The catharsis of facing difficult emotions

Last weekend, while folding mountains of laundry, I binge-watched Keeping up with the Kardashians a show I’ve heard about (of course) but never really watched, or understood. What I discovered is a hugely entertaining and mildly nauseating soap opera — a celebration of aspirational consumerism. It’s populated by a vivid ensemble of attractive, fame-hungry celebrity millionaires who act out their family and personal drama in expensive, photogenic settings. It’s a “reality” show with scripted, edited story arcs — overseen by an all-powerful matriarch that everyone loves to hate — all the while basking in the luxurious fruits of her business acumen and rapacious appetite for glamour and spectacle

The Kardashians are loud, crude, endlessly superficial, and deeply human. They express strong, true emotions — emotions we recognize — and they process those emotions out loud, for the camera, often with the help of a well-paid therapist, energy healer, or gynocologist. These arcs of conflict, pain and emotional resolution are deeply satisfying to watch — and reminiscent of the scripted, tear-jerking endings of ensemble shows like Modern Family, Fresh off the Boat, and — yes — even the Brady Bunch.

The Kardashians like to say “We’re the modern-day Brady Brunch.” However, unlike that sanitized suburban family, the Kardashian Klan are profane, scandalous, and devious — yet also loving, loyal and family-oriented. Although I’m horrified by the rapacious consumerism and vapid values, this all-too-human contradiction makes the Kardashians’ fake-reality show compelling and watchable- at least while I’m folding the laundry.

We also saw Inside-Out recently — which carries a similar message in an entirely different wrapper. Inside Out revolves around Riley — a young girl who is uprooted from everything and everyone she knows when her family moves from Michigan to San Francisco. As she grapples with her new situation, Riley experiences powerful emotions — sadness, grief, fury — that her parents are ill-equipped to handle. “Where’s my happy girl?” they say to her playfully — glossing over her despair and anger until she’s driven to extreme measures. It’s only when Riley is able to experience and accept her sadness that she returns to her worried and bewildered parents, who are there to comfort her as she “comes back to herself” and cries in their arms.

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It’s cathartic to watch characters experience strong, difficult emotions — and then put those feelings into perspective and move on. Too often, we shy away from difficult emotions — when in fact we’d be much better served by acknowledging them, with empathy and patience — like Sadness sat with Bing Bong. The core message of Inside Out is that you need ALL your emotions to be healthy human being — and fully experiencing sadness (and other dark emotions) is necessary for personal growth and overall sanity. Watching this movie with my daughter reminded me NOT to stifle and brush away her difficult emotions, but instead to welcome them, empathize, and know that the storm will pass.

Facing tough emotions = character development

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Difficult emotions are part of life — and how we handle them says a lot about our character. As a game designer and startup coach, I’ve worked with dozens of teams who aspire to build something innovative and new. In every situation, we’ve confronted a difficult design situation — a “dark night of the soul” — where we’re faced with a harsh reality, and need to pull together as a team and wrestle with tough, hard-to-solve problems.

In story-telling terms, these situations are ripe for character development. How a protagonist handles tough challenges is deeply revealing — and often transformative. She can become a hero by rising to difficult challenges — or a disappointment by running away from them.

Product Ninjas push through tough emotions

This past year, I’ve coached 18 startup teams — all of whom faced touch design situations, a kind of “dark night of the soul.” Happily, most teams pushed through their challenge, confronted the tough problem, and accelerated their development efforts. Sadly, a few teams shied away from their core challenges, and sought solace in “the old ways of doing things.”

A willingness to confront and push through difficult challenges is a key trait that separates Wannabes from Ninjas. By coaching entrepreneurs worldwide, I’ve learned that pushing through challenges is what actually transforms a Wannabe INTO a Ninja. That’s character development — product-style.

Written by

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur gamethinking.io

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