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Jonah Hill's Documentary & The Power of Hands-On Therapy


There's been a lot of buzz about Jonah Hill's new Netflix documentary, Stutz. Hill gets pretty introspective and vulnerable, as one would hope in a film with ongoing therapy as its focus. The tools presented by his therapist, Phil Stutz, include not only ways of looking at your problems, but practical approaches to working through them in real time. Stutz and Hill have a very close relationship, which some psychologists mind find to be a boundary breach: it's up to each viewer to decide.

Stutz's tools have a lot of parallels to the Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, Humanistic Psychology, Narrative Therapy, and Internal Family Systems theories we use in our practice at Groundswell. If you're already a client, you may be familiar with some of these. Let's take a closer look at some of them here.

First off is the Reality. According to Phil Stutz, the Reality is that pain is unavoidable, and that your entire life, you will never quite be done working on yourself. It can be a lot to swallow. In early sessions at Groundswell, the therapist and the client co-write goals for treatment. I like to emphasize the Humanistic outlook during this stage: that you (as the client) are capable of persevering, and that you, not me, are the expert of your own life. In order for real progress to occur, you have to be all in on this work, and you have to own your part of it.

Second is Life Force, which seems to come from a simplified version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Stutz, Maslow, and lots of scholars in between, emphasize that the foundation is more bodily: immediate needs like safety, nutrition, hydration, shelter. Only when we take care of these physical necessities can we move on to higher, more interpersonal and cerebral goals. This also parallels with Groundswell's namesake, grounding techniques, which we use in many sessions to assist clients in trauma work and anxiety management. Bringing them back to their physical sensations and breath encourages the parasympathetic response and reduces internal panic.

Next are two concepts which may confuse some at first: Part X and the Shadow. Part X is the villain inside you: that consistent negative inner monologue telling you that you're not good enough and won't make it. In Internal Family Systems work, the "firefighters and managers" (defense mechanisms with varying degrees of destructive results) have a similar voice. Despite all the effort we put into therapy, Part X will always exist to some degree. The Shadow, on the other hand, is your repressed self, or your inner child who feels neglected and forgotten. It's similar to the "exiles" in IFS work, and Stutz works with Jonah Hill to visually illustrate and dialogue with his Shadow. This is one of my favorite parts of the documentary so I won't spoil it for you!

This brings us to the Maze, shown on a Phil Stutz drawing in the picture above. The Maze is all of the inconsequential crap that it's easy to get caught up in, but that distracts you from your goals. In Narrative Therapy, working through the Maze involves reprogramming our language and even the way we think about problems, editing out the aspects that are out of our control. This is one of the most difficult aspects of any therapeutic journey: keeping out of the "problem narratives," or leaving yourself crumbs to find your way out of the Maze.

Finally, Stutz - in one of the more humorous moments of the film - illustrates the concept of the String of Pearls. He tells Jonah that every single action we take is just adding a new pearl onto a long string, and that we must value each pearl as the same size, no matter what the action is. Some have a smudge, or "a turd" as he calls it, some are shiny and beautiful. This reminds me of rating scale questions I use with clients in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy: providing perspective in each situation, but ultimately concentrating on continuing to move forward.

According to Stutz and Hill, sometimes (as in the depths of their grief processes) adding the next pearl to the string is all we can do. It eventually does become easier, although remembering the Reality in the beginning, we must acknowledge that the struggle never completely goes away. If any of these ideas are intriguing or troubling, I encourage you to watch Stutz on Netflix, and to bring up some of the concepts in your next therapy session!

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