Hiding Depression with Humor

The holiday season brings a variety of strong emotions and late fall signifies the start of that season.  However, for people suffering with varying levels of depression, this societal expectation to be happy and jovial this time of year can feel overwhelming.  Humor is a way that many people cope with depression, particularly around the holidays.  To some, this may seem like a healthy coping skill, but the truth is that using humor to manage depression in public can become exhausting.  Here are some points to look for if you might use humor to cope with depression. 

It’s fairly common for individuals who experience depression to feel isolated, even when they are in a group of people.  Using humor to mask depression can help you feel like a part of the group again.   It can also help you keep a full time job, keep your grades up, and have an active social or family life.  However, it comes with experiencing internal pain and a high amount of energy to “fake it” on a regular basis.   Helping you to cope with reality and maintaining your self-image is why most people start to “fake it.”  This experience has become termed “smiling depression” and encourages people to continue living an alternate persona.  After time, it becomes difficult to be honest about the way you are feeling.  Typically, people with smiling depression are afraid they will be mocked, judged, not believed, or treated differently if they are honest about their mental health.  Unfortunately, this is what encourages the negative cycle to continue.   

Humor is often used as a defense mechanism because it can distract from the painful or stressful parts of a situation.  It will also take the focus away from whatever pain you may currently be experiencing, even if other people are not aware of it.  Humor allows you to distract any unwanted attention from yourself, particularly when others start to question how you are doing.  Humor can be a really good way to change the topic.  A useful question to ask yourself is, “Am I using humor to protect my emotions?” And if the answer is yes, a good follow-up question may be, what are you working to protect yourself from? 

So maybe you aren’t a person that considers yourself to be funny or have “smiling depression,” but what about when you make jokes at your own expense?  Using self-deprecation, disguised as humor, is another way to mask depression.   When self-deprecation goes too far, it can actually become a form of self-loathing, a covert way to put yourself down.  Unfortunately, people may even start to believe what you are saying.  This can increase your depression and lead to varying levels of self-sabotage. 

Individuals who use humor to fake it or degrade themselves can start to feel exhausted.  This concentrated level of energy is spent covering up your emotions and will bring you no return. If your humor doesn’t feel like it’s being used to bring people together or make yourself feel good, it could be hurting you.   Being honest with yourself and others close to you is a safe place to start letting go of using humor for the wrong reasons.  Even if you can start by being honest with one person, whether that is a person in your private life that you trust or a mental health professional, you’ve made significant progress.  Denying a level of depression by using humor maintains its power through secrecy.   Being forthright about your mental health with one person may be scary in the moment, but it will also save you time, energy, and happiness in the long run.

Authored by:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD