Is it wrong to laugh during ‘serious times’?

Laughter-Is-The-Best-Medicine

Well, it depends.

A random tweet I saw this morning:

What I have noticed on Twitter is that people are so angry that even when I make a joke, they say “this is no time for jokes,” this is a serious time. The craziest people on Earth are people who try to mold your Twitter page to their personal liking. It’s absolutely insane.

It’s not just Twitter, though.  This attitude is pervasive all across social media and in real life, too.   Of course people are jumpy, on edge, stressed out, scared, and angry.  That’s perfectly understandable in times like these.  But if you make a joke or try to make light of the gravity of our national and political situation, many people become offended.    And I’m not referring to Trump supporters here.

I understand some jokes are in poor taste.  For example, I would never make fun of the caged children at the border, or the many people suffering right now because of Trump’s cruel policies.  I would never laugh at someone’s funeral.  That’s punching down, it’s bullying, and it’s mean.  That’s the kind of thing Trump does (remember when he made fun of the disabled reporter?  Yeah, that’s punching down and punching down is never funny).

But I will certainly make fun of him, and the powerful people who work for him, and yes, at his supporters too, who I see as willfully ignorant at best, sociopathic at worst.   I will make fun of his terrible gaffes, his inappropriate behavior at televised events, his word salad, his disheveled appearance, his malignant narcissism.

And if you take offense because the situation he has put us in is “too serious for jokes,” then all I can say is maybe you need to grow a sense of humor, and maybe you’ll find out that being able to laugh at the terrible things he does makes this dark time in our history a little bit easier to bear.

I think keeping a sense of humor when things are dark and the future looks uncertain is essential to our mental and spiritual health.   The ability to laugh, even gallows humor (laughing AT the evil and making light of it, NOT at the victims of the evil) is a necessary survival tool. Those who can’t laugh in the darkness are far less resilient emotionally and spiritually, and more likely to succumb to terror, despair, or worse.

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Stupid things make me laugh.

fur_covered_scale

Sometimes I laugh at really weird things.  These laughter fits take me by surprise, especially when I’m punchy from exhaustion or lack of sleep.

This week at work has been grueling,  since 5 people quit and the rest of us are having to make up the slack.  In fact, I was so exhausted I decided to stay home from work today and just do nothing.   I needed sleep, and slept most of the day.   I feel like this was good for my body and mind, so I don’t feel guilty about playing “hooky.”

Yesterday I was cleaning a house and saw a bathroom scale covered in faux “fur.”   It was a dingier color than the one pictured above, but looked a lot like that one otherwise.

hot_pink_fur

I wasn’t in a good mood yesterday.  I was irritable, snappish and exhausted.  But that furry scale sent me into fits of uncontrollable laughter, so much that I was doubled over and my stomach hurt.   It was so unexpected!  I couldn’t stop, and for about an hour later, even thinking about that bathroom scale got me started all over again.

It was just so unexpected.  I haven’t seen a scale like that since the ’70s and even then I thought they were ridiculous.  This one looked like it actually was from the ’70s, because the “fur” was so faded and knotty looking.

 

I laugh at weird things.

laughing_hysterically

This comment I just saw on Youtube got me howling. I don’t know why.

How to start an internet fight:
1. Write a comment
2. Wait

4 awesome reasons to cry.

awesome

One of the things my therapist and I have been working on is getting me to cry in session.   I’ve talked before about how hard it is for me to cry, except in private, and even then it isn’t always easy.   As a child I cried all the time.  Because I was usually shamed for my tears, sometime during my teens or early 20s, I pretty much stopped being able to cry and outbursts of anger, seething resentment, or “freaking out” seemed to replace the tears.  Rage and anger, while they have their place, is often destructive to others and yourself, and if used as an outlet where tears would be more appropriate, isn’t really very healing.  Freaking out is never adaptive because it just makes you appear crazy.   Before I learned mindfulness in DBT, I’d act out against others or freak out without thinking about the consequences, and usually feel regret, embarrassment, and shame later, much more so than if I had just cried instead.

