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How humor helps heal
" People who have experienced abuse - victims, perpetrators and witnesses - frequently report feeling little control over their lives. Healthy humor can reinforce the idea of having choices, at least in our response."
- Jen Polzin

by Jen Polzin

Relationship violence isn't funny. Neither is sex trafficking, homelessness, addiction or mental illness. Those of us working on these issues have spent decades arguing that trauma shouldn't be taken lightly. Yet we also know that humor has the power to heal as much as hurt.

My graduate thesis focused on using therapeutic humor with clients in human service organizations - specifically, survivors of domestic violence. Some wonder, is it even appropriate to have fun where the work is so serious?

YES! Based on my experiences and stories I've heard from survivors, I believe humor can improve service effectiveness, client and staff satisfaction, and organizational climate - plus help prevent compassion fatigue. However, we first need a solid foundation of quality care to earn the credibility or opportunity to move beyond using humor solely as respite to using humor as an intentional tool for healing.

Humor is more than telling jokes; it's a way of looking at the world and seeing multiple perspectives.

When the reality of a crisis is too scary to face, temporarily detaching from the emotionally threatening situation can help us cope. People who have experienced abuse - victims, perpetrators and witnesses - frequently report feeling little control over their lives. Healthy humor can reinforce the idea of having choices, at least in our response.

Yet it's essential to evaluate potential risks, such as minimizing feelings and experiences, causing pain or alienation.

We should ask ourselves, how will humor be helpful? And whose needs are being met by using humor in this situation? We must resist gratifying our own need to be funny. And, timing does matter. When people are in crisis, they're more likely to experience humor as insensitive. But in the aftermath, humor may help because it creates safe distance from the crisis.

How do we know if using humor is helping or hurting? First, assess the individual's sense of humor by getting to know them and what they enjoy. Observe which people laugh at themselves - people who laugh more often and more deeply are likely more open to therapeutic humor. Finally, test the waters by sharing a funny story, or laughing at a situation not directly related to the person, and gauge their response, then respond to their reaction. If they respond negatively, it's up to you to repair the damage. We must be present, really listen, respond, then take responsibility for our approach without getting defensive or overwhelmed.


This is when taking oneself lightly while taking the work seriously and true leadership truly come into play.

Jen Polzin is the CEO of Tubman, a nonprofit organization that serves survivors of violence, exploitation, addiction and other trauma. www.tubman.org

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