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Why do we use dark humour as a coping mechanism?

Most of us are no strangers to dark humour. We've most likely cracked a really dark joke at some point that is self-deprecating or makes other people feel uncomfortable. However, dark humour is being used increasingly as a coping tool for difficult situations. These can be anything from relationship breakdowns to mental illnesses. But why do we do this? And does dark humour actually help or hinder us?

What is dark humour?

Dark humour has many names, including black humour, black comedy and morbid humour. It refers to a style of comedy that makes light of, or a joke out of, a topic that is typically considered taboo or 'off limits'. These topics are usually quite serious, disturbing or painful to discuss. Jokes or comments made containing dark humour are known to make 'outsiders' feel uncomfortable, and unsure of whether or not they can laugh. Some people also find dark humour offensive.

Writers and filmmakers have been using dark comedy for decades, typically focusing on themes like death, crime, poverty, war, violence, suicide, racism, misogyny, sexuality and other forms of discrimination.

However, dark humour now seems to have taken on a new life with the growth of the internet and social media, and the way it is used by young people. It's even used by brands as a form of marketing and a way of connecting with an audience. It's also common for people to now use dark humour in a self-deprecating way and to comment on their own lives, whereas in the past, it may have been more so targeted at others and certain minority groups.

One famous example of dark comedy came from Oscar Wilde while he was destitute and living in a cheap boarding house, when on his deathbed in 1900. There are variations on what his exact words were, but his last words were supposedly: "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."

Why do we use dark humour as a coping mechanism?

Claire Brummell is an expert in human behaviour and she says, when we are in a position of 'coping,' it's because one or more of our needs are being compromised in some way.

"It could be a period of intense grief, or overwhelming stress; we might have been through a trauma - the list goes on. So the things that we use to try to cope are behaviours that we believe, consciously or subconsciously, will either stop those needs from being impacted, or will meet them in some way," she explains.

In the case of dark humour, there are a few needs that people tend to be subconsciously trying to meet when using it as a coping mechanism. Brummell explains what these are.

Emotional experience and expression

"The first need we are trying to meet with dark humour is our need to experience and express the full spectrum of emotion. At times when we are engaging in dark humour, it's often because we are having an overwhelming experience of the more 'negative' or challenging emotions, such as grief, sadness and anxiety. When it feels like this is all we are experiencing, dark humour can be a way of trying to welcome in other emotions, like amusement or some sort of cheer, so we are no longer only battling with the more challenging emotions."

She says dark humour is a way to not feel like you are drowning in difficult emotions, because there is something else being felt too.

Personal power

This need relates to our personal feeling of empowerment and our ability to create more of what we want in our lives. Brummell says that when we feel the desire to engage in dark humour, we are in a situation in which we might be feeling out of control or powerless.

"This can occur when we have lost someone we love, perhaps we are going through a break-up, or dealing with a serious medical diagnosis. Whatever it is, the situation is one where we don't feel in control. The use of dark humour can, if nothing else, offer a chance to choose how we respond to what is going on. It can make us feel a little more in control than we otherwise would have."

Love

The third and final need that we can be trying to meet with dark humour, interestingly, is our need for love. This is the human need to connect with ourselves and others.

Often at times of great stress or trauma, we can feel very isolated and as though no one fully understands what we are going through. While some people know exactly what to say to comfort someone during difficult times, it isn't always easy. When someone doesn't know how to deal with what a loved one is going through, it can cause them to pull back out of their own discomfort. In this instance, the person struggling might use dark humour to connect.

"Using dark humour to connect without others doesn't deny the darkness that is present in our situation. However, it can be an attempt to connect at a more superficial level in a situation where we feel the opportunity or desire is not present to connect at a deeper level. In short, to stop us from feeling so alone." shares Brummell.

The negative impact of dark humour

Brummell explains that, while dark humour can provide us with some relief and connect us to others during challenging times, those things can come at a cost. While we are using dark humour to meet certain needs, it can have a negative impact on our needs too, which we don't necessarily realise.

"We are usually just focused on trying to minimise the impact of the tough situation on ourselves, so anything that offers us any kind of respite can seem like a good idea. But, not everyone is comfortable with dark humour.

"The reality is that sometimes dark humour can create a distance between ourselves and others, despite our attempts to connect. When we engage in dark humour, depending on how someone responds, it can make things awkward or drive away those we want support from the most."

When dark humour offends or upsets others, it can cause them great emotional stress. Perhaps this comes from a place of love, as they want to support you through difficult times but don't know how. Or, it could feel like a personal attack, especially if dark humour comments on something someone else struggles with or a part of their identity. We unintentionally might cause upset to others when using dark humour, because we are so caught up in our own problems. However, even if we are comfortable with the uncomfortable jokes, that doesn't mean everyone else will be.

"It can also keep us stuck in the 'dark' patch of what we are going through, as that becomes the focus of every aspect of our behaviour, which can be overwhelming. Dark humour can essentially become your personality," Brummell says.

As well as that, constantly using dark humour as a coping mechanism means it can become a mask for how we are feeling deep down. When we are putting on a facade in this way, portraying to people that we are 'fine' because we can crack jokes, we aren't actually addressing our problems. Suppressing our true feelings can only cause them to arise much more aggressively later on, perhaps when we suddenly find ourselves alone or dark humour is no longer an option. This can make them much more difficult to deal with if we've been putting it off.

Is dark humour good or bad?

Brummell admits that dark humour is neither inherently good nor bad - it depends how it is used.

"Dark humour is a tool that can be used to great effect while navigating some of the difficult times in our lives. However, it can also compromise our healing further. As with most coping mechanisms in life, it's how you use it that makes the difference. For example, we might go out drinking following a relationship break-up, which there is nothing wrong with.

"However, becoming reliant on alcohol for escapism and comfort is when a problem arises. Likewise, dark humour can be funny and uplift our spirits, but overdoing it to a point where we push people away and refuse to accept what we're going through, that can cause issues."

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