Social Anxiety on TV: Mr. Robot

SocialAnxietyinMrRobot

Mr. Robot is about a twenty-something year-old hacker named Elliot (Rami Malek) who works for a cybersecurity company. He suffers from social anxiety and depression, feeling so lonely at times that he hacks other people in order to feel closer to them. He is recruited by Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to form “fsociety”, a hacker group planning to take down mega corporation “Evil Corp”. As we learn more about Elliot and Mr. Robot, we discover that his psychological problems may stem much deeper than social anxiety.

Mr. Robot (Season One) [2015]

Created by: Sam Esmail

Starring: Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin, Martin Wallström, Frankie Shaw, Gloria Reuben

Watch: Online

Read: Pilot script

elliot

Elliot (Rami Malek)

Psychoanalysis:

In the beginning of the first episode, Elliot meets at a diner with a man he hacked who had child porn on his computer, and is threatening to expose him to the police.

ELLIOT

Sorry, I’m a little nervous. It’s my first time doing this in person.

Social anxiety makes us avoid meeting people in public because it makes us feel nervous. But avoidance makes our social anxiety worse, making us feel even more nervous the next time.

ELLIOT

See, I usually do this kind of thing from my computer. This time, I wanted to do it AFK. I’m trying to work on my social anxiety.

Elliot is aware of his social anxiety and is taking a step to overcome it by facing his fear and talking to the guy AFK (away from keyboard).

ELLIOT

I understand what it’s like to be different. I’m very different too. I mean, I don’t jerk off to little kids, but… I don’t know how to talk to people. My dad was the only one I could talk to. But he died.

I’ve felt the same way throughout my life, only having one or two people at a time I felt comfortable talking to. So obviously it was traumatic for Elliot when he lost his one person, worsening his social anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

ELLIOT (voiceover)

This is about last night. I should have gone to Angela’s birthday party–

Throughout the series, we hear voiceover narration by Elliot where he talks to the audience. This is where we really get inside his head and recognize his social anxiety. Angela (Portia Doubleday) is Elliot’s childhood friend/current co-worker.

ANGELA

Did you not get my texts last night? I sent you exactly thirteen of them.

ELLIOT

Yeah, I’m sorry, I couldn’