by Samantha Griffitts, MA, LMFT
Picture it. July, 2019. I’m sitting across from a client* who is panicking about her neighbor’s ambivalence. After baking the neighbor cakes, inviting her over to play cards, and trying any number of other things to secure this neighbor’s friendship, there are no reciprocal invitations. No cakes or pies baked in return. No “thank you” notes. Only silence.
“I just don’t understand. It has never been this hard to get someone to like me.” Face incredulous, baffled at the lack of reciprocity, she asks, “Can you think of anything else? Anything I haven’t done?”
“Well, don’t get her a cat.”
“I said, don’t get her a cat. Doesn’t she have a pet bird? Just don’t get her a cat. You know, when Rose…Did you ever watch The Golden Girls?” I ask, immediately regretting having brought up The Golden Girls again in a professional context.
“Are you talking about the time that Rose felt like she needed to convince that man at her office to like her? When she got him that cat, and then the cat ate the bird and it just made everything worse?”
“That’s the one, yes. I guess what I was trying to say is,” and then I was immediately cut off by her own observations.
“You’re trying to say that I’m trying too hard, right? That I need to be secure with myself and know that I am worth someone’s friendship, should they choose to reciprocate. Is that what you were trying to say?”
I had intended to go into a lengthy diatribe on self-worth, communication tools, and cognitive distortions. But in this situation, having heard my lengthy explanations before, the language of The Golden Girls was enough.
I have used countless examples from the show in the therapeutic context; probably more than the typical therapist, but I never set out to be typical. When I pondered all of the lessons I’ve learned from Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia in my years of watching their antics before falling asleep, I realized that all of those hours of entertainment weren’t wasted.
Below are the ten episodes I tend to reference more than others as anecdotes in the therapy context. All of them have proven to be quite useful, and add a healthy dose of laughter to the mix, making the lesson all the more salient.
Sexual Harassment: Adult Education (Season 1, Episode 20)
Blanche is enrolled in a college psychology course to finish out the requirements of her art degree. But when she fails her midterm exam and asks for extra credit, the kind of extra credit Professor Cooper has in mind is anything but respectable. Dorothy and Rose convince her that reporting Professor Cooper to the Dean is the best course of action. Ultimately, Blanche realizes that her self-respect is more important than passing the class, and decides to prove her academic potential by pouring her efforts into studying, and getting an A on her final exam.
Lesson: You have dignity. You deserve respect. If you are being harassed or abused, report it. A man’s dignity is not worth more than a woman’s. You are smart and capable. You will do great things! Here is a resource many have found to be helpful:
Phobias: The Operation (Season 1, Episode 18)
Dorothy injures her foot tap-dancing, and reluctantly agrees to see a doctor. When the doctor tells her she needs surgery to remove a benign tumor in her foot, Dorothy’s phobia about hospitals and surgery becomes overwhelming. (“What about blood? What about death? What about those nighties that don’t close up in the back?!”) She leaves the hospital the night before the surgery. When Blanche, Rose, and Sophia realize that Dorothy is not going to follow through with the procedure, they normalize her fears. Sophia puts Dorothy’s phobia into perspective when she offers to perform the surgery herself, asking Blanche to sharpen her Ginzu knife. Returning to the hospital, Dorothy gets another dose of perspective when she realizes that her roommate, whose attitude is better than her’s, is facing a mastectomy for breast cancer.
Lesson: Thought distortions can be paralyzing. When we see life experiences as all good or all bad, we rob ourselves of the richness that life has to offer. There is a whole spectrum of human experience. Rather than seeing something as “all bad,” it’s healthier to remind ourselves that there will be hard parts, neutral parts, and sometimes even good and pleasant parts to our feared experience. In the end, Dorothy describes her pain level after surgery as “slight discomfort,” reminding us that we often predict situations to be far worse than they actually are.
Enabling: Blind Ambitions (Season 1, Episode 23)
Rose’s sister Lilly is trying to adjust to life as a blind person. When Lilly asks Rose to come back to Chicago to live with her, Rose realizes that moving in with Lilly would actually keep her from learning how to function without her sight. Instead, Rose encourages her to attend a school to learn how to be more self-reliant. Lilly becomes irate, threatening never to speak to Rose again. But after Lilly decides to take Rose’s advice, she realizes that even though it made her angry, the push to cope with her new reality was really exactly what she needed.
Lesson: Setting boundaries for the sake of our own good or someone else’s will usually elicit anger and defensiveness. But if we stick to our convictions, our loved one may end up better off, making our own discomfort in the midst of the anger a relatively small price to pay for peace of mind.
Changes: Blanche Begins Menopause (Season 2, Episode 1)
Blanche misses her period, and believes she is pregnant. But when she finds out that she is experiencing menopause instead of pregnancy, she falls into a deep depression, believing herself to be old and undesirable. Blanche takes the advice of Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia, and agrees to see a psychiatrist. This is also the setting of one of my favorite quotes from The Golden Girls of all time, when Blanche says, “No one in my family has EVER seen a psychiatrist. Except of course, when they were institutionalized.” Blanche begins to internalize that menopause is not the end of life, only the body’s biological inability to conceive a child, and finally ceases to isolate herself.
