I Must Do Well

A client once asked me, “Why can’t life just be easy?”

Of course, as a therapist, I must answer a question with a question (it’s in the manual), so I replied, “Who do you know whose life is ‘easy?’”  With exasperation she answered, “Oprah!”

I’m pretty sure Oprah has had, and probably continues to have, her own traumas, worries, and hassles.  This is life we are talking about, and it will always have stress.  Still, we expect that we should be able to succeed in every situation, that nobody should inconvenience or mistreat us, and that life should be easy.

Dr. Albert Ellis, a cognitive psychologist from the ‘50’s, created a theory that goes right to the heart of these expectations.  He believed that we all carry around certain “musts” about our life. Indeed, he identified three musts that are at the heart of our distress in most situations.

The first “must” is “I must…”  You can fill in your own personal demands. I must do well.  I must be successful.  I must be well-liked. I must make a lot of money. I must keep everyone else happy. I must be perfect.  I must have a beautiful home.  I must keep my house perfectly clean.  I must be thin. I must be attractive. I must be the perfect mom.

If I am not, I have failed; I am worthless.

Think about this for a minute.  We load ourselves with some pretty heavy demands, and the punishment we deliver for failing to meet them can be pretty grim. If I fail to do well, I might be filled with shame, low self-esteem, personal criticism, even self-hatred.  So the first “must” is about your expectations for yourself.

The second “must” is “You must ….” You must treat me well. You must recognize my importance.  You must value my time.  You must know what I want and give it to me.  You must treasure my needs above yours.  You must see how precious I am.

If you don’t, you have failed; you are worthless.

The focus of this second “must” is about your expectations for others.  Usually we don’t get as worked up about how others treat us, except when it comes to family.  We have some pretty high standards of how our spouses should cater to us, and of how our children should adore us.  The children we can train, but a lot of trouble can come from those spouses. The punishment we hand out to them for failing to meet our expectations can be pretty grim, too.

The third “must”, according to Ellis, is, “Life must ….”  Life must be easy, fair, hassle-free.  The weather must cooperate with my plans.  The roads must be free of traffic when I’m in a rush. The car must never require repairs.  The house musn’t either. The church/school/government must accommodate my needs without me stating what those needs are.  Computers must never crash. If I work hard, the compensation must be fair.  If others receive compensation, they must work as hard as me.  Life must be easy. Life must be fair.  Life must be hassle-free.

This is where we really get in trouble.  So much of our stress comes from an expectation that life should be smooth.  When hassles arise, we are ill-prepared and  too easily frustrated — even overwhelmed.

The interesting spin from Ellis is that our lives become more manageable and less stressful when we reduce these arbitrary demands.  All we need to do is change that one word, “MUST”, to the word, “PREFER”.  I prefer to do well.  I prefer you treat me well,  I prefer a life that is easy, fair, and hassle-free.

That one word influences our core beliefs about what we expect.  If I “prefer” to do well, but then mess up, I can ride out the wave of disappointment with a “well that didn’t go like I’d hoped” instead of “I am a miserable failure!”

If we hope to find levity, to learn to laugh at ourselves, to find the humor in our stress, it might be wise to evaluate our own personal “musts” and practice changing them to “preferences.”  I prefer NOT to trip up the stairs in front of the college president. I prefer you move your cart to one side of the grocery aisle or the other so I can pass. I prefer life had fewer thunderstorms and more days of sun.

Try it out for a few days.  Examine your internal demands — your “musts”, and redefine them as preferences.  Practice them aloud, even, to see if you can relieve some of that internal pressure.  Your loved ones will thank me for it.

Why Did You Have Kids?

Families with babies and families without are so sorry for each other. 
~Ed Howe

Why did you have kids?  For some of us, we didn’t really choose to have children.  When we find out we’re pregnant, we look at each other and wonder, “How’d THAT happen?”