Sure, tears can be manipulative.  Narcissists cry to get attention or to manipulate others into pitying them or giving them what they want.   Babies and young children do this too.  That’s the kind of crying that has given tears such a bad reputation.     But if a child is crying for other reasons–because they are hurt, because they are sad or overwhelmed with any other emotion (ANY strong emotion, not just sadness, can cause tears)–parents should never tell them “big boys (or girls) don’t cry” because that just teaches them to stifle their emotions, and stifling emotions is bad for you and can even affect your physical health.  If a child is shamed out of crying often enough, they may learn to turn off the tears and become unable to cry as adults.  This is especially common for boys in a culture that has traditionally frowned on men and boys crying because it’s a sissy or “weak” thing to do.  But this no-crying policy applies to women as well, especially in the business and professional world, where showing softer emotions is a big no-no.

People cry for many reasons, but I think there are four basic reasons for genuine emotional (not manipulative) tears: (1) need for help or care; (2) connection, empathy and love;  (3) awe, gratitude and joy; and (4) stress relief.   I’ll go through each of these and explain why each one is awesome.

1. Need for help or care.

babycrying

When a baby cries, it’s usually because they need something.   They may be wet, in pain, hungry, tired, or just lonely.    A baby’s cry brings mom running to give the baby what it needs, after which the baby stops crying.   We are born into the world crying; tears are a pre-verbal language and the first language we ever learn. When we are born, we cry to communicate our distress or other needs, and get what we need to survive.   If healthy attachment is achieved, a baby learns more sophisticated ways to get their needs fulfilled later on, but there are still times when needy tears are appropriate and NOT manipulative, even for grownups.

It’s always healthy and appropriate to grieve after a devastating loss, such as the death of a friend, family member or beloved pet.  It’s appropriate to cry when hearing very bad news or when in great emotional or physical pain.     There are survival reasons for this.  A crying person usually draws people near them and attracts sympathy.  If we have normal levels of empathy, we have an instinctive urge to touch or physically comfort a crying person.     A person who has just found out their best friend has cancer or Fluffy died needs the comfort of others.  They need to be held and hugged and have their back stroked and their hand held.   They need physical contact.  They need to be able to pour their story out to another person.   It would be cruel to deny someone in great physical or emotional  pain that kind of succor.  Some societies understand this need, and that is why there are public rituals such sacramental wailing in some cultures, or sitting shiva in the Jewish faith after a loved one dies.  Only when it becomes excessive or is done to attract attention to yourself does this type of crying become annoying to others.

2.  Attachment, empathy, and love.

crying_bride

This is closely related to the above, but a bit different because the tears shed aren’t intended to draw help or comfort, but to connect with others or with the world.   Many new mothers find that they become very emotional during pregnancy and for a few months after their babies are born.   Even though as an adult I’ve always found crying difficult, an exception was made when I was pregnant or lactating.  My emotions went into overdrive!   I remember when I nursed my babies, sometimes I became overwhelmed with pure emotion I couldn’t name or explain, and silent tears began to run.  It wasn’t unpleasant at all.  It just felt natural and real.  I think those tears connected me more deeply with my children.   Tears are words an infant can understand instinctively, and when a young infant sees his or her mother’s tears, they understand this means attachment and love with her has been achieved, and a good mother responds to and feels her baby’s emotions too.

Grownups, even men, sometimes just feel overwhelmed with emotion, sometimes very positive emotion.  People who are deeply in love sometimes find as they gaze into their lover’s eyes, their own well up.  It can happen at any moment when the love they feel seems bigger than they are.   This is why sudden tears are common in lovemaking that isn’t merely for sexual release, but to more deeply connect with the lover.

Tears of attachment and connection indicate high levels of empathy.   A person who is able to feel the emotions of a friend who is sad can sometimes actually cry with their friend, and this serves to connect them on a deeper level.  A world in which we can’t share the emotions of those around us–either negative or positive–is a world where no one cares and everyone is out for themselves.    Any society that regards empathy as a weakness is a sick and dangerous one.  If the human race is doomed to self destruction, I’m pretty sure the growing lack of empathy and care for others we see around us today would be the primary culprit.

3. Awe, joy, and gratitude.

KellyClarkson
Kelly Clarkson learns she won American Idol, 2002.

Tears of awe are the kind you shed when you are blown away by an incredible sunset or magnificent landscape.   Some people get very emotional in church or when hearing a certain piece of music or reading a certain poem.   I think these are the kind of tears we shed when moved by something we perceive as being greater than ourselves.  They are humbling and remind us of our insignificance, but not in a bad way, because at those times, though we feel humbled, we also feel more connected to the universe or to God.  Tears of awe connect us with the divine.

