Feb 27

Movies As Therapy/The Psychology of Movies

Skip Dine Young, a professor and clinical psychologist, states in Psychology at the Movies, “All movies are psychologically alive, exploding with human drama. This drama can be seen from many different angles—in the movies themselves, in the people who make them, and in the people who watch them” (Psychology Today). He sees movies as therapy of sorts, “equipment for living.”

And, as Steve Martin once said, “You know what your problem is, it’s that you haven’t seen enough movies — all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”

Films are so good at bringing out various emotions, they can be used as adjuncts in therapy. One professional who actually specializes in movies as therapy is Dr. Birgit Wolz, who wrote E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation (2004).

She conceptualizes three types of cinema therapy:

  1. Evocative: when a client raises the topic of having seen a certain film, Wolz can look at what the characters or scenes evoke in him or her
  2. Prescriptive: based on a client’s presenting problems, a certain movie may be prescribed as a learning tool
  3. Cathartic: when a certain film enables a client with blocked emotions to laugh or cry or both

Her website offers lots of good stuff, including special articles and links, movie reviews, and a list of films organized by the types of issues they represent. Likewise, you can click on the Zur Institute website for a comprehensive film list offered jointly by Wolz and psychologist Dr. Ofer Zur.

Therapist Enzo Sinisi at TherapyRoute.com also offers a long list of mental health-related films.

The book Positive Psychology at the Movies (updated 2013) by Ryan M. Niemiec and Danny Wedding is a resource for those who want to learn more about the field of positive psychology‘s view of character strengths and virtues (see previous post “A Good Life“) via film.

Another related phenomenon to the psychology of movies is the “sadfilm paradox”—when we value but don’t exactly “enjoy” certain films. Examples given by writer Sharon Jayson that fit this category are Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List

Others I can readily name include The Fault in Our Stars, Boyhood, Selma, Life Is Beautiful, and Terms of Endearment. And of course there are many more.

A study led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State, monitored the feelings of people who watched one particular “sadfilm,” Atonement, a story about the long-lasting effects of a teenager’s wrongheaded and serious accusation against a young man. Why did viewers, including myself, so like this movie? According to the study, sadness “instigates life reflection.” Life reflection leads to greater appreciation of your own relationships. Greater appreciation of your close relationships leads to increased happiness.

Mary Beth Oliver, Penn State, conducted a different but related study about the sad-film paradox. She “argues that a key part of meaningful entertainment is that it elicits a sense of elevation, or the warm sentiment we feel when we witness acts of moral beauty or characters who embody moral virtues. People flock to sad stories not for the sadness, Oliver says, but to experience these feel-good moments that sadness brings out” (Sam McNerney, Big Think).

“Elevation” involves not only happiness but also such feelings as being “moved” and having a desire to help others.

So, to recap. Sad films—a path to happiness. Films in general–self-awareness, various emotions, and learning about life.

Feb 13

“Making Marriage Simple” and Other Hendrix/Hunt

In Making Marriage Simple: 10 Truths for Changing the Relationship You Have into the One You Want, couples counselors Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, presented a “blueprint” of sorts for couples in committed relationships.

An Amazon reader/reviewer reveals the 10 truths the authors say are the keys.

  1. Romantic Love is a Trick
  2. Incompatibility is Grounds for Marriage
  3. Conflict is Growth Trying to Happen
  4. Being Present for Each Other Heals the Past
  5. It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
  6. Negativity Is Invisible Abuse
  7. Negativity Is a Wish in Disguise
  8. Your Brain Has a Mind of Its Own
  9. Your Marriage is a Laughing Matter
  10. Your Marriage is Your Best Life Insurance Plan

Publishers Weekly: “The overall message—built on an enthusiastic notion of marriage as the core institution of society and following a structure of specific communication exercises—is one that divorce-happy America may not be ready to hear: ‘the best way to heal a relationship is not to repair the two people, but the Space between them.'”

Making Marriage Simple is just one of the Hendrix manuals. Others include Getting the Love You Want, Keeping the Love You Find, and Receiving Love. Following are selected quotes from their books.

The idea that your partner is really a composite of your parents can be a bit upsetting at first. Though we love our parents, most of us got over (consciously) wanting to marry them when we turned five or six. Then, when we hit our teenage years, all we wanted was our freedom. But the fact is, we’re unconsciously drawn to that special someone with the best and worst character traits of all of our caregivers combined. We call this our “Imago”—the template of positive and negative qualities of your primary caregivers.

About 90 percent of the frustrations your partner has with you are really about their issues from childhood. That means only 10 percent or so is about each of you right now. 

