Why I Assign Netflix’s ‘Nanette’ as Homework to My Therapy Clients
A Netflix sensation called Nanette, by Australian lesbian comedian Hannah Gadsby, has profoundly impacted and resonated with me as a woman, as a lesbian and as a psychotherapist who is passionate about empowering women to own their value and power.
As I processed the show through my own laughs, tears and swelling empowerment, I instantly knew it had an important place in the mental health world.
Once I understood this, it became my responsibility to my clients to do some exploring and experimenting with this show as a therapeutic tool.
Comments like Meaghan Wray’s in articles like this one affirmed my assessment:
Nanette is a blueprint for dealing with trauma and shame, and doing away with self‐deprecating humor [because it is actually humiliation].
First, there’s the content of the show. I began with assigning clients the following homework exercises, for us to further examine in session:
- Choose parts of the show that most impact and resonate with you
- Hannah says that we learn from the part(s) of the story we focus on. Which parts of your story do you focus on, and what are the takeaway messages?
- What painful life experiences have you frozen at their trauma point? In what way(s) have you done so? At what cost?
These questions have uncovered an array of themes and layers for us to unpack and re‐evaluate in search of ways that work for my clients rather than against them.
Next, there’s the way Hannah delivers her performance.
Tension builds during Hannah’s performance as she reveals cruel cultural truths and how they’ve traumatically impacted her life. She skillfully pads and weaves hilarious jokes throughout her storytelling, until she is no longer able to make fun of the cruelty she speaks of without compromising her integrity and mental health.
I was struck by the strength and power that Hannah embodied when she drew a line in the sand by informing the audience she was not giving them anymore jokes. As she continued to story tell, her strength and power peaked at her most vulnerable moments.
In those moments I viscerally felt ‘this is what power looks like.’
It may seem counterintuitive, but our power is greatest at the heights of our vulnerability. This is evident from people’s wild enthusiasm for how vulnerable Hannah allowed herself to be.
We humans are perceptive beings, we can usually sense when others are being real or fake.
The more allegedly “civilized” that cultures become, the more starved people get for authenticity.
People are sick and tired of the disconnected performativity they are used to seeing and maybe even being, onscreen and in the real world.
We cannot remove ourselves from the culture(s) we are embedded in — we shape culture and culture shapes us. Western “civilized” culture conditioning teaches — especially to females — that so long as we’re “positive” and not “rocking the boat,” we’re accepted.
If we’re members of certain groups (e.g. class, ethnicity, age, sexuality, ability, etc.), if we look and act in “socially acceptable” ways, then we are accepted and rewarded even more. Bonus points of social acceptance are awarded for insensitivity by way of demeaning and demanding so‐called “sensitive” people to “toughen up.”
This socio‐cultural formula breeds misery, chokes and shrivels spirits, and results in what Dr. Arnold Itwaru calls psychic anguish:
When people accept this sort of thing — and it takes a long time to happen, years and years, it doesn’t happen overnight — what tends to happen is people begin to suffer from various forms of psychic anguish, psychic torture. People begin to feel, without any explanation, that they’re somehow inferior, that they’re somehow incomplete. [From this riveting video about racism and national consciousness].
Enter YouTube sensation Emilia Fart — a hilarious, eccentric, intelligent and self‐aware young woman walking the path of empowerment by daring to simply be herself. Emilia exudes what liberation looks like when one bravely breaks free from the shackles of miserable “normalcy.”
Power is the result of owning who we are and using our voice without compromising our integrity. This importantly includes not accepting the unacceptable.
Back to Hannah Gadsby. She models traits that female empowerment leader Kavita Ramdas calls upon:*
We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so intelligent** they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, and so disciplined they can be free. [Source]
I would add one more vital trait:
We need women (and men) so brave they can be vulnerable, which includes saying NO to the unacceptable.
Hannah manifests all of these traits and expresses them in an eloquent way that is unique to her personality. Her sharp wit, charm and narrative style only add to her power.
Part of my empowerment work as a psychotherapist is to support my clients to embody such traits in their own way, to integrate all their parts and to realize, then own their value. This includes expressing their NO’s in ways that fit their personality and lives.
Fully integrating the self requires connecting with all our emotions and not dismissing, minimizing or repressing the “negative” ones. This is especially so for women and anger, because women are socialized to be passive, compliant shells of humans in many cultures, including dominant so‐called “civilized” culture(s).
I address this in posing these questions to clients:
- What did you learn growing up about what it means to be female? [And other identity differences relevant to the client (e.g. class, race, size, sexuality, ability, age, etc.)].
- How authentically are you showing up in your life today? In what way(s) are you holding back? Why?
- Who should have stepped in and said NO to the unacceptable that happened in your life?
- What is unacceptable in your life today?
- How can you begin saying NO to these things? Who can support you in doing so, and how?
Vulnerability is necessary to protect, sustain and thrive in life — we do this by simply showing up for life authentically, AND by not accepting the unacceptable.
As Martin Luther King Jr. declared:
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Hannah’s analysis of power dynamics is spot on:
The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless. They are the weak.
The harm inflicted on others by power‐abusers is real, far‐reaching and sometimes irreparable.
The late John Trudell, a mind un‐mining poet and Indigenous rights activist, has said:
This thing about falling apart, it doesn’t go away. Time doesn’t have that magic. Distance is one thing. But magic is something else. And there are some falling aparts there is no magic can fix.
Psychotherapists tend to our clients’ trauma wounds by a) doing tons of genuine, empathetic validating of their story(ies), especially their traumatic experiences, and b) collaboratively working to undo damaging scripts that these wounds imprint on the psyche (e.g. shame, fear, self‐loathing), and gradually replacing them with kinder, more self‐compassionate scripts.
Self‐shaming and self‐hating inner dialogue is profoundly disempowering. Especially when it is so frequent that it subconsciously becomes part of our daily existence.
In thinking about how debilitating trauma, depression and anxiety can be, the power behind this debilitation is remarkable. Rather than powerlessness, this is actually much power turned inward and directed at the self in painful, disempowering ways.
As we develop an awareness of, and bring attention to harsh self‐deprecating self‐talk, we can then actively start re‐directing the power behind it by exercising the spirit muscle of self‐compassion. When we begin replacing toxic inner dialogue with gentle, kinder, less judgmental ideas and messages, we begin to change our story, which changes our life.
There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.
Delicate fragility AND fierce resilience is the essence of being human. Finding and maintaining balance between these states is the ‘being’ part of human beings.
Human connection is the bridge between surviving and thriving.
Storytelling was, is and will always be the most effective way that people learn.
The power of connection and storytelling cuts across all cultures and binds humanity.
Hannah reminds us:
Connection is the focus of the stories we need.
Nanette has enriched me as a person and my work as a psychotherapist. It has inspired me to revisit my own story, and it has connected me to my clients and their stories in a fresh and meaningful way.
*We desperately need men to embody these very same traits.
**The original word used here is “educated”, which I have replaced with “intelligent” because clear, coherent thinking and the insight that it produces rarely comes from formal/institutional learning.