“Anti-Hero” is my Hero

BY BRITTANY STERLING, PHD

“Anti-Hero” is my Hero

There’s been a lot of talk about T.Swift and her latest album, Midnight.  While many are talking about how autobiographical this collection is and others are discussing criticisms and edits to her Anti-Hero video, or the weird way she held her pen in it; I’d like to shift focus to the role mental health plays in the song.

Since the invention of social media, we’ve seen the impacts of spending time on platforms that typically only show us at our best.  Who, in the midst of their lowest moment, thinks, “I should get this on film and share it with the world!”  When we feel ashamed, hurt, remorseful, we tend to turn inward and self-isolate more than we reach out.  On the other hand, when we’re enjoying ourselves, feeling proud, experiencing amazement; there is a natural tendency to want to share that moment.  When something incredible happens, we may feel compelled to turn to the person next to us, “can you believe that?” or wish someone we love was there in that moment to share in the enjoyment.  Not surprisingly, we see these tendencies in social media.  Celebrities and us, normal folk, gather to post life’s highlights.  We share our accomplishments, our children being particularly adorable, the fun concert we went to, or the restful vacation we wish we could capture and keep with us at all times.  Some may see this tendency as intentionally misleading others but I, the eternal believer in the good of others, would argue it likely at least starts from a good place. It begins with that human drive for connection and a desire to share the good we experience with others. The motive is more “wow, look at this” than “my life is better than yours, #blessed.”

“Ms. Swift, so often known for her honesty, at times criticized for it, drops a new album and she’s spreading something that I, as a therapist, deeply appreciate: VALIDATION.”

The unintended consequences of this style of posting and consuming a great deal of social media are the thoughts and feelings that can come from comparing ourselves to others.  We aren’t as pretty, interesting, enlightened, or adventurous as everyone else on social media.  We’re not enough.  They’re better.

Maybe some resentment or cynicism shows up too.  “They’re all fake.” “That’s so performative.”  I’m not here to judge which statements are true or false.  There are so many people and so many experiences in the world, there are likely examples of each thought being both true and untrue.  What I’ve noticed (and I’m sure most of you have too) is that as with so many cultural trends, this pattern has brought with it its own backlash.  Stigma and judgment have been met with validation and self-disclosure.  A lot of this has had ties with mental health.  We’ve seen celebrities open up about anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and substance abuse.  In the words of Us Magazine, “celebrities: they’re just like us!”

Ms. Swift, so often known for her honesty, at times criticized for it, drops a new album and she’s spreading something that I, as a therapist, deeply appreciate: VALIDATION.  We’ve seen her share heartbreaks, stories of falling in love, often honesty involving interpersonal relationships and now… a deep dive into self-reflection.  One of my immediate favorites is her song, Anti-Hero, where she confronts feelings of self-criticism, shame, fear, and frustration.  These feelings aren’t new to most of us at one time or another.  She’s also acknowledging the many parts to who she is internally.  She’s the awkward giant crashing the party.  She’s the one with body image issues.  She’s the reckless party animal, the kill-joy, the insecure student.  It can be difficult to integrate all those parts.  Some of us in the field may reference individuals’ difficulty making peace with certain aspects of their behavior as incongruencies with their self-perception.  If you’re the “good guy,” there’s no way you could have done something more typical of a “bad guy,” right? So we become defensive and use different tactics like projection, rationalization, or reaction formation to resolve the discomfort that comes from these incongruent parts.  “Good people don’t do bad things, so am I good or bad and how does this behavior get explained to support the overall me?”  “I’m a good person who cheated on a math test. Maybe I’ll rationalize that “everyone does it” so that doesn’t say anything about who I am.”  “Maybe I’ll double down on kind acts to try to balance the scales in a way that is less distressing to me.”  “Maybe I’ll blame someone else.  If my best friend hadn’t dumped all that drama on me yesterday, I would never have needed to cheat because I would have been able to focus on studying.”  These defenses often function like band-aids, which is fine every once in a while but wholly inadequate if the wound they’re covering requires something more.  That’s when a pattern emerges.  We find that these band-aids are no longer making us feel better.  We may realize we need to stop staring “directly at the sun but never in the mirror.”

Where does this leave us? Incongruencies happen. We start off slapping on band-aids to placate any perceived distress.  Shoot! The band-aids aren’t working.  We realize we keep using the same band-aids and keep needing them. Maybe there is something more here that needs to be considered.  Enter: self-reflection.  Taylor Swift’s Anti-Hero highlights some tough self-talk.  In her video, she represents these statements and feelings visually with different Taylor Swifts.  As a therapist, I think of these multi-Taylors as parts.  There is the self: who Taylor is, and there are parts of her with different characteristics and behaviors.   I read an article about Taylor’s Anti-Hero, describing the song as “self-deprecating.”  Sure, that’s possible.

“I read an article about Taylor’s Anti-Hero, describing the song as “self-deprecating.”  Sure, that’s possible.  Self-deprecation can get tiring and irksome quickly though.  It can almost feel like yet another defense instead of holding one’s self accountable and addressing matters.”

Self-deprecation can get tiring and irksome quickly though.  It can almost feel like yet another defense instead of holding one’s self accountable and addressing matters.  How can Taylor Swift be self-deprecating and so incredibly empowering and lovable and overall wonderful? Obviously this statement shows I am a fan but I’m not alone.  Last I checked, there are Swifties all over the world who adore her just as much, if not more, than I do.  So what’s the deal? How does she pull this off?  Once again, the therapist within has thoughts.   An idea in the world of mental health that is growing in popularity is the theory of Internal Family Systems (IFS) which, oversimplified, can be understood as healing through seeing ourselves as a self with a collection of parts.  One of the great strengths of IFS is how it lends itself to self-compassion as a way to help us heal.  Every part is there for a reason and should be appreciated for its efforts.  This comes to mind as I re-watch Anti-Hero for the millionth time since its release.  Here Taylor has taken these incongruent parts: the awkward giant, the insecure nerd, the party animal; and they come together in the end.  The video is not resolved by exiling any part.  They’re part of who she is and they all serve a purpose.  In the end they come together appreciating each other, ready to move forward as a whole. As we collectively navigate how to integrate (or not integrate) social media into our lives, and we ride the waves of posting our most fabulous moments, feeling isolated and not good enough, sharing our collective challenges, being vulnerable, and validating each other through aspects of human experience, such as mental health; let’s pause to cheer for Taylor Swift: the queen of fearless vulnerability.  Yes, she has her demons like the rest of us and yes, they frustrate her and at times hold her back.  “She’s just like us!”  She also shines so brightly because she models making peace with those parts and showing them compassion, self-compassion.  Let’s embrace that model too.  Let’s all challenge ourselves to practice self-compassion so that we too, may heal and move forward.  Because you “best believe [you’re] still bejeweled when [you] walk in the room. [You] can still make the whole place shimmer.”

Footnote: quotes from Taylor Swift’s songs: “Anti-Hero” and “Bejeweled.”

Brittany Sterling

About the Author

Brittany Sterling, PhD, is a 1A Wellness Therapist who specializing in working with teens and young adults; She is accepting new clients now.

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Note on Health Insurance

1A Wellness is a self-pay out-of-network practice. As such, we do not accept health insurance. But if your healthcare plan includes an out-of-network option, partial reimbursement may be available. See our FAQ section for more information.