Using Movies to Transform
A 3-Step Process for Healing
by Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., M.F.T.
A Sufi master once said: "If you think your
work in life is finished and you are still alive, it isn't."
What this simple statement acknowledges is that no matter
how we manage our lives they will always be beset by challenges,
which can often be difficult and painful. The trick is this:
how to avoid becoming unbearably burdened and wounded by them?
Though life may feel precarious at times,
it is also made up of a series of wonderful events: we are
hired for the job we've always wanted, the man or woman of
our dreams falls head over heals in love with us, a child
is born. Life is good. Finally, we find ourselves just where
we want to be. Things seem perfect and settled. Somewhere
in our heart, we know they will remain this way forever.
But life by definition is a constant series
of changes. Change is inevitable, permanence, an illusion.
In fact, if our secret desire for permanence ever were fulfilled,
the result would be akin to death. "Happily" life refuses
to let us to forget this fact for long.
Crises often seem to happen to us just when
things are going their best. Just when we feel we've finally
"gotten it right" our bubble of bliss bursts. The thing we
thought would never happen to us happens. And in the empty
aftermath, our future seems not only unclear and uncertain,
it looks completely unacceptable.
Be it the death of a parent, a divorce, the
loss of an important job, a serious illness or disability,
this change can be a psychological cataclysm. Suddenly nothing
seems fixed or stable any more. We feel deeply hurt and disoriented,
as if our very emotional survival is at stake. It seems there
is no way we can possibly bear the pain. At such times it's
easy to wonder if we will ever find the hope necessary to
continue on and heal our wounds or will we be emotionally
crippled for the rest of our life.
Such fears can even be aroused by smaller,
everyday disappointments. Somebody rear-ends our car, we miss
a plane, critical computer data is lost. Plans get changed,
promises get broke, no one avoids learning what it means to
loose in the game of life. As a result we can easily become
sad or angry. Our future can seem bleak and dark. If a string
of such losses runs on for a while, we might despair of ever
seeing a brighter future. At such times the important question
to ask is how do we go about each death of these individual
expectations without giving in to the death of our spirit?
Step 1. -- Changing Negative Beliefs
Surprisingly, the crux of our healing lies
in the very act of asking our self this crucial question.
The first step is to look closely at the story we tell our
self about our self. What explanation do we hold for our seemingly
unending struggle with loss and disappointment? Becoming conscious
of these explanations or negative beliefs about our self can
put us on the road to healing and growth.
These negative beliefs can take many forms
but typically they fall into one of the following three categories:
- I am suffering because I'm a "victim."
- If it hurts, it must be good for me.
- I deserve this pain because I made
Such beliefs can actually injure us if we
accept them. They can make us deeply depressed or anxious.
Therefore we need to examine our beliefs about our self and
if we find we hold some version of these beliefs, we must
change them. But sometimes, such beliefs can be so deeply
ingrained in our view of the world we don't even know they
are there. The first step to changing them is to become aware
One way to accomplish this is to look at the
feedback you are already probably receiving. Think back through
your life carefully. Perhaps friends have talked to you about
this belief and told you that it is distorted and untrue.
Perhaps your own intuition has given you similar messages.
The following is an exercise I sometimes give
my clients to assist them in examining ingrained negative
beliefs about themselves.
Exercise 1. Negative Belief Cost-Benefit
If you find you hold a negative, self-defeating
belief about yourself and would like to learn how to let go
of it, start by investigating its advantages and disadvantages.
Use this form to guide you. If you find you have more than
one negative belief, start with the most obvious, then repeat
the process for the others.
the belief you want to change:
of believing this:
of believing This:
you could believe something else, it would be:
You may discover that there are some important
reasons why you have held on to your negative belief(s). But
those reasons, no matter how right they may feel, don't make
the negative beliefs true. Whenever one of them pops up in
your mind again, remember why it is there, and let it gently
go. Try weighing it against the alternate belief you entered
in the bottom box. Open your mind to the possibility that
the alternate view may be a truer representation of your reality.
Be patient. By continually questioning yourself about your
negative beliefs and weighing them against more positive explanations
for your lot in life, change is possible. But change won't
take place overnight. Like moving into a new house or city,
changing your beliefs about yourself may take some getting
used to. Asking the right questions can be a crucial first
step toward learning to live a fuller, more rewarding life
despite your losses and disappointments.
Step 2. -- Processing Grief
After examining how your mind reacts to loss,
an important second step is to examine how your body reacts
as well. You need to understand how you grieve. First, open
your mind to the idea that grief is a necessary part of any
healthy human life. Consider the following facts:
- Grief is an inevitable part of living.
- Grief is a natural consequence of small
or large losses and disappointments.
