As we enter into a new year, the pandemic continues to challenge many of our previous ideas regarding certainty. To cope, many of us are turning to light hearted sources of escapism, which can be a genuine source of comfort during these unusual times. Indeed, several therapeutic modalities - including dialectical behavioral therapy - count moderate distraction as an effective way to tolerate distress. One of my favourite go-to’s for a dose of certainty, a genre that’s reassuringly consistent well into the new year, are made-for-TV holiday movies.
In case you’re not familiar with the format, here are the ingredients for this comforting staple:
i) the protagonists meet each other, usually when they least expect it. Oh and by the way, they’re totally not right for each other (big wink).
ii) Adorkable, eccentric best friend pushes the protagonist to take a romantic risk.
iii) After some hesitation, the protagonist takes said risk, then proceeds to clumsily fall/have an allergic reaction/burn some holiday cookies/charmingly make a fool of themself
iv) Protagonist enters a short period of self-criticism and self-sabotage before eventually dusting himself/herself off and trying their hand at love again.
iv) light conflict ensues between the two leads until they eventually end up bonding over a winter beverage while wearing aspirational yet attainable winter wear.
v) after realizing their affection for each other (to the surprise of no one) they ride off into the sunset, with the backdrop of twinkly lights framing their happy ending.
There you have it! The suspense - if any - is minimal, and most viewers can rest assured that any predictions made in the first 5 minutes will come true (it’s not exactly Dickens here). Although the storylines are simplistic, in these uncertain times, it makes sense that this comforting movie genre extends beyond Christmas and well into the New Year.
Last week, as the new variant started to make headway in my neck of the woods, I perused my Netflix queue looking for some predictability. I came across a delightful-looking film called “Love Hard” that, on the surface, seemed to tick all the right boxes. Within the first 10 minutes I was confident that I had successfully predicted the outcome, and joyfully enjoyed the familiar hijinks of a formulaic holiday classic. Thankfully, I was wrong. *Spoilers ahead!*
‘Love Hard’ stars a young woman - Natalie - who is searching for love via online dating. After several ill-fated matches, she eventually connects with her seemingly perfect match: Josh. Everything about their pairing seems ideal - until they meet face-to-face. It turns out that the man on the other side of her chats was using a fake photo to present himself in a more “positive” light. Together, the two leads face the ups and downs of confronting each other’s flaws and qualities, all while getting to know the real person beyond their profile. Overall, it’s a fun, low-stakes story about two people getting to know each other authentically while rapidly dismantling their social masks with comedic flair.
So what can we learn about the therapeutic process from this lighthearted, made for-TV, holiday comedy? Although the therapeutic relationship is necessarily different from a personal relationship, two themes stood out as relevant to consider when approaching the counselling process:
1. It takes time to find the right fit
The therapeutic relationship is a strictly professional dynamic, but it’s one that involves one-sided disclosure of very personal and vulnerable information. Research shows that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is a key factor for the improvement of client outcomes. As such, many therapists encourage clients to consult with several counsellors via free consultations to ensure a good fit. While it can take time to discover the right ‘match’ when it comes to your mental health care provider, finding a clinician that you feel comfortable with is well worth the effort.
2. Therapy involves removing your ‘perfect’ mask
In social interactions, most of us want to make a good first impression (therapists included!). However, therapy often involves disclosing some uncomfortable information that threatens the social mask of ‘perfection’ many of us hold.
In ‘Love Hard’, the character of Josh literally uses the image of someone he deems perfect to hide behind. Over the course of the film, this mask eventually slips and Josh’s true self is revealed. However, this process is hard won. Josh (like many of us), experiences several instances of shame, loneliness, and embarrassment before he finally comes to accept and celebrate his authentic self. Indeed, it’s only after removing this mask of perfection, that Josh is able to experience genuine interactions with his family, and lean into his passions and interests. Josh’s character arc is a poignant reminder that revealing our true selves is an arduous, and often messy process. Yet, choosing to be vulnerable in a safe environment, can eventually lead to experiencing authentic relationships and experiences, allowing us to be free in our perfectly imperfect selves.
By the end of ‘Lovehard’, Josh and Natalie’s true personas are revealed, beyond their initial masks of perfection. While the ending may seem predictable, the journey to both character’s ‘happy ending’ is filled with the ups and downs we all go through in order to discover our authentic selves.
In the midst of these challenging times, I hope you’re able to spend time getting to know yourself, and when it feels safe, opening up to healthy personal and professional dynamics where you can be seen for who you are. And while you’re on this roller coaster journey of self discovery, don’t hesitate to turn to the comforts of a familiar formula. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Wishing you a healthy and safe start to the new year!