Many of my therapy clients will tell you that, at one time or another, I've asked them if they watch Family Guy.
It typically begins in session with a client discussing their crisis of the week; a panic attack, an outburst of anger that felt unreasonable in hindsight, the impacts of overwhelming guilt. They may talk about compulsive behaviors that are ruining their health, all the responsibilities they spent the week avoiding, or the fight they started with their partner. These experiences may be signs of a behavior pattern or they may be standalone circumstances that feel so extreme the client believes they might break under the weight of it all.
This is when I ask them about Family Guy.
Really there's one scene in particular that I believe serves as a great analogy for despair. You probably know the one I'm talking about. We're brought to his scene in a strange twist of events. Evil genius/talking baby Stewie Griffin, who's typically busy maniacally plotting his mother's murder, suddenly becomes infatuated with her after she saves his teddy bear BFF Rupert from the attack of an unfamiliar dog.
Stewie, who spends the entire episode clamoring for Lois' attention to the point of her exhaustion, demands more love. So he finds her, depleted, in her bed and incessantly calls to her:
Why do I mention to my clients this 3rd most annoying scene from any Family Guy episode ever (following behind Surfin' Bird and Weenie & the Butt)?
Because in his desperate attempt at being acknowledged, Stewie becomes a symbol of everything we avoid about ourselves.
Oftentimes what I see in my clients that leads me to understand their suffering is that they're trying to make something go away rather than allow it to exist. Emotions, thoughts, desires, needs, somatic sensations, fears -- all of the things that don't fit neatly into the logical corners of our ego mind, or that we don't particularly enjoy about ourselves and therefore try to avoid all the live long day. Sometimes we try to make things go away by pretending they aren't there. But as Lois learned the hard way, that just makes things worse.
What happens when we ignore those things? They call to us. Over and over and over and over and over again. Why? Because they're part of us. They love us. They may seem like they're working against us but they're just on a misguided mission to protect us.
Take, for example, Stewie's imaginative and excitable plans for spending quality time with Lois.
"We should play restaurant with my Play-Doh," he says jovially. "I'll make you a hamburger. Perhaps I'll make it blue. Oh, can you imagine such a world?"
Does that sounds like the sentiment of something you ought to run away from? Or does it sound like something naive that wants to connect with you and might suffer deeply upon your rejection of it?
When we neglect these parts of ourselves or treat them like a nuisance, they hurt. We may experience discomfort, irritability, dissociation. This dynamic make us do things that don't feel like us. And still, they demand our focus and energy in some way. Pretending it isn't happening can only create exhaustion.
On the contrary, if we tune into them, one of the first things we may notice is just how frantically they've been trying to get us to hear them. And once we acknowledge them, a certain kind of relief might set in. In some cases, we might actually notice that our immediate discomfort scurries away just like Stewie eventually scurries away down the hall with a giggle.
His prompt exit even proves that all Stewie wanted was for Lois to admit he was there. He didn't need a hug or high praise, he didn't have a problem to be solved, he just wanted to be recognized. And yet while his request was simple, it was urgent. It's clear Lois felt the gnaw of his needs. But no matter how hard she wished it all away, it was only when she leaned in that he left and she got her peace.
Our instinct to ignore, avoid, repress, or suppress what's alive in us is not, in the long run, doing us any favors. Sometimes the thing that hurts us the most is our attempt at keeping our shadow in the dark rather than just saying hey to the things that scare, overwhelm, or irritate us about ourselves. So when I share this analogy with my clients, it's to give voice to the Stewies within them that beg for attention; it's to help them understand what they're avoiding so they can ask themselves if they're ready to stop and try something different.
Of course shadow work and healing our deepest sufferings isn't always as simple as just recognizing, allowing, and accepting what's there, and a therapist's office is probably the best place to sort through these things. But there are inherent benefits to allowing rather than resisting. Those benefits span from self-tolerance to self-love, and even the least of which can lessen your vulnerabilities to further despair.
In other words, notice how irritated you might get watching the full clip above. It may be initially funny, then annoying, and then you might start to wonder if it will ever stop. Now imagine if you couldn't press a button to mute the video or close the screen. In that state of being, irritability and powerlessness trump your capacity to respond effectively to things. It could make you feel as though you might break under the weight of it all. But if that irritability could be reduced simply by saying hello to what calls to you, how much power might be restored within you?