People shed tears of joy when something wonderful happens to them, usually a great surprise.  Winning the lottery, winning a contest, your team winning the Superbowl, walking into your house to a surprise birthday party, hearing your baby’s cry for the first time…all these things make people cry.    They’re anything but sad or manipulative!   Tears of joy may also be a form of stress relief, as in some cases, there’s often an element of relief, which I’ll explain more in the next section about stress relief. For example, contestants in singing or dance competition shows or in pageants almost always cry when they win.   For many months, they’ve been under enormous stress.   The moment of winning not only validates all the hard work they’ve done, it’s also a sudden release of months of the built up stress of heavy competition.   It’s okay to let go!

Related to tears of joy are tears of laughter–those times we laugh so hard we begin to cry.  Crying and laughter are physiologically very similar and serve a similar purpose of relieving stress, so it’s not too surprising that sometimes our bodies get laughter confused with tears!

Finally, there are tears of gratitude.  Sometimes we are taken by surprise when someone does something nice for us.   Especially when it’s unexpected, kind words or deeds can bring on tears.   Colloquially, this is known as being touched, which differs from being moved because it’s more human and less spiritual/humbling than being moved.     Tears of gratitude connect us with each other.

4.  Stress relief.

cry_in_shower

Some unpleasant emotions aren’t normally expressed through tears.  For example, people don’t usually cry when they’re afraid or anxious or angry.   To do so wouldn’t be in our best interests survival-wise.  When we’re in danger or there’s some kind of threat facing us, showing vulnerability might get us killed.   So when we’re angry, we want to attack.  When we’re afraid, it’s fight-or-flight.   When we’re worried, we want to remove the source of worry or solve the problem.   But once the danger or stressor has passed, and we feel a measure of relief, it’s common for people to break down in tears.   A child who has become lost doesn’t usually cry while they’re looking for their caregiver, because that’s too dangerous.   They cry the minute they see Mom or Dad’s arms reaching out to them (and very often Mom or Dad cries right along with them!)

Sometimes people cry even when the danger hasn’t passed, when they just feel overwhelmed and have given up trying to fight or escape or trying to solve their problem.   In those cases, crying is a last-ditch effort to solve the problem.   If all else has failed, then crying may bring help or comfort from others.   It’s not necessarily manipulative if everything else has been tried first and nothing has worked.

Sometimes even when the threat is gone or the issue resolved, or the horrible outcome we expected didn’t come to pass, we still cry, because it’s finally safe to do so. The tears shed at those times are really tears of relief because they help release all the emotion that was pent up while we were in danger.  When thought of this way, it makes no sense to tell someone not to cry, because it doesn’t mean they’re upset, it means they’re relieved and finally feel safe enough to release all that bottled-up stress through tears.

And then there are those times when you just need to have a good cry, and you don’t even know why. After a few minutes or hours of sobbing, pouring out snot and tears, you come away feeling like a million dollars. So if you want to cry, go ahead and let it out. It’s good for your body, mind and soul.

Uncontrollable laughter.

gonnapee

Ever have one of those laughing-seizures over nothing? I was just over on Twitter unfollowing about 140 accounts that weren’t following me back, and started looking at some stupid things there (Twitter is full of stupid shit), which sent me into peals of uncontrollable laughter. Don’t even ask me what was so funny because I don’t really know. All I know is I started laughing so hard I was crying and couldn’t stop. It felt great! I wish that happened more often. I definitely recommend at least one episode of uncontrollable laughter a day.

Laughing.

I like these selfies I just took.

laughing_me1

laughing_me

Laughing for no reason.

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Click to enlarge.

I do this all the time. Does that mean I’m crazy?

Laughter and tears.

comedy_tragedy

Laughter and crying are biologically very similar, and while they seem like opposites, both are methods the body uses to relieve stress, and they involve similar movements of the same groups of muscles. Both can involve tears.

Stress isn’t necessarily bad–it can even be present in overwhelming positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, or love–or in that moment when something strikes us so funny we double over with peals of laughter. Sometimes very intense laughter can bring on tears and even lead to sobbing; the opposite can happen when a big breakthrough happens in therapy. The laughter comes because the patient feels an immense sense of relief.

