“There are several components to a good essay,” Fielder says in a voiceover. “Until now, my focus has been on practicing the actions and words that you are likely to encounter in your real life. But recently I have realized that I have been neglecting a key component of every crucial life event: feelings.
The realization sounds like the reflexes of a robot studying human interactions, one that is shocked to learn about the existence and unpredictable nature of emotion. That’s not something you can rehearse. Or you can?
Essay is a new HBO show in which Fielder helps people practice for tough times or making big decisions. It sounds simple, but his method is completely crazy. Fielder and his crew duplicate the circumstances of that moment or decision to a degree of fidelity that requires a game of Thrones-budget level. Take episode one, where the subject, Kor, wants to confess a lie that he told his friend. To prepare for that moment, the Trial The crew faithfully recreates the bar where Kor will have that conversation down to the rips in the seat cushions. For another woman who is debating whether or not she wants to be a mother, Fielder hires a list of child actors of different ages to pretend to be her son, and even tries to find her a fictitious husband. In her efforts to help people feel prepared for these big moments, Fielder also creates decision trees for conversations, considers whether or not to tell jokes, and even weighs the pros and cons of different seating options. Every detail is rehearsed, except the one that really matters: the unpredictable reality of having emotions in the moment.
The show is more unhinged than even the juiciest episode of Love is blind. But one facet of his painfully amusing wit, beyond the twisted awkwardness of seeing Fielder interact with people who actually agree to participate in these experiments, is that it turns social anxiety, or anticipation about interactions with other people, into a absurd comedy.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that there actually is a method of therapy that does what Fielder purports to do, albeit with less chaos and more expert supervision.
The Science of Behavioral Rehearsal Therapy
Behavioral rehearsal (also known as behavioral rehearsal) is a technique often used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to help people change or improve their social skills in a safe environment. This practice “refers to the facilitated and structured practice of situations that may be difficult or stressful for an individual,” says Emily Becker-Haimes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, who specializes in the treatment of pediatric anxiety. “[Behavioral rehearsal] it can be used to help people practice coping with strong feelings or practice using new skills in a controlled setting.”
That’s right: Nathan Fielder didn’t come up with the idea of rehearsing as a way to prepare for tough times, he just took it to an absurd degree.
But practicing both “actions and words,” as Fielder put it, is in fact a part of actual behavioral rehearsal therapy. Dr. Becker-Haimes explains that a doctor “could use behavioral tests to [help a patient] practice staying calm in frustrating situations or demonstrate how changes in body language can alter the meaning of the words we say.” The scenarios practiced in a therapy session can cover any social situation that is causing distress, such as practicing for a job interview or asking a friend for help. To “rehearse,” a therapist may ask their patient to discuss a potential interaction by describing it verbally in therapy, or to role-play with the therapist for further practice.
“Behavior rehearsals can be applied in many ways to help people practice tolerance of emotions or new skills,” says Dr. Becker-Haimes. In fact, research has shown the technique to be effective in reducing social anxiety.
All the world is a stage
Despite the fact that behavioral rehearsal is usually supervised by a trained and licensed therapist, not a comedian with a bunch of cameras creating a comedy series, some of the therapy’s methods resemble elements of the show. A therapist focusing on body language with a client, as Dr. Becker-Haimes mentioned earlier, recalls Fielder’s intensity rehearsing interactions as if she were blocking a play. Practicing the actual words a patient will say, as a person would in an actual behavioral trial, seems like a less extreme version of the decision trees Fielder creates for his subjects’ conversations that he keeps on a laptop strapped to his chest. .
One key difference is that the emphasis in behavior rehearsal is not about controlling others and the outside world, but about managing and empowering oneself. Meanwhile in Essay, Fielder’s attempt to minimize the variables you’ll encounter in the world overlooks the variable of “feelings,” in yourself and in other people, which isn’t really something you can rehearse. It’s something he begins to realize in episode four, when he observes that while working with actors who train to be part of their rehearsal sets, there’s a part of every person that can’t be known, even if they’re posing as for their actions.
“Part of what makes life both scary and wonderful is that so much is out of our control,” says Dr. Becker-Haimes. “While imagining feared scenarios and increasing our sense of self-efficacy about how we would handle difficult or frightening situations can be a really valuable therapy technique, preparing for every possible outcome in life is simply not feasible.”
Essay exposes the bitter truth that we are at the whim of so many forces beyond our control. Fielder’s desire to achieve this control for his clients is so strangely misplaced, futile, and comical, that it is the point. (Just watch him try to fight a bunch of babies in episode two and you’ll see what we mean.) But one lesson we can all learn from behavioral rehearsal is that we have more control than we think. Not from the other people in our lives: that desire is impossible, wrong, and the fodder for absurdity. But we they can honor and manage the feelings that will come up in difficult situations, which is often what really scares us, anyway. I wish Fielder could live, and not just rehearse, that.