For some it doesn’t happen so quickly. We have to work at it. We have to plan, time, orchestrate, and even seek assistance through our doctor’s offices in order to get that little bundle of joy. Some of us open our hearts and homes to our children through adoption.

But why?  Why do we risk the expense?  Current estimates show the average middle-class family with two children will spend $221,000 per child by the time the child is 18, and that is not counting the cost of college tuition. That is a whole lot of cash.

So why do we have children? Evolutionists say it is to carry on our genes.  Existentialists will tell us it is to affirm our existence.  Many religious orientations instruct that it is our divine calling to parent.  What is your reason?

Children are a blessing.  That’s what I hear people say, although sometimes their delivery of the sentence makes it sound more trite than true.  Is it a cliché?

Current research shows that parents with children in the home experience more frequent negative emotions, less frequent positive emotions, and lower levels of well-being than their childless peers.  Outcomes show that parents are not happier than people who do not have children, and some measures show that parents do worse on happiness scales.  We have more worries, experience more ongoing stress, more domestic drudgery, and fewer freedoms than our childless peers.  Where’s the blessing?

Here’s the blessing.

The most worthwhile pursuits in life (college degrees, marriage, volunteering, careers or vocations, overcoming obstacles) are difficult.  When you ask an older adult about the best experiences in life, she will tell you about the times that were hard — but good.

In the same research mentioned before, we discover that our continued commitment to parenting comes from selective recall: the hassles and drudgery of parenting recede quickly in our memories so we forget the dirty diapers, the acting out at the store, or changing the sheets three times in one night because he couldn’t aim his vomit into the bucket.  Instead, we choose to remember her first laugh, his diligent attempts at hitting that baseball, a fun day at the beach, your desperate exhaustion comforted by your teen’s surprise hug.

So, to summarize research, when someone says, “Children are a blessing”, it’s because their memory is failing.

But perhaps our reasons for having children go beyond financial or happiness issues.  When we consider the purpose for our parenting, we realize we’re not doing it to make ourselves happy.  In fact, many of our reasons differ.  You might have children because you believe God called you to be a parent.  Perhaps you have children to contribute to society.  Did you want someone to care for you in your old age? Perhaps you are doing it to honor your family of origin.  Maybe it’s because you couldn’t resist giving your husband’s brown eye/blonde hair combination another turn around the world.

When we consider the purpose for our parenting, and decide to be intentional about the process of being a parent, perhaps the “burden” of the process changes, as well.  We don’t care that research tells us that we are broke and unhappy.  It’s not about that at all. So what is it about?

I’ll ask you one more time: why did you have kids?

We’re either getting a dog or a child.  We can’t decide whether to ruin our carpets or our lives. ~ Rita Rudner

If only it were……Saturday!

“I cannot go to school today”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.

My mouth is wet, my throat is dry.
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox.

And there’s one more – that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut, my eyes are blue,
It might be the instamatic flu.

I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke.
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in.

My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My toes are cold, my toes are numb,

I have a sliver in my thumb.

My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,

I think my hair is falling out.

My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,

There’s a hole inside my ear.

I have a hangnail, and my heart is …
What? What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is ………….. Saturday?

G’bye, I’m going out to play!”
― Shel Silverstein

The Kid is Watching You!

A baby’s social smile is a brilliant way for the baby to establish social connections and to communicate his positive emotions.  Another social development that happens early is what we call social referencing.  You might not know what this means yet, but you definitely know what it is.

Imagine you are standing in line at the grocery store with two customers in front of you and two behind you. Every line at the store is equally long.  Suddenly a man walks up, cuts in front of the entire line, and announces, “I’m in a huge rush and I only have a few items.  Sorry everyone!” and proceeds to check out his items.

What do you do?  You immediately look at the other customers in line to see how they are responding.  You make eye contact with them, you gauge their reactions, you see if their faces are displaying what you are feeling.  That is social referencing: searching for information about how others are feeling to help explain or interpret circumstances that are uncertain or surprising.

