Here’s Why We All Need to Laugh at Ourselves More—and How to Do It

Social media and the Internet are good reminders to not always be so serious.
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Social media and the Internet are good reminders to not always be so serious.

Instagram made headlines last week thanks to Australian model Essena O’Neill shuttering her account because of the stress and inauthenticity it created in her life. This week, Instagram lost another stream of photos featuring the too-good-to-be-true musings of a pretty girl. Only this time, the girl wasn’t an actual person but rather Socality Barbie, the namesake of a parody account with more than a million followers started by a millennial photographer, Darby Cisneros. The creator said she wanted Socality Barbie to make a statement about authenticity (or rather inauthenticity) on the hugely popular social media platform.

Socality Barbie, via Cisneros, posted photos since June of all the things we love (and love to hate) on Instagram: sipping artsy coffee, frolicking in nature, using minimalist walls as the backdrop to anything—Cisneros was trying to make a point that the prolific use of hashtags such as #liveauthentic on Instagram actually promotes contrived photos rather than genuine, candid ones.

While some have taken offense to Socality Barbie’s implicit critique of Instagram culture, others such as Pinterest influencer and lifestyle brand curator Kate Arends Peters of Wit & Delight have acknowledged Socality Barbie’s mockery and are laughing right along with her. She even used her site to post a curation of her own Instagram posts juxtaposed with the staged Barbie Instagram posts—laughing at their likeness and saying to the world: This is my life, #sorrynotsorry!

I’ve had my share of candid moments that I got lucky enough to capture on my iPhone and wanted to share on social media. I’ve also told my husband exactly where to stand in a frame so that I could snap a pic of his perfectly nonchalant silhouette against the setting sun. I think we all have to acknowledge a bit of give-and-take when it comes to our online presence.

It isn’t wrong to seek out beauty or compose a lovely photo. But it can be good to question whether we’re all becoming tech-crazed, disingenuous attention-seekers losing our traditional interpersonal skills. But Socality Barbie and Arends Peters have also reminded me of one small but valid truth that we all may be quick to forget: Sometimes, we need to be able to laugh at ourselves.

“If you can’t laugh at yourself, you shouldn’t be on the Internet,” Arends Peters wrote in her previously mentioned post. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Arends Peters didn’t get on her ivory tower and defend her artsy Instas in the wake of Socality Barbie. Instead, she rolled with it. When I spoke with her about her reaction, she said, “I’d like to think that I have a pretty decent sense of humor and can laugh at myself. I really don’t think that you can put yourself on the Internet and live publicly without one.”

Maybe we’d all feel less crushed by criticism (and less feisty when others post or say something we deem inauthentic) if we could learn to take criticism, especially those on a casual site such as Instagram, more lightly. But, as is often the case with matters of pride and self-awareness, learning to laugh at yourself has always been categorized as a much-desired but hard-to-attain trait.

So, how do you take things in stride and develop a sense of humor? It turns out that it’s a habit you can build, but first you must dismantle the habit you’ve already formed.

It’s All How We’re Wired

Life’s full of hassles and hardships. Some people bounce back from a ruined occasion, a bad job interview, or a public critique of their social media tactics, but others consider it the end of the world. The difference between these people is how they think about each setback when it happens. “We have thousands and thousands of researched studies that tell us that the way people think about the events that they encounter in their lives determines in a large way how they respond to those events,” says Dr. Russell Grieger, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Dr. Grieger says people learn different ways of thinking that can fall into three categories: facts, values, and demands. Facts are obvious—the sweater is blue; it’s cold outside. Values connote emotion. Do you like blue sweaters? Then maybe you’ll feel pleasure when you see someone wearing one. Or if you hate cold weather, you’ll probably feel displeasure when you walk outside in Minnesota in January.

Then there are demands. Actually, Dr. Grieger calls them “perfectionistic demands.” These demands usually come with words such as should, must, have to, or need to. You don’t just like the person’s blue sweater—you must have it. You don’t just hate cold weather—it should never be cold. The third way of thinking is problematic, Dr. Grieger says. “These kinds of words communicate perfectionism or life and death or both,” he says. “It’s me demanding perfection . . . kind of like, ‘I run the universe, and the universe has to run the way I want.’”

Put that way, it’s obvious that we’re thinking irrationally. But we’re taught these habits by teachers, parents, friends, and pop culture, which makes them feel normal. Besides having unrealistic demands for ourselves, we often demand it of others and of circumstances, too. For absurd reasons, we expect ease without struggle, success without failure, and relationships without conflict.

“When we go from [values to demands], what we’re doing is taking ourselves too seriously,” Dr. Grieger says. “The essence of taking myself, other people, or situations too seriously is to start out by expecting and demanding perfection.”

Breaking Bad Habits

Usually, we experience some sort of event that activates a belief we hold—for example, that you must succeed at everything you try. If you don’t get the promotion you applied for, you’ll likely respond out of that belief and feel distraught. Maybe you feel depressed and consider quitting your job.

Or worse: Dr. Grieger says the root of addiction is often a perfectionistic demand. “Everyone wants to do well,” he says. “That’s just normal for human beings. But if you escalate to ‘because I have to’ . . . you’re going to make yourself very anxious because you’ve escalated into a life-and-death thing.” You can dial back your thoughts by determining where your desires turn into demands.

Those who take themselves too seriously often suffer from anxiety and depression and are weighed down by guilt, Dr. Grieger says. If you’re more inclined to demand perfection in others or in circumstances, you could have those results plus a lot of anger. “The antidote is really to get reasonable,” he says. “Everybody and everything is fallible. Hope for the best; work for the best—but nobody’s going to die, and the world still is good.”

Dr. Grieger teaches people strategies to think critically about their own thoughts to get them to see what’s causing distress. He says that if people become aware of their feelings and know that some of the hottest feelings stem from thinking in demands, they can trace it back to an irrational belief they hold and ask: Is this true or valid?

“Is it really true or valid that I must succeed?” he questions. “Or is it true or valid that I’d like to?” It can take asking the question hundreds of time, but the goal is to weaken the irrational beliefs we hold about our own and others’ infallibility. Once the belief is weakened, it can be replaced with new ways of thinking. This most often means replacing demands with values—or trading must for want.

Putting It Into Practice

Especially on social media, where we’re surrounded with perfection and crafted images, taking things lightly becomes important. We can’t control what other people post or how they react to our thoughts and pictures. We need a good sense of humor and the emotional awareness to recognize when we’re unreasonably demanding that everything play by our rules.

Dr. Grieger’s strategies are about achieving better mental health. Setbacks provide some of the best opportunities to learn, improve, and grow. So learn to laugh it off! He says one way to lighten up is to laugh at your own faults. It’s one of the reasons Socality Barbie’s feed was so fun. Good stuff happens when we stop demanding perfection and let life humor us.

Arends Peters proves that, staged or not, her Instagrams make herself and other people happy, and that’s important in life. If you can recognize that some people might find your work “ripe for mockery,” but you still enjoy it, then you should keep pursuing it without apologizing—and maybe it’ll turn out even better when you’re not placing the pressure of the world on its shoulders.

“The images I’ve published represent me and my perspective,” Arends Peters said. “In order to remain true to myself, I’m not going to go out of my way to change my point of view or style because it’s unpopular or people find it ripe for mockery. I want to continue to evolve and grow but only when it feels right to me. All that said, I do get a chuckle when composing some of the images.” As she should.

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography