The first time I remember watching a TV show for the express purpose of using it as an emotional outlet was my senior year of college. I was in a downward spiral of insomnia, depression, and fear of the future. I didn’t want to be in school anymore, but I also didn’t want to not be in school anymore. I was alone for the first time since high school, having just broken up with my college boyfriend the semester before—and while I knew it was the right decision, there’s nothing quite as hollow as the loss of a comfortable long-term relationship. I funneled my newfound free time into binge-watching all the seasons of the Doctor Who reboot.
Up until this point, I was petrified of crying. Not just crying in public or in front of someone else, but crying in general. I was tough, and I would not be broken. My inability to engage with my feelings of melancholy and unworthiness left me wholly unprepared for the onslaught of tender emotions caused by Christopher Eccleston’s final episode. I sobbed into my pillow, distraught and confused by my reaction to the end of a character I had only “known” for one season. I was more taken aback by the fact that I was crying so freely, and I found that I actually liked it. The release of all the feelings I’d left unexamined for months was strangely satisfying.
I could assign my overwhelming sadness to the fates of the characters I connected with on my favorite television show.
Once I discovered the catharsis of crying from a TV show, I could never go back. I began to rely on it as a way to feel my feelings without having to admit that it was really about my personal fears and anxieties concerning my uncertain future. I could assign my overwhelming sadness to the fates of the characters I connected with on my favorite television show. If I had a day where I was overcome with helplessness or distress, I could return to my room, turn the lights off, hide under the covers, and throw on an episode of Doctor Who that I was confident would bring me to tears.
I suspect that I’m not the only person who engages in this behavior. In fact, I know I’m not the only one who does this because that same year my friends and I started our semiweekly “Sad Movie Night.” Every week or so, usually on a Wednesday, one of us would make a private Facebook event page with a picture of either wine or a person crying and announce the sad movie of the week. The night of, we would all show up with our wine and sit in the living room to watch movies like The Fox and the Hound and The Titanic. Sad Movie Nights were partially ironic and partially, I think, a way for us to feel assured that everyone else felt similarly defeated by the stresses of the week. We were in this together. This was the first time I thought of being able to cry freely as a source of power instead of shame, a lesson I was slowly becoming more comfortable with as the year progressed.
We’re appreciating our ability to experience the full range of our emotions, which is a part of what it means to be human.
Why does it feel good to cry, though? The Time article “Why It’s Healthy to Cry Over TV Shows” by Amanda MacMillan offers a few answers to the first question. It’s possible that some of us may actually derive pleasure from feeling emotional about the bad things that happen to our favorite characters. She brings up my own personal theory, which is that crying while watching TV provides a much-needed moment of catharsis for a lot of us. All of the crushing sadness and anxieties that build up over time are released when we watch a particularly sad episode of Game of Thrones or, more recently for me, Orphan Black—and for many, crying can actually feel really good. Personally, I always feel lighter after a solid cry, no matter how much I fight it beforehand.
MacMillan points to the concept of “meta-emotions” to explain this phenomenon of enjoying sadness. It’s possible that we’re reveling in the simple fact that we’re capable of feeling sad at all. We’re appreciating our ability to experience the full range of our emotions, which is a part of what it means to be human.
Very recently I found that I had a rare night all to myself. No plans. No projects looming over my head. No deadlines. I had some catching up to do with Orphan Black, so I got comfy, turned the lights off, and watched a few episodes in a row. By the end of the night I had full-body sobbed into my pillow at least twice, and it felt not only good but necessary.
As it turns out, I am a gigantic crybaby—and maybe that’s a good thing.