Healing with humour: Interview with Fiona McGary

Comedian Fiona McGary

She has a successful career as a professional stand-up comedian and is the creator of Brisbane’s Stand-Up Comedy Course, but Fiona McGary now has a passion to use her experience and understanding of humour to bring positive changes to people’s lives. Dr Rachel Hannam interviews Fiona McGary to find out more.

Rachel: How did you use humour growing up?

Fiona: I was a chubby kid and used humour as a defence. In highschool, I was in the cool group but still a fringe-dweller.  I was the fat, funny kid who hung out with the cool girls. Being funny was my “pass card”.  It helped me belong, but also kept people at a distance. My humour was subtly communicating the message: “Don’t get too close”.

I was sexually abused at age 10. I can look back now and see that I used humour as a way to stop people coming too close. I ended up in the role of being people’s ‘wind-up toy’. I still feel that a bit to this day. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it hard for people to see my sadness.

Rachel: In your view, what is humour?

Fiona: Humour is a sense we all have. It’s a universal human trait, yet I think we don’t use it well. We marginalize it, historically with “the court jester” and today with comedians – we see them as a bit “out there”. But humour can be a bridge between your head and heart. I think it is humankind’s greatest asset but our culture’s most under-utilized sense.

Rachel: Humour as a defense mechanism – healthy or not?

Fiona: It can be healthy, but humour can also be a brutal weapon.  If we use humour to belittle someone, make them feel ashamed, and then say, ‘I was only joking”, it’s hurt plus humiliation.  Unhealthy humour happens when people project their own rubbish and disowned feelings onto others. Humour is often used by passive aggressive bullies, and not just by kids.

To decide if humour is healthy or unhealthy, check your intention. Am I using humour as a way of avoiding vulnerability, or a way of dealing with it?

Am I just trying to make someone smile, or trying to put someone down? When humour is healthy, the intention is to lighten up and play. To get out of your head and drop into your heart.  Like meditation and exercise, humour takes you into your body. Good hormones are released!

Rachel:Has humour helped you heal?

Fiona: Early on, humour did not help me feel my pain, because I was using it incorrectly. Once I used it properly, yes. I realised you have to actually go in and feel your pain, and that humour can actually help you feel the unbearable, and make it bearable. I realised humour can take away the sting; knock you off the razor’s edge of pain. Nowadays, I can cry much more easily.

Rachel: Are you interested in the psychology of humour?

Fiona: Yes. As babies, we laugh before we talk, which I find very interesting. A while ago, I read “The Humour Code”. Interestingly, the part of our brain that lights up when we have a break-through is the same part that lights up when something amuses us. The brain says: “Hold on! This might not be exactly what I thought it was”.  I believe humour and ‘Aha!’ moments are both related to our capacity to learn, because we are making connections between things.

Rachel: Are you a sensitive person? Do you use humour to cope with pain?

Fiona: I am very sensitive. I am an empath, and a deeply spiritual person. I’ve been a seeker since my 20s. I was visiting a Buddhist monastery at 22 doing Vipassana meditation.  I started to learn to feel my experience, to let it move through my system. When you let it move through, it moves out! But this can be very hard.

So humour can be a good starting point for some people who need to learn how to feel. In my work, I say to people, “It’s not gonna be great, but you gotta feel this”. And I remind them, “You’ve had hangovers that were very painful! You have already survived other pain”.  Humour acts as a great buffer; it’s like a release valve. It’s like taking a deep breath.

Rachel: You speak about a ‘humour mindset’? What is that?

Fiona: Humour draws on our capacity to change our mindset. Like a ‘growth mindset’, we can work on a ‘humour mindset”: Our capacity to look at life from an amusing perspective. Looking at painful feelings and situations from a humorous angle can be very healing, even when you are on your own.

In this culture we have gone wrong, because we believe that laughter must be a by-product of humour. But it’s enough to be amused. Amusement presses the release valve too. Try to find the amusement in everything! This is a choice we have.

For example, instead of thinking “I’m stupid” or “I’m an idiot”, I can choose to laugh at myself. It’s a choice. Like everything, we need to learn the balance, so we don’t over-use or misuse it. We still need to reflect and take some things seriously. And we shouldn’t use humour too much to avoid pain or discomfort. But I think humour should accompany us on our way as we face our pain.

Rachel: You have a keen interest in mental health and humour. Why?

Fiona: I got very sick in 2014. I was in bed for 4 months, my business was failing, my relationship was failing, life was bad. I had depression. I was crying in the middle of the night and stuck in bed. I’d had depression years earlier when I remembered my sexual abuse. At that time, I drank and smoked too much to cope. When I had depression in 2014, I never went back to that terrible depression like before, because I sought help. That’s when I started to use humour properly.

By 2015, I had lost all my money, my relationship and my health. My dog died and then my dad died. I remember looking at the heavens and thinking, “Are you fucking kidding me?” But I also thought: “Thank God I’ve got my humour, because I’ve got nothing else!”. And like a bolt of lightning, it hit me: “What if I could share this?” I realised I had to share this.

I became fascinated with unpacking the science behind humour – how it works and how we can use its power in our lives. I had also noticed the increase in mental illness and I thought “what’s going on?”. I realised I wasn’t put on this earth just to do stand-up. That’s where “Grow with Humour – my corporate training program – was born. I wanted to help others build more resilience.

Rachel: What do you cover in your Grow With Humour Program?

Fiona: I talk about the unconscious mind, and how you start your day, how to use self-care. I help people create their own personal humour plan. I ask them: “What if you could give yourself permission to see more humour in everyday life?”. And it’s not just about laughter. Amusement and smiling are great too. When we smile, there’s an instant lightening in our body. It relieves tension and stress. It’s like stretching.

My focus in Grow with Humour is heart-based, not head-based. Humour is intrinsically connected to our well-being.  So I encourage people to start with themselves, to poke fun at themselves, but not in a harmful way. There is always a gap between how I am and how I would like to be. But that gap doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety; it can be a source of amusement. We can be really curious about what is in that gap.

Rachel: What does the future hold for you?

Fiona: I feel I am at the beginning of a totally new body of work. I want to guide people to experience more joy in life. I ran my first public workshop in October 2018, which was awesome.

I’ve really enjoyed doing Grow With Humour with school teachers and Grade 12 students. In the program, I make the distinction between judgements versus observations. Healthy humour draws on our capacity to step back from situations and observe them. The line can be blurry, but I know kids are super sensitive to judgement. I also like to work with teachers because they’re a highly stressed group of professionals, with high absenteeism.

We all know humour is a wonderful tool for dealing with stress. But I think the real key is to give yourself permission to be lighthearted; to laugh at yourself, but not in a harmful way. Humour as a mental health tool is about letting yourself be childlike and playful, which is something I want to help others to do better. 

To hear Fiona speaking about humour as our great untapped resource, check out this 2018 interview Fiona did with Kate Helder.

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