Ironically…fusers (who experienced neglectful caretaking) and isolators (who experienced intrusive parenting) tend to grow up and marry each other, thus beginning an infuriating game of push and pull that leaves neither partner satisfied.

There is a concept informally called woundology, where couples spend too much time dwelling on the past, which should be avoided. Nonetheless, spending some time sharing your childhood experiences is vital because it gives you a better understanding of your partner’s inner reality and helps you shift from judgment to curiosity and empathy.

Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.

In a healthy relationship, two people gradually transition from moving within a single orbit to moving in two separate, but overlapping, orbits. They are able to have their own friends, their own interests, their own schedules, and—most important—their own opinions, feelings, and thoughts, while still enjoying and preferring each other’s company.

People believe that separation opens their eyes to their self-defeating behaviors and gives them an opportunity to resolve those problems with a new partner. But unless they under- stand the unconscious desires that motivated their dysfunctional behavior in the first relationship and learn how to satisfy those desires with the new partner, the second relationship is destined to run aground on the same submerged rocks.

Jan 24

Procrastination: End It–You Won’t Regret It Later

Some thoughts from experts and other thinkers on the quest to end procrastination follow.

Psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl, on his procrastination-themed blog Don’t Delay, notes the response writer Caitlin Moran once gave when asked how she accomplishes so much. Her answer: “Caffeine, alcohol, and fear.” Pychyl: “Although we might all recognize and find amusement in Caitlin’s response…it’s not a recipe for health or well-being if it’s the only route to success. The long-term costs, or the potential costs (because predicting the future is not an exact science), are too high.”

How, then, does one actually end the problem of procrastination?

One of the top-rated books on this topic is actually Pychyl’s The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle (2010). How can we change our tendency to put things off until an indefinite later? Use Pychyl’s test, taken from one of his posts:

The next time you put off a task until tomorrow, telling yourself tomorrow (later) is better, then simply note the next day whether you now believe that tomorrow is better.  Chances are, it’s not. If anything you may feel more guilt and pressure related to the task at hand and yet not have any more motivation to do the task.

So, if the time to act is now, how do we find the motivation? One of my favorite quotes pertinent to this topic is David Campbell‘s “Discipline is remembering what you want.” When you remember what you truly want, the doing will follow.

Oliver Burkeman points out (“This Column Will Change Your Life“) that most ending-procrastination advisors put less emphasis on the doing part and more on creating the mood for accomplishing things. “Even in the depths of serious depression, as the author Julie Fast notes, being ‘unable to get out of bed’ in the morning really means, to get technical about it, being unable to feel like getting out of bed…” 

But what if you’re unable to feel like doing whatever it is you think you want to do? And what if that’s your pattern in general? And you’re so terrible at feeling like doing things, actually, that you believe you’re beyond help? Burkeman quotes Shoma Morita, the late Japanese therapist, who basically advises: stop the excuses and self-name-calling already.

‘Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.’

When you get a chance– and/or feel like it– let me know how this works out.

Nov 15

Joan Baez: “I Am a Noise”–Anxiety, Trauma/Dissociation

As Kenneth Womack, Salon, has stated, the new documentary Joan Baez: I Am a Noise is “…one of the most intimate and revealing documentaries of its kind. In one sense, it chronicles Baez’s preparations for her final tour; yet at the same time, the film underscores the singer-songwriter’s lifelong search for the truth about the overarching depression that has marked her life.”

But depression is just one aspect of her mental health issues. Her anxiety and panic attacks began in childhood, leading to therapy in her teens. These conditions, moreover, continued to plague her throughout her career.

And that’s not all. Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “(T)his intimate and painful documentary… brings us to the brink of a terribly traumatic revelation that it can’t quite bear to spell out.” We get just enough, though, to understand that she has disturbing childhood memories–“though she says she cannot recall definitively whether her father sexually abused her” (Deadline).

What Baez can be clearer about, though, are her experiences of dissociation. Matthew Carey, Deadline: “For the first time, Baez speaks in detail about experiencing multiple personalities, among them someone she describes as ‘Diamond Joan.’ The condition, known clinically as dissociative identity disorder, typically results from long-term trauma in childhood featuring abuse or neglect.”

The following are revealing quotes from recent interviews conducted with Joan Baez.

I. Scott Simon, NPR

“And my sister Mimi just called one day and said, you know, I think something terrible happened in our childhood. Do you want to look into it the way I will in therapy? And eventually I said yes. And we both discovered some very deep trauma from childhood. And we were – our bodies and brains were reacting to that our whole lives without our knowing it because it was all unconscious, subconscious.”

