Some time ago, I had an interesting online encounter with a phobia coach. I shared an article about a supermarket customer who burst out in tears feeling intimidated by an ‘aggressive’ supermarket employee who was scanning items ‘too fast’. While my comment was mostly meant to highlight the absurdity of the situation (it is quite unusual for someone to feel intimidated by the speed of a supermarket cashier) it led to a conversation (and my reflection) about whether it is ok to make a humorous comment about such a situation.
The coach pointed out that she felt it was perfectly possible for someone to exhibit such behaviour, and in fact, as someone who used to suffer from supermarket induced panic attacks, she could completely understand how someone can be intimidated by such a social interaction.
It is of course perfectly possible to imagine how people with phobias, or neurodivergent people, can struggle to adapt in novel situations, whether this is because they can’t read the ‘script’ of this circumstance, or because that situation poses challenges for which they found themselves unprepared.
Most human behaviour is on a continuum between two extremes, and even at its most extreme, we can still identify with the varieties of human experience. For example, while the vast majority of the population will stray far away from psychotic delusions and hallucinations (at least without the aid of psychotropics), most of us can think of at least a few instances in our lives where we have questioned our sanity or believed in things which now feel absurd to us.
For decades I had this vivid memory of visiting a cave with my mum as a child, when suddenly a sheep fell from the top in front of us (and the rest of the flabbergasted visitors to this guided tour in the cave). I was well into my thirties when I recounted the experience to my mum and she patiently explained to me that the sheep never fell from the top of the cave; in fact, it was the tour guide who explained to us that the cave was discovered when a shepherd lost one of his sheep, when it fell from a hole on the top of the cave.
As the above illustrates, we all carry unusual experiences and memories with us, which help us identify with the absurd and the extreme in human behaviour. This doesn’t however take away from the fact these are rare and unusual behaviours. And anything rare and unusual, naturally raises our curiosity.
There are various ways in which we can try to identify with the novel and the unusual. We can conduct research and study the subject matter, but this takes time until we find the authoritative sources we need. We might ask questions to those displaying such behaviours -or those around them- in order to find out more; but sometimes it’s hard to do this in a discrete way or -if the person in question is in great distress- it might be inappropriate to probe about the cause of their condition (we might be of more assistance when we concentrate on relieving their distress instead).
The quickest and most effective way to familiarize ourselves with anything unusual -including bizarre and incomprehensive behaviour- is the use of humour. Aside from the physiological effects of laughter on our wellbeing, which have been highlighted in several studies (there is a whole area of study about the health benefits of laughter called gelotology), humour is effective in breaking taboos, broaching controversial topics, and making conversations possible about topics which would otherwise feel awkward, strained or simply too painful to discuss.
Much of the work of therapists, healers, psychologists and coaches centres around relieving suffering and pain. Our unconscious defence mechanisms often make it difficult to tackle such topics head on. Many therapeutic techniques have been designed to work through such issues indirectly, whether by addressing the unconscious, the social context, or psychological mechanisms that are seen as the ‘root cause’ of the problem.
Humour operates in a more direct, and often perhaps in a more honest way. It doesn’t refuse to tackle the issue head on but makes it approachable by framing the situation in a different way. Focusing on the absurdity or the comical aspects of a situation, helps us disassociate ourselves from the painful and negative emotions that are accompanying it. This can finally be the start of the healing process we were looking for all along.