Laughter can be good medicine. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing has short- and long-term effects on your health. As you bring in more oxygen, it stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles. Laughing increases the endorphins that are released by your brain, and it cools down your stress response. Over a longer period of time, laughter can improve your immune system, relieve pain, and increase personal satisfaction.
While it’s easy to laugh at something funny, the ability to laugh at yourself can help you address the challenges that could be holding you back in your career and life, says Dr. Brian Kaplan, author of Almost Happy: Pushing Your Buttons with Reverse Psychology.
“To laugh at one’s self is an excellent thing,” he says. “Humor can be a very powerful way of helping people, proving that helping doesn’t have to be a solemn experience.”
Humor as Therapy
Kaplan studied the work of Frank Farrelly, an innovative therapist who founded Provocative Therapy in the 1960s. Provocative Therapy uses humor and reverse psychology to provoke people to change. With the person’s explicit permission, you repeat what you hear their “sub-selves” saying and you do it with humor, warmth, and affection.
“We all have sub-selves, or sub-personalities, such as our inner child,” says Kaplan. “That’s a nice use of a sub-self. But you also have sub-selves that dominate us. They’re loud, grab the microphone, and dominate the whole personality.”
For example, you may relate to a sub-self of the workaholic. You could justify that you need to work 15 hours a day because you’re paying for your children’s education, a new house, or a vacation home.
Laugh at yourself by reaffirming the workaholic’s devotion to work. For example, you can tell yourself, “You should definitely spend all your time focusing on making more money and acquiring more businesses or investing in the market. Your children will be judged by their clothes and vacations. They don’t need you; they need your money.”
“When you can laugh at that side—especially when it’s a bit over the top—then you can laugh at that part of you that’s sabotaging yourself,” says Kaplan. “That moment of laughter provides a window of opportunity to recognize what’s holding you back and prescribe your own solution. And laughter and the warmth of it is like a medicine that allows you to deal with something that’s often quite painful.”
Identifying Your Sub-Selves
In his book, Kaplan identifies more than 100 sub-selves that could be holding you back. For example, you may be a procrastinator. In this case, you can talk to yourself by saying, “Never underestimate the power of tomorrow!” “Always make magnanimous resolutions on your finest night, New Year’s Eve.” And “Meditate on the many horrible consequences of most impulsive decisions and actions.”
Another sub-self is the grim executive, which Kaplan calls “the stone-faced men and women of big business. Anyone feeling the burden of being held responsible for profit and loss.” In this case, you can call out the sub-self by saying, “It’s a badge of honor to look ten years older than you are. Don’t forget your annual visit to the cardiologist.”
Other sub-selves include being a people pleaser, robot, doormat, critic, and ego maniac.
“Mark Twain once said, ‘Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,'” says Kaplan. “Once you’re laughing at the sub self, you’re acutely aware of it. Normally, you don’t think of the trait as a sub self. When it takes you over, you think ‘I’m angry’ or ‘I’m under stress,’ because the sub self has taken your whole personality there. When you can identify it as a part of you and not your entire being, you can quiet it down.”