Little did I know when I acted on a tip from a friend to watch comedian Nicole Holofcener’s new movie, You Hurt My Feelings, that I wouldn’t be—as I’d hoped—planted on the couch with my wife (a fellow therapist) co-snoozing our way through the evening. Instead, I was wide awake, entranced by some of the most compelling therapy scenes I’ve seen in a movie in recent years.
Let me be clear: by compelling, I don’t mean an impressive display of high-quality therapy. I mean scenes that raise ethical quandaries most therapists have probably thought about at some point, but are squeamish about fully contemplating. For instance, if clients have been in therapy for years and report no tangible progress, are they justified in asking for their money back? How much responsibility should therapists take for clients’ improving or not improving? Do they have an ethical obligation to be versatile, changing their methods to meet clients’ needs on their own terms? When a couple in therapy is mired in contemptuous exchanges, when does nondirectiveness move from being constructive to being a form of therapeutic neglect, unwittingly contributing to destructive communication habits?
You Hurt my Feelings stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus (of Seinfeld and Veep fame) as Beth, a middle-aged writer who has recently completed a novel she hopes will meet with the same acclaim as her earlier memoir. Her therapist husband, Don, gets lured into her insecurities, telling her what he perceives she wants to hear—that her new novel has great promise. Don is played by English actor Tobias Menzies. The movie is a Seinfeld-esque portal into the lives of privileged people in Manhattan going about their daily business, whose interactions and conversations often turn out to be amusingly awkward. Holofcener is masterful at bringing to life all the ways well-intentioned people tell white lies to each other every day. False flattery abounds in the movie, including when Beth exudes unbridled enthusiasm when her son, Eliot (played by Owen Teague), expresses doubts about a play he’s writing: “Are you kidding me? It’s gonna be amazing!” she exclaims. Meanwhile, Eliot is floundering, working at a cannabis dispensary with fellow lost souls, having recently been cheated on by his girlfriend. Still, Beth glosses over this with her success-is-right-around-the-corner attitude and praise.
Spoiler alert: the movie’s inflection point comes when Beth eavesdrops on Don’s conversation with his brother-in-law and learns that he’s not actually a fan of her new novel. Beth can’t get her mind around the notion that Don can love her and not her novel, and his well-intentioned white lie throws her into an emotional tailspin. This underscores one of the movie’s big themes: honesty may be overrated. Is it better to withhold the truth and flatter people, rather than damage their pride and risk upsetting them?
This question pervades Don and Beth’s story, but therapists will likely find Don’s therapy sessions with his clients even more thought-provoking. An entirely different message about truth telling crops up in these scenes, and it has a lot to teach us therapists about the dos and don’ts of our profession. Holofcener zeros in on the relational damage that can occur when partners take off the gloves and weaponize honesty in ways that shred each other’s self-worth, as in the opening scene, when Jonathan and Carolyn are sitting alongside each other on a couch, facing Don during one of their sessions.
The partners’ contempt for one another is palpable. Carolyn rails at Jonathan for not looking at her when she speaks; his reaction is a sardonic smile. The best Don can offer is an old couple’s therapy staple: “Carolyn, maybe if Jonathan repeats back to you what you’ve said, that would help you feel heard?”
Enraged, she rebuts, “No, I don’t need him to repeat back to me what I just said. I need him to fucking look at me!” Don sits back looking stymied as Jonathan and Carolyn go at each other in increasingly nastier ways, culminating in Jonathan calling Carolyn a “fucking bitch,” with her hurling back, “I’m a fucking bitch! Did you hear that? I’m a fucking bitch—the one who does everything for you, all the time!”
Eventually, Jonathan pleads with Don, “You want to intervene here? I mean, we can do this at home.”
Seeming to feel it isn’t within his scope of practice to offer anything practical, Don replies, “Um, well, both of you know a more productive way to communicate, so how about we try again with a little less contempt, and more honest feelings?”
“Okay, here’s a more honest feeling,” Jonathan replies. “We’ve been coming here a long time, and nothing changes.”
By this point in the movie, my wife and I were having our own squabble. She wanted to watch the movie uninterrupted, for its entertainment value, but I kept having the urge to pause it and weigh in with suggestions about how Don could alter Jonathan and Carolyn’s conflict, imagining the ways he might unshackle himself from this noninterventionist way of conducting therapy and be of practical benefit to his clients. Finally, I acquiesced: my countertransferential reactions to Don’s trying to control his countertransference wasn’t conducive to enjoyable movie watching. Instead, I grabbed a pencil and surreptitiously wrote down what I’d say to Don if he were my colleague.
It’s justifiable to react to criticism with criticism, but this creates and feeds a negative stalemate. It takes courage to not just retaliate in kind. Tell them this!
Be more heavy-handed in stopping the bloodbath. Say, “Could I please get you both to dial it back? It’s painful for me to watch you treat each other this way. Is it painful for either of you to be going through it?”
Get at the vulnerable emotions behind the invulnerable ones. Say, “Carolyn, I can tell you’re angry because Jonathan doesn’t look at you when you’re speaking. Any hurt feelings there?”
Get them to reframe criticisms as wishes or longings. Say, “Carolyn, you’re clearly miffed that Jonathan doesn’t look your way when you’re talking. I know you want him to look at you. What other needs are at play here? What do you wish he would say or do that would put you at ease?”
Call them out on their nasty word choices. Say, “Jonathan, cruel name calling isn’t going to get you what you want. What were you experiencing in that moment when you called Carolyn the name I don’t want to repeat? Hurt? Shame? Rejection?”
Coax more ownership of each partner’s contribution to the contemptuous exchange. Say, “Jonathan, can you see how when you smile in a mocking way, it leaves Carolyn feeling disrespected and hurt?”
Counter the assumption that there’s malicious intent behind a comment or gesture. Say, “Carolyn, you assume Jonathan is being passive-aggressive. What if he’s being indirect because he fears another irresolvable conflict will erupt if he’s direct?
Ironically, deeper into the movie, we discover that Carolyn and Jonathan are at last aligned on one matter: the desire to end therapy, believing it’s been of no benefit, and to be refunded the $33,000 they’ve put into it over two years. Although I couldn’t find anything online about Holofcener’s having any gripe with psychotherapy, it was hard for me to watch these scenes and not imagine that she had some personal experience that prompted her to question therapists’ business model. Maybe, I thought, she thinks it’s arrogant for clinicians to charge steep fees regardless of their effectiveness.
Don’s response to the couple’s demand reveals a fairly common therapy shibboleth: “I try do my best, Jonathan, but honestly, I can’t be the one to solve your problems. You have to solve your own problems, and I’m here to help you do that.”
Carolyn and Jonathan persist, protesting that Don’s approach to therapy hasn’t helped, and that they deserve their money back. With his back up against the wall, Don convinces himself a moment of brutal honesty is necessary: “I’m going to tell you something that I think probably is worth your money, and I feel like it is my job as your therapist to say: I think you need to consider separating. You want to stop therapy. Get a divorce.”
Carolyn and Jonathan storm out the office, with Jonathan making a doorknob remark: “By the way, doctor, we’re not paying for this session!”
Truth be told, I found myself siding with Jonathan and Carolyn—at least in the abstract—about being reimbursed for a style of therapy that was ultimately unhelpful. I cross my fingers that I’ll never have to face this predicament myself or feel ethically obligated to convert some abstract principle into a hefty refund. In my mind, the actor playing Don convincingly embodied the type of therapist who’s overcommitted to nondirectiveness and bent on trying to make his clients fit the therapy, not the other way around. Then, when called out, he fobbed them off with claims about clients’ needing to be their own change agents, sidestepping any discussion about where his therapy may have been ineffectual. In a final act of radical candor, he ripped the band-aid off and advised them to get divorced, not to try a sort of therapy different from the one he was offering—a more interventionist one, something better suited for high-conflict couples.
Overall, You Hurt My Feelings is a story about the ethics of truth telling, the emotional hurt caused by too much or too little interpersonal honesty. Through the everyday actions of Don and Beth, Holofcener raises questions that largely go unanswered: Are humans so delicate that we need exaggerated praise to protect our egos? Or does being overly generous with praise lead to false confidence, which, sooner or later, comes crashing down? In the therapy scenes, I got the impression that Holofcener may have wanted to caricaturize an old-school, exploratory approach to therapy, where therapists take a hands-off approach. If so, she’s highlighting a recent trend I’ve noticed, where clients want to walk away from sessions demonstrably changed, with tangible ways of becoming the best version of themselves. They want not only wise counsel from therapists, but honest, usable feedback and skill-building tools. They want not just an emotional cheerleader, but a teller of hard truths.
In the end, I’d give the movie two thumbs-up as a teaching tool that therapists could use to debate the merits and drawbacks of nondirective therapy. But if that sounds like a boring thing to do on a Friday night, there’s plenty of story to enjoy, for therapists and nontherapists alike. The everyday dramas of Holofcener’s characters, though seemingly petty and mundane, are utterly amusing in their all-too-humanness.
Enrico Gnaulati, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who’s been in private practice for more than 25 years and authored four books, including his latest, Flourishing Love: A Secular Guide to Lasting Intimate Relationships.