Professor Fangirl: What TV Can Teach Psychology

When I teach graduate courses to therapists in training, I start every class by going around the room and asking each student the most fundamental relationship-building question I can fathom.

“What’s your favorite TV show?”

I get a flurry of arching eyebrows. They were expecting the “What did you do on your summer vacation?” question. Or the agonizing “two truths and a lie” charade we’re all forced to play at one point of another. But no professor has ever planted a seedling of a relationship with this query.


Yep, that’s me. Professor Fangirl. I may be a PhD student and a mental health writer, but my students will never know that when I get home at night, I surf Tumblr and fawn over my favorite fictional characters. They don’t know that I’ve written fan fiction, or that I run an advice website that helps fans work through their own obsessions. I can even make gifs. So cool, right?

This chunk of me stays tucked away in the nearest phone booth most of the time. But time and time again I discover that fiction, particularly television, is a beautiful starting point for big-picture thinking. For thinking about our therapy clients’ lives as well as our own stories.

Life is a lot like television when you think about it. Sometimes days can seem as uneventful as a midseason hiatus. Or times get tricky as new characters emerge, people we loathe as much as the nastiest villain on American Horror Story. But the beautiful thing about reality is that unlike TV, we can start a new season of life whenever we feel like it.

“Psychologists spend a lot of energy debating about what motivates people. But I know this much is true: story motivates people. And all too often we fail to remember in our own lives that the bad weeks are part of a larger story.”

As viewers we typically don’t appreciate characters that appear on the scene in total control of their lives and emotions. We root for people who fall short. Professionals who make bad decisions. Underdogs that hear no more often than yes. So what would it look like if we started cheering for ourselves the same way?

Seeing my own life as a narrative has been the handiest tool I have found. Whenever I receive a bit fat rejection by a magazine or a newspaper, I keep telling myself that it’s just plot development. Lost a job? Plot development. A nasty break up? Plot development. Crapped on by a pigeon? Probably bad luck. These events don’t seem so crippling if you can teach yourself to zoom out and see the larger story arc.

A hand shoots up in my Family Therapy course. “Story arc?”

I pause, debating whether to hand my hidden fangirl the mic. “Has anybody ever heard of sweeps week?” A few students nod their heads. Sweeps week is when all the television networks set rates for their ads based on the number of viewers. They encourage writers to pull the bat shit craziest stunts and toss plot lines out the window. Plane crashes. Stunt casting. Pregnancy scares. Anything goes.

“Sometimes a sweeps week happens in life. And it can feel like Shonda Rhimes wrote the script.” The class laughs at my mention of the notorious creator of shows like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. They get it. They’ve all had an Olivia Pope-level disaster day at some point in their lives.

Psychologists spend a lot of energy debating about what motivates people. But I know this much is true: story motivates people. And all too often we fail to remember in our own lives that the bad weeks are part of a larger story. A story where you are your author, your protagonist, and your audience.

You will have horrible sweeps weeks. Some days will be filler episodes, and some choices will make for horrible plot. Those are the times where you pick up the script and think about where your character will head. And honestly, what’s more exciting than a new season? So make your life into something worth watching. TC mark

featured image – Amazon / Doctor Who

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