I have a tendency to take myself a bit too seriously at times, especially when I get stressed, irritated, or scared. I've noticed that sometimes these feelings not only make me less effective in dealing with a difficult situation, they actually cause the difficulty itself, or at the very least exacerbate it. I also find that in these moments of taking myself too seriously, it's easy for me to become self-important and to think that the weight of the world is on my shoulders (which is often a bit of an overreaction and almost never helpful). As my friend Theo and I like to say in jest to each other from time to time, "Do you have any idea how important I think I am?"
When we take ourselves less seriously, we're able to see the humor in situations, find the silver lining when things don't go the way we want them to, and navigate through the ups and downs of life a bit easier.
When I was up in Seattle for a speaking engagement a few years ago, I saw just how important finding humor is. I'd flown in the night before the event and was scheduled to speak early the next morning. When I got off the plane I was hungry, so I decided to grab a piece of pizza as I waited for my bag. A few months prior to this, I'd taken a bite out of a frozen strawberry and cracked my left front tooth, which had originally been damaged when I was playing baseball in high school. Due to the initial injury, coupled with the trauma of the frozen strawberry episode, I ended up having to get my front tooth removed, and I was in the process of having an implant (i.e., false tooth) constructed for my mouth. This process actually takes a number of months, and in the interim I was given a non-removable temporary tooth so that I wasn't walking around with a big hole in the front of my mouth.
As you can imagine, this posed some challenges, both in terms of eating and in terms of self-confidence. I've long struggled with issues of insecurity related to my appearance, so all in all this tooth problem was pretty traumatic for me.
Anyway, there I was in the airport in Seattle eating my pizza and, although I'd learned how to maneuver my food around the temporary front tooth (since I couldn't really use it to bite with), I took a normal bite without thinking about it. The next thing I knew, I looked down and the tooth had fallen out of my mouth and into my left hand. Although it was a nice catch, I immediately panicked and thought, Oh my God, it's 7 p.m. and I have to speak at 9 a.m. I'm in Seattle and I now have a missing front tooth. What the heck am I going to do?
With the tooth in my pocket and my mouth shut tight, I got my bag and made my way to my hotel as fast as I could. I was pretty freaked out. Thankfully my dentist, Shaya, happens to be a friend of mine; we went to junior high school together and she's really cool. I was able to call her that night and tell her what happened. She told me not to worry and to put the tooth in some water to soak. After that, I needed to find a drugstore and call her back from there. Luckily there was one just around the corner from my hotel. I called Shaya back as I walked into the store with my heart racing. She directed me to find the aisle where there was denture adhesive and told me which one to pick out. I followed the instructions on the box and did what Shaya told me to do the following morning--basically stick the false tooth back into my mouth using the denture adhesive. While it wasn't something I'd ever done before (and never thought I'd do in my life), it seemed to work and looked okay, although it felt really weird and made me talk with a little lisp.
I took a few deep breaths, said a prayer, and made my way down to the hotel ballroom. As you can probably imagine, I was quite nervous as I stood up in front of hundreds of people to deliver my keynote speech that morning. Being nervous before and even during a speech wasn't new for me; however, being specifically worried that my tooth might fall out of my mouth or that I might spit it on someone in the front row was definitely a new and odd experience.
As I was speaking, I could hardly pay attention because I was so preoccupied with my tooth, how I sounded, and my fear of what might happen. So after about 20 minutes, I had the audience pair up with each other to discuss something related to what I was talking about--I often do this because it allows people to relate their own experiences to some key theme of my speech; it also gives me a moment to catch my breath. On that particular morning, I really needed a moment for myself. As I was watching everyone talk, I thought, This situation is so ridiculous that it's funny. I hope my tooth doesn't fall out, but if it does, these people certainly won't forget me or my speech anytime soon. Plus it would make a great story. I laughed to myself, gathered the group's attention, and went on.
While I decided not to let the audience know what was going on inside my mouth (and my head), I was able to embrace the ridiculousness of the situation and not take it so seriously. Thankfully, my tooth stayed in my mouth and the speech went well. I was able to make it back home and then back to my dentist's office the next day without too much humiliation. A few months later, I got my permanent implant, and, thankfully, I don't have to worry about my tooth coming out anymore.
There are clearly times in life and certain circumstances that are genuinely serious. However, far too often we add unnecessary stress, pressure, and negativity to situations with our attitude of "seriousness." One of the best things we can do is laugh--at ourselves, at the situation, or in general.
I got a call from Michelle a few years ago and she was laughing pretty loudly on the phone. She had a funny story about the girls she wanted to share with me, as she often does. This one was pretty good and quite poignant.
Samantha was four and a half at the time and Rosie was two. It was late summer and Michelle was just trying to run some errands and she had to take the girls along--not a big deal on the surface. But keep in mind that this involved a two-year-old. As anyone who has ever dealt with a two-year-old knows, even the simplest thing can become a major production, and that's just what was happening with Rosie. She was going through a phase where she did not want to get into her car seat.
Michelle got the girls dressed, out the door, and to the car that morning; however, when they got into the car, Rosie threw a big-time fit--screaming, yelling, flailing her arms and legs, and throwing her body on the floor of the car--all to avoid her car seat. These types of fits can be challenging to say the least, and when they happen out in public, there's an added level of embarrassment and helplessness that can kick in, which was happening for Michelle that morning. Even though Michelle had quite a bit of experience with this, she said she was incredibly ineffective that morning in dealing with Rosie, and she found herself getting more and more frustrated.
At that particular time, with Samantha being four and a half, we were starting to teach her certain things that were appropriate to her age. One of the things that Michelle had been talking to Samantha about just the day before was what to do in case of an emergency and how to get help if she or someone around her needed it. So Samantha was sitting there quietly in her booster seat. She had buckled herself in like a "big girl" and was waiting patiently as Mommy and Rosie struggled through this conflict. Samantha, sensing Michelle's frustration and escalating panic, decided she wanted to intervene and help out. She calmly turned and said, "Mommy, I can go inside and call 911 if you want." As soon as Michelle heard this, she burst out laughing. She said she could hardly control herself and thought she actually might pee her pants. In the midst of her laughter, she stopped paying attention to Rosie for a moment. Once she gathered herself and calmed down a bit, she turned around to find that Rosie had crawled into her car seat and was ready to be buckled in.
As Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls said, "You have to laugh at yourself, because you'd cry your eyes out if you didn't."
Laughter is actually important on many levels. Clearly, it helps shift our perspective and alter our mood, but research shows that it also has quite a positive impact on our physiology--relaxing our muscles, boosting our immune systems, releasing endorphins and decreasing stress hormones, and increasing blood flow to the heart.
I'm not advocating that we laugh ourselves into denial or avoid dealing with the serious aspects of our lives--as we all know, sometimes laughter can be used as a way of deflecting, or in other unhealthy and harmful ways. However, being able to bring lightness, levity, and laughter into our lives and relationships in an authentic and healthy way is one of the best things we can do to take care of ourselves and keep things in perspective. Teeth will fall out, kids will throw fits, and all kinds of frustrating things (both big and small) will occur in your life--find the humor in the situation and your outlook will change.
This is an excerpt taken from Nothing Changes Until You Do, by Mike Robbins, with permission. Published by Hay House (May 2014) and available online or in bookstores.