I decided it would be interesting to categorize the various types of crying and then talk about laughter, because they really are so very different but similar in some ways, and both are good for us.

Crying

crying

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Crying is underrated in western society. In our culture, tears are still thought of as a sign of weakness and something that’s only okay for women to do, and even then only in certain situations. A man is only allowed to cry if he wins the lottery or his team won the Super Bowl or his dog died. And that’s a crying shame! (pun intended).

But being able to cry is the most effective way to get better if you’re in therapy trying to heal from a mental disorder or recover from psychological trauma such as PTSD. It can be liberating and feel great. Many people have problems crying though, but there are ways to make it easier.

There’s also the unfortunate stereotype that crying always means a person is sad. Not so. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I believe I read that 50% of emotional tears are caused by positive or ambivalent emotions, not negative ones.

Not all tears are the result of actual crying: Irritant tears are shed by animals as well as humans, and are a physiological response to an irritation of the eye, such as the tears we shed when slicing an onion. Even though tears are shed to rid the eye of the foreign object, there is nothing emotional about this form of “crying.”

From here on, the types of crying will be listed from the shallowest and least emotional type of crying to the deepest and most emotional. The farther we get up the scale, the more pleasurable and similar to genuine belly laughter crying becomes.

1. “Crocodile” tears/fake crying.
This category possibly shouldn’t even be on this list, because it’s not genuine and sometimes doesn’t even involve tears. There are two types of false crying, both common among narcissists and sometimes people with other Cluster B personality disorders such as BPD or HPD.

The first type does involve actual tears being shed, but the person is usually a good actor who is able to squeeze them out at will to manipulate, get pity, show fake “empathy” or other emotions meant to make them look good or less malignant than they are. During his trial and police investigation, the psychopathic murderer Scott Peterson was expert at making copious tears run down his face when questioned about his wife’s disappearance. But he still had an odd blank look and a hint of a smirk between questioning–and Peterson’s odd speech patterns and hesitations made it obvious he was lying.

The second type is more common since most people aren’t very good actors and cannot generate tears at will. This is the embarrassing fake sobbing some narcissists use to get pity or attention. Don’t fall for it if they hide their faces so you don’t see their bone-dry eyes.

2. Manipulative, childish crying.
Narcissists who cry do so for the same reason a baby does: to get what they want. Older children cry this way too, and it can involve loud sobbing and whining. Adult narcissists (especially the “needy” types) may not sob like a child, but if they don’t get their way expect a display of waterworks, especially if the narcissist is of the somatic type and is female. Some somatic female narcissists do try to make their crying displays as dramatic as possible, in order to manipulate their target and get their way. It works too, especially if the woman is attractive and seductive, and this type of narcissist usually is.

3. Crying from frustration, fear, or anger.
Many people cry when they become frustrated, frightened or angry, but the tears tend to be scant and watery, and any sobbing is minimal. Breathing tends to be very shallow.

None of these first three types of crying are cleansing or healing, and because the tears shed are mainly just salt water and don’t include oils and other substances that come from truly emotional tears, they aren’t as effective in releasing toxins from the body and the person will not feel better afterwards.

The next forms of crying are all healing and cleansing, and the tears associated with them are full of oils and hormone like substances that make them heavier and more likely to cling to the skin and leave more visible streaks after drying.

4. Bereavement/grief.
Most people, after suffering a devastating loss such as death of a family member or close friend, or being left by a long time partner or spouse, at some point, if not immediately, will cry. Crying arising from tragic loss is usually convulsive, cathartic, intense, and involves deep sobbing that causes spasms in both the diaphragm and stomach muscles, copious amounts of tears and a loosening of mucus from the sinuses. A person undergoing such convulsive crying may gag or even vomit. The crying is so intense it can be physically painful as well as emotionally excruciating, and it may go on for a long time. But the tears are healing and the crying is cathartic. If the painful emotions are held inside and not released, a person experiencing grief or loss will take much longer to get better, and may become very ill.

In some cultures, such crying is formalized into a social event after the death of a family member, with special times set aside for family members to engage in grieving together and this can go on for weeks. This is probably a very healthy thing. In our society, group grieving is primarily reserved for funerals, and the bereaved are expected to get on with business as usual in a fairly short time, after all the casseroles have been eaten or have gone bad.

