Our willingness to laugh at ourselves tells a story about us.
In the first place, it suggests that we may be aware of our flaws. Most of us would like to assume that it also suggests an acceptance of those flaws. Indeed it may, but it could likewise suggest an element of self-loathing.
The difference is in our intent. If we consider the motivations of an individual who jokes about themselves, we will know whether to laugh alongside them. Likewise, if we consider our own motivations, we might come to better understand our needs; if we do, we may meet those needs in positive, constructive ways.
The most important question is this: what are we seeking to gain by laughing at ourselves?
Some individuals, faced with judgment or bullying, may partake in their own criticism. To them, the cost of demeaning themselves is less than the reward of social acceptance.
If we seek to defend ourselves from criticism, we may readily agree with our detractors, so as to conceal our vulnerabilities by appearing not to care.
Even when bullying is not a factor, some individuals may still make themselves into clowns if it increases their social value; they may feel that their only value is comedic.
Others may laugh at themselves in the hope that others will contradict them; this kind of vain effort is likely to backfire.
In all these cases, an individual may or may not even believe what they’re saying about themselves, since they are only aiming for a specific response. Indeed, their true flaws may be other than those they criticize about themselves.
Regardless, our behaviour may be similar whether we accept or resent ourselves. There is a characteristic difference, however: in the former case, we exhibit a sense of ease. In the latter, a sense of urgency.
When we laugh at ourselves out of resentment, we have an agenda: we are seeking a specific response. This kind of laughter therefore carries an intensity that the other does not, because it exists to gratify an unmet need.
Perhaps these sorts of jokes come too often, especially if we take the mean-spirited words of others as an opportunity for it. It may appear contrived or frantic. Perhaps the person making the joke seems less jocund than they ought to be; there may be some hint of anger, sadness, or fear. The subject matter of the joke may be personal or unconstructive.
Enabling is always easier, but if there is anything we can do for these individuals, it is to show them the acceptance they seek without the need for them to debase themselves.
This sense of urgency runs contrary to the authentic, light-hearted humor that results from genuine self-acceptance.
When we are aware of our inherent flaws, weaknesses, and especially our habits, we present them to those we trust with a sense of levity; we hold the expectation that they will laugh along, thereby acknowledging our flaws alongside us, accepting us for who we are all the same.
To accept these sorts of flaws in ourselves (and even to have loved ones accept them with us) does not mean that we resign ourselves to them. We continue to fight against them, but we acknowledge the perpetuity of the fight with the same sort of ease that lends itself to laughter.
But our expressions of acceptance are not limited to ourselves. If we are prudent, we can even laugh at others so as to acknowledge their flaws without their prompt.
There is greater risk here. If we aren’t certain of a dynamic of trust with the other person, and if they aren’t secure enough in their flaws to acknowledge them along with us, our attempted exchange of acceptance can quickly turn into an exchange of hostility.
Nevertheless, there is also the potential for us to relieve others of the burden of initiative. If they are shy and vulnerable, they may not be inclined to reveal much of themselves to us in the first place.
But with this strategy, we can convince them that not only do we see their flaws, but we also accept them despite those flaws. This may prompt them to lower their defenses, out of a realization that we are trustworthy.
This is a two-way street. To tease others without first building trust is much closer to bullying. We need to be rigorous with ourselves; if our insecurities make us inclined to belittle others, we must not fall into the trap of believing that our unkind words are somehow virtuous.
The best way to truly take initiative is for us to make ourselves vulnerable first. Our first jokes should be directed at ourselves, not others. This way, it becomes a simple matter of reciprocity for others to open themselves to us.
Laughter & Identity
It follows, then, that we need to take responsibility for developing ourselves before we can really help others. If we can laugh at ourselves, we can accept ourselves and become trustworthy.
By laughing at our flaws, we put them in context. When we acknowledge those flaws, we accept their inevitability as part of being human, yet we still take responsibility for them.
Such laughter is also a proclamation of our identity. When we put our vulnerabilities on display, we assert that our identity is secure enough that others cannot threaten it.
When we have a sense of humor about ourselves, we cultivate a more open environment that encourages others to do the same. Through this means, a sense of intimacy may begin to flower.
We grow, and our relationships grow along with us. When we can laugh at ourselves, we lay claim to our faults, replacing apology and insecurity with irony.