Why I'm In Therapy For My Attachment to Fictional Characters...

Yes, read the title and read it again. No, you're not mistaken. Let it out. Release your inner Maura Higgins...

I mean...I'm not, unfortunately.

Of course, it's totally okay if you don't understand. Hey, I didn't for a bloody long time. But I know that there will be others out there that have experienced this too, and if it resonates with just one person, then this website is doing it's job.

So...here I go.

Back in the 1950's, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl introduced the concept of something called a 'parasocial relationship', a one-sided emotional connection between an individual and a figure in the media.

The individual knows so much about the subject figure that they feel a very close connection to them, but reciprocation is, of course, impossible.

Now, I'm going to make a pretty confident assumption that everybody has experienced this to a certain degree. You may be sitting there thinking "nope, definitely not me", but as the audience, if we didn't invest emotionally in media figures, the whole industry would pretty much collapse.

Think about it. You wouldn't sit down at 9PM every week for an episode of Peaky Blinders if you didn't give a hoot about Tommy Shelby.

You wouldn't have had a nervous breakdown at the end of A Star is Born if you weren't rooting for Jackson and Ally's relationship.

The whole nation wouldn't have been talking about it being

...........Rebekah Vardy's account

if we didn't care for celebrity lifestyle and the drama within it.

You see what I mean?

To invest our time in things, we have to care about them. It's just human nature.

But, of course, investing too much of our time in anything can become unhealthy, especially when it starts to impact other areas of our life negatively. And whilst for most people it never does reach that extent, for some it does. For me, it definitely did.

And I think it's important that I talk about why.

Now, prior to this year, I'd been in therapy before. In fact, I've been in and out since I was about 14 years old, and it's absolutely no coincidence that I experienced my first parasocial loss when I was, you guessed it, about 14 years old.

They were a fictional couple in a TV show, and I was absolutely infatuated with them for 3 years. I'd never experienced anything like it before, in fact I didn't know it was possible to feel so strongly about something that wasn't even real.

But, I did. And everybody knew about it. My friends, my family, even some of my bloody school teachers knew. Words such as "freak" and "saddo" were thrown my way quite casually, albeit never with malicious intent, and I just kind of normalised it. I thought it was true, after all.

So you can imagine that when those characters left the show, I felt completely isolated. I'd get out of bed, go to school, do everything as normal as though I wasn't in a state of constant devastation. And then, when I went to bed, I'd cry hysterically on my own until I fell asleep.

Obviously, those closest to me could tell that something just wasn't right. I honestly felt like I was grieving, but I was far too embarrassed to speak up about why. So, I ended up in therapy, but the problem was never addressed.

I told my therapist about an abundance of things; hell, my self-esteem was terrible, I always felt like a let down, I was scared of failure - and those things were all true. But I knew in my heart what the real reason was, I just didn't have the courage to say anything.

I was pathetic, I was overreacting and it wasn't real. Speaking up wasn't an option.

And, because I never spoke about it, naturally it happened again. And again. And again. Turns out it's a maladaptive coping mechanism...one that I'm still trying to break today.

Going back to the trusty diagrams, let me show you a simplified version of why it happens, starting at the top and working clockwise.

(Of course, there are a lot of theories on why people develop parasocial relationships, but this is the closest for me personally. It's based around something called the 'Absorption Addiction Model')

Now, by definition, an attachment is an emotional bond, a personal connection. It doesn't matter what the subject of the attachment is - your emotions are involved, so of course losing it is going to hurt.

And that's something I never understood, all until I started to open up. Being honest, both with others and with myself, too.

Alongside my therapist, I've come to learn that it is grief that I experience. Disenfranchised grief, of course, but grief nonetheless. So, earlier this year, when I found out that the character of Robert Sugden was leaving Emmerdale...

**I'll pause momentarily so you can adjust. Yes, a soap character. Yes, I do know he's not real. Yes, "get a grip" - thanks for that advice**

...I knew that my reaction wasn't something I could manage on my own. I felt hopeless, angry, frustrated, hurt, lonely and extremely distressed. I still do.

But then again, how could I not?

Hear me out.

For five whole years, that character has been a constant, seeing me through my GCSE's, my first relationship and the breakdown of such, my A-Levels, the move to university...all of it. Of course, I know the character's entire story too. It was something I turned to when I felt lost in my own life.

So, losing that? It feels like losing a close friend.

And I know at first that sounds strange, but I promise you, it kind of isn’t. At all.

I was recently introduced to the psychological concept of 'alief' and what that means in terms of attachment to parasocial figures. Basically, an alief is an automatic belief-like response to something, often opposing our actual beliefs.

For example, a person watching a horror movie will believe that they are safe, but react in fear because of their alief that they are in danger. The individual knows that it's just a film, but the alief is what triggers the emotional response, regardless of what the actual belief is.

So, whilst I believe that Robert Sugden is not a real person, I alieve that he is a real person. It's not that I choose to react so terribly to his departure...the alief over-powers the belief, and my mind, body and soul respond accordingly.

And, if there are people thinking that's peak ''freak'' behaviour, well that's absolutely okay. My emotions present themselves in mysterious ways. I'm trying not to apologise for it, because honestly?

I don't think anyone should ever have to be sorry for how they feel.

Dr Jennifer Barnes did an incredibly engaging TED talk on our perceived closeness with fictional characters and the real-world consequences of such (if you're still struggling to grasp all of this, it really is worth a watch), and she said this:

It seems that what matters is how close you feel to the person, not whether or not they are real.

And once I started looking at parasocial relationships like this, only then did I start being kinder to myself.

Trust me, there are a lot of things in this life that I desperately want.

Experiencing this much emotional pain over something that isn't real? That's not one of them.

But it is what it is, and we are who we are, and ridiculing myself for my emotions is never going to be helpful.

So, perhaps you're in Category 1 - Everything I'm saying makes complete sense to you. You've been through it, perhaps to the same extremity as me, perhaps not, or perhaps worse. That's fine. Hey, welcome to the squad! You're not crazy, or stupid, or a 'saddo' - you've formed an emotional connection with something. It's just as okay to feel the negative emotions as it is the positive ones.

Alternatively, you're in Category 2 - You've never experienced anything like this before and you can't imagine you ever will. That's also fine. You'll have emotional connections with other things, of course. Similarly, it's just as okay to feel the negative emotions as it is the positive ones.

The fact of the matter is, we are all wired differently. Physically, psychologically, emotionally - our life experiences were never really meant to be the same.

But there certainly isn't a right and a wrong.

So, if you take anything from this at all, let it be that feelings are there to be felt. Not to be justified, and certainly not to be criticised.

Be kinder to each other. Be kinder to yourself.

That's a category we can all be in, for sure.

All the love,

Chlo xx


County Durham, United Kingdom

© 2020 this japanese crane - chloe nattrass.