Mason Phillips, MA, LMFT Candidate

We often have some idealistic views about how our therapist should be when we meet them. They should probably have a lush beard, a puffy cardigan, or some distinguished looking specs that they peer over to look at you when you are speaking about your difficult childhood. It is possible that the reason we feel that way is because it has been told to us. Movies do much to tell us about how everything else in our lives should be from sex to death and taxes. So it should come as no surprise that movies have also told us how our therapists should be.

Do not let them.

There are reasons to love movie therapists and reasons to…not love them (we will avoid hatred, it seems like overkill). I hope to unpack both sides. What is there to appreciate about the therapist? What are some things I want to do that actually would turn out to be less than therapeutic? What is it that this fictional therapist should not have done at all?

Hope Springs (2012)

What I love:
What I love about the therapist in this movie is first and foremost that he is played by Steve Carell, whom I love. In this movie he plays Dr. Feld, who specializes in couple’s therapy. He also does a lot of upfront challenging work that provokes a lot of change for the couple. But at the same time he is filled with kindness and relates to the couple in a real and sensitive way. And at one point, he prescribes a sex book for Kay (Meryl Streep) and she has to go buy it, awkwardly. Even better than all of this is that his business model is more like a retreat/bed-and-breakfast, so he gets to do all his work really quickly and in a beautiful coastal town.

What I do NOT love:
He splits the couple up and gives them therapy time as individuals. Here is the thing- this is not an uncommon approach to couple’s therapy. I know many clinicians who see this as a way of joining with each partner and exhibiting fairness to both of them. The reason I do not like this approach as much is that it has the potential to foster secrets between them. I want to create an atmosphere of openness and honesty. If I can urge clients to draw out vulnerability, it will in turn build trust. Again, not all clinicians are united on this. So while it’s not an uncommon approach, and I cannot in confidence say, “this just is not done,” I simply advise not to let your movies tell you what your therapist should do.

Ordinary People (1980)

What I love:
Judd Hirsch does not get enough credit for his role as Dr. Berger and he definitely does not get enough screen time. What I love most about Dr. Berger is that he does something that I love doing in the first few sessions, which is blow any preconceived notions to smithereens. Especially when his teen client says things like, “I don’t know…,” he does NOT let him off the hook. He presses into him to draw out emotion. He does things that the parents, teachers, and other doctors in the kid’s life does not do. And when he gets angry, he lets him, because expression is vital to emotional health.

What I do NOT love:
One thing that happens in this movie is when the main character has a negative reaction to some bad news, this therapist springs from his home in the middle of the night. He meets the character at his office, they talk for a while and he ends up telling the kid all about how they are “friends.” I love building clients up, but I am so careful about letting clients feel that what we have is a friendship. In fact, I am being paid to do this, which is contrary to friendship. We have a nice relationship, which is certain. But this relationship will also end one day. My greatest hope is that the pre-existing relationships the client had will improve and I will no longer be necessary, making it possible for him or her to have a long and full life of healthy relationships.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

What I love:
I know, I am treading on sacred ground here. You and I know that Good Will Hunting is one of the most important movies ever made, and believe me, Robin Williams delivering the role of therapist Sean Maguire is one of the reasons I became a therapist in the first place.
What I love about this fictional therapist is that he sees something valuable in Will (Matt Damon), even though a dozen clinicians before Sean let Will go after the first session. He is also unafraid of Will’s games (silent treatment, getting under Sean’s skin, changing the subject, etc.). He connects with Will in a challenging way that inspires this probation-sentenced kid to do some pretty serious heart work. It all culminates in a beautifully tearful moment where Will is brought to tears as he embraces that his unfortunate south Boston upbringing was never his fault.

What I do NOT love:
Will gets under Sean’s skin. Freud would call this countertransference. But since people get nervous about Freud and he did enough cocaine to kill a small horse, we will just call it crossing boundaries. Sean ends up telling Will about way too much of his life. It makes sense for the movie because they are both from south Boston. In reality, no matter how much we think we have in common with a client, his or her story is unique.
And about that beautiful, “it’s not your fault…,” scene; the one that culminates in a big passionate hug? I would be careful about that. While I want to comfort my clients in their very unfamiliar eruption of tears, lately it seems frowned upon to hug teenagers behind closed doors. That is one good way to get yourself on the evening news for all the wrong reasons. In general, do not expect your therapist to be hugging you all the time because your movies should not tell you about your therapist.

There are dozens of movies with some kind of therapist in it. I narrowed it to three because it works best in a blog. Anytime there is therapy happening in a movie, be entertained. Anytime you find yourself in therapy, do not expect to be entertained. Experience therapy for yourself and you will be much more likely to experience change.