Movies can help us work through shame. Shame is a deep thing. When we internalize rejection, abuse, or neglect, we end up with toxic, shame based beliefs. Shame can bind us in deep seeded negative beliefs about our worth, sexuality, money, career, value in relationships, and just about anything else we deal with in life. Shame is at the root of most addictions, clinical depressions and anxiety disorders.
Toxic shame leads us to have a “shame based identity”. This identity doesn't say that what we did was bad, it says that we "are bad." It can be so painful that we develop defenses or a “false self” to cope with it. All addicts are shame based—using their addiction to medicate self-hatred and hide from being vulnerable to others. Many passive people have shame-based identities. They hide from the world, secretly thinking of themselves as “losers.” The people who crashed the economy in 2008 were shame based—knowingly sacrificing the health of the economy from a greedy, shame based identity that abuses money to make up for feeling small or less than.
So what’s all this have to do with movies? Movie Therapy is simply the act or using movies to alleviate shame, normalize our pain, know we are not alone, break through defenses, cry, laugh, help process, and create psychological distance between who I am and the pain I’m experiencing.
Laughter can create this distance and enhance our sense of well being. Laughter decreases stress and has even been proven to enhance the immune system. When we don’t take life too seriously we can lighten up enough to have the clarity we need for right decision making. Shame walks hand in hand with over personalizing and heavy self-judgment. Laughter can release us from these heavy “shame binds.” Recommendations: Office Space, Yes Man, Swingers, Annie Hall, The Birdcage, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, What About Bob, Analyze This, Trick.
Many people, especially men, carry shame around crying. They see crying as weak, or being out of control. Crying is often the healthiest thing we can do to process and release pain. I’ve had many people tell me the only place they cry is at the movies. Researchers have found two important neurotransmitters in tears that release emotional stress (leucine-enkephaline, and prolactin—which is released form the pituitary). Who doesn’t feel better after a good cry? Recommendations: The Color Purple, Bridges of Madison County, Rudy, Terms of Endearment, Finding Neverland.
Normalizing pain is central to working through shame. Feeling alone in our pain compounds it on every level. Almost all movies we relate to help us normalize our struggles. In the wonderful movie, Ordinary People, the title says it all. The film tells the story of a pretty on the outside, suburban family, struggling tragically with their pain behind closed doors. The film helped people from all walks of life see their family dramas as more “Ordinary”, easing the associated shame that kept them in hiding.
Hopelessness and helplessness are two key factors in clinical depression. Overcoming obstacles and gaining hope is a theme of many movies. In identifying with characters that are hopeless, and watching them overcome their struggles, a viewer can gain optimism for their ability to work through life challenges. Recommendations: Castaway, Apollo 13, Chocolat, Rocky, Invincible, Miracle, The Shawshank Redemption, Billy Elliot, Philomena, Harold and Maude, Wild.
To be fair, many films do more harm than good and should likely be avoided for mental health reasons. The Exorcist had audience members throwing up, feeling paranoid, and experiencing nightmares as a result of watching the satanic flick. Movie are also not a mental health panacea. They don't cure us. They are often wildly over valued for their capacity for change and for their importance in an entertainment addicted society. Still, they can be a useful psychological tool when related to in a conscious way.
In their best sense, movies are the myths of today. They are our version of the mythological stories told around tribal fires. They help us relate to each other, and give us something to reference in our communication. “It was like in that movie...” Some films describe the struggles we all face on “The Hero’s Journey”, as depicted by Joseph Campbell. (see the You Are A Hero, and, You Are in Star Wars blogs).
In depth psychology films are a tool to open up communication between a person’s unconscious and conscious minds. This happens when a viewer watches a movie character struggling with the disowned, repressed “shadow material” of the viewer. For instance, a depressed single parent who denies the rage they feel about the demands of raising a child on their own might address the anger more directly after viewing The Goodbye Girl, Paper Moon, or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
What movies have helped you break out of isolation, open up communication, feel less alone, and given you hope? In this Bridesmaids scene Annie learns that self-pity is the road to hell, that courage is the way out, and that she has a friend. Enjoy: