Emotion Regulation at the Movies
April 26, 2010 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I have overly intense emotional reactions to literature, films, & TV shows. Please help me enjoy art like a normal person again.

I've always been strongly affected by these things - for example, as a kid I would get very stressed out watching game shows or anything involving an animal in distress - but it used to be a mostly pleasurable experience, the kind that motivates one to purposefully seek out emotionally evocative art. But for some reason, over the past few years my strong reactions have ceased to be enjoyable. I will finish a novel or movie totally shattered and spend the next week in an obsessive funk. I'm still traumatized from the final season of Six Feet Under, which I watched in January 2007. It's not a quality thing, I read My Sweet Audrina a little while ago and it fucked me up too. So now I basically avoid anything that might trigger a strong emotional reaction. I've read like five novels in two years and I prefer to only watch stoner comedies. This is silly and I would like to stop being so delicately constituted that I can't just read a book, cry at the ending, and get on with my damn life. So, how do you do this? Any advice?
posted by granted to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered counseling? This could be any number of things. Are you this affected by, say, real-life news about a loved one?

Do you have Stendhal Syndrome?
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:15 PM on April 26, 2010

This might be "referred emotional pain" from things going on in your own life....anyway, I will watch this thread closely as I react pretty strongly to fiction myself. I cannot and will not watch war movies, or movies where the plot line has mistaken identity, or anything that is too emotional. I cried when I went to go see Monsters versus Aliens, for goodness' sake!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:50 PM on April 26, 2010

I'm leaving aside the possibility that there's something more serious going on, which I'm totally unqualified to deal with, and assuming that you just get unusually involved with or swept up into fictional worlds.

If that's the case, maybe creating some distance between you and those fictional worlds would help. Have you tried making an effort to think about, while you're watching or reading, how art is made? Remember that this stuff is created to make you feel things, and think about things, but although on a deeper level there's truth in it, on a surface level it's fake. Think about how the blood and gore in a movie came in a little plastic bag, and how after the actors died in that massacre they got up and walked around joking with each other. Or how the author of that hearbreaking passage about love sat around for months trying to come up with the right words or worrying whether he'd ever get a book deal. Watch DVDs of TV shows with the commentary on and see what silly thing the directors talk about while emotional scenes are going on, like getting the lighting right or how someone kept messing up a line.

(I'm suggesting this because I write, and I used to act, and I rarely get that emotionally involved in books or movies or plays because I'm too busy thinking, "God, why didn't he get some voice training before playing a part with so much screaming in it, he's going to hurt himself." Or, "I wonder if she traveled to all the places she writes about in this novel herself, or depended on other peoples' accounts?")
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:57 PM on April 26, 2010

Response by poster: Definitely not Stendhal Syndrome. No psychosis or psychosomatic symptoms or anything like that. I just get overly emotionally involved in stories. I do have a therapist with whom I'll discuss this issue, but I was hoping the hive mind might have some good advice in addition to hers. I should clarify that this is not a huge problem that's central to my well-being. It's mostly just irritating.
posted by granted at 5:36 PM on April 26, 2010

If you want to try some shock therapy you could watch Season 1 of Spartacus: Blood and Sand while drunk. Possibly a terrible idea, could scar you for life etc, but if you're a practical down-to-earth person it could work. You can only see so much blood, fake pain and naked people before starting to giggle and sigh.
posted by meepmeow at 5:43 PM on April 26, 2010

Response by poster: Oh yes, my emotional responses to real-life events are pretty standard, although I tend towards oversensitivity in general. But I'm okay with being overly sensitive about real-life events.
posted by granted at 5:49 PM on April 26, 2010

I have a strong aversion to shows like the Office (esp. the British version) or reality shows that I consider "failure porn" -- i.e. stories of characters who are interesting mainly because they continuously humiliate themselves, hurt others, and don't really seem to know/care that they're doing it.

I know it's comedy, and I've got nothing against the shows or anything, it just drives me up the wall. That having been said, the effect diminishes the more I watch -- so that if I sit through three or four episodes of the Office, not only can I watch that, but it makes it easier to watch other shows I like (Six Feet Under was something I reacted to, too -- esp. the family dinner scenes, which never ended well). The problem gets worse when I try to limit my consumption of TV and movies, etc.

So my recommendation: pick up a novel you've always wanted to read, and read it, then the next, etc. Maybe art's supposed to make us uncomfortable sometimes, and people who don't react to it miss out as much as people who avoid it.
posted by Valet at 6:29 PM on April 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you might be among the 15-20% of us who are "highly sensitive people." There is a wealth of information out there that I have found very useful in helping me regulate my own intense, easily triggered emotions. MeMail me for more info if you like.
posted by xenophile at 6:48 PM on April 26, 2010

What has helped me is to feel my feelings without interruption or judgment. If the show/movie/book is sad and I feel sad and cry its okay. I also think I started to "own" that I am really sensitive to certain things. This attitude helped me reduce my stress around keeping emotions hidden. I started to feel proud that I can be affected by art and life. (not in any public sense, just in a personal "this is who I am" sense). I like that I'm not so jaded that I allow things to move me. Sure, its embarrassing when I am the only one crying, but anyone who knows me knows this might happen. I recently told a student that she had been accepted to grad school. She was so overjoyed that I was overjoyed for her (a complete stranger) and I started to cry. At work. In front of people. I have to embrace my responses otherwise I am going to spend a lot of time avoiding any emotional trigger or feeling embarrassed.