“And I believe with all my heart that he and my mom have no memory of it at all. The mind is an extraordinary thing to have blocking something out if you really don’t want to deal with it. I mean, I had blocked it out for 50 years. And then the journey was really quite something.”

II. Walter Scott, Parade

Regarding her dissociation, or DID: “[Mine] was many splits and each one had a reason for being there—each little entity that’s born is there for a reason—when I was trying to grow up. By recognizing these little entities and then nurturing them, that nurtured a part of me that needed that. I loved all the little people in there and they’ve held me together and taught me a lot.”

Regarding her son, musician Gabriel Harris, age 53: “That’s where this terrible sadness comes in that I wasn’t there for him. I didn’t realize the extent of it until I saw the film and I hear him talking. I salute him for being honest and loving and caring but saying what his truth was about growing up with a mom who basically wasn’t there. A lot of times I was there, but I wasn’t there.”

III. Bobbi Dempsey, AARP  

“First of all, I don’t think the ending in the film really, really shows the amount of peace that I came to. I’m not sure why. But all of that came through deep therapy. I put off deep therapy for half a lifetime. And clearly figured out why: It was too scary to deal with. But no, I don’t have those demons now. Occasionally there’s a little pop-up, but basically, no. Therapy is hard work and it’s a lot of emotional excavation.”

“If somebody [asked] what am I proudest of, I would say getting through that tunnel. It was pretty dark when I entered it, and I entered it on faith. And then by the end I was really back in the light — or in the light, in a way, for the first time.”

Sep 13

“Tiny Beautiful Things”: The Couples Therapy (Spoilers)

Tiny Beautiful Things on Hulu is a fictional adaptation of advice columnist Cheryl Strayed‘s 2012 book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. (For additional background, see this previous post about the film Wild based on Strayed’s solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail.)

As the series Tiny Beautiful Things begins, Clare (Kathryn Hahn) has not yet fulfilled her writing ambitions; also, she has not yet become “Dear Sugar.” She carries tremendous grief about her mom who died from advanced cancer, can’t connect with her teenage daughter, and is separated from her husband Danny (Quentin Plair) but pursuing couples therapy with him.

In Episode One we see that Clare “doesn’t trust their therapist, Mel, who wonders aloud whether Clare’s instability is due to latent anxieties about her decaying beauty as she approaches 50” (TV Line). While this statement seems out of left field and representative of a biased attitude toward Clare that gets repeated down the line, the style of this therapist (Tijuana Ricks) with Danny seems different, possibly even flirtatious. The latter has actually been acknowledged by both Hahn and Plair (Decider).

Beyond this, however, there’s a lot we don’t get to understand about the couples therapy dynamics.

For example, although it’s briefly mentioned early on that Danny has met with Mel separately, we don’t know in what context or how many times. Did Clare choose not to attend a session or more? Was Danny in individual therapy with Mel before it became couples therapy? Or maybe he still has separate sessions? Whatever the case, perhaps there were appropriate reasons for separate sessions, just as there may have been inappropriate ones.

A Google search reveals that many viewers are confused about what is happening between Danny and the couples therapist. Many wonder if Mel is a bad therapist, period. Question categories include:

  • Why is Danny seen (by Clare) chatting with Mel in her office after their session has ended? (A major stressor for Clare, by the way, who only witnessed this inadvertently.)
  • Does Mel pick on Clare unnecessarily? Is Danny Mel’s “favorite”?
  • Why did Mel single Danny out by sending him that column (that led to his realization that he needs to end his marriage)?
  • Is it appropriate that Mel then gave him a special after-hours individual session? He clearly requested it, but is this the right course of action?
  • Is Danny “Johnny,” the married sender of the letter to Sugar about falling in love with someone—and is that someone Mel?

It’s left for viewers to draw their own conclusions. As a viewer myself who’s also been a couples therapist, I do have a few thoughts.

  • The dynamics in the couples sessions do seem out of whack and biased towards Danny. (But you didn’t need me to tell you that.)
  • The dynamics outside of couples sessions do seem inappropriate. If couples therapy is going to proceed fairly, each party should be informed if separate talks are occurring with the therapist.
  • Mel did show a clear bias or favoritism by sending the column to Danny only. Why not share it with both of them, if at all?
  • It follows that the “emergency” session with Danny didn’t have to happen if he hadn’t received this special treatment from Mel. Moreover, I think it’s implied that Clare is not aware of this happening.
  • If Danny has fallen for Mel, she likely has contributed to this. And if something more intimate is happening between them, it’s highly inappropriate and unethical on Mel’s part as a therapist.