The Shadow Side of the Jonah Hill Controversy

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Last July, Sarah Brady, a professional surfer and the ex-girlfriend to Jonah Hill, shared text messages between them on her social media stories, indicating the emotional abuse she endured. The internet blew up with articles, posts, and social media videos talking about Hill’s manipulation and control. In the texts, Hill tells Brady several things that she needs to stop doing or change about herself in order for Hill to continue in the relationship (including, to end friendships with women who don’t have their life together, to stop sharing photos of her in her bathing suit despite her profession, or to surf with other men). What took people by surprise was that this list was preceded by him saying, “These are my boundaries for romantic partnership.”

Acknowledging this text as it is shared, it’s fair to agree that we all see Hill’s error in the misuse of the word boundaries. This isn’t what boundaries are - telling the other person how to be different. Boundaries are about communicating our own needs - the things we want and don’t want. They are about protecting the self and developing respect between two people to ultimately build a relationship that works for you. The misuse of the term “boundaries” also underscores another rising issue: the overuse and misuse of “therapy speak” as a result of sharing psychological concepts and experiences in therapy in shareable online spaces.

Putting on my couples therapist hat, I found myself fascinated with the internet’s lack of understanding of the dynamic in the relationship. We agree: the text message wasn’t okay. And, what’s the context of the message? As a couples therapist, I understand relationships through systems theory, which means that the exchanges and patterns between partners are not linear or cause and effect. Instead, relationships are cyclical: Couples get stuck in rigid and negative reinforcing cycles. It sounds more like this: partner A influences Partner B, which in turn influences Partner A. We only see a snapshot of time through the text messages screenshots. We don’t see the context of the couple dynamic and what was happening between them. While emotional or physical abuse are never okay, I am still left questioning: What kind of hostility and unhelpful patterns were taking place between them?

As the Hill controversy unfolded, there was something else that I thought many people were not addressing: Why are we so interested and drawn into this dilemma? What is it about seeing inside of this relationship’s private moments that leads us to want to create videos, label and diagnose Hill, and search for answers?

From my therapist chair, I believe we are not talking about what is really at play here: The Shadow Side.

What is the Shadow Side?

The shadow side is the part of you that is hidden and unconscious. It’s considered the darker part within us that we don’t easily access. We might even fear others discovering this part of us and leading to a negative assumption about our character. Your shadow side might hold more undesirable emotions, one’s that society deems as unfavorable, like anger, resentment, fear and envy.

Although these parts of us feel undesirable and lead us to feel fear that others will reject or abandon us, exploring our shadow side can be helpful. We can build greater self-awareness for why we are triggered in the moments that we are. We can shine light onto unhealed parts of ourselves that we can bring forward. We can build a practice of greater acceptance and self-compassion, for ourselves and for others.

Possible Shadow Sides 

Let’s look at some possible shadow sides that, from my experience as a psychologist over the past 17 years, I imagine are occurring for people when they see texts like this shared across the internet, especially when it comes to the topic of boundaries and love.

Uncertainty in Our Relationship

As humans, we crave certainty. Certainty helps us to feel safe. If we know something is going to happen, we can prepare ourselves, never being taken off guard. Our brains prefer to work in all-or-nothing thinking, and to put things - experiences, people, relationships - in boxes.

In our relationships, that certainty we desire sounds like:

If I’m in a relationship with you, you’ll never hurt me.

If I’m vulnerable with you, it means you’ll never use my words against me.

If I commit to you, it means you’ll never leave me.

Watching other toxic relationships unfold in front of us, we are left asking ourselves, “Will this happen in my relationship? Will I be hurt and controlled?” At our core, we long to know that we matter to the other person, that we are enough for them and that they will see us. Given the rise of struggles in relationships, the ongoing requests for couples therapy in my office, our relationships continue to be something that we deeply struggle with to create secure and healthy bonds. It’s no wonder these text messages ignited a fury for so many people.

