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  • Writer's pictureDale V Wayman, PhD

The Use of Humor as an Intervention

“No one likes to look up all the time; it makes the back of the neck tired.” -- Adler “If a child climbs on a window sill 20 stories up, you grab first and educate later.” -- Adler “Let us first try an apple every evening before going to bed.” -- Adler (to a patient wanting psychotherapy for constipation)

“Alfred Adler, far sighted and immediately practical though devoted to helping patients, never lost his sense of humor. There was little or no monotony in his sessions. He was unique in his ability to lighten tense moments with an appropriate tale. To a scolding, domineering mother who frequently became involved in quarrels with her children, he told the story of the child, who, after being tucked into bed, with lights out, called down in a few minutes (p. 60). To which the mother replied, ‘You’ve had enough water. Now, sleep and don’t bother me.’ A few minutes later, the child called down, ‘But, Mommy, I’m thirsty.’ Mommy replied, ‘You’ve had enough water for tonight -- and if you call me again, I’ll come up and give you a good spanking.’ To which the little one answered, ‘Mommy, when you come up to spank me, will you bring me a glass of water’?” -- Hazel C. Shoobs, Newsletter, Individual Psychologist, May 1968, 5 (2), pp. 60-61.

“If we employ the view of the private frame of reference, we find that the neurosis and the joke have similar characteristics. While the listener uses a normal frame of reference, the one who tells the joke suddenly introduces a new frame of reference, which is related to the first in a few points, but otherwise shows the matter in an entirely new light. In the following familiar joke we can show how these two frames of reference clash, and thus produce the comical and remarkable effect. ‘A horse trader wants to praise his horse and says, ‘If you mount it at 6 o’clock in the morning, you can bein Pressburg at 9 o’clock.’ Whereupon the customer replies, ‘What should I do in Pressburg at 9 o’clock?’ Their minds do not meet. What happens is a sudden split according to two points of view. The essential part of the joke is this dual frame of reference and here we see the relationship with that other device, the neurosis."

“Actually a large number of nervous symptoms seem like a poor joke. They try to trip us up, and sometimes surprise us as a joke does. One cannot maintain that this is due to lack of intelligence. Among our patients there are very intelligent people. Rather we must speak of a subjugated intelligence. Whenever a person wants to avoid the solution of his normal problems, he is forced to subjugate his intelligence because it would speak in favor of carrying out the solution."

“Neuroses (discouragements) and jokes, like all other psychological processes, are related to social interest. We find in both also the striving for significance, which here tends towards the depreciation of others; undoubtedly the joke represents a revolt against the socially normal frame of reference. But a joke can only be good if the two frames of reference appear to have approximately equal general validity. If one frame of reference is obviously invalid, the joke is no longer a good one. The neurosis is rather to be compared with a poor joke, because its particular frame of reference appears, from the point of view of Individual Psychology, as invalid."

“We have always been inclined to use jokes to clarify his error to the neurotic (individual) In this way we can show him that he has a second frame of reference within which he acts, and that he tries to bring his problem in line with logic in accordance with this false system. Here is the main point of attack of therapy; we attempt to undo the false values which are at the basis of the actions of the neurotic” (p. 252).

“I have always found it an immense advantage to keep the level of tension in the treatment as low as possible, and I have virtually developed a method of telling almost every patient that there are jokes altogether like the structure of his particular neurosis, and that therefore the latter can also be taken more lightly than he does. References to fables and historical characters, quotations from poets and philosophers help to strengthen the confidence in Individual Psychology and in its views."

“One of my patients in a tension of feelings about going out-of-doors developed stomach and respiratory troubles. Many neurotics begin to swallow air when they get into a state of tension, which causes flatulence, stomach trouble, anxiety, and palpitation, besides affecting the breathing. When I made him realize that this was his condition he asked the usual question: ‘What shall I do not to swallow air?’ Sometimes I reply: ‘I can tell you how to mount a horse, but I can’t tell you how not to mount a horse.’ Or sometimes I advise: ‘If you want to go out, and feel in a conflict about it, swallow some air quickly.’ This man, like some other patients, swallowed air even in his sleep, but after my advice he began to control himself, and discontinued the habit."

“Melancholiacs (depression prone individuals) are often inclined to revenge themselves by committing suicide, and the doctor’s first care is to avoid giving them an excuse for suicide. I myself try to relieve the whole tension by proposing to them, as the first rule in treatment, ‘Never do anything you don’t like.’ This seems to be a very modest request, but I believe that it goes to the root of the whole trouble. If a depressed person is able to do anything he wants, whom can he accuse? What has he got to revenge himself for? ‘If you want to go to the theater,’ I tell him, ‘or to go on a holiday, do it. If you find on the way that you don’t want to, stop it.’ It is the best situation anyone could be in. It gives a satisfaction to his striving for superiority. He is like God and can do what he pleases. On the other hand, it does not fit very easily into his style of life. He wants to dominate and accuse others; if they agree with him, there is no way of dominating them. This rule is a great relief, and I have never had a suicide among my patients. It is understood, of course, that it is best to have someone to watch such a patient, and some of my patients have not been watched as closely as I should have liked. So long as there is an observer, there is no danger. Generally the patient replies, ‘But there is nothing I like (p. 346) doing.’ I have prepared for this answer, because I have heard it so often. ‘Then refrain from doing anything you dislike,’ I say. Sometimes however, he will reply, ‘I should like to stay in bed all day.’ I know that if I allow it, he will no longer want to do it. I know that if I hinder him, he will start a war. I always agree."

“Another rule is to attack (confront) the style of life of the patients still more directly. I tell them, ‘You can be cured in fourteen days if you follow this prescription. Try to think every day how you can please someone.’ See what this means to them. They are occupied with the thought, ‘How can I worry someone.’ The answers are very interesting. Some say, ‘This will be very easy for me. I have done it all my life.’ They have never done it. I ask them to think it over. They do not think it over. I tell them, ‘You can make use of all the time you spend when you are unable to go to sleep by thinking how you can please someone, and it will be a big step forward in your health.’ When I see them the next day, I ask them, ‘Did you think over what I suggested?’ They answer, ‘Last night I went to sleep as soon as I got into bed.’ All this must be done, of course, in a modest, friendly manner, without a hint of superiority. Others will answer, ‘I could never do it. I am so worried.’ I tell them, ‘Don’t stop worrying; but at the same time you can think now and then of others.’ I want to direct their interest always towards their fellows. Many say, ‘Why should I please others? Others do not try to please me.’ ‘You must think of your health,’ I answer. ‘The others will suffer later on.’ It is extremely rare that I have found a patient who said, ‘I have thought over what you suggested.’ All my efforts are devoted towards increasing the social interest of the patient. I know that the real reason for his malady is his lack of cooperation, and I want him to see it too. As soon as he can connect himself with his fellow men on an equal (courageous) and cooperative footing, he is cured” (p. 347).

* Alfred Adler (1870-1937), The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in Selections from His Writings, 1956, 1964, pp. 252, 346-347. Edited by Heinz Ludwig Ansbacher (1904-2006) and Rowena Emma Ripin Ansbacher (1906-1996)

** Copyright (1988/2020) Carroll R. Thomas, Ph.D., The Eye of the Needle: A Book of Quotations, 3470 E. Russell Road, Suite 207, Las Vegas, Nevada 89120 (702) 369-3704 Excerpts by Carroll R. Thomas, Ph.D., December 18, 2020.

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