Lesson: There is more to a woman than her sexuality, and more to a woman’s sexuality than her body. Your age is just a number, unless you’re like Blanche, and had your birth date removed from your birth certificate by authority of the governor.
Alzheimer’s: Old Friends (Season 3, Episode 1)
Sophia befriends a man with Alzheimer’s on the boardwalk, and has to come to terms with the fact that he has Alzheimer’s. She goes through a period of denial, but ultimately is forced to acknowledge the truth of his diagnosis when he has a frightening moment of confusion and anger. When his daughter secures him a place in a residential facility that provides care for patients with dementia, Sophia must say “goodbye.”
Lesson: This episode normalizes the emotional roller coasters of friends and families caring for people suffering from all forms of dementia, and the losses they suffer over and over. To find your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter, click the link below:
Honesty: Strange Bedfellows (Season 3, Episode 7)
That time when Sophia said there was something strange about Gill Kessler; that she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but if she could, she’d have to wash it. Gill lies to the press and says that he had an affair with Blanche. Blanche denies it. When Blanche confronts Gill about his dishonesty, she reminds him that what set him apart from the other candidates was his honesty. Now he is just a regular politician who is willing to sacrifice his morals on the alter of political success. This leads him to also come clear about one other thing, unrelated to politics, but I won’t ruin it for you.
Lesson: No amount of political success (or other kinds of success, for that matter), is worth sacrificing your integrity.
Emotional Abuse: Blanche’s Little Girl (Season 3, Episode 14)
Blanche’s daughter, Becky, returns from Paris, and has gained quite a bit of weight. She also has a new boyfriend who is pretty terrible. He is constantly making jokes about her size, ordering her to do various tasks, and offers a variety of insults on a regular basis. Blanche tries to refrain from making comments or expressing concern that this boyfriend isn’t a good match for Becky, but the fear of Becky pulling away from her is too big for her to do anything about it. But after realizing that it would be far worse to refrain from expressing her concern to Becky, Blanche finally gives her opinion. Becky is resistant at first, but finally realizes that the girls are right. She is worth so much more than what this abusive boyfriend has to offer her.
Lesson: Emotional abuse is real. Even if scars aren’t physically visible, emotional wounds are equally damaging. It is important to remember that whomever is being psychologically abused is not at fault. This episode also gives a condensed picture of what the cycle of abuse looks like, including the apologies and honeymoon period, before the abuse begins again. For more resources on emotional abuse and domestic violence, see the resources below:
Addiction: All Bets Off (Season 5, Episode 24)
Dorothy has a history of addictive behavior, and the gambling addiction shows up in “All Bets Off,” when Dorothy takes Rose to the racetrack to improve upon her horse paintings. But when Dorothy dips her toe into gambling again, those old urges resurface, and soon Dorothy is spiraling out of control. She is missing work, and spending money she doesn’t have. Only Sophia knows the extent of Dorothy’s gambling history, and when the Blanche and Rose are made aware of it, they become concerned. When Dorothy realizes how much she is losing – money, opportunities, the trust of her friends – she agrees to go to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
Lesson: Addiction of any kind requires help. You can’t do it alone. Not even Dorothy. And Dorothy is the most amazing character in the history of television (only my opinion). If you’re struggling with addiction, here are some resources:
Invisible Illness: Sick and Tired (Season 5, Episodes 1 and 2)
Dorothy’s doctors don’t believe she is sick, even though Dorothy and Sophia and Rose all believe something is wrong with Dorothy’s health. Blanche is writing a romance novel and staring at egg yolks in a bag, but I digress. When Dorothy sees multiple doctors who say she is perfectly healthy despite her symptoms, she becomes frustrated. One doctor even tells her to change her hair color, date, and get a new hobby. But finally, Dorothy sees a doctor who is familiar with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and receives a diagnosis. Dorothy feels relief at having a name to describe her symptoms, a reminder that she isn’t crazy after all.
Lesson: Just because someone looks fine, doesn’t mean they are fine. As a patient, you must be your own advocate, and willing to behave assertively for the sake of your own health. Family and close friends are invaluable, just like Rose, when she accompanied Dorothy to New York City to care for her. Therapy can help us with assertiveness skills, and identifying ways to minimize stress and process the fear and sadness that accompany invisible illnesses.
Grief: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sophia (Season 6, Episode 8)
Sophia’s close friend dies, and Sophia decides to become a nun. It isn’t the most conventional way of mourning someone you love, but no one could ever describe Sophia Petrillo as conventional. When Sophia realizes that the cloistered world is not right for her (translation: she was asked to leave).
Lesson: It isn’t necessary to live someone else’s life to prove how important they were to us. To find a GriefShare support group near you, visit the link below:
*Details and circumstances have been changed. Any resemblance to people living or dead is entirely coincidental.
As always, the information above is not meant to serve as medical or mental health advice, or to take the place of help given by a licensed professional.