This week in my private practice several different clients bravely shared memories of childhood abuse as well as anecdotes about the recent ways in which they felt slighted or hurt. As they recounted their experiences, which to any observer would be described as painful, humiliating, and invalidating, it was striking to notice how their stories were accompanied by smiles and laughter.
It was even more powerful to realize that this total disconnect between narratives and emotions went completely unnoticed and unacknowledged by the clients. In fact, when I pointed it out and gently invited them to be curious about this disparity, they had no conscious awareness of smiling or laughing. They also said they felt clueless about why they had paired trauma material with emotions that are typically associated with happiness and lightheartedness.
The reality is this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Smiling or laughing while disclosing painful experiences can serve several different functions. It’s important to process the deeper intention and the unspoken communication that often lurks underneath when appropriate affect doesn’t match the content. Here are some possible reasons to explore in therapy:
Smiling when discussing trauma is a way to minimize the traumatic experience.
It communicates the notion that what happened “wasn’t so bad.” This is a common strategy that trauma survivors use in an attempt to maintain a connection to caretakers who were their perpetrators. If they can downplay the severity of what was done to them, they can stay in a relationship with people who are important to them despite the fact that they were betrayed or violated by them.
Laughter can be a defense that protects the trauma survivor from feeling the depth of their actual pain.
Many survivors believe that if they don't laugh about their experiences they will connect with intense feelings of rage, despair, disappointment, or sadness. The deeper fear is that that they will be flooded and overwhelmed if those emotions are identified and fully felt. Feeling deeply is often associated with a loss of control. Laughter keeps the pain at arm’s length.
Smiling or laughing when disclosing trauma can be an indicator of embarrassment or shame.
It takes so much courage to talk openly about experiences that are humiliating and invalidating. Some trauma survivors hold deeply entrenched feelings of self-blame and other distorted and inaccurate thoughts about the role they believe they played in their abuse. Laughter is a way to communicate that embarrassment and can also serve as a distraction to short-circuit further exploration of their trauma experiences.
Smiling or laughing when disclosing trauma can be information about the survivor’s family of origin experiences.
Often the inability to access or express specific emotions in adulthood is the inevitable byproduct of not having those emotions modeled and normalized in childhood. When painful experiences are trivialized within a family or there’s an unspoken rule that certain feelings are unacceptable to express, children lose the ability to gain mastery over the full and appropriate expression of those emotions. It’s also information about the strong possibility that it was physically or emotionally unsafe to express anger or sadness. Many clients assume that it will be equally unsafe in the therapist’s office.
It is important to acknowledge that many trauma survivors have a genuinely great sense of humor, which is both miraculous and at times, life saving. And it’s equally important to be able to communicate one’s pain with emotions that are in sync with the experience so that pain can be witnessed and comforted, and authentic processing and healing take place.
In my next blog post, we will examine four additional reasons there is a disconnect between words and feelings in the therapy room. To read Part 2, click here.