4 subtle signs you’re using humor as a defense mechanism (without realizing it)

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Are you the first one to crack a joke when things get a bit tense or uncomfortable? Or perhaps you’ve found yourself giggling at a situation that wouldn’t be funny to most people? 

If so, you might be using humor as a shield without even realizing it. 

Today, we find out for sure. We’re diving into four signs that this is the case. 

1) You’re always the one to lighten the mood with a humorous take

I know the ‘defense mechanism’ sounds a little negative, but using humor in this way isn’t always a bad thing. 

Let’s say a room gets quiet, and the topic at hand becomes tense or difficult. Are you the one looking for humor in it, readying to lighten the mood with a joke?

If so, it’s actually a good thing. 

By introducing humor, you’re essentially engaging in what psychologists call ‘positive reappraisal‘—a way of reframing a potentially stressful or negative situation into something less threatening or more positive. 

This isn’t just a clever party trick; it’s a powerful tool for emotional resilience. Research supports this, indicating that humorous reappraisal can reduce the impact of negative emotions stirred up by challenging situations. 

2) You regularly make self-deprecating jokes

When I was a teenager, I would work the months I had off for summer. I did many different jobs, but one summer, I had a job at a factory making plastic bits and pieces. It wasn’t a big place, so I got to know the people there quite well, especially those with whom I shared night shifts. 

It was there I met an older colleague. Let’s call him John. 

John would always be joking, often at his own expense. He’d say things like, “If there was an award for laziness, I’d probably send someone else to pick it up for me,” or during a particularly tricky task, he’d chuckle and remark, “Don’t worry if we need something messed up, I’m your man.”

At first, his jokes were a hit, lightening the mood and bringing smiles.

But as the summer wore on and his depreciation got more profound and personal, the laughter began to feel hollow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but I started to feel a twinge of discomfort, almost pity, whenever John would launch into his self-deprecating routine.

This brand of humor, while seemingly harmless on the surface, can actually be a damaging form of defense. It’s often a way of beating others to the punch, of diminishing oneself before anyone else has a chance. 

And the research on this is, quite frankly, shocking.

As pointed out by psychiatrist Grant Hilary Brenner, this kind of humor often stems from low self-esteem and is linked to a host of bad things, such as decreased resilience and well-being, increased feelings of loneliness, and a lack of emotional regulation.

So, if you find yourself often making light of your own flaws or failures in an attempt to disarm potential critics, it might be worth taking a closer look at what’s driving those jokes.

3) You use humor to avoid serious conversations

Imagine you and your partner are winding down after a hectic day. The dishes are done, the world outside is quiet, and it’s just the two of you sharing a comfortable silence

Then, out of the blue, your partner turns to you, a serious look in their eyes, and starts to broach a topic that’s clearly been weighing on them. Maybe it’s about where the relationship is heading, a concern about finances, or even just a need for a deeper emotional connection. 

Instead of meeting the moment with the gravity it deserves, you find yourself cracking a joke, lightening the mood instantly but effectively dodging the heart of the matter.

Sound familiar?

You might tell yourself that you’re just trying to keep things light to save both of you from the discomfort of a heavy conversation, but what might really be happening is a subtle form of avoidance. 

By using humor to sidestep serious discussions, you may not be just dodging the topic at hand; you could be shielding yourself from vulnerability.

When humor becomes your go-to response in moments that call for sincerity and openness, you’re building walls instead of bridges. You’re keeping your partner—and yourself—at arm’s length, preventing the kind of emotional intimacy that strengthens relationships.

The things left unsaid, the concerns unaddressed, they don’t just disappear. They simmer beneath the surface, creating distance and sometimes resentment. 

It’s only by facing these conversations head-on, without the armor of humor, that we can genuinely connect with others and grow. 

4) People often don’t know when you’re being serious

Have you ever shared something important or expressed a genuine concern, only to be met with laughter or disbelief? 

If so, you are almost certainly using humor as a defense mechanism. And it’s probably hurting you more than helping you. 

If humor permeates nearly every aspect of your communication, distinguishing between when you’re joking and when you’re serious can become a challenge for those around you. It’s like the boy who cried wolf, except instead of false alarms about wolves, it’s constant jests.

This ambiguity can lead to a host of misunderstandings and missed connections. 

For example, friends, family, and colleagues might overlook your genuine concerns, mistaking them for just another joke. 

It’s also difficult for relationships to evolve and grow when one party is never quite sure what the other truly feels or thinks. The essence of connection lies in mutual understanding and empathy, both of which are compromised when your words are lost in a perpetual haze of humor.

The bottom line 

Humor is often employed as a defensive mechanism, but it can be good or bad, depending on what form it takes. 

If you identified with the first sign on this list, good for you. You are probably a resilient person people like to be around. 

If, on the other hand, you see yourself in points two, three, or four, it might be time to step back and consider if your use of humor is really protecting you or harming you. 

As always, I hope you found some value in this post. 

Until next time. 

Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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