Interview With
Donald Streit, LCSW

Humor in Therapy: Now We Hear the Shadow

MARCH 2019

Collage with smiling woman wearing a flower crown surrounded by colorful flowers and ferns.

Teresa Oster MSW, MS, CJSSF board member

CJSSF: I watched some youtube videos of you doing some fun stand-up comedy. You spoke of childhood terrors from having an alcoholic father. When I think of abusive alcoholic parents I often think of the novel and movie, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, which is a grim, harrowing tale. What makes you able to turn to a humorous translation of pain and sorrow? At what age did you start to love humor? At what age were you funny yourself?

STREIT: I would ask grade-school teachers to let me read in front of the class from the funny stories/joke sections of Boys’ Life. When a neighborhood friend made my serious, by-the-rules mother laugh, I witnessed the transforming power of humor. Then I learned girls liked my humor, and I couldn’t resist enhancing what I seemed to do naturally. Sometimes I experience myself as funny, but I’m cautious to call myself funny. I truly think humor is a gift I’ve been given for survival and connection.


CJSSF: You suggested I see the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance, in which a struggling champion golfer finds a spiritual guide (Will Smith) who challenges him with puzzles and ironies and by refusing to take the champion seriously. The golfer (Matt Damon) is nearly suicidal and suffering from what was called shell shock during WWI. Every holiday season my family watches It’s a Wonderful Life in which Jimmy Stewart is about to commit suicide but is saved by a bumbling second-class angel named Clarence who is trying to earn his wings. The theme song of the Korean War comedy Mash was Suicide is Painless (It brings on many changes).  How can humor be so powerfully healing even of our darkest moments? What is the connection between humor and spirituality?

STREIT: A hallmark of spirituality is finding meaning and purpose in suffering. Humor can help. Angel Clarence may play the role of the Fool who serves the hero on his journey.


CJSSF: You have cited spiritual humorist Annie Lamott (Traveling Mercies) and writer Norman Cousins (Anatomy of an Illness) as inspirations. Lamott has a piece in which she turns her certainty that the plane she is on is about to crash (due to extreme turbulence) into laughs. Cousins was terminally ill and left his hospital bed for a hotel room where he laughed himself well by watching funny movies for weeks. The one-time journalist then became a lecturer on attitude and health. How can we turn to humor despite fears and impending death? 

STREIT: Somehow I can find humor or laugh unexpectedly during dark times. Fortunately, humor usually finds me. Humor is a bonding agent. When people know others are connected to them in the suffering of the human condition, then their fears can be lessened. Humor can reframe negative situations. A woman in a hospice commented that the hair care there should be named “curl up and dye.” Humor can create an altered state, even if only temporary, like sexual release.


CJSSF: There are different types of humor: self-deprecating, black humor, defensive and deflecting humor and more. There are chuckles and there are belly laughs. Being married to a firefighter for years I can tell you that the extreme black humor you see on firefighter TV shows like Rescue Me is not much of an exaggeration. And many of our thriller movies today are darkly comic. And most dramas need some comic relief. But what kind of humor is psychologically healing? 

STREIT: Humor can help a person face life’s unfairness and incongruities. Humor reminds us we are collectively vulnerable and imperfect creatures. Jokes and humorous stories, especially self-deprecating ones and gallows humor, remind us we share this condition. The Shadow knows the truth about us. It will force us to acknowledge truths, especially when our persona tries to present differently. The Shadow can alert us to possibilities that at first seem impossible. The Shadow thinks outside the box; it often contains creative ideas and pursuits that the ego frowned upon for one reason or another.


CJSSF: In an NPR interview you spoke of the documented physiological effects of humor. You said when we laugh that natural killer cells, which destroy tumors and viruses, increase along with gamma interferon, which is a disease-fighting protein and T-cells, (important for our immune system) and B-cells, which make disease-fighting antibiotics. Can you elaborate? You got my attention, and I watched a comedy on TV last weekend instead of my usual dark psychological thriller.  

STREIT: Laughter releases dopamine which brightens mood. That ‘brain lift’ can override feelings of distress or depressed mood. Norman Cousins’ experience is a prime example of humor causing physiological healing. According to the Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor, a definition of humor is: “Any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.”


CJSSF: My first husband was a front-page humor columnist for the Miami News. He was fond of saying, “Life is a plot to embarrass us.” He said he would never commit suicide because “there is always one more beer and one more tuna fish sandwich.” He sometimes called me from the newsroom to tell me about a catastrophe that had just happened and then made a joke of it. Sometimes he crossed the line. There can be a destructive side to humor. What is the trick of making humor a salve instead of an assault? Does it have to do with timing and time passing? 

STREIT: There is a delicate line between humor being either destructive or helpful. I will be reviewing when it is ill-advised to use humor as a treatment strategy. A client may get the impression the therapist doesn’t take her/his distress seriously. Appreciation of what is humorous varies according to experience, family background, personal sense of humor. A client might find humor in a crisis at a later time. The client may need to cry instead of laugh in the moment. Humor might give the client an impression that his/her crisis is not taken seriously. Still, humor has a life of its own. It can defuse an argument. Playfulness and silliness can lighten the body and the soul. Playfulness is a salve for taking oneself and life too seriously. Seriousness can block creativity, and creativity can give a perspective that can help us survive a crisis.

Portrait of Don Streit, LCSW

Don Streit, LCSW, has a B.A. in Philosophy, a Master’s degree in Social Work, and ministerial training. He conducts workshops nationally, including two at the Jung Center in Houston in 2017. He focuses on Spirituality and Social Work. Mr. Streit has been teaching core graduate school courses since 1992. Topics have included Ego Psychology, CBT and Personality Disorders, Group Therapy, Family Therapy, and Spirituality and Social Work. He maintains a private practice in Arkansas, specializing in Jungian therapy and dream work, the resolution of nightmares, and pain management with individuals and groups.


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c/o Richard Chappell
P.O. Box 669
Hallandale FL 33008

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As a Not-For-Profit organization we exist because of the generosity of our friends, volunteers and donors. None of the work that we do would be possible without you.