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Empathy for a Teenage Werewolf

April 10, 2014

[Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched the season 3b finale of Teen Wolf, go no further. Come back later.]

They killed Allison on Teen Wolf. Okay, it may seem ridiculous, but I’m grieving for this television show and it’s really interfering with my functioning today. I can feel it physically in my body, a weight on my heart and behind my eyes. The funny thing is, Allison was never my favorite character, but she was the love interest of the protagonist, Scott, and best friends with some of the other characters. I’m not grieving for Allison so much as grieving for the grieving of the other characters. And although I know intellectually that this is fiction, my body can’t tell the difference.

This semester I’ve been learning Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, created by Richard C. Schwartz, which includes its own psychological model. The model is not designed to reflect any kind of physical or ontological reality, but to reflect felt experience and use imagery. It uses metaphor to figuratively ‘re-parent’ and heal wounded parts of our psyche and literally ‘rewire’ parts of our brain. The reason metaphor and imagery can rewire our brain is because our brain doesn’t know the difference between a perceived thing ‘out there’ and an imagined thing ‘in here.’

By imaginatively ‘going back’ to those points in our lives where we were hurt and doing for our remembered selves what we wish someone else had been able to do for our actual self at the time, we heal the trauma rather than relive it. We can retrieve those lost parts of our self from the dark places where they are trapped, not all at once, but little by little. At least, this is the theory of how IFS works. We’d have to do therapy in an MIR machine to be sure, but scientists have a pretty good handle on neuroplasticity now and therapists have a pretty good handle on the outcomes of IFS, so it isn’t so far-fetched to posit how they work together.

As the latest season finale of Teen Wolf demonstrates, my heart doesn’t care all that much if Allison, Scott, and the rest of the pack are fictional or not. The same thing happened earlier in year, with the fourth season of Downton Abbey that actually caused me to stop watching the show entirely because I felt so traumatized by the events. It’s the reason I don’t care for horror movies and thrillers. Real life is hard enough, thank you, and without the healing connection of a relationship with a real person the stress just isn’t worth it for me.

When real people hurt, we have real ways to heal through connections to the people around us. Our imaginative ability makes those connections possible, too, because it allows us to figuratively put ourselves in the shoes of others, to empathize with the stories they tell us, and feel compassion. When that connection happens between two live people, it is restorative. When it happens to characters, where do we go for solace?

Since childhood, I have used my imagination to make a happier ending, even before I knew that it might actually be rewiring my brain. As an adult, I also spend a lot of time reminding myself it’s not real and using my practice to refocus on the relationships with people around me. My heart will be a little heavier today and that’s probably a good thing, because it means I have the capacity to empathize and connect. Teen Wolf is just heart exercise for the race that’s always about to begin.

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