprecating humour may have helped Michael to feel sufficiently relaxed in my company, so he could use the therapy as an outlet for his innermost anxieties.
I think that the fact that Michael’s dialogue had taken on a less anxious character since the beginning of our therapy together and that his delivery was more calm than previously, seemed to suggest that my humour had been of some benefit to him. As formerly stated, his relationships with women and people in general seemed less tense, as his fantasies concerning them seemed less paranoid. Also, he seemed more comfortable with himself which was shown by his no longer comparing himself to famous playwrights. The fact that my humour often provoked laughter in Michael, I think was positive, because it provided him with a source of relief from the sources of his anxiety. However, I am not optimistic about Michael’s ability to adopt a humorous attitude to the aspects of his life that previously caused him anxiety. The main reason for my scepticism is that such a change would suggest a fundamental shift in character, which would entail his Superego becoming benign, which is unlikely considering his past parental relations.

This study found that anxiety plays a ubiquitous and significant role in life as a whole and in modern life in particular. May (1996) emphasized Pascal’s (1946) view of the vulnerable individual in the context of the world around him. May (1996) also, focused on how Society’s advocation of “competitive success” encouraged anxiety by emphasizing the individual’s solitary nature. The psychoanalytic stance to anxiety also saw it as an inevitable part of human life, but focused on how it emanates from the child’s relationship to his parents. Freud (1932,1986) described anxiety as an unavoidable part of birth, as well as a product of subsequent separation from the child’s mother. He (1932) also revealed how the child’s libidinal wishes for his mother result in anxiety, due to the fear of castration which follows such desires .
Existential anxiety was found to be a source for humour, in Beckett’s (1965) play, due to the ridiculous nature of the main characters’ response to their angst. Humour was shown to have a different role to anxiety here, than in the rest of this work, since the emphasis was not on how humour was a factor in its relief, but rather on how it was a by-product of anxiety. new paragraph needed here ? One example of humour helping to overcome anxiety, was shown by Lemma (2000), who emphasized how the mother’s humorous approach towards her baby could encourage ego strength, as well as the creation of a safe setting from which he can progress. Such maternal behaviour took the form of playing, smiling and showing interest in external objects.
Humour was shown to be descriptive of a broad range of therapeutic conduct on the part of Spinelli (2000), Yalom (1991) and Freud, cited in Obholzer (1982) and Roazen (1995). Spinelli’s humour included empathic laughter with a client, as well as a playful departure from a client’s view. In contrast, Yalom’s humour covered irony, as well as involuntary laughter at a particular remark on the part of one of his clients. Freud’s responses comprised witty remarks as well as encouraging laughter. In other instances, he used a witty analogy, as well as an ill-advised, comical remark concerning a client’s brother.
The diverse effects of these therapists’ humour on their clients’ anxiety, illustrates how broad the potential relationship between humour and anxiety is within a theraputic context. Spinelli’s humour, as well as Freud’s towards the Wolfman, cited in Obholzer (1982), seemed to contribute towards the creation of a relaxed therapeutic relationship, that served to alleviate the clients’ anxiety. On the other hand, Freud’s remark to Mark Brunswick, mentioned in Roazen (1995) seemed to provoke anxiety in his client. Apparently, his witty analogy to Wortis lacked a result.
These therapeutic studies, as well as my own experiences of practising humour with Michael, have brought home to me how constant a feature of human life anxiety is, as well as the important part that humour can have in helping to assuage such anxiety. The fact that humour could contribute to the creation of a meeting place, that transcended standard therapeutic roles and that provoked an improvement in the clients’ anxiety, suggests a strong case for further research to be done in this area. Such inquiry could address the question of what actually causes humour in the human, since with the exception of Freud, there is an intense lack of theory on this subject in therapeutic literature. A nother significant issue that could constructively be explored, is the reason for therapists using humour with their clients in the first place, as there is a dearth of information concerning this subject in the aforementioned case studies. Also, work could be done to clarify the reasons for humour having either a beneficial, or harmful effect as regards the client’s anxiety. These three topics are all relevant in one way, or another, to the ultimate question of what humour’s relationship to anxiety is. Nonetheless, this is a difficult question to address for several reasons. Firstly, as the aforementioned case studies show, humour’s relationship to anxiety lacks rigidity which makes it hard to specify what this alliance may actually be. Likewise, it may be difficult to specify with any certainty what effect humour has on a client’s anxiety, when there are other factors which could contribute to either its improvement or deterioration .
This dissertation was Submitted in Partial Fulfilment of the MA in Psychotherapy and Counselling at the School of Psychotherapy and Counselling Validated by City University.

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