You might be surprised to learn that, around 8 or 9 months of age, a baby has developed this very sophisticated ability.  She will use cues of Mommy’s or Daddy’s facial expressions to inform her on how to respond in situations that are new to her. If there is a new noise, she’ll look at Mommy to see if Mommy looks scared.  If she tastes a new food, she’ll look at Daddy for some kind of cue that it’s okay and not poisonous.  Babies take this information very seriously and will use it in future scenarios, as well.  For example, if baby Agnes picks up a new toy she’s never played with, and Mommy shows disgust, Agnes will play with the toy less.  When given the toy later, she will still be reluctant to play with it, even if Mommy’s face is neutral the second time around.

As we grow, we continue to use social referencing across social contexts.  In preschool, when Jordan knocks over her juice, the other children look to the teacher to see how they should react.  In elementary school, when Tristan comes to school with a new Mohawk, the rest of the kids look to the social leaders of the class to determine whether to laugh at him or not.  In middle school, social referencing is imperative for one’s basic survival.  The greatest social referencing, however, still happens at home.

While goofing off, my usually-very-clean-mouthed child let a “bad” word slip out, and her little brother cautiously awaited my reaction.  Would it be the end of their playtime?  Would I scream, swear, or punish his sister, or worse, both of them?  Even though he wasn’t looking at my face, he was keenly attuned to my reaction to determine the level of catastrophe.  Although my siblings and I were raised on a steady diet of gritty Lava soap  for cuss words, my response to this first offense: “Sweetie, I think you are talking about the acronym used for transporting manure at sea:  Ship High In Transit.”

Developing a humor strategy for responding to uncertain or ambiguous situations can be extremely valuable to our children when they are referencing us.  As we model humor in the best (and especially in the worst) circumstances, we are modeling a coping strategy that will serve them well across their lifespan.  It’s just remarkable that they start watching us when they are so young: 8 to 9 months old!

Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you. – Robert Fulghum

Baby Smile

Babies are such a nice way to start people.  ~Don Herrold

Beginning in infancy, humor plays an important role in social emotional development.  Do you remember eagerly awaiting your baby’s first smile?  So often the first ones are dismissed as “just gas”, which is odd to me because that is NOT how we detect gassy adults.  (“Oh, Professor Smith isn’t happy, she’s just passing gas.” )

Baby smiles are the first attempts at prosocial behavior.  In fact, it is held that we are born with the capacity to disply the basic emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.  Mothers report their 1-month-old babies also show joy, interest, surprise, and distress.  Studies even show that at birth, babies show the emotion of disgust.  I enjoy thinking about how they measure disgust, and the triggers they use.  If I were to conduct the study, I would describe to the babies the amount of dog hair that floats across my floor on any given day, and watch the babies wrinkle up their noses and stick out their tongues.

But does the expression of the emotion really mean the same as the experience of emotion?  A true emotion requires three components: a physiological component (change in respiration, heart rate, skin temperature, perspiration), a cognitive component (an awareness of the emotion), and a behavioral component (like a facial expression or  a verbal release).

Babies learn quickly that their emotional experiences, when displayed, are an excellent way to communicate.  Anger, when displayed through crying, will get them a soothing hug.  Smiling at Mommy, Daddy, or Grandma! will get them a cascade of wonderful rewards.  This is a highly adaptive strategy to express their needs nonverballly long before they are able to talk.

Now back to that gassy smile.  We do know the earliest smiles are reflexes much like sucking, swallowing, and blinking.  By 6 to 9 weeks, babies are smiling reliably.  Those smiles can be prompted by toys, mobiles, or other objects.  The Social Smile, however, is a highly discriminate smile triggered only when the baby encounters another person.

