We seek distractions from our current feeling state by turning on the TV just like earlier people went to the live theater. We also seek to project our feelings onto characters on TV and engage in an ongoing projective-identification process in which what we project onto characters is also what we take back in through identification. We express our own feelings through the characters on TV, not only in dramas, situational comedies, or tragedies but also the whole projective and introjective (an unconscious defense mechanism in which the characteristics of another person are incorporated into one’s own psyche) world that we share with TV anchors on channels such as CNN or MSNBC. We can become addicted to watching specific TV commentators, extending way beyond their message’s content. For instance, Rachel Maddow has many fans, just like the comedy and political commentary host Bill Maher. We laugh along, empathize, and sometimes argue with them in our minds. We are fully engaged, and this can compete with “real life” personal contacts, in that we sometimes prefer their company to those we are living with.

In dramas, it is obvious that we are gratified by being seduced into laughing and crying with characters, sometimes having not only an evacuative catharsis but often a very symbolically meaningful one. Sometimes it is through empathy with film characters in movies and TV that repressed pain and latent longings are opened up. But we also project our yearnings, fears, anxieties, and depressive pain into these characters, which we may have been very defensive against feeling in our daily lives. We can do this with TV anchors and commentators, especially those who have full program platforms, including Lawrence O’Donnell, Brian Williams, “Morning Joe” Scarborough with Mika Brzezinski, and Anderson Cooper.

We can both lose ourselves and find ourselves through identification with film and TV characters. However, we can also lose shame-ridden, enraged parts of ourselves, while we luxuriate in the feelings of triumph, romantic love, and ambitious pride of achievement in TV characters. We can engage in splitting off the emptiness or loneliness that we are afraid to feel in this process. Then we select programs to feel more desirable feelings of love or romance through characters in films and shows on TV. We can also split off our sociopathic, hostile aggression affects, and see them only through TV and film characters or in unsavory political characters. We can see them in the character of Bernie Madoff in his documentary

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The Madoff Affair (2021) or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). We can then keep our own sociopathic tendencies as repressed thoughts (out of our consciousness) or dissociated effects and impulses that are tied in with internalized object relations associations. These links to important people in our early lives consist of our sense of self and internal objects (in the language of psychoanalysis objects are usually persons, parts of persons such as the mother’s breast, or symbols of one) that are perpetually linked in our formative psychic structure. Sometimes the self and object parts are incorporated viscerally and sometimes they are connected cognitively and in imagery.

When emotionally enthralled with TV programs, films, and news commentary, we also go beyond vicariously expressing our emotions by projecting them into others, including unconsciously identifying with their losses and depressions. Feeling the tragic fate of characters and real-life people in the news on TV may allow us to tolerate and even process the anxiety, rage, and confusion of separation in relationship break-ups. We can project out our guilt and grief of loss as we see the suffering of those out in the world through the news, sometimes those actually dying in intensive care units with COVID on TV. Watching them, as well as the fictional characters on TV or the modern reality show, we can go through stages of developmental separation, abandonment trauma, and mourning of losses that we have avoided in our real-life relationships.

A particular drama based on true events Is the four-episode miniseries Unorthodox (2021). This real-life inspired drama concerns a woman, Esty Shapiro, who left the cult of the Hassidic community and made it big in the world of fashion and on the world stage. The series is about all the members of her family and their relationship with this mother of four. She opened up to the outside world, became rich through her authentic creative strivings, and changed all her values and beliefs, which her children and relatives needed to adapt to. Etsy also ditched a Jewish husband from the Hassidic community, married an Italian man, and then repaired her sustained friendship with her former husband by welcoming his new fiancé into the fold of her transforming family. It’s difficult to see this fairytale come true reach its dramatic climax and feel its healing reconciliation come to an end. We are left as viewers, returning to all the internal themes of our vicarious emotional journey. Our vicarious journey manifests internally as emotional

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yearnings and voices within us.

A personal example brings back heartbreak as well as the vicarious experience that allowed grievous pain to transform into creative self-expression. It was at a time four decades ago, when I suffered the agony of not only the loss of a female friendship but also the shame and guilt feelings following rejection due to my missteps in a close friendship with a woman. I was married to a man and had previously survived heterosexual losses in love, but the pain of losing a female friend who felt I was unable to let her speak sufficiently became a trauma that repeated earlier trauma and needed repair. By empathizing with a brilliant woman author of the 19th century, I creatively found my own voice in the process of healing.

My potential voice resonated with the hard-won voice of Charlotte Brontë. The struggle for a woman to write and be an author in a patriarchal literary world became the struggle to express the profound and violent feelings within us related to unrequited love. In writing my two well-known books on creative women authors and artists—The Compulsion to Create: Women Writers and Their Demon Lovers (1993/2013) and The Creative Mystique: From Red Shoes Frenzy to Love and Creativity (1996/2014)—I discovered Charlotte Brontë. I found a woman who had been blocked by external circumstances from having her own voice free herself through the literary word and her literary alter ego character in 19th century novels. Charlotte Brontë’s psychological journey was full of valor, and I experienced her go beyond her outwardly expressive character in the most popular novel Jane Eyre (1847) to the deeply introspective psychological journey in her alter ego character Lucy Snowe from her last novel Villette (1853). She was actually able to mourn in Villette and process the grief of both unrequited love and separating from an oedipal love that became a mutual romantic and vulnerable human connection with a man. Charlotte Brontë was angry at her father or father figures in her writing, and she transformed it into the capacity for mutual love with a man, allowing herself to marry in real life after writing Villette.

However, today we can find that identification with a TV movie character, like Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were (1973), evokes agony in the TV format. First seeing Streisand’s character’s agony in the movie theater, the movie was slightly less absorbing than when seeing it again on TV. For all of us, our rage may be temporarily put aside while we luxuriate in the mournful grief of a woman suffering the loss of “her best friend”—the man

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she fell in love with—as the man (Robert Redford) finds her to be “too much” for him. The man cannot tolerate the woman’s outspoken activist personality when it’s unabashedly expressed. They get back together, and we sigh in relief, but then at the end, the tragedy of their polarized beliefs again drives them apart. We may mourn the wished for “happy ending.” It hurts!!!

We also have the cathartic expression of hate for certain politicians on TV and can share a mutual hate with a mate or friend. Remembering Winnicott’s “Hate in the Counter-Transference” (The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1994), we have hate in the countertransference with TV characters, despised politicians on TV, or villains in dramas such as Outlander (2014-present, on the Starz television network), where a despicable thug rapes the daughter of the male and female stars back in the 17th century. We join the hatred of the father, but we also stand with his daughter with pride when she faces her rapist. We can feel hatred transform too, as the daughter learns to love the child she will bear from her rapist.

But movies have been around for a long time, and TV dramas with ongoing episodes have also become prominent on Netflix and other streaming services as well as Cable channels now. What is probably the newest is the empathic engagement with 24-hour TV cycle anchors who we see daily. What might be new, and what might have become more prominent with our stay-home isolation during the pandemic, is how captivated we can become with the “stars” of TV news commentary. TV anchors might be criticized for lacking objectivity and editorializing while supposedly “reporting” the news, but the ones that appeal to us individually become “friends” who we can count on each day to bring us into the horrors and traumas of the world with a personal flair and a unique personality that we can be entertained by as if watching Johnny Carson on the classic Tonight Show (1962-1992). Although we confront the horrible realities of the world with them, we are possibly escaping from our own depressing Internal World realities.

Desired Distractions from Our Internal World

We can ask ourselves at any one moment after turning on the TV, how much is our impulse to do so related to escaping from an emptiness, anxiety, or painful wounding agony within us that we are navigating away from at the moment? Perhaps we are escaping grief and loss, a painful sadness of an absence, or even a huge internal

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Furthermore, we may also find certain parts of our emotional selves that we have not fully engaged with when we turn on the TV. Perhaps a mother-daughter scene will awaken the tearful grief of longing, despair, and loss. Or perhaps a scene of a couple resolving their conflicts and finding their love again will engage us in a passionate emotional trip (e.g., Claire and Jamie in Outlander resolving conflicts and continually proving their love by saving each other’s lives).

I will not be commenting here about YouTube and podcasts, but those are also a large part of the 2022 media landscape. YouTube videos give us a snapshot or sometimes hours-long auditory and visual information as well as occasions for empathic resonance. Podcasts also give us exposure to the monologues of others, which are of unequal value.

But TV and Other Electronic Media are not Psychotherapy

A word of caution is in order here. Although I write this as a woman writer, I am also a clinical psychologist who practices psychoanalytic psychotherapy, group and couples therapy, and psychoanalysis. I know that vicarious experiences through media cannot be a substitute for the first-hand emotional and transferential engagement in psychotherapy. Being in the therapeutic moment allows another to enter our unconscious and help us transform a closed-off internal world. We cannot do this ourselves by just reading books or watching TV dramas, commentaries, and movies.

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Susan Kavaler-Adler

Susan Kavaler-Adler, PhD, D Litt, ABPP, NCPsyA, is a Fellow of the American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis and is the Founder and Executive Director of the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Dr. Kavaler-Adler has practiced as a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and psychoanalyst for over 45 years. An author and theorist in the field of object relations and psychoanalytic practice, she has published six books and over 70 articles, receiving 16 awards for her writing. Dr. Kavaler-Adler is a senior supervisor and training analyst who has monthly groups in online experiential supervision, writing, and mourning as a healing developmental process. Her website is www.kavaleradler.com and she can be contacted at drkavaleradler@gmail.com.

How to Cite This:

Kavaler-Adler, S. (2022). Emotional engagement with media: An object relations perspective. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 48-53.

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