I was what can only be described as a spaz during an interview. (I somehow got a second chance.)
I broke up with my boyfriend and accidentally pooped my pants all in one week (I was 21).
I tried to demonstrate a high kick, only to go flying backwards.
I took a bite of wasabi thinking it was guacamole, only to black out for an unknown period of time.
An elephant, and a hyper-sensitive anxious female, never forgets, and this litany of embarrassing moments is one that I think about often. Not in shame, but as a treasure trove of anecdotes that I keep up my sleeve for parties or family dinners if we need to lighten the mood a little.
I haven’t always been this way; I used to internalize every little moment of shame and ruminate over the embarrassment. (I can still remember when I was a five-year-old kindergartener in private school and my plaid skirt blew up to reveal my pink underwear.) I thought that these moments would define people’s memories of me. During the hardest and darkest times of my life, I thought that these moments, no matter how trivial, defined me—displaying my weakness, lack of intelligence, and folly.
As I have matured, moved on, and witnessed life’s ebbs and flows, and learned that bad times and good times alike aren’t permanent, I’ve grown to appreciate these silly moments. Moments of weakness, “stupidity,” and folly aren’t actually bad things . . . they bring us back down to earth and can teach us important lessons. And, if we learn from them, move on, and don’t take them so seriously, they can even be a source of laughter and joy.
Learning how to laugh at myself has become one of the best ways for me to push through life's ebbs and flows, making it a little easier and making me a little more resilient. It has helped me take myself less seriously when it counts and allowed me to see that I am still learning.
Once, being the butt of the joke or being reminded of humiliation was like living a nightmare for me. It shattered the scrubbed or cultivated image that I tried to present to others. But as I have gained experience sharing my own laughable faux pas and blunders, I’ve found so many other people can relate, and the relief that comes with relating to someone else’s inherent humanness is freeing.
There may still be a negative connotation associated with being able to laugh at one’s self. Sometimes laughing at one’s self can be viewed as an insecurity, born out of a need to hide weakness or hurt. And while it can be used as an unhealthy defense or coping mechanism, self-directed laughter can also be a sign of positive self-esteem and acceptance. For me, being able to laugh at myself came after I learned to look at myself and my mistakes, trivial or not, with kindness and the benefit of the doubt. It’s not vindictive or self-flagellating.
The research backs it up
From personal experience, I feel freer, happier, and more joyful when I let the unpolished moments of life wash off my back and right into my coffer of funny anecdotes and life lessons. Moreover, studies have shown that humor is associated with the development of personal resilience, and learning to laugh at yourself can improve your health, self esteem, and ability to grant yourself and others grace.
In 2011, professors from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Zurich studied 70 psychology students to gauge their ability to laugh at themselves. This was allegedly the first ever study of its kind. Students were presented with silly, distorted images of themselves and others, and were observed to see how they reacted to their own image. The study found, according to TIME magazine, that “people’s ability to laugh at themselves had no bearing on how much they laughed or smiled in response to the distorted images of others—that suggests that the phenomenon is a distinct characteristic, one linked with your own mood and personality, rather than the tendency to simply find silly images funny. The finding also underscores the link between humor and humility.” Furthermore, the students who were able to laugh at themselves were more likely to be overall more cheerful and less serious.
Laughter has also been linked to lowering blood pressure; another 2011 study presented during an American Heart Association meeting revealed laughter’s effect was almost as beneficial as cutting salt from your diet or dropping 10 pounds. And when Japanese researchers built a bimonthly study group built around music and laughter, they found that participants lowered their systolic blood pressure by approximately five to six points in three months.
Finally, a study published by Europe's Journal of Psychology, called “Humor and Resiliency: Towards a Process Model of Coping and Growth,” found that “there is an important role for humor in a resiliency approach to stress and trauma. Case studies, moderator research, and cognitive appraisal work on humor all converge on the notion that increased humor can often help an individual cope more successfully with traumatic situations.” They also found “considerable evidence that increased humor can contribute to the enhancement of positive life experiences, and lead to greater positive affect and psychological well-being.”
The majority of my now-funny anecdotes stand out because they happened during times of extreme trauma, stress, or heartache, but ultimately they helped me get through and color my world in a positive way today. They remind me that if I can get through unbearable embarrassment then and laugh about it now, then the tough things that happen now—like tripping on the subway steps, spilling coffee down the front of my crisp white shirt, or having the worst-placed Freudian slip imaginable—aren’t the end of the world. I can laugh and let things go, rather then walking around in shame or embarrassment.
Learning to laugh at ourselves not only helps us to become more resilient and forgiving of ourselves. In the process, it helps us to become more compassionate to others. As Susan Sparks, author of Laugh Your Way to Grace, puts it, "If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others."