The social smile is directed at the caregivers, and is used by the baby to create a reciprocal interaction.  For example, baby sees mommy.  Baby wants mommy’s attention.  Mommy is texting.  Baby keeps looking expectantly at mommy.  Mommy is still texting.  Baby kicks his little legs (that always got mommy’s attention on the inside).  He waits.  He watches.  Mommy glances over at him, and BAM! Baby erupts in a big toothless grin.  His eyes light up, happy coos ride out on the little wave of his breath.  Of course, Mommy lights up in response.  Oh, the joy! The rapture!  Baby’s world has come alive because he got mommy to shine! She coos back, she tickles his toes, he smiles bigger!  His glee makes her laugh.  Her laugh makes him squeal. Reciprocity has been achieved.  Baby scores!

This is a prosocial behavior, because it is a behavior that benefits both the self and another.  Baby has brought a smile to his mommy, and her response has brought him joy.  As we grow, we will continue to find new ways to continue this particular type of prosocial behavior.  We will devise new ways to bring reciprocal happiness to ourselves and to others through smiles, through play, through humor.

The joy of having a baby today can only be expressed in two words: tax deduction. ~ unknown


I presented at a women’s conference in the Twin Cities this past weekend. My topic was Humor and Relationships.  I was so nervous about presenting I was tempted to feign sick.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Despite my discomfort, the conference was amazing.   I find the most amazing things in my life seem to happen just outside my comfort zone.

Here’s why I was nervous: the workshop was based on a proposal I submitted last fall, before I actually studied my topic during my sabbatical.  By the time I actually wrote the content of the workshop, the description of the workshop had already been published and posted on the websites.  This means I was locked in to topics as I had proposed them many months ago, before I knew anything about them.  As I began to prepare for it, I sat there looking at the proposal wondering aloud, “What in the world was I thinking?!”

But I did what I promised to do and presented a very broad summary of humor in relationships: humor in relationship with God, in relationships at work, in marriage, in parenting, with people who are sick, dying, or have died.  How’s that for a 60 minute workshop?  But here’s what was wonderful: it still worked!  I felt very blessed that God had tied it together in a way that was fun and funny and informative, which was my prayer.

After the first day of workshops, I went to listen to the keynote speaker, Liz Curtis Higgs.  If you don’t know of her, you might want to find her.  Read her books (she’s a New York Times bestseller many times over), read her blogs, listen to her podcasts.  http://www.lizcurtishiggs.com/  The woman is funny!  She has that whimsical, self-deprecating, spontaneous humor that flows out of her own thought processes and is triggered just by what she said the second before it.  She admitted in her second presentation that she can’t NOT be funny.  She can only go a few minutes at a time being serious before humor pops out again.

The next morning, I took time out to listen to the other keynote, Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year now.  If you haven’t read her book, it is a focus on gratitude.  She writes in a stream-of-consciousness, visceral style.  She lives in the moment and watches for the things that allow her to be grateful.  She catches her moments of gratitude.  http://www.aholyexperience.com/

After the second day of presenting, I was standing in the lobby when a lovely woman came up to me to affirm me on my workshops, and then she told me a story of the restrooms.  Because it was a women’s conference, most of the men’s restrooms on campus had been converted to women’s restrooms.  When my new friend came out of the restroom that afternoon, she saw one of the few male presenters standing just outside the restrooms, both with “WOMEN” signs on them, and she said he looked a little panicked.

She observed that she would not have noticed the humor in that situation prior to attending the workshop.  She said she  never really look for humor in her daily life.  In fact, she admitted her life had been pretty humorless lately.  Then she thoughtfully commented, “I guess what I learned from your workshop is that humor has to be ‘caught’.  It’s always around us, but we just need to look for it.”

This tied up a theme for me for the weekend. Liz Curtis Higgs finds humor in her own words, and laughs at it as it arises. Her humor is spontaneous and caught.  Ann Voskamp looks for, glimpses, she captures her points of gratitude.  In similar ways, we can look for, glimpse, and catch the humor that exists around us. It’s all around us already — in our pets, in our families, in our social encounters.  We don’t have to be funny.  We don’t have to create humor where it doesn’t exist.  We just have to relax and catch it when it breezes past us.

