Fictional Therapy. It's a Thing.

mindset self-care May 04, 2020

After a long day of work has frayed my nerves and left me exhausted, there are few things I look forward to more than losing myself in a good book. I generally choose fiction for this time of day because I am not tasked with learning new material or reevaluating my shortcomings, neither of which I am well equipped to do when tired. Instead, I have the pleasure of exploring the trials and triumphs of my favorite protagonists or wailing against the evils of insufferable villains. While this, too, may sound too intense, it actually provides a safe avenue for emotional release. This is why I lovingly call it "fictional therapy."

While reading (or listening to a book) is not everyone's favorite pastime, for those who enjoy this activity, it can have genuine psychological benefit. Remember that ruminating on troublesome events (e.g., politics, news of pandemic) or on issues over which we have no control (e.g., the behavior of our boss or our spouse) will create increasing anxiety for most people. The mere act of replacing distressing thoughts by focusing our minds on something else allows us to achieve mental and emotional distance and catch our breath.

We can achieve this needed distance in health ways by various means such as becoming engrossed in a book, engaging in intensive exercise, meditating, practicing yoga or having fun with friends, to name just a few. It is also important to avoid any activities that carry negative mental, emotional or physical consequences. For example, staying up all night playing video games (nothing wrong with video games) will certainly provide distraction, but sleep loss and poor performance at work the next day carry negative consequences, as would using mood-altering substances such as alcohol or illicit drugs.

Reading or listening to fiction, however, has other potential benefits. If the work is high-quality and has uplifting aspects to the story, we are able to process emotional responses to characters who face similar challenges to ourselves while not being so frightened (or confronted) by our own emotions and shortcomings. This can be cathartic and emotionally cleansing because it puts us in touch with buried feelings; feelings that, if left unexpressed, can wreak all kinds of internal havoc.

The truth is that we all project our inner struggles onto others; in fact, we do it all the time. For example, we struggle the most with the child who acts just like us or we find ourselves strongly disliking someone who reminds us of a parent with whom we had a bad relationship. This is because we map our internal landscape onto the exterior world, mentally shaping it into something more like our past than like current reality. This means it is also a normal human response to map our emotions onto those of characters with whom we identify in movies, books or plays (why else do we sob in the theater?). While it is important to develop awareness of the true source and fount of our feelings, fictional works can gently open the door for this awareness to happen in a less threatening manner.

Yeah, fictional therapy. You heard it here first and from a psychologist no less. (Right there, you should have smiled.) Well, time to sign off. I'm headed for my fictional therapist.

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