I feel a bit embarrassed that I watch feel-good shows or movies. It feels like there is something wrong with watching someone else have safe, connected, social engagements with people close to them instead of having them myself.
Adult dramatic series like Grey’s Anatomy or Suits get a hold on us. We watch compulsively. We get to know the people and want to know what happens next. What is under this compulsion?
When I had PTSD after being assaulted, the psychologist told me to do whatever I felt would help me to feel safe, and to avoid anything that scared me. My brain would heal best in that environment.
Part of that recovery, for me, was watching programs and movies and reading books that made me feel connected. When bad things happened they turned out well. These happy endings always had a component of social trust, of being seen and held in the safety of community and intimate, authentic relationships. As I healed, I began to get bored with the simple versions of this and naturally be more interested in more complexity.
Last year I began watching a program called Heartland, a Canadian television series filmed very close to where I lived in ranch country in the foothills in Alberta. Family members and the ranch experienced many threats, and they always stood up for each other. They always noticed what was going on with each other. No one fell through the cracks. No one suffered on their own. There were many family dinners around the ranch kitchen table. I would enjoy my own dinner while watching. When I finished the series (9 seasons!), I felt like part of that family. They felt like real people to me and I noticed that I missed them.
I have observed for years that my consumption of feel-good books, movies and shows tracks up-and-down with the degree of connection or isolation, safety or threat present in my life. For those of us with trauma at the hands of other people, we may not feel safe enough to connect with people who potentially could judge or otherwise hurt us. As I have healed, I notice I am more resilient and interested in real-life relationships. I am more able to take risks socially. I am not devastated if an interaction or relationship doesn’t work out.
Do you hide your version of this – Netflix bingeing or reading romantic novels? My sense is that on some level we don’t quite feel safe enough to have those relationships first hand. Hold this with compassion and kindness and let go of judging yourself for this. Connecting on the screen with people who make us feel included in their family, in their safe connection with other people, is simply a strategy to feel connected.
Allow yourself to enjoy this when and as much as it feels necessary. By easing off on the shame, it will also help open space and confidence to include some personal interactions. I do find they are more fulfilling. They definitely take more energy and the reward is greater too. I allow myself to be included in a socially safe environment on screen and I balance that with real life interactions with lower-risk people.
Watching other people act on screen is not a substitute for real life, yet is a comfort with a relatively low cost. Like any compulsion or addiction, too much time and emotional investment in book or screen characters creates problems. I know for myself when it is an appropriate level or when I am compulsively using it for comfort, when I need to get up and away from the screen and get outdoors for a walk or connect with someone. It’s not all or nothing.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, is a storyteller who wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves. From her, I learned that fairytales can be very violent, but the character wins through to safety by her own strength, persistence, and other positive character values. She brings in support from other people, perhaps from animals and nature. She is not alone. She learns how to navigate danger and come through to safety with the help of others. These stories serve a function in our psyche.
There is always a reason for what we do. It is good to know what the reasons are. We can let go of shaming ourselves for seeking comfort and connection in whatever way we feel is open to us at the time we need it.