“Humor is a spontaneous, wonderful bit of an outburst that just comes. It’s unbridled, it’s unplanned, it’s full of surprises.” ~ Erma Bombeck


These were our breakfast bananas.  They love each other.  When we ate them, we made little screaming noises.

You Argue with your Spouse

Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.
– G. K. Chesterton

If you are married, do you argue with your spouse?  If you told me you don’t, I would suspect you of lying.  If you truly don’t argue, then you are a very odd couple.

Married couples argue. It’s almost inescapable.  Put two people together who were raised in different homes, with diverse values, unique communication styles, and varying moods, and they are bound to have at least occasional arguments.  Dr. John Gottman has studied married couples for decades and he insists conflict is healthy and necessary in marriage.

Stable couples have conflict.

In fact, marriage researchers are finding that, not only do all stable couples argue, but even the topics of their arguments are stable!  In “After the Honeymoon,” Daniel Wile writes, “Each potential relationship has its own set of inescapable recurring problems…. There is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years (pp. 12-13).”

This is interesting to me.  I just imagined, for some reason, that Scott and I were odd: the themes that kept popping up in our arguments were indicative of some failure on our part to resolve that particular problem or to move on from a specific issue.  I find some small measure of comfort knowing that we are, indeed, very common.  The themes of our arguments: respect, loyalty, parenting. That’s just us, though.  If I polled each of the married readers, I am certain the conflict themes would be as different as the choices in family vehicle. The themes are as unique as the individuals in the marriage.

What is also quite interesting to me is that spouses tend to consistently argue using the same words, experiencing the same emotions, and showing the same reactions when these perpetual issues arise.  Some individuals just seem to have a lot of negative emotions around their themed conflicts (“Argh! Here we go again!”), while others seem almost amused by the familiar problems (“oh well, here we go again, heh, heh.”).

The first set of individuals will be hurt, sad, angry, defensive, belligerent, or bitter during their arguments while the second set tend to be affectionate, demonstrate humor, experience laughter during the argument, and show more “listener backchannels,” which are cues we give that we are listening (head nods, mild verbal cues like “uh-huh”  and “yeah”, and facial expressions that show that we are tracking with the one who is speaking). Which one of these do you want your spouse married to?

The next time you argue with your spouse, expect the same topics to be brought up. Again.  Understand that this is the way married couples argue.  This is a human response to conflict with another human with whom you live in close contact.

The success of a marriage is not dependent on your ability to solve the problem, but instead, how you interact when you are perpetually discussing and NOT solving your problems.



Gottman, M. G. & Levenson, R. W. (1999). How stable is marital interaction over time? Family Process, 38(2), 159-65.

Gottman, M. & Silver, N. (2012). What makes love last? New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wile, D.B. (1988). After the honeymoon. New York: John Wiley & Sons.



Want to Have Some Fun?

So, it’s Black Friday, you’re all talked out, and now you’re staring at each other and wondering what to do for fun.  Here’s some ideas for getting a few chuckles at home or around town.

At Home:

  • Imagine the thoughts that go on in your dog’s (or cat’s) head and say them out loud
  • Use a cheesy game-show host voice when talking to each other
  • Play with toys
  • Teach yourself to juggle (use YouTube tutorials to get you started)
  • Write messages on the bathroom mirror with dry-erase markers
  • Draw your own cartoons
  • Try to make yourself laugh
  • Spray someone with silly string
  • Mold clay or Play-Doh
  • See how long you can speak in an accent
  • Make “Wanted” posters for each other featuring one’s best and craziest quirks


  • Wear fake glasses

    My sister and niece wearing painted glasses and silly expressions on a San Francisco ferry. Can you see a family resemblance?

