Michael Bader: Why do we cry at happy endings?
August 9, 2016
The answer explains a lot about the psychology of human behavior.
Say you're watching a movie in which a major character faces loss, danger or abandonment. He or she evades attackers, endures cold, illness, the threat of death — all for he sake of reuniting with a beloved child, spouse or parent.
But we aren't crying — yet.
We start welling up with tears not when the sad situation is occurring but when a happy resolution occurs or is imminent — when the hero survives the trauma, is reunited with the loved one, reaches safety and escapes danger. We cry at the happy ending.
The reason was explained over 60 years ago by psychoanalyst, Joseph Weiss. Weiss explained that we unconsciously allow ourselves to feel distressing feelings only when it's safe to do so. In the movie example, Weiss argued that when the situation is shot through with loss, grief, or danger, we subliminally protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by repressing these feelings. We defend ourselves against being flooded. However, when the story reaches a positive resolution — e.g. when the lovers are reunited or the hero survives the war — then we subliminally decide that it is safe enough to feel the tension, fear, loss, etc. that was there all along. In other words, a "happy ending" is the condition in which it is safe enough to allow painful feelings to surface. The danger of being overwhelmed has passed, and we can feel what was really there the whole time.
A useful parallel might be seen in the experience of being in an extremely cold environment and then entering a warm house. It's only then that a person begins to shiver and "recognizes" in a visceral way how cold he or she has been. When someone is in danger, his or her focus is oriented toward surviving and mastering that danger or distress. The emotions that were appropriate to the situation would have interfered with solving the problem and surviving. It is only safe to feel them when the danger has passed.
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We see an extreme version of this phenomenon in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Prolonged and threatening situations of danger, in relation to which an individual is relatively helpless, are traumatic. To survive, feelings and thoughts have to be repressed. It is only when the person returns to safety that symptoms appear — nightmares, startle reflexes, panic attacks, etc.
This insight about safety explains a lot of what happens in psychotherapy. So many of my patients grew up feeling loss and lost, unprotected and unloved, ignored and neglected. But these feelings are dangerous to know about, to feel too strongly and to express in real time. Children, after all, are dependent and incompletely developed and will go to any lengths to protect their attachment to their caretakers by denying the pain they cause. Children do so by partially repressing painful feelings and perceptions. To the extent that the therapist establishes safety in the relationship, a condition completely specific to the individual patient, these buried feelings can progressively emerge and the patient gets better.
When psychotherapy works, it does so because the therapist has managed to create a relationship that feels safe enough for the patient to face difficult feelings and memories and work toward mastering them.
Safety is not only the precondition for therapeutic progress, but for good relationships in general. People in happy marriages will often talk about how something about their partners enables them to feel safe enough to be themselves, to feel accepted, understood and vulnerable.
We all seek psychological safety in order to face both the pain of living and to enjoy its fruits.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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