- Though we share common grief reactions,
each person's experience of loss and grief is unique.
- Grief can appear in different kinds of
emotional experiences, such as sadness, depression, despair,
anger, irritability, frustration and more. Underneaththese
feelings usually lies a hurt about someone or something
we need to let go of, to detach from.
- Grief - whether it's about small or large
losses - is a process that unfolds naturally when we become
aware of this underlying pain. Grieving can become a healing
and even transformative process when we acknowledge,
experience, and express this pain with a compassionate heart.
For some, grieving comes naturally. But for
others, grief is like a strange and frightening landscape,
seldom if ever visited. If it feels like grief is unnaturally
difficult for you, there are many ways to support the grieving
process, such as counseling with a therapist, joining a support
group, talking to a good friend, reading a book about your
specific struggle, sitting in meditation or taking a walk
Another method you may not have considered
is to watch a movie with conscious intent. You may be surprised
at how a simple movie viewing experience can help dissolve
blocked up emotions and aid us in exploring our grief with
compassion, especially if done with the proper "set and setting".
Exercise 2. Learning to be with Your
Pain in a Compassionate Way
Watching a sad movie can be a powerful catalyst.
If you feel you need to get more in touch with your pain about
a loss or disappointment and have a good cry, try watching
a movie with conscious awareness.
Preparing for each viewing session is critical.
Sit comfortably. Let your attention move effortlessly, without
strain, first to your body then to your breath. Simply inhale
and exhale naturally. Follow your breath in this innocent,
watchful way for a while. Notice any spots where there's tension
or holding. As you grow aware of them, let your breath travel
into these spots. To release tension you may experiment with
"breathing into" any part of your body that feels strained.
Never force your breath.
Your gentle attention is sufficient to help
you become more present and balanced, as it spontaneously
deepens and corrects your breathing if it is constricted.
Experience your condition
without inner criticizing or comment. If you notice yourself
judging or narrating, simply listen to the tone of your inner
dialog as you come back to your breath. Lay aside all judgments
As soon as you are calm and centered, start
watching the movie. Most deeper insights arrive when you pay
attention to the story and to yourself. While viewing, bring
your inner attention to a holistic bodily awareness (felt
sense). This means you are aware of "all of you" -- head, heart,
belly, etc. Occasionally, you might notice your breathing
from an inner vantage point -- from your subtle, always-present
intuitive core. Observe how the movie images, ideas, conversations
and characters affect your breath. Don't analyze anything
while you are watching. Be fully present with your experience.
Choose a movie you watched before, one
that you remember moved you deeply. If none come to mind,
visit http://www.cinematherapy.com for a list of suggestions.
Make yourself very comfortable at home and
let yourself cry as much as you like. Allow your heart to
open up. By feeling compassion with the characters' pain,
you might develop compassion with your own struggle. As you
watch the film, keep in mind the above guidelines for conscious
movie viewing. If you don't want to be by yourself, invite
a trusted friend to watch the movie with you and talk about
your feelings afterwards.
Immediately following the film: without
interrupting your stream of consciousness, write about your
feelings. The film's story and your reaction to it may be
important, but focus your writing as much as possible on the
loss or disappointment you suffered in real life, and your
reaction to that.
This process is an important step toward owning
our pain and deeply understanding its dimensions and demands.
Grieving is necessary so that we eventually come to find the
deeper meaning of what might otherwise destroy us. By opening
to our pain we learn that we can grieve and live at the same
Step 3. -- Transforming toward health
An ancient people tell the story about an
elder who was talking to his disciples about tragedy. The
elder said, "I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my
heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, despairing one. The
other wolf is the strong and hopeful one." And the disciples
asked, "Which one will win the fight in your heart, the despairing
one or the hopeful one?" The wise elder answered, "It depends
on which wolf I feed."
We need to feed the hope that can grow out
of despair. At the same time, we need to stay in the struggle,
whatever our situation, until it is transformed into new life.
No one comes out of deep suffering the same
kind of person they were when they went into it. It is possible,
of course that we come out of it worse than when we went in.
Grief can sour us. But it is equally possible, if we reflect
on our pain, to come out stronger and wiser than when our
suffering began. What is not possible, however, is to stay
the same. One way or the other, struggle is guaranteed to
As much as our struggle with pain sometimes
seems to be a mystery, it can also be a gift. The changes
it brings in us can be a call to conversion, to grow up. Our
struggle with grief can be the springboard for a healing transformation.