I think allowing your self to feel upset, to think about why certain books/movies upset you and to really examine your responses can help you move on. For example, I have a really hard time with story lines that involve death of a parent. I lost my father when I was really young and these story lines bring up my feelings of loss and for a little while I have to feel what it was like to lose my dad and how his absence in my life still affects me. But having a dialogue with my self about what is going on is really helpful. "I am sad for this character because they lost a parent. I know what it feels like to lose a parent. I really miss my dad. I'm going to feel sad for my loss for a bit." And then I can move on.

However, I was really disturbed by Requiem for a Dream and I can't figure out why. I am still freaked out by that movie! Sometimes avoiding certain topics or genres is just fine. For me, that means no movies about pets and nothing that any normally sensitive person tells me is really sad or really messed up. I have not seen Up because a friend said I would cry during the beginning and I haven't felt up to knowingly putting myself through that yet.

I think the world would be a nicer place if more people allowed themselves to be moved by the experiences of others. Please don't completely stamp this tendency out in yourself.
posted by rachums at 8:23 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

You may find The Crying Wife somewhat cathartic, or at least interesting.
posted by bingo at 8:49 PM on April 26, 2010

My Sweet Audrina is emotional porn. If you don't like the way you respond, maybe you should stay away from stories (1 Litre of Tears, for example) that try for that kind of emotional reaction. As for me, I would sit in a crowd of jaded filmgoers and feel really embarrassed because I was the only one crying over the ending of Solaris. And even though I've become pretty okay with my movie tears, I still avoided the remake, just in case.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:33 AM on April 27, 2010

But I'm okay with being overly sensitive about real-life events.

So, the problem isn't your sensitivity, which you're actually fine with. You're just unhappy with your own ability to suspend your disbelief when engaging with a work of fiction.

As someone who often gets more emotional about fiction than I do about real life, and likes it that way, I think that's an unfortunate point of view.

Why do you find it irritating? Does your visceral reaction to stories conflict with your logical understanding that they didn't really happen?
posted by bingo at 3:16 AM on April 27, 2010

I'm just like you and I am a guy. I absolutely lost it over the last episode of Six Feet and I'll never watch it again. I lost control of everything except my bowel/bladder by the end of Munich and Fahrenheit 9/11. And The English Patient? I've watched that movie many times and it got to the point that I would start crying before anything happened, like during the opening credits. I am not exaggerating. It is embarrassing but I've come to accept this is simply who I am. My family accepts my nuttiness, too, and with them I just make it a running joke. When I don't want to display this side of myself, I avoid situations that will lead to weeping. When I need a good catharsis, I know what will do the trick. I suggest you accept yourself as I have.
posted by loosemouth at 3:47 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm like St. Alia of the Bunnies, and I believe it is some sort of referred emotional pain (nice term, St. Alia) from another part of my life. That is, it really has nothing (or very little, comparatively) to do with what I'm reading watching, listening to, etc. Maybe get some counseling?
posted by feelinggood at 5:24 PM on April 27, 2010

old thread, but something I stumbled into. I am someone who experiences pretty deep emotions, but has trouble expressing them, and generally when I do it's about something fictional, especially movies. Something, on the face of it, stupid.

Now for the embarassing reveals that constitute why my handle and account info don't tell you anything about me in Real Life:

- a couple of scenes in The Music Man make me want to cry. Most inscutably, when the instruments come (the "Wells Fargo wagon" number) and the scene where the librarian changes her mind and protects "Dr." Hill from exposure by ripping info out of a book (if memory serves). Getting into band was a pivotal moment in my life; it was the first thing I ever did that wasn't a complete failure. I don't know what it means where our heroine protects a con artist. Because I'm a bit of a con artist? Don't really think that about myself? Because I played in a band for Shirley Jones once? Getting weirder and weirder... point is I think most people would see these as light, happy scenes.

- the montage in the beginning of "UP". The couple get together, grow old together, she eventually dies of old age - they don't get to do everything they want to, but they're very happy together. I'm getting something in my eye just typing this. Not really a tragedy, if you view it honestly, but when I watched that movie, I was processing some major shit about deferred dreams. I've since resolved a lot of it and feel like I'm on my way in life, but, damn. Probably a few other people shed tears watching that scene - it was obviously meant to be bittersweet - but I just about lost it.

TL;DR - sounds normal.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:20 PM on December 18, 2010

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