Finding Healing Through 'This Is Us'

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by Dr. Barbara Lowe

5.379 million viewers watched the after Superbowl episode of This Is Us

With so many viewers, this show is resonating powerfully with many of our hearts.

When we have so many choices for viewing, why are we so drawn to this show?

Maybe we are seeing a picture of ourselves?

The writers of This Is Us brilliantly present the story of a family of two parents and three children simultaneously from a present point of view (i.e., the “children” are in their late 30’s in 2018), and also from the past point of view (i.e., the children are anywhere from 0 through 18 years age in the 80’s and 90’s). This family, like many of our families, has been through some jubilant joys and harrowing hardships. During each episode, the writers demonstrate that themes in the present are always linked to the past for each of the characters. Each character is internally formed by the imprint of their past experiences.

For example, as the show moves forward and backward in time, we gain insight into a certain a theme within Kate’s life. We witness adult Kate, who desperately struggles with painful obsessions and compulsions. She also experiences agonizing guilt and shame, all of which are inherent in addiction, and in her case, food addiction. As we glimpse into scenes from Kate’s past, we witness her being raised by an addict father, at first using alcohol, then recovering in Alcoholics Anonymous. We watch her mother repetitively attempting to help her moderate her eating in childhood, while her beloved father takes her out to eat “treats” in order to comfort her emotions. We also witness her grandmother chiding young Kate for her weight, to the point of buying her clothes and costumes that are obviously several sizes too small in front of her family on her birthday. Then we see Kate blaming herself for her father’s death, and turning even more to food for comfort. Kate is much more than her past, but she also has been internally shaped by her history.

Many psychological theories can be helpful in our understanding how Kate’s past has been formative regarding her present day food addiction. One mode of therapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS), can help us understand unhelpful ways that our past can become our present, and how we can heal.

Have you ever said, “Part of me feels [this] way and part of me feels [that] way”? Or, have you ever observed yourself acting and feeling like a 7 year old in the middle of an argument, while knowing you are capable of much higher levels of thinking and behaving? Or, have you ever felt that old middle school sense of rejection as an adult, knowing that you are “way beyond that?” Inside Kate, and inside all of us, are parts of self. Experiencing parts of self is to be human, and, except for in very rare cases, is not a form of mental illness.

We all have an internal family system within. We each have a core True Self, a place of wholeness, lightness, love, openness, and wisdom. Some might say this is the part of us that is “created in God’s image.” True Self is our wise self, which is always a resource to us. We also have parts which are hurting and vulnerable and parts that help us cope or distract from the pain.

IFS would explicate that Kate has a vulnerable part of self, a child part, which feels a burden of tremendous shame about her body. In order to protect this vulnerable part and to keep her system from feeling too overwhelmed, Kate has developed a food addiction part of self which eats for comfort to manage and dull the shame.

So what is the answer for Kate…and for us?

Kate’s True Self, holds the keys. We see Kate’s True Self in moments when she is open, loving, and free from criticism of self and others. If Kate were to allow her True Self to lovingly parent and guide her managing parts of self and her burdened, hurting, and vulnerable parts of self, she would find true freedom… more playfulness…self love…wholeness.

This Is Us helps us viewers make sense of our lives. We witness within the characters a dance of parts of self that are formed in the past and carry into the present.  

And, we understand that we can also look inside each of ourselves and see a “family within” created in the past, and needing to connect to and be loved by our own True Selves.

As we look inside, we can say, “This Is Us” and finally experience healing and love.

Ansley Schenck