We usually think about hope as being grounded
in the future. This is what I call "wishful" hope. But there
is another kind of hope -- one fulfilled in the future but
born from fully remembering our past. I call this kind of
Unlike "wishful" hope, this other kind of
hope depends on our ability to remember that we have survived
everything in this life so far, and because of that, odds
are we will be able to master this latest challenge too. Transformative
hope is not a denial of reality; it is not a matter of waiting
for things outside of us to get better. Instead, it
focuses our energy on getting better inside by taking
a series of small actions that transform darkness into light.
No longer is hope a hedge against suffering, now suffering
is the foundation for our hope.
Many movies have been made that begin in despair
and end in triumph. These films can help you get in touch
with this kind of transformative hope. If you can identify
with characters trapped in their circumstances, and share
their disappointments as well as their unsteady steps toward
liberation, you may find reason for optimism in your own situation.
You can gain the courage to do what is necessary to change
your reactions to loss. Let yourself get inspired to learn
how to survive grief it without succumbing to it, how to bear
struggle without being defeated but rather to be transformed
Below is a series of four exercises aimed at
awakening this sense of transformative hope. Perform the exercises
after watching a film you chose specifically for its modeling
of transformative qualities. Look for and focus on strength,
courage, endurance and determination in the main characters.
A good example of one such film is "Frida," based
on the 1983 book by Hayden Herrera, a biography of the iconic,
passionate, communist, bisexual Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo.
As with many films and stories, the values and beliefs of
the main characters in "Frida" may differ from yours but try
to view it as an opportunity to "step inside another person's
shoes". However your lifestyle may differ from that of the
film's main characters, it is, nonetheless, a good example
of how pain and disappointment can transform a life.
Analysis of the Movie "Frida"
The movie "Frida" shows the many big challenges
the woman faces with strength and courage throughout her life
of 47 years. She grows up in Mexico City, at a time when it
was teeming with famous exiles like Leon Trotsky. In her family
"It was with great difficulty that a livelihood was earned"
and her parents have a relationship filled with conflict.
Despite financial constraints, she demonstrates what in her
time and culture is an unusual confidence, by going to school
to become a doctor.
Frida's studies are cut short by a horrific
traffic accident that almost kills her. A trolley crash shatters
her back, pierces her body with a steel rod and leaves her
with several broken bones in her spine and pelvis, a broken
collarbone, several broken ribs, a broken leg and foot. While
recovering in bed, her young lover leaves her. Frida goes
through anguish and despair. Isolated in a cast in bed -- "Bored
as hell," she recalls -- she begins to paint. Throughout her
life Frida has multiple surgeries and is never free of pain.
For long periods she has to wear a body cast and suffers from
multiple medical complications.
As the trolley crashes plays out on screen,
the director cuts to a shot of a bluebird flying out of Frieda's
hand. Later, in another instance of "magic realism," a gold
leaf falls earthward, lighting on her cast. These elements
of magic realism suggest how Frida, through art and imagination,
found the strength to live despite her constant pain. She
paints with the same bold courage that helps her to survive.
Art transforms both Frida and her pain.
Feeling better, Frida falls in love and marries
her mentor, the muralist Diego Rivera. Rivera is already a
legend when she meets him. Frida, who had been such a serious
student and confident young woman, is suddenly completely
dependent on her husband, painting almost exclusively for
him. And this, once again, causes her pain that gets reflected
in her art: most of her paintings from this time show Frida
either alone or with Diego. His work dwarfs the scale of her
paintings, overshadows them. But slowly, with much endurance,
she rises out of that shadow as her own works begin to garner
At the beginning of their relationship Frida
tells Diego Rivera she expects him to be "not faithful,
but loyal." Both view fidelity as "bourgeois." But both
also know the green passion of jealousy, and both have a double
standard -- though each has affairs, they blame the other for
theirs. As if Frida's physical wounds aren't enough, Rivera's
extramarital affairs, especially with Frida's sister, make
her marriage a great source of ongoing pain.
The film shows how Frida uses bodily wounds
in her art to suggest these psychic injuries. The greater
the pain she wishes to convey -- especially pain caused by
rejection from Diego -- the bloodier her paintings become.
The peculiar intensity of her paintings suggests that they
are therapeutic, crucial to the artist's wellbeing. Many of
her paintings are linked in the film to the specific emotional
event that served as the catalyst for the painting.
Both, Frida and Diego eventually demonstrate
emotional endurance and a willingness to discover whom the
other person is as well as discovering their own true identity.
When the film ends with Frida's death, the impression remains
that despite the many crises in her life, she never lost her
passion and remained full of courage to be who she was, take
life as it came, even the suffering.
Choose a film you've already seen, one that
touched you when you saw it the first time, one that has characters
who undergo this kind of transformation. It is not crucial
that the plot matches your situation exactly. More important
is that you get a sense of the strength that the characters
find in themselves that helps them prevail. Focus on this
aspect of the film.
