Why It’s Hard to Say Goodbye to our Favorite Shows

Photo, with gratitude, Courtesy Nickelodeon, Avatar:The Last Airbender

My client was weeping. She had just finished the last episode of the last season of Avatar: The Last Airbender. She said her heart ached.

There is actually a psychological term for it:
Post-Series Depression. Or, “the sadness felt after reading or watching a meaningful series or book”. The bittersweet feeling when you know the journey is over, but you don’t want it to end.

It is the longing for the words on the pages to move your emotions like they did the first time you read them. When you didn’t know what the next paragraph held and the world in which the characters found themselves was entirely without limit.

I have written elsewhere about how what we watch can affect us at the neuropsychological level (see The Neuropsychology of Binge Watching). There is also an emotional component that comes from genuine loss when a beloved book or series comes to an end. We know that feeling will never come again, in that same form.

What are some of the important emotional components of our most beloved movies and shows, and their endings?

-Identification. We project parts of our personality onto these beloved characters, begin to identify with them and share in their trials and triumphs. We feel like they are part of our lives and personal landscape.

-Escape. Everyday life can be a routine, and we all have to do mundane tasks. When you commit to a show or a book that is immersing, you open yourself up to a broad range of emotions. You are fed in a way that satisfies deep stuff, even touching our emotions and vulnerabilities, safely.

-A shared experience. The common, shared experience of anticipating, viewing, and then discussing a favorite series with close friends or family is a powerful form of social bonding. During Covid, several clients have set up regular ‘dates’, where they watch favorite shows or movies with loved ones whom they cannot see on a regular basis. They watch from afar, but together. It creates a sense of intimacy and closeness.

-Memories. Specific shows may be associated in your mind with personal history. The shows that you watched while you were in a certain relationship, ones you watched after school, those while you were in graduate school, those with your partner or best friend… They all have personal memories associated with them. When the show ends, that specific moment in space and time also ends. (See https://embolden.world/the-psychology-of-nostalgia/).

-Goodbyes. The finite nature of all things may be evoked by the farewell of a beloved series. For example, when the series, Lost, Sopranos, and Game of Thrones ended, many of my clients discussed the myriad feelings they had about the finales. For most, there were personal associations that were brought up, including past relationships and times.

Bottom line: The ending of a favorite show can make people mourn. Or at the very least, miss. We can certainly move on to a new ‘relationship’ by finding something else to watch, but one is not a replacement for another. Discussing the show with friends, journaling, or reflecting on why it was personally meaningful can be a great way to process.

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