Psychotherapists are rarely portrayed with accuracy in films and on television. Typically, we are seen as deranged psychotic murderers, (i.e. Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill), bumbling fools who can barely function, (i.e. Hugh Grant in Nine Months), or genius detectives who solve great mysteries, (i.e. Richard Gere in Final Analysis and Primal Fear). None of these presentations represent the way in which psychotherapy actually works.
Like most people who see movies influenced by Oscar buzz, I recently saw an excellent portrayal of the psychotherapy process. However, it was not a psychotherapist who was doing the psychotherapy, it was Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers). In the film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers, the children’s television star. The movie focuses less on his show and mainly on a backstory about a writer for Esquire magazine, Lloyd Vogel, who is sent to do a story about Mr. Rogers. A bitter and angry man, Lloyd sees the assignment as a sign of disrespect from his editor. He begins his project with disdain and has no expectation that the story will be any more than a “fluff” piece. Mr. Rogers quickly senses the brokenness of Lloyd’s life and encourages him to deal with his repressed anger that has plagued him for much of his life.
Mr. Rogers begins by encouraging Lloyd to “feel his feelings,” much like a skilled psychotherapist would. So many of us resist acknowledging feelings we find painful to experience, and instead will either hold them in, or act out in some problematic manner. All feelings, even the painful ones, need to be recognized and accepted in order to be properly managed. This concept is a hallmark of effective psychotherapy. We encourage patients to confront and express those feelings that are painful. It’s our job to guide people to find courage and deal with what is distressing.
Another feature Mr. Rogers demonstrates is the sense that patient and therapist are, in the words of psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, “fellow travelers.” Mr. Rogers does not pretend to have the answers to Lloyd’s issues, but demonstrates consistently that he does know how difficult it is to deal with emotional pain, and is willing to accompany Lloyd on his difficult journey. Much like Mr. Rogers, a skilled psychotherapist understands that sometimes the greatest gift of therapy is providing someone with the knowledge that they are not alone, and they can be accepted for who they are, even with their perceived imperfections.
We learn little about Mr. Rogers’ personal life in this film, but it is clear that he had a great understanding of people. Whether he realized it or not, he had a remarkable grasp of what makes psychotherapy such a powerful and helpful process. His willingness to compassionately stand with someone in pain, despite their resistances, was precisely the recipe needed to assist Lloyd and move beyond his painful childhood experiences.
As I write this piece, it’s raining outside my living room window. Rainy days are often gloomy days, but I am feeling a bit of Mr. Rogers within me. Despite the rain, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.