What does 'I'm only joking' really mean?

I often hear the phrase "I'm only joking" in the therapy room. We have all heard it in our day to day lives, and I'm sure we have all used it at some point to get out of an 'uncomfortable situation'.

"I'm only joking" is a common phrase used in everyday life, especially these days with the use of emojis and phrases such as 'LOL' or 'JK'; people can usually back up their 'joke' before landing themselves in a confrontational situation. So, it's no surprise this phrase is also heard in the therapy room.

So when is a 'joke' really a 'joke', and how does the qualified counsellor know?

'Only joking' and rapport in the therapy room

What do I do when I hear this phrase in the therapy room? I just want to give clients some insight into what, why, and how I, the counsellor, may react.

Ok, so usually when you hear the word 'counselling' or 'therapy', for many we take on a serious tone. But not all therapy sessions are all gloom and doom. You will find many therapists work hard to make therapy uplifting and enjoyable for clients. At times, therapists will also share humour with clients and have a laugh or two together.
There is however a flipside. At the same time, if a client is parting with hard-earned cash and investing their time and energy in counselling sessions, the fact is any reputable therapist is not going to let this opportunity pass by.

Most will see it as an ethical duty to delve further.

Now, obviously an experienced therapist is not going to launch into questioning mode. But they are not going to pretend they didn't hear this either. So, by picking the right time and opportunity, they would most likely gently ask with a lowered tone "errr... were you really?". I know it's quite a direct question - but it's also a great opportunity to explore further what's really going on.

I believe all questions in therapy can be asked - it's just about how and when you ask them once you have built up a rapport with clients. In short term therapy, rapport-building literally has to be done in the first sessions. To be honest, I still couldn't tell you the exact recipe for rapport building, but I guess just being genuine and caring is a good start!

A competent therapist will usually get a feeling that this might make the client uncomfortable, and will always try hard to ask the question with kindness, care, and the utmost respect for the client's situation and needs.

What can "I am only joking", used in the therapy room, reveal?

So, these are some of the things, as a qualified therapist, that may be floating around in my mind when I hear this phrase.

  • Well, they could be only joking! Are they? Aren't they? Let's find out.
  • Is anything making them feel uncomfortable?
  • What's making them feel uncomfortable?
  • Are they trying to explain how they 'really' feel?
  • Do they feel they shouldn't feel this way?
  • Are they worried they shouldn't be saying this?
  • Why are they worried they shouldn't be saying this?
  • Do they use this phrase out of the therapy room?
  • How is life for them using this phrase?
  • Do they live their life denying their feelings?
  • What must it feel like to not be able to say what you really want to say?
  • What do they really mean?
  • Am I thinking too deeply?

So, for me to delve deeper and ask "errr... were you really?", there's always the possibility that the client could shut down, or deny or pretend that they didn't hear me (just normal coping strategies). There's always the possibility they could act initially with anger or annoyance (I see this as more of a 'learning' opportunity). It's situations like this when rapport building with clients is crucial.

Some basic facts your therapist should let you know about their approach in your sessions are;

  • I'm not here to judge, I'm here to help
  • I'm trying to get to know you better
  • I'm working with you not against you
  • I want to understand what life is like for you
  • I want to help you grow
  • I am here to share my learnt knowledge with you
  • I am here to support you

So, I guess the phrase "I am only joking" is a kind of a gift in therapy. It gives the therapist the chance to explore further with the client what is really going on for them!

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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