  • Carry something entertaining in your purse or pocket that you can pull out and share
  • Eat lollipops or cotton candy in public
  • Wear a fake mustache
  • Smile at every child you see (yours might be the only one they get all day).
  • Wear press-on tattoos and parade them as if they are real ink
  • Text outrageous messages to someone who will text outrageous messages back to you.
  • Echo someone else’s laugh
  • Wear crazy hats or clothes that make you laugh

At the store:

  • Buy yourself flowers (“The earth laughs in flowers” – Emerson)
  • Sing along loudly with the canned music – make up your own lyrics
  • Come up with alternative uses for items in the produce section or cooking utensils aisle
  • Discretely slip items into the cart of the person with whom you are shopping (enema kits, birthday candles, and hair colors are my favorites)
  • Affirm other people on their grocery selections: “Kidney beans! Great choice!”  “Vanilla ice cream! It’s so versatile!” “Soup. Yummm.”
  • Dance to the store music in the frozen foods aisle

At the mall:

  • Ride backwards up the escalator
  • Enter the elevator last and face the crowd.  In a grave voice, say, “I’m sure you are wondering why I called you all here.”
  • In the fitting room, shout, “Hey, there’s no toilet paper in here!”
  • Walk through the mall with an open umbrella
  • Wear ridiculous makeup and ask the woman at the makeup counter if you could give her some helpful tips
  • Stand in the restroom and hand out paper towels
  • Order lunch at the food court using a fake accent or pretend speech impediment

 In the car:

  • Crank up the radio on a lame station and open the windows (for added effect: sling your hand over the steering wheel, wear your hat backwards, lower your sunglasses, and bob your head to the beat).
  • As a passenger, make extreme reactions to the car accelerating and stopping
  • Wear your sunglasses upside down or on the back of your head
  • Sing along loudly to songs with the windows down
  • Start a friendly conversation with the driver in the car next to you
  • Play “I Spy”
  • Smile at the other drivers during slowed traffic
  • Wave.  At everyone.


Jokes, Irony, and Self-disclosures

“Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover once a year is way too often.”Johnny Carson

Yesterday I wrote about the holidays, and the role we might play in hurtful humor.  Today, I will address a few easy ways to bring healthy humor to a holiday get-together — ways that don’t require inebriation or victimization. Tomorrow I will offer a list of other ways to have fun when you find you are getting bored with the same old conversations and trips to the stores.

I was just watching an old video of a small family Christmas with my parents when my brother first introduced us to his new girlfriend (thankfully, she is now my sister-in-law).  The conversation was stilted and awkward, and even now, I can feel the uncomfortable tension through the screen.  Blessedly, my dad told a joke, and we all loosened up a bit.

Holidays can bring awkwardness to even the closest of families, so how might we bring some healthy humor to the get-together?


Jokes are definitely good for social interaction (just keep them age-appropriate if kids are present).  Almost everyone knows at least one good joke (and probably a bunch of bad ones).

My favorite joke of today: “Lincoln is doing well in theaters.  Historically, this has not been the case”. My daughter came up with this one: “What did the dog say to the tree?  “’Bark.’” My husband’s favorite right now: “I was at the bank this morning when a little old lady at the ATM asked me to help her check her balance.  So I pushed her over.”

Irony and Sarcasm

Irony and sarcasm carry a bit more risk, but when done well, can be a great way of using humor.  My young teen daughter is a world-class belcher; ructus so loud to impress all within earshot!  When she lets one roll, I will breathlessly gasp, “Oh! I am so proud of you!”  I was in the other room when her dad burped after dinner the other night.  I asked my son, “Was that your sister?” and he answered, “No, it wasn’t manly enough to be hers.”

Laughed-Until-You-Cried Stories

One way to bring humor to a conversation is to ask someone, “When have you laughed until you cried?” and then allowing them to think for a moment. Sometimes the story is a “you had to be there” kind of event.  More likely, though, we will start sharing bits from funny stand-up routines, discussing movies we’ve seen, or talking about something we’ve seen in our daily lives that strike us as funny.