The following list might refresh your memory
or give you some ideas about a movie to choose:
Groundhog Day: a cynical TV reporter
(Bill Murray) is transformed by his experiences after he is
caught in a time warp.
Shine: a brilliant but broken pianist
(Geoffrey Rush, Noah Taylor, Alex Rafalowicz) overcomes a
long-standing mental breakdown with help from his friends
and an understanding lover (Lynn Redgrave).
Out of Rosenheim (Baghdad Caf?):
a down-and-out desert caf? owner and her "family" are transformed
by the magic of an overweight and irrepressible German tourist
(Marianne Sūgebrecht) suddenly stranded in their midst.
Kramer vs. Kramer: divorc?s (Dustin
Hoffman and Meryl Streep) find that the custody battle over
their child brings them to a healing understanding of themselves
and each other.
Ordinary People: a suicidal teen's
(Timothy Hutton) struggle to overcome his survivor's guilt
forces his suburban family to come to grips with their stifling
A Town Like Alice: a young Aussie
(Bryon Brown) man falls for a British nurse when both are
POW's in Japanese occupied Malaysia. The man is apparently
tortured to death for aiding the nurse, but years later the
two are reunited in the Australian outback only to face new
hardships as they rekindle their love and accept their very
Norma Rae: a young widow (Sally Field)
rises above her impoverished circumstances and against stiff
opposition to lead fellow textile factory workers in efforts
On Golden Pond: a patriarch (Henry
Fonda) and his family heal ancient hurts when a lifetime of
stifled emotions erupts during a traditional summer holiday.
My Left Foot: a marvelously gifted
but horribly handicapped Irishman (Daniel Day Lewis) overcomes
cerebral palsy, learning write with the only part of his body
that unscathed by his wasting disease, his left foot.
Further examples can be found at cinematherapy.com.
Whichever film you choose, watch it with conscious
awareness as explained above. After you have finished watching
the movie, take a couple of deep breaths and let the impressions
of the film help you with the following exercises.
Exercise 3. Acceptance
In order to heal and transform we need to first
accept ourselves: admit that we are wounded. We need to take
powerlessness and reclaim it as surrender. We need to take
vulnerability and draw out of it the freedom that comes with
self-acceptance. Our strength and hope lies in the acceptance
of our limitations. In the acceptance of our limitations we
become, ironically, a fuller self.
Without interrupting your stream of consciousness,
write about how these thoughts relate to you and your own
Exercise 4. Small Acts of Courage in
Spite of Fear
Though fear can paralyze the spirit it also
calls us to the access one tiny act of courage to keep hope
alive. These acts can start put us back in control of our
lives. We need to take fear and move it into courage. Did
you see a character in the film take some small acts of courage
in spite of fear? Have you done this in the past?
Without interrupting your stream of consciousness,
describe how you felt when you did this and how it helped
Exercise 5. Determination and Endurance
It is ironically the very process of responding
with determination to each element in struggle that nourishes
hope. We need to face the exhaustion struggle brings and endure
to the end.
We need not to give in to the thing that defeated
us. We need to refuse to give up, either on ourselves or on
the world around us. Endurance is the light of hope in a continuing
darkness that must somehow some way give way to the light
of dawn. Endurance makes transformation imperative. Did you
see examples in the film, which show that determination and
endurance helped certain characters get stronger? Have you
experienced this in the past? Without interrupting your stream
of consciousness, describe your experience and how it could
apply to your current situation and potential future.
Exercise 6. Transformation
Struggle with loss and disappointment can scar
us, but it can vitalize us too. A hole we feel inside us needs
to be filled with something better. Out of all this can come
new strength, a new sense of self, new compassion, and a new
sense of the very purpose of our life. There are some parts
of the human character that are best honed under tension.
The hard thing to understand is that it is the becoming that
counts, not the achievements or the roles in which we manage
to mantle ourselves.
Struggle can transform us from our small, puny,
self-centered selves into people with compassion. It not only
can heal us; it can make us healers as well. For this to happen
we need to learn to listen better. We cannot walk quickly,
so we learn to wait.
Did you see examples in the film, which show
this kind of transformation? Have you experienced this in
the past? Take a couple of slow breaths and listen inwardly.
Without interrupting your stream of consciousness, describe
your experience and how it could apply to your current situation
and potential future.
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Heavilin, Marilyn Willett (March 1998) Roses
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Lewis, C.S. (Febuary 2001) A Grief Observed.
San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco
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Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in
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CA: North Atlantic Books
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My Way: Healing & Transformation Through Loss & Grief.
Colfax, WI: Seasons Press
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(Editor) (September 1998) Love, Loss & Healing: A Woman's
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Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy