Jan 4, 2013

Beware of taking yourself too seriously

Maybe you still feel a little guilty about a faux pas you made at a party two weeks ago. Maybe you finished next to last at a "fun run" on Saturday. Maybe your new hairstylist scrambled your hair and now you have to live with a weird perm for a month. Maybe all those things happened - but so what if they did?

Whoever you are and whatever you do, you probably take yourself and your setbacks too seriously. You could stand to lighten up, laugh at your mistakes, smile more and let people see that beautiful face of yours.

There's a lot to be gained by brightening your outlook. If you can laugh at yourself, you'll probably cope with obstacles more effectively and rebound faster from disappointments. You'll be able to let off steam better, your self-esteem will rise, and people may even like you more.

But if you insist on taking yourself too seriously, you're bound to get steamrollered by Life, with a capital L. 

No one is immune to taking him or herself too seriously, not even Lawrence Mintz, Ph.D., professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and secretary-treasurer of the American Humor Studies Association, a society of scholars interested in humor.


"I have a mirror on my office wall," Dr. Mintz says, "that I use to comb my hair in before I go to class. Underneath the mirror there's a little sign that says, 'This person is not to be taken too seriously.'

''I'm a normal, narcissistic, egotistical person with all sorts of vanities. I'm very happy with myself and I'm glad to be me, but I have a definite tendency to take myself too seriously. I take my teaching and running involvement in politics seriously. But sometimes I have to admit that what I'm doing might not be the most important thing in the world."

For Dr. Mintz, who puts out a publication of his own called the American Humor and Interdisciplinary Newsletter, there just isn't enough time to take everything seriously. "People use humor to separate the truly threatening from what's not truly threatening. You learn to laugh at the day-to-day things and reserve seriousness for what is really tragic. We tend to blow things out of proportion."

But humor and threat, strangely enough, usually go together, Dr. Mintz says, and sometimes our worst troubles become the material for the best jokes. "All humor requires an element of threat," he said in an interview. "It's the terrible things that become funny when we share our fears about them with other people. We can either let things get to us or we can laugh at them."

And laughing at ourselves is the best way anyone's found to deal with human frailty since Adam took the apple from Eve. "Humor," says Dr. Mintz, "is the way we cope with living in an imperfect world and with imperfect selves. When we can't win, the best thing to do is to laugh about it."

Harvey Mindess, Ph.D., a professor at Antioch University in California and a counselor who specializes in the use of humor as a tool in psychotherapy, agrees with Dr. Mintz that amusement with oneself provides an effective escape valve from life's pressures.

"I believe, and so do a number of other psychologists, that humor is a great coping mechanism," Dr. Mindess says. "When a client of mine is very anxious about something, I try to get him to break out of his anger or fear by laughing at himself.

"In one case, an I8-year-old girl came to see me. She'd never been to a psychologist before and she told me, 'I know I'm mixed up. But I've heard of people being destroyed by therapy.' I just told her, 'You're in luck. I already destroyed my quota for this week. 'I convinced her that all this talk about destroying was foolish and we both laughed about it.” ('Emotions and Your Health', by Emrika Padus and staff of Prevention magazine)