Pop Culture & PD: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Beautiful blue and orange sunset

Pop culture can be an excellent example and opportunity for learning about personality disorder. If you’ve seen it, you will never forget Jim Carey as Joel and Kate Winslet as Clementine in the 2004 cult classic, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you don’t want to read spoilers, this blog probably isn’t for you – but if you want to take away some lessons from the journey in this film and apply them to the therapy room, keep reading.

Pop Culture Spotlight: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind beautifully reveals the chaos, heartbreak, and passion of the relationship between Joel – who has avoidant personality disorder – and Clementine – who has borderline personality disorder. Because the other embodies traits that each character desires, they are unavoidably drawn to each other. Joel is so shy that almost any interpersonal conflict will break him in two. Clementine is so impulsive and emotionally unstable that she will say and do almost anything at any time. Their struggles and clashes are an excellent exhibition of these two personality disorders and what happens when you try to mix them!

Trauma determines whether or not someone has a personality disorder, but temperament determines the exact type of disorder a person ends up with.

Joel is introverted and sensitive, while Clementine is highly extraverted and sensitive.  Joel’s temperament causes him to use the “flight” threat response and Clementine’s temperament causes her to use the “fight” threat response. These threat responses are the foundation of Joel’s avoidant PD and Clementine’s borderline PD. However disabled they are by their conditions, throughout the movie Joel tries to be less timid and Clementine tries to be less aggressive. Together, they work to embody the traits that the other has and that they each need in order to develop a more balanced personality.

The very end and highlight of the movie sees the couple back together again, because they love each other, but they quickly fall back into old patterns and begin to squabble. Just when you think the movie will end in tragedy, Joel says something remarkable. He simply says, “Wait.” He asks Clementine to pause with him in the hallway, to be together without words or actions and see what happens.

This. Is. Therapy.

Rather than fall back into old habits or try to do something they think is right (or that some therapist advised them to do), they pause to see if something new, genuine, effective, creative, or spontaneous might rise up from within them. And it does! When given a few seconds to come alive, their authentic selves produce the answer they needed, because they had let themselves be affected at a deep level by the other. This effect, caused by love but mostly a willingness to be vulnerable, put them into contact with their true selves — like magic, real creative solutions spontaneously appeared.

I love this movie, not only because love wins in the end, but because two people showed the courage to be vulnerable. May we take their journey as a lesson.