One of the best things you can do in your relationship is to acknowledge the existential uncertainty that all humans hold in the context of being with another person. We can’t control them. We can’t predict what will happen in a relationship. The only thing we can do is commit ourselves to the relationship by making choices to turn towards our partner each day, when the relationship is safe, both emotionally and physically.

Anger Related to Past or Current Relationship Experiences

Looking outward stops us from going inwards and reflecting on our own experiences. Feeling anger towards Hill’s texts makes sense. But when we look at the texts (or any experience) as a mirror reflecting our own struggles back to us, we might start to see our anger at how things are going in our most important relationships.

Many people make excuses for others' behaviour. This mixed with our own repression of feeling anger means you might be justifying their behaviour when actually their repeated actions of disrespect do not feel good.

Anger is an important emotion. It tells us when we are wronged, when something is unfair, or there is an injustice. Many people are taught not to feel angry or to be afraid of their anger. Thus, anger becomes part of their shadow.

If anger is showing up for you, spend some time recognizing the emotion and asking what you need. Tapping into psychologist’s Dr. Tara Brach’s R.A.I.N. strategy, recognize the emotion, acknowledge what is happening in this moment (instead of judging it), investigate what the emotion is telling you, and nurture yourself - give yourself what you need in that moment to care for you, the same way you would for a loved one.

Fear Related to Boundary Setting

Almost every client in my office has asked me about their boundaries at some point in the therapy process. Sometimes they use the word loosely, or make statements like “maybe I need to tell them my boundary” and “they crossed my boundary!” The most common question I get? “Is my boundary okay?”

The idea of boundaries is so radical and also incredibly needed to build and maintain healthy relationships. Due to the fast growth of technology over the last 30 years, our brains are not able to keep up with the increased information that is available to us. Each generation in a family we see something changing. But our generation? The millennials and gen Z have had the biggest changes in the relationship dynamics with families and lovers due to the technology boom. Yet, because our brains aren’t able to keep up with this fast growth, we are still in a very trepid stage of what boundaries look like. For many, they are the first person to say to their family “please don’t guilt trip me” or “I need you to stop making comments about my body. If you can’t, I need to leave.”

Clients come into my office, telling me stories of family members and loved ones upset by their boundaries. We set boundaries and hope that others will be happy with us, the ideal response being “Oh yes! This is your boundary! Thank you for letting me know.” This is not a statement most people hear in the context of asserting our boundaries. We crave acceptance from others. This need comes from our adaptive survival strategy as children to remain close and connected to our caregivers. So, for many kids, they grow up to be people pleasing adults, struggling to have boundaries and to assert their needs to loved ones.

The shadow side of this controversy leads people to feel what it is at their core: Am I setting boundaries okay? Am I wrong to need this? Even as a therapist, my own journey on what my boundaries are continues to unfold. Reading the Hill texts, I immediately questioned, “How do I set and hold my boundaries? Am I doing it all wrong?” And if there is one thing we crave - we crave wanting to know that we are right. 

Acknowledging that relationships are made up of mistakes and missteps is one way to address this fear. If you find yourself setting a boundary and the other person accuses you of being controlling, take a step back and be curious about what is happening. Talk it out with trusted others and see how they would feel with the boundary, or ask yourself how you would feel if someone set this boundary with you. Relationships are made up of mistakes. It’s not IF we will hurt our partners, it’s WHEN. It is an inherent truth that at some point in a relationship, you will get it wrong or make a mistake. These mistakes offer us a chance to learn-about ourselves, the relationship- and to then focus on taking responsibility for your actions and moving forward.

When we explore our possible shadow sides in the context of our experiences and reactions to events, it can open a door for us to be curious about the deeper parts of our internal struggle. This shifts from a “how could they do this” to “this is reflecting something important back to me and I can work on this.” This self-reflective ability allows you to find your own sense of agency in your life.