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Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

This is part II of a series about mental health in media. If you are so inclined, please be sure to read Part I- They Really Were on A Break: Couples Therapy with Ross and Rachel.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the perennial holiday classic by John Hughes is a classic for many reasons, the indomitable comedy everyman John Candy, and the absurdist humor embodied by Steve Martin to name a few. However, one aspect that makes it a classic that goes underexamined and underappreciated is the ways in which it explores the mental health struggles of the main characters.

One of the first things that come to mind for me viewing this favorite film from the perspective of a therapist is that one key therapeutic model that would be profoundly helpful for Steve Martin’s Neal Page, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT.) Generally, ACT is about how it is ineffective and harmful to try to control painful emotions or experiences, and how it doesn’t typically work and can cause even more harm. Instead, by practicing mindfulness, understanding and focusing on your values, and committed action we are able to change behavior as well as soften the effects of difficult experiences. 

What this can look like in practice is allowing ourselves to experience our feelings as opposed to trying to deny or suppress them. It is also about being present and attuned to what is happening around us. Further, if we take the time to understand our values, we can use them as a way to understand how best to make decisions in our lives.

Neal did none of this and it likely contributed to his terrible mood that came from such awful experiences. While done to hilarious effect, had he practiced ACT techniques, he probably would have to manage things in a much healthier way. With ACT it is important to acknowledge that sometimes things don’t go how we would want, and outright can just be terrible. This is a fact, it happens, and trying to fight this is going to usually result in more distress. So, how could Neal use these tools to manage the situation better? 

Mindfulness is a powerful tool, the more present we are the more we are disconnecting the power that negative thoughts have over us. Further, if we are practicing mindfulness, we are able to recognize what we are experiencing without judgment and have a clearer mind to address the issue. For example, if Neal was practicing mindfulness, he might recognize that his way of thinking at the moment is feeding into his frustration. In being able to recognize a frustrating situation as well as recognizing our negative thoughts, we take some of the power away from them and are better able to understand why we are reacting the way we are. 

If Neal was focused on committed action, he would recognize the changes he needs to make and put that into action. For example, reminding himself it is not anyone’s fault that his flight was canceled, and then focusing on how to manage his feelings and actions to aid him in getting home smoothly and safely. Lastly, focusing on his values would help as well. Even if the situation is frustrating, he could still make decisions based on what is important to him, this is one of the last things we can do to cope with a difficult situation. It may not change the outcome, but it does change how we feel about our decisions along the way.

John Candy’s Del Griffith also grapples with his own struggles. He is secretly mourning the loss of his wife and grappling with how to find a connection with others, as that is something that he is missing and something he knows is important to his values. Del is actually managing his struggles in a healthier way than Neal is, he is grasping for answers and for help and may be doing it in a way that may be difficult for someone like Neal, but he is actually addressing his needs head-on. 

Grief takes many forms and people need to process it in whatever way they need so long as it is healthy, Del is straddling the line of what is healthy and what is not but ultimately due to his strong understanding of his own values, mindfulness, and committed action he is making great strides.

In one of the most brilliant aspects of this already brilliant movie these two people who are struggling separately and alone come together and find that one of the most healing things we can do is reach out to others for help and support. Ultimately, this is a movie about connecting with others and doing the work to better yourself even if everything goes wrong along the way — and as we see — things can go terribly wrong. If you’re struggling with mental health, therapy may help. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to learn more about individual, family, and couples counseling in Chicago.

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