SINGAPORE — The recent death of Matthew Perry, renowned for his portrayal of the quick-witted Chandler Bing in the iconic sitcom "Friends", has triggered a profound reflection. His passing has led certain fans to reflect on how these fictional characters hold significance in our lives.
As tributes pour in for the late actor, the outpouring of grief transcends a mere farewell to his exceptional talent; it is a global commemoration of the enduring impact that Chandler Bing, along with the ensemble cast of "Friends", had on millions of TV viewers.
Such a global emotional reaction prompts one to ponder: What is it about these make-believe personalities that captures hearts and minds, shapes emotions and thoughts - sometimes without us even realising it?
Take devoted fan Jennifer, 26, who expressed her deep connection to Chandler Bing, and how his character was a source of inspiration and comfort in her life. "Chandler's wit and carefree attitude were a refuge for me during tough days. Losing Matthew Perry feels like losing a part of that solace," she said.
Why do we attach ourselves to fictional characters?
Dr Praveen Nair, a senior consultant at Raven Counselling and Consultancy, delves into the complex psychology behind such attachments. "Fictophilia, an intense attachment to fictional characters, and Narrative Transportation, where individuals immerse themselves deeply into stories, contribute significantly to this phenomenon," he explains.
While this phenomenon is still a preliminary area of exploration, with no definitive answer yet, Dr Nair emphasises the role of anxiety, suggesting that identifying with characters in movies or TV shows might serve as a means to live vicariously without the weight of real-life anxieties. "It's a way to find relief, a temporary escape from the trials of our daily lives," he says.
Dr Sunita Rai, a clinical psychologist at the Holistic Psychotherapy Centre, also sheds light on the neuro-scientific aspect of these connections. She told Yahoo Southeast Asia, "Mirror neurons in our brain play a pivotal role; they help us empathise with others, even fictional characters. When a good actor can evoke a wide range of emotions, it provides viewers with a cathartic experience."
Dr Rai emphasises the emotional release found in movies and TV series, providing an outlet for feelings often constrained in the daily grind of life. It becomes a safe space to experience emotions that viewers may not readily confront in their lives.
Harnessing the positive and navigating the pitfalls of attachment
Dr Nair brings up the potential positive impacts of these attachments, particularly for individuals undergoing trauma or facing disempowerment. "These characters often serve as sources of empowerment, aiding mental health and providing an alternative reality where individuals can feel in control," he observes.
"If you are bullied and perceived as weak, identifying with superheroes like Spider-Man or Superman can offer a form of empowerment, helping individuals overcome such things vicariously."
However, both experts caution against potential pitfalls. Dr Nair says that healthy admiration can inspire positive change, but over-idealisation without proactive steps could lead to detachment from reality.
Dr Rai echoes this sentiment, expanding on these warning signs by delineating several indicators to watch out for. "Escaping from reality, procrastination, and developing unrealistic expectations are red flags."
She also further highlights the warning signs associated with an excessive emotional attachment that obstructs healthy grieving, pointing out the implications of an unhealthy connection with fictional characters.
"When we lose a real-life figure like Matthew Perry, it's normal to experience grief. Typically, we go through a grieving process that lasts for a week or two. Engaging in activities like watching movies related to the person's work to feel their presence or acknowledging the sadness is a natural part of healthy grieving," she explains.
"However, if this grieving extends for months, leading to organising events or persistent attempts to immortalise the person, it reflects emotional turmoil that isn't conducive to healthy coping."
Nurturing bonds while embracing reality
Dr Rai compares fictional characters to mirrors that reflect specific areas of oneself, stating, "Characters are like multiple mirrors, reflecting different parts and aspects of your life. That's all they are. We shouldn't get trapped in the mirror."
The bond between individuals and fictional characters transcends mere entertainment; it resonates deeply within the complex spectrum of human emotions and psychology.
While these connections offer solace, empowerment, and emotional release, experts stress that maintaining a balanced relationship between reality and fiction remains paramount.
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