5. Cathartic crying in psychotherapy.
Most if not all psychodynamic therapies consider the moment the patient breaks down and cries in the therapist’s office a breakthrough for the patient. Because painful emotions from the past are being released, this type of crying can be as intense and convulsive as the crying of a bereaved person. A good therapist will not judge, and if a limited touch waiver has been signed in advance, it may be beneficial for the therapist to hold or stroke the patient in a nonsexual way during their breakdown. There may be more than one breakdown, with each one bringing the patient closer to healing. Laughter may sometimes follow a session of crying as the patient realizes a huge emotional burden has been lifted.

6. Shock/surprise crying.
These are not true tears of joy, but the kind of tears you shed if you find out you won the lottery, your team won the Super Bowl, or you were just presented with a great honor or gift. They are tears of surprise and shock as much as they are of happiness. They can tie in with tears of gratitude–for example, a movie actor who just won an Academy award may thank her supporters profusely as she chokes back sobs and tears stream down her cheeks. This type of crying isn’t particularly intense, but it does come on very suddenly and the tears can be copious. It’s short lived though. Smiling or even laughing usually accompanies the tears.

7. Crying from the heart.

tears

This type of crying is never seen in narcissists, because it involves an opening of the heart that connects people to each other and narcissists cannot connect on any level. Tears from the heart exist on the spectrum of love–and involve positive, pro-social emotions like empathy, overwhelming joy, spiritual or religious experience, feelings of connectedness with humanity, the arts, or nature; or overwhelming love. These are all emotions narcissists are incapable of feeling.

The emotions felt can be overwhelming even if very pleasant. Crying serves two purposes here. First, it helps the body release the excess stress that comes with an overload of such euphoric feelings. It’s also nature’s way of connecting us with each other and tears tend to generate even deeper feelings of love among those who cry together. A good example of this is a couple so overwhelmed by their love for each other that they find themselves in tears during lovemaking, and this opens their hearts to each other even more.

Laughter.

laughter

There aren’t as many types of laughter (giggling and polite laughter don’t really count), but the best kind is the belly laugh–the kind of deep and convulsive laughter that explodes almost uncontrollably when we see or hear something we think is hilarious.

Belly laughter, though it doesn’t usually involve tears (but it can), can be just as cathartic and cleansing as a good long cry. Different types of things make different people laugh, and it’s hard to say what exactly will strike just the right part of your funny bone to send you into uncontrollable, convulsive, rolling on the floor shrieks of laughter.

The process of laughter is physiologically almost identical to crying–both involve gasping intakes of air, convulsive movements of the diaphragm or stomach muscles (hence the term “belly laugh”), and animal-like vocalizations similar to sobbing. But we can all tell the difference. A person enjoying a good belly laugh will never be mistaken for someone who is crying, even if there are tears.

laughter2

Laughter usually involves a form of surprise. We laugh when we see something unexpected in a situation that doesn’t call for it or where its placement is ludicrous. A baby will laugh when her dad makes funny faces, because it’s unexpected. If you’re told something is funny, it probably won’t be as funny to you as if you discovered it on your own. It’s also the reason why a good joke can be ruined by bad timing or getting to the punch line too soon (or the punch line being spoiled by someone else). The surprise factor must be there for a joke to be funny.

Narcissists can laugh, but as with their crying, it’s usually shallow, exaggerated for effect (narcissists may be laughing louder than anyone in the room, but their eyes will remain flat and their laughter joyless and forced sounding).

As for what makes them laugh, narcissists are likely to find the misfortunes of others funny, or enjoy belittling forms of humor such as jokes that negatively stereotype an ethnic or other group, mean sarcasm, insults, or embarrassing practical jokes. Few narcissists have any sense of the absurd or any kind of subtle or sophisticated humor, and of course they can never laugh at themselves. They really have almost no sense of humor, unless it’s at someone else’s expense. If a narcissist’s mean “joke” at your expense offends you, you may be accused of being “too sensitive” or having no sense of humor, even though it is really they who are challenged in the humor department.

For the rest of us, it’s always a great thing to have a sense of the absurd as adults, because that sense of humor can get us through all the rough times. That’s why I keep a page of narcissist jokes, because when we can laugh at something that is threatening to us, some of its power over us is taken away and we can see the absurdity of what scares or upsets us.