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Lessons From the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

How to fix your problems from the inside-out

Wiki Commons
Source: Wiki Commons

Perhaps by now you’ve heard about Netflix’s new original comedy series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It is the kind of show you are likely to either love or hate. The premise itself is outrageous for a comedy. The main character, Kimmy Schmidt, was kidnapped in the eighth grade with three other women. They were held hostage for 15 years in an underground bunker by a self-proclaimed preacher who told them that the world had been destroyed by the apocalypse. After being rescued, they are all pressured to become cult-surviving celebrities. Yet Kimmy wants real freedom and so escapes to New York City with hopes of making a new and happy life for herself.

Along Kimmy’s enthusiastic journey of discovery, the show engages every sensitive topic that you can imagine: cults, trauma, homosexuality, race, sex, gender, class, religion, violence, rape, infidelity, you name it. If you've experienced a similar kind of adversity, this show may rub you wrong. If you’re the kind of person who finds it offensive to spoof such serious topics, this show is probably not for you. Perhaps these were some of NBC’s reservations. But if you are drawn to smart comedy that parodies human destructiveness, ignorance, prejudice, neurosis and psychosis in order to get some perspective and even get you thinking, you might find it worthy of your time. Netflix did. I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself.

For me, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt made an important psychological impact. It is most obviously a show about resilience, the strength of the human spirit in the face of tremendous adversity. At first blush, one might view Kimmy as vulnerable and immature—a young woman so psychologically stunted by her upbringing and trauma that her optimism is actually worrisome and disturbing. But underneath her Pollyannaish, child-like personality, Kimmy is strong, fierce, and a fighter. I think this paradox is where the deeper lessons lie.

As Kimmy struggles to find her bearings in the free world, she tries to differentiate the strategies that helped her survive her prolonged trauma from the strategies that might be more effective in this second chance she has at a more normal life. “Smile til you feel better” and “You can do anything for seven seconds” were mantras that helped her through a horrible ordeal. But with the aid of her new friends and her own considerable internal resources, she discovers that those strategies may not be useful anymore. At one point she reflects aloud, “All the stuff I thought I knew was way wrong.”

One of the compelling psychological strategies Kimmy explores is the idea that if you fix the outside you can fix the inside—a psychological technique that is so popular in our modern culture. While this is a theme throughout the show, it is poignantly explored in an over-the-top episode about cosmetic surgery. The back story is that Kimmy finds a job working for the trophy wife of an ultra-rich business man. Terribly depressed, insecure, and worried about losing her appeal, Jacqueline has had many cosmetic surgeries designed to keep her young and beautiful. We’re not talking about a nip here and a tuck there but the kind of surgeries that are extreme. Jacqueline convinces Kimmy to have a facelift to get rid of her “trauma lines,” proffering a life strategy called “Outside-In Living.” Jacqueline says: “It’s scientifically proven, if you look one way on the outside, you become that on the inside.” Kimmy, who has been having flashbacks and other post-trauma responses, is so desperate to put her past behind her that she decides that she wants an entirely new, unrecognizable face.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

The good news is that the show pitches the “outside-in” philosophy as a parody not a reliable prescription for life. By offering such social and psychological commentary, it offers the viewer an opportunity to think about such strategies—and it gets Kimmy thinking, too. While under anesthesia before this radical face-changing procedure, Kimmy has a flashback of her captivity and links it to a TV commercial she has been seeing about a deodorizer called “Bubbreeze.” Suddenly and just in time, she has an epiphany. She says to herself, “This is wrong—I’m just Bubbreezing my problems!”

Kimmy bolts out of the doctor’s office into the waiting room and gives a dreamy yet inspired speech to the women who are awaiting their own procedures. She says, “My friends, listen! Changing your outside isn’t going to fix what’s wrong inside. We’re just covering up our problems. In order to fix ourselves, we have to start right here, find that small unbreakable you inside yourself!”

She returns to her boss, Jacqueline, and gives her a similar speech: “Outside-in doesn’t work… You could have the most beautiful feet in the world but it wouldn’t fix what’s really wrong.” She encourages Jacqueline to look at her “real selfie,” including her unfiltered sadness, and to confront her problems directly.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Love or hate the show, there’s some first rate psychological wisdom in it. Kimmy is on a journey to discover that the best way to heal and lead a truly happy life is to face one’s feelings, to evaluate the ways we’ve been coping, to learn new strategies, to make better choices, and to move forward. She realizes that we do not make changes from the outside-in; we make them from the inside-out. While few people have such incredible innate resilience, we can be inspired by her attitude. “You can do this,” says the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Copyright 2015 Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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To read more about Jennifer's model of personal growth, check out her recently released book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out -- get it? from the inside out!