Self-disclosures are my favorite form of humor interaction.  At family events, my brother, sister and I like to sit around and talk about things that have happened over the past year, (and some old favorites that have become classics).   Perhaps my brother will share the story of sleepwalking while visiting his future in-laws and trying to climb into bed with them. My sister might talk about her friend who went to work one day at the courthouse but didn’t know she had a bra caught on the waistband of her suit so that the bra hung down her backside like a tail. I might talk about accidentally ending a phone call with my boss the way I end each phone call with my husband: “Okay. Love you. Bye.”  Self-disclosures are a great way to connect with others by sharing in our common humanness.

I encourage us all to think about the best, most comfortable ways to use humor during the family holidays. It’s a great way to break the ice and to build relationships. Just be sure to keep your humor safe, clean, and victim-free.

“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage” – Erma Bombeck



Don’t Tease Me! or Can’t You Take a Joke?

We cannot really love anybody with whom we never laugh.  — Agnes Repplier

We can’t avoid it any longer.  Thanksgiving is only three days away.  Many of us are going to be spending it with our family of origin, our extended family, and/or our in-laws, and few of us will escape unscathed.

Some of us are looking forward to the conversations around the table knowing they will be good-natured, fun, maybe even edifying.  Some of us are dreading the conversations because they are bound to be tense.  Maybe the family humor isn’t good-natured, shared in love, or meant to bring each other closer together. In fact, some of the humor that comes up during family holidays can be mean-spirited, critical, and used to drive each other further away.

There are two people directly involved in this kind of humor event: the one who is trying to use humor to communicate, and the one who is targeted and potentially hurt by it. Which one are you?

I have been on the trigger end of harmful humor in the past.  At a family Christmas party a few years ago, I used my brother-in-law as the butt of a joke.  Looking back, I know that what I was joking about wasn’t funny, and in fact, it was hurtful. When I realized what I had said and how it had affected him, I was mortified (I am still sick about it when I remember it).  Our relationship has never been the same, and I would give anything to correct that.  And what was my purpose for joking about him?  It was nothing more than my own need to be funny, but what a cost.

I have also been on the receiving end of humor that hurt.  My dad loved to tease me.  Usually his teasing was fun and harmless, but when it came to my weight, his teasing felt cruel.  He didn’t realize that I was hurt by it, but because it was such a source of insecurity for me, I couldn’t separate out his intent from my emotional response to it.

So who do we side with in this situation: the one who is just trying to make a joke or the one who is taking offense?  It depends on which one you are in this context.  What is your personal contribution, and how can you correct it?

If you are on the giving end, maybe it’s time for you to do some self-reflection.  Why do you tease, tell shocking jokes, or pick on other members of the family?  Is there a need that is being met, and is there another way to accomplish that?  Does the other person seem like a safe target, and you can use him to be funny – knowing he won’t reciprocate?  Is the person you target a favorite, and this is your way of letting her know that she is important to you?  If you want to be funny, is there another way of being funny without targeting anyone in the family?  The point is: what is your intent, and if you are at risk of hurting someone with your  humor, is there another way of accomplishing your goal?

If you are on the receiving end, you have to understand that you can’t change the one who is targeting you.  You can only change your personal response to him.  Does your reaction reward him somehow?  If you laugh because you are uncomfortable, she might think that you find it funny.  If you get flustered or angry, this might be the rise she is seeking.  Responding to the barbs with nothing more than a change of topic or a compliment to someone else might diffuse his humor attempt and let him know it’s not going to work this time.  Approach the table with an arsenal of alternative responses that have nothing to do with the insults you’ve come to anticipate.  Refusing to reward the behavior will extinguish it (although it might take a long time).

Family holidays can be pleasant.  The task is for you to look at what you are carrying to the table.

I hope this is a lovely holiday for you.  May you laugh hard and long with the ones you love, and may the only target be the turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.