See a Movie – and Call Your Psychologist in the Morning

Hopelessly embroiled in an argument with your husband? Over the top about your teenager’s bad manners? Conflicted about a friend’s behavior, or facing a major life change? Instead of turning to the therapist’s couch, try flipping on the TV. The latest trend in psychological circles is cinema as therapy: Mining popular movies for the emotional and life lessons they contain. It makes sense, too. After all, creative works—books, poems, plays and artwork (think the infamous inkblots)—have long been used to complement the therapy experience and help people resolve personal issues. Films, one of our most popular pastimes and raking in billions of dollars yearly, are naturally next in line.

Whether used as self-help or in sessions with a psychologist, films put us in touch with our deepest emotions. And our interpretations of films provide insight into our problems—and more importantly, may lead us to solutions. “Movies can help you break out of negative thought patterns and turn you on to new ideas and strategies,” says Glen Solomon, Ph.D., author of Reel Therapy: How Movies Inspire You to Overcome Life’s Problems and The Motion Picture Prescription. “They’re also great ways to open up dialogues with other people about troublesome issues or problems.”

Psychotherapist Maria Grace, Ph.D., author of Reel Fulfillment: A 12-Step Plan for Transforming Your Life Through Movies, discovered the healing power of film when she began asking clients about the role of movies in their lives. She found many were having cinematic “affairs” because movies allowed them to experience difficult emotions in a safe, private and controllable manner. “Movies portray life, reflect our struggles, losses, victories and answer our questions,” explains Dr. Grace. “They give voice and image to our inner thoughts, yearnings, fears and joys.” What’s more, she says, movies have “the power of inspiring us and guiding us to take action and improve our lives.”

In her psychotherapy practice, Dr. Grace has found that movies influence her clients in a way that is often more powerful than their therapy sessions together. “I worked once with a married client who wanted to pursue an affair with his secretary,” she says. “His marriage was on the verge of dissolving and he was floundering.” Dr. Grace asked him to view Damage, a film about a man who is a member of the British Parliament who has an affair with his son’s fiancée, which breaks apart not just his marriage but his family. “The movie had a deep impact on him and he decided to stop pursuing his secretary. He also had some profound insights about the way he related to his children,” she says.

“Another client of mine needed help with letting her adult daughter fly off the family nest,” reports Dr. Grace. In this case, she recommended the film Shirley Valentine, which chronicles the adventures of a 40ish working-class Englishwoman who realizes that fantasizing isn’t enough to make her life better: she’s got to take action—so she finds the courage to chuck her dull, unsatisfying life and embark on a trip to Greece. As a result of watching the film, the client “had a complete transformation. She let go of her daughter, developed new interests, and started a ‘Shirley Valentine Club,’” Dr. Grace says. “Once a month, she gathers her friends and they watch an inspirational movie followed by discussion.”

Viewing Techniques

When it comes to enjoyment, therapists agree the movie theatre is great (although some cinephiles might disagree, given the proliferation of cell phones, rude patrons and high prices!). But for therapeutic purposes, they recommend the calm and privacy of your own home. So find a film that you’re interested in seeing (see the box for suggestions on movies that touch on common themes) and search the TV schedule for its next airing or rent or buy it on DVD. “I like people to turn off the phone, not eat or drink anything except water and to avoid distractions,” says Dr. Solomon. As you watch the movie, look for characters, scenarios and emotions with which you can identify and then determine if viewing the movie has provided any ideas for new behaviors for you. “Watch the movie not as a cinematic plot involving movie stars, but as a story involving human characters,” advises Dr. Grace. “Try not to evaluate the characters of the movie for their acting qualities; instead, look into how their relationships unfold and how their actions affect one another.”

Dr. Solomon advocates solo viewing; Dr. Grace feels that the experience can be enhanced by viewing a film with a group and discussing its themes and impact. Either way you choose to go, regular movie viewing “will encourage you to enjoy films not only as entertaining distractions,” she says, “but as valuable experiences of personal growth.” So dim the lights and get on with the therapy!

Films for All Facets of Your Life

Here, picks for movies that can help you resolve some of your toughest issues:

Problem Movies to View
Coping with a difficult parent
  • Terms of Endearment with Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger
  • Delores Claiborne with Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh
  • The Accidental Tourist with William Hurt and Geena Davis
  • Always with Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss
  • Steel Magnolias with Sally Field and Julia Roberts
Dealing with your family during the holidays
  • The Family Stone with Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton
  • Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey, Jr.
Managing illness
  • A Beautiful Mind with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly
  • The Doctor with William Hurt
  • Iris with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet
Freeing yourself of guilt
  • Ordinary People with Timothy Hutton and Donald Sutherland
  • Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman
Overcoming fear
  • Fearless with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez
  • Defending Your Life with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep
Conquering apathy
  • Garden State with Zach Braff and Natalie Portman
  • Lost in Translation with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson
  • About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates
  • Something’s Gotta Give with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates
Taking chances
  • American Graffiti with Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss
  • As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunter
Resolving couple conflict
  • Two for the Road with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney
  • War of the Roses with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner