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If your life were a movie ...
I once met a psychologist who had a passion for movies. We spoke, amongst other things, about dramatic structure. I asked him how it is possible for us to continually watch movies based on essentially the same blueprint without being bored to death. The therapist glanced at a diagram of the classical three-act structure typifying most movies and said: “Because the process is basically the same as you experience in therapy; and exactly here,” he said as he pointed to the crucial midpoint of the story, “is the point when most people experience an overwhelming urge to quit therapy, rather than crossing the point of no return and facing their problems. In movies however, one inevitably struggles through to the bitter end – otherwise there would be no story to tell.”
Would you care to watch your own life as a movie? Probably not. Our lives are just not particularly interesting. Most of us live rather trivial lives. It may suffice for us, but would not be captivating to watch on the silver screen.
Fortunately, this is not how movies are made. The point of a film narrative is basically that anything mundane and boring has been edited out, leaving only the essential parts to be watched. The essence of the story is often a limited yet important period of time in the life of the main character: The year, the month, or maybe just the one day that made a difference for that specific person. The rest – all the monotony and boring days that life basically consists of – is often glossed over on the big screen.
Now imagine that you were able to edit out all the unimportant and boring details from our lives, there would still be plenty of important events to experience in an exciting movie. Possibly events of great importance that served as personal turning points; given our lives a new meaning or direction; or at least had the potential to do so, had we the courage to take the leap… But often we lack the fortitude to do so. In real life we back down long before characters in movies do, which is exactly why watching these characters is interesting and exciting. The main characters often follow through with what we fail to do in real life. The main character continues even after the point of no return, which would make the majority of us in real life opt out of the narrative. Therein lays the appeal: To watch someone actually do what we want to do in a similar situation – and, perhaps most importantly, what we would like to do in our own lives.
The therapeutic narrative of the movie
Therapeutic development begins, because you have decided to start making changes. This is the first turning point of the self-development narrative. The same thing basically happens in the first turning point of the movie. This is where – about 20 to 25 minutes into the movie –story development and main character growth really begins. This is not due to the main character’s own desires, but instead a conflict from the outside world, which the main character is forced to address in some way.
A good example of this is the animated movie Shrek. In the beginning of the movie, the green monster, who seemed content to live alone in a swamp, is intruded upon by a horde of homeless fairy tale characters. As he truly cannot stand the idea of living with anyone else, he decides, in the first turning point of the movie, to seek out the local dictator Farquaad, to address the issue. The following meeting with Farquaad ends in a two-way deal: If Shrek is able to liberate Farquaad’s bride-to-be, Princess Fiona, from captivity and bring her safely home to the dictator, Shrek will be rewarded with the deed to and sole ownership of the swamp. Then, he can evict all the fairy tale characters and return to his life in solitude.
Shrek is pleased with this deal. But… as can be expected, things don’t work out so easily.
The main character is never aware of the therapeutic narrative, which he, ignorantly and indirectly, accepts in the first turning point of the movie. So, Shrek does not go on a journey to find a princess intending to start his own self-development narrative. He does so with the sole purpose of recovering his home swamp.
The decision to go into real life therapy is much more intense. However, this does not make much of a difference. In reality – like the movie’s main character– we have no clue about the kind of journey we have started.
Like Shrek, one would often start this journey with the expectation of a simple solution to a minor problem. However, in the course of act 2 – essentially the actual therapy/story – it inexorably turns out that the problem is much more complex and difficult to solve than first anticipated.
Generally speaking, a man trying to cope with a dominant female boss may eventually discover that the problem is not merely about the boss, but to a higher degree about his very dominating mother... In the same way Shrek must come to the conclusion that life alone in the swamp is not the happily ever after that he initially perceived it to be in the beginning of the movie. This conclusion comes during the second turning point of the movie. Yet before the main character can reach that point, he or she has to go through the midpoint – the point of no return.
The midpoint is the part of the story where the main character ends up in the worst possible dilemma in relation to the conflict he or she has landed in. It is the part of the story where the main character is so caught up in events that he is forced to make a very hard decision. This is where it gets serious. You have to make a decision, however hard it may be, but it is now or never.
From the point of view of a therapist, the midpoint of the therapy is where there has been enough of talk about the issues without actually doing anything to address them thoroughly. Now is the time for action. In the preceding process, one has found out exactly what one wants to do – and that one has to do whatever is necessary to achieve this goal, even if it puts one’s career or marriage at risk, or if one is forced to tell the truth about one’s awful family.
And this is, of course, exactly the problem. To show good character – to be true to yourself and act accordingly – always has great consequences. If you decide to stand up for yourself and not get pushed around anymore, there is a great risk that the people surrounding you will object or turn their backs to you, because they do not like that new person you have become. And this is what makes it so scary: Can you handle the consequences? Are you willing to pay that price? Are you ready to suffer the loss or sacrifice, which implicitly lies within the action of moving past the point of no return?
A big part of the reluctance, which we all feel about the thought of going to an actual therapist, can be attributed to the paradox that we all fear the journey of personal development, which we all on the other hand desire. We are afraid of the unknown, and because deep inside we know that any true personal development really takes an enormous amount of effort.
All degrees of personal development come with a price. One must be ready to let go of the old to make room for the new. That is what the midpoint of the story as well as life in general is about. This is why the midpoint is also called the symbolic death.
In our own lives, we all have a tendency to remain set in our old ways. We keep walking around in the first part of act two, as we are frustrated and make excuses as to why we stick with a partner, even though we feel more attracted to the lover, or as to why we stay in the same old boring job and only dream about the big trip around the world. And we go the movies… and we enjoy watching the characters on big screen actually living out their dreams and actually doing something about their lives – all the things that we ourselves are afraid to do. The main character of the movie always follows through and pushes through the point of no return, which we would make the rest of us reconsider and back away from. And through this empathy for the main character we are able to envision ourselves taking that big trip around the world, making that big career change or achieving some other dream as a personal journey, without actually having to deal with the real life challenges and consequences.
The point of no return for Shrek
In the movie Shrek there is a wonderfully peaceful and yet emotionally important midpoint, and subsequently point of no return. This is encapsulated in the scene in which Shrek and his sidekick, Donkey, are sitting on a cliff looking at the stars in the sky.
Shrek is telling Donkey about the constellations in the sky and curiously they all tend to look like scary monsters, just like Shrek himself. Donkey doesn’t really care about the constellations, as he is more concerned about what the plans are for him and Shrek when they finally go back to the swamp, together as friends. My swamp! Shrek says, with no intention of sharing this with anyone else – least of all Donkey. Shrek plans to build a big wall around the swamp, so he can be truly alone.
Donkey is hurt by Shrek’s words, but instead of accepting Shrek’s wishes quietly, he confronts Shrek. What’s your problem? What have you got against the rest of the world? These are the things that Donkey wants to know. Shrek responds by telling him that it’s not him who has a problem, it’s everybody else who seems to have a problem with him. They judge him, even before they get to know him. They only see the outside – and no one likes a big scary monster. That’s why Shrek wants to be alone. Donkey then reminds Shrek that he didn’t judge him when they met. I know, Shrek quietly responds.
After this Shrek starts to talk about the stars once again - and suddenly he sees a constellation of a talking donkey…
Objectively speaking the scene does not contain much drama. However, it is an important and pivotal moment in Shrek’s life. Up until now, Shrek has succeeded in convincing everybody, including himself, that his life of isolation in the swamp is his own, intentional choice. Now, he can finally confess that he actually feels lonely, because no one likes him, which is why he has chosen to live by himself, alone and secluded from the outside world.
Of course, he does not explicitly say this. Donkey is forced to make him confess this by gambling their friendship. Implicitly it is tedious and difficult for Donkey, who by now feels tested and weathered; and it seems that this might at last be a chance for a breakthrough. He has grown weary of Shrek´s subbornness and now he wants a clear answer. What is your problem?
Shrek’s problem is that he actually found a true friend in Donkey, who likes him just as he is. And Shrek knows this – but can he admit to it? Will the big scary monster actually show a certain degree of vulnerability? Will he admit, not merely to Donkey, but also to himself that deep within, he is actually a sensitive and vulnerable being. That he harbors a hidden desire for the romantic fairy tale, which he actually used as toilet paper in the beginning of the movie?
This is a huge step for Shrek. However, he does actually go down that road. He discovers room for Donkey in his own private sky of stars. And now, Shrek has gone beyond his point of no return.
After this, there is no turning back. Now that Shrek has finally opened up his inner being, it is difficult to maintain a hard shell to the outside world. And lo and behold, not much time passes before Shrek falls in love with the lovely princess Fiona.
The therapy of movies
In any given therapeutic process, a professional therapist is, of course, a necessary component. This is also the case in movies. However, as the movie does not consists of people – or monsters – that intentionally choose to start a therapeutic process; the therapist within the movie only works implicitly in the dark – and often with no intention of helping anyone – except himself.
In Shrek it is of course Donkey, who takes the role of the therapist. The desperate Donkey, who only wants to be friends with Shrek, because he himself is so painfully lonely. However, Shrek doesn’t want to be friends with anyone at all. And yet, in the end Shrek accepts the fact that Donkey will join him on his quest to find the princess.
But why does he accept this? Shrek doesn’t need Donkey to complete this task. Also, he finds the constantly talking Donkey to be frustratingly annoying.
The interesting part is that Shrek, with great unconscious precision, chooses just the right “therapist” for the inner journey that he needs to take. Donkey is the opposite of Shrek in the sense that he is a very sensitive and emotional being – and he is not afraid to talk about feelings. As early as their very first meeting, Donkey confesses to Shrek that he is lonely and does not have any friends. Donkey is truly explicit about his feelings – the exact same feelings that Shrek is trying to hide from the world. And this is a fact that Shrek’s subconscious mind sees immediately.
So when Shrek agrees to take to Donkey with him on the journey, it is because he subconsciously desires the inner development, which inevitably will happen, because eventually there will be a confrontation with the sensitive Donkey. This confrontation will make Shrek discover his own true sensitivity – and this is exactly what happens in the midpoint.
However, Shrek is not aware of all of this, in much the same way that we all are not aware of why we engage in relationships with the same type of person over and over again - one who is just as annoying/destructive/intemperate/absentminded/dominant… as our father or mother.
Recognition of the issue
In the second turning point of the story, which is in the end of act 2, the main character realizes that the first turning point was a mistake – a false solution to the problem in act 1. Shrek realizes that he doesn’t want to live alone in the swamp anymore – which, of course, was the whole reason to start the journey in act 2.
In the therapeutic process, the second turning point also consists of realizing that the idea or hope that you only needed to adjust a few flaws is one big lie. This is not how it works. As is the case in the movie, act 2 in the therapeutic process shows that the problems and issues also have deeper roots than first expected. Also, one must realize that the real battle is not fought on therapy couch. The real battle has to be fought in the real world, where one must live with the scars we all have attached to our souls.
The difference between the midpoint and the second turning point is that while you realize what the problem actually is in the midpoint, which you must address and take action for in order to do something about it – then the second turning point consists of a deeper and more emotional recognition, created from the experiences from actually “doing something about it” in the second part of act 2.
In the midpoint Shrek realizes that he is lonely and that he actually wants a friend. However, this realization is mostly confined to the inner thoughts of Shrek as he sits on the cliff with his new friend, looking at the stars. In the second turning point, which comes after Shrek has lost both princess Fiona and Donkey and he has made his way back home, Shrek walks around in the swamp, by himself feeling lonely, and really understands the consequences of his point of no return: the price one must pay when getting involved in other peoples’ lives on an emotional level. Shrek is all by himself and he realizes he does not enjoy the loneliness. He misses Donkey and he misses Fiona. And it is not until this point that the deep emotional recognition appears. The recognition, which makes Shrek forgive Donkey and do everything in his power to get his princess Fiona in act 3.
In act 3 the movie has a marked tendency of trumping reality – or at least moving away from it. Most movies have a penchant to complete the emotional “fix” of the main character, which therapy cannot do as quickly. One might say that the movie illustrates the ideal therapeutic process. This ideal may exist, but we will never experience it as intensely in real life as it is portrayed in movies – only because it is usually takes much longer to achieve that level of personal development in real life.
From this perspective, the classical happy ending can be perceived as the ultimate argument that any given personal development is positive and beneficial.
Personal development is not an easy task, and it is not certain that you will win the princess and the entire kingdom a mere two days after you have completed the therapeutic process. However, if you stop suppressing your true self and start living the life you really want to live, you increase your chances of living your own happy ever after… At least until the next personal crises knocks on your door. But that’s a completely different story…
Despite the classical three-act structure being relevant to both the story and the ideal therapeutic process, it does not mean that movies are about characters deciding to start the therapeutic process – quite the contrary, actually. The movie illustrates a reality, which, although compressed, shares many similarities to the therapeutic process. The story always follows patterns of behaviour, which we all have difficulties recognizing in our daily lives. And then it moves on to illustrate what can happen when that pattern is changed and external circumstances force someone to move on with their life.
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