Pandemic Theme Hints: Who else forgot that Groundhog Day has a happy ending?
I tend to use a lot of metaphors when I work with my clients. It’s a technique that got drilled into me during my training in Functional Family Therapy for a practicum placement back in grad school. In FFT, we call it “theme hints” and the general idea is that it’s easier for clients to get on the same page as their therapist when we have a common language; easier to feel like we’re going through the same struggles when there’s a simile or metaphor that we can agree applies to our current situation.
Since the pandemic started earlier this year, I’ve found myself in the interesting position of not only using theme hints to establish common language between myself and my individual clients, but in using the SAME themes across different clients in order to navigate what seem to be very common concerns among the majority, if not the entirety, of my caseload: coping with an increased sense of isolation, anxiety related to the uncertainty of the future, an increasing sense of powerlessness regarding one’s circumstances, and the mind-numbing sameness of the day-to-day in this “new normal.”
The one theme that seemed to rush to the front of many clients’ consciousness is Harold Ramis’ 1993 existential comedy Groundhog Day. In the film a cynical weatherman, Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray), finds himself trapped in a time loop while covering the titular holiday’s festivities in Punxsutawney, PA. As Phil relives the same events over and over and over again, he becomes increasingly distraught and desperate for something, anything to break up the brutal monotony of his repetitive days. Sound relatable? Yeah, same for me.
I have to admit that I didn’t capitalize on this theme when it was first introduced to me by numerous clients, it simply became a shorthand for us to acknowledge the general difficulties of pandemic living. “On a scale from zero to Groundhog Day, how deep is your current sense of existential dread?” That sort of thing. It wasn’t until a session I had with a specific client that the Groundhog Day theme pivoted in such a way that it bumped right to the top of my “go-to” list of metaphors (recharging batteries, navigating during a storm, and changing the radio station are some of my other favorites, if you were wondering).
So there I am, many months into the pandemic, talking with a client who has been working diligently – mostly through behavioral activation, graded task assignment, and pleasant activity scheduling – to create a more supportive daily routine with some “manufactured spontaneity” thrown in for good measure. We were reflecting on their progress, calling back the previously agreed-upon Groundhog Day theme, and my client remarked “You know, I forgot for a while that Groundhog Day has a happy ending,” and, no joke, it felt like a revelation. I realized that I, too, had really been focusing on Phil’s mindset in the first half of the film, relating only to how much he disliked his circumstances and felt imprisoned by them. I had forgotten about the whole second half of the movie!
In Groundhog Day, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell), reframes the time loop for Phil, noting “Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.” This line marks the major pivot point in the film, with Phil then moving away from dread and despair and into a phase of growth and personal development. For my client, they found that they could reframe their “monotony” as “predictability,” which then provided them with more perceived stability as they pursued their behavior modifications. Without the opportunity for them to disengage by seeking out their preferred pre-pandemic social activities, my client instead leaned into the daily repetitiveness as a means of establishing consistency. The sameness of each passing day formed the foundation for observing the impact of these small changes over an extended period of time. Estimates for the amount of time Phil spends in the Groundhog Day time loop range from 10-50 years, but my client accomplished these changes in a matter of months. Not too shabby.
In the weeks following that session, I’ve explored shifting the Groundhog Day theme in a similar way with some of my other clients and have found them to be pretty receptive to it. We discuss how Phil’s change in character seems rooted in his acceptance of his current circumstances and embracing what he can actually control: his behavior and his point of view… and then we talk about applying that to OUR time-loop, the day-to-day sameness we’ve been coping with for the majority of this year. Because here’s the thing: If we can relate so strongly to Phil at the beginning of the movie, surely we must also be capable of relating to him at the end of it.