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Why Reality TV Is Coming Up In Therapy

The latest season of The Bachelorette ended on a tense note, when bachelorette Katie Thurston got into a heated conversation with Greg Grippo, the runner-up contestant who broke her heart. It all went down during “After the Final Rose,” a live, post-finale episode that gives viewers an update on the lead’s relationship status. Katie, we learned, was engaged to winner Blake Moynes — and also, clearly, still upset about Greg. Despite having a ring on her finger and a fiancé at her side, the 30-year-old bank marketing manager hadn’t gotten over the sting of Greg’s crushing exit, and the internet went off: If she’s so happy, why is she still mad at Greg???

The next day, I expected my friends to text me about the Katie-Greg showdown, and they delivered. One person I didn’t expect to bring up Bach drama was my therapist. During my weekly session, she asked if I watched the show. “People were questioning how Katie could be happy and angry at the same time,” she said, noting that it’s OK to feel conflicting emotions. Then she brought the conversation back to me: I could be sad and also generally content with the way life is going. 

I knew exactly what she meant. I also felt more connected to my therapist than I had at any point in our year-long relationship. All thanks to my favorite junk reality show. It was the first time I’d talked about TV in therapy, but it’s not uncommon for therapists to use reality shows, or other forms of pop culture, to help clients draw parallels about their own lives. Mining The Bachelor for emotional insight might sound like a questionable therapeutic approach, but it’s a new iteration on a widely used, well-supported technique: harnessing the psychological power of storytelling.

The power of metaphor

Storytelling is a hardwired human tendency. Research tells us our brains stitch together experiences into narratives to help us remember and make sense of information. Sometimes our minds even invent things that never even happened to hold a story together. 

“Art doesn’t just imitate life — it is inextricably bound up in life,” says Larisa Garski, a marriage and family therapist based in Chicago. “One of the core ways that human beings understand or make sense of our external world is via storytelling.”

Some popular types of therapy require people to examine the stories they’ve constructed about their lives: In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), you learn how to recognize and then modify destructive belief patterns. In narrative therapy, you reframe negative life experiences to highlight the strengths you displayed in the face of adversity.

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A few newer modalities are even more reliant on the therapeutic value of storytelling. One example is geek therapy, also called superhero therapy, in which therapists ask clients to think like popular superheroes, such as Superman and Batman. The goal is to help people evaluate their hopes, goals and fears from different and, perhaps, heroic perspectives.

It often makes intuitive sense for a client to talk about their care and concern for Baby Yoda in place of their literal inner child.

In her own client work, Garski practices her own take on geek therapy, which she calls therapeutic fan-fiction. She discusses TV shows that develop cult followings, or “fandoms,” with clients, and helps them use the fictional worlds to understand their own lives. Everything from Lord of the Rings to the legal drama Suits have come up.

“We invite clients to bring into session those fandom stories that resonate most for them and then to explore the connections between these modern mythologies and their own lives and struggles,” she says. “Our emotions-first language is the language of mythology or story. So it often makes intuitive sense for a client to talk about their care and concern for Baby Yoda in place of their literal inner child or the child archetype.” 

The gift of gab

Beyond providing relatable narrative arcs, incorporating pop culture into treatment can put people at ease. During sessions, it’s typically the client whose struggles and quirks are on display. But by revealing a dumb or dorky show they watch, a therapist gives a client a glimpse of the person they are after work. A client’s comfort level matters a lot. The quality of the therapeutic relationship, research shows, can play a bigger role than anything else in whether or not treatment is successful.

After years of couples therapy, Megan, 41, and her husband recently found “the best therapist they’ve ever had.” For starters, she’s a fan of Outlander and the Bachelor Franchise, two of Megan’s favorites. More than that, she draws on narratives from the shows to help Megan and her husband examine their own relationship.

“Being able to have a shared experience is very leveling,” Megan says. “I never feel a power dynamic with this particular therapist. But I have in the past — where you feel like that person is judging you or you’re trying to really impress them. I don’t feel that way with her.”

With Katie Thurston’s season wrapped up, the next show in the Bachelor franchise rotation, Bachelor in Paradise, is my new Monday night priority. It hasn’t come up in therapy yet, but who knows when a moment between two sun-soaked influencers will once again become a vehicle for my emotional growth. I’ll keep watching, just in case.

“I love stories and so do my clients,” says Garski. “Together we use that love and creativity to make the change they want in their lives and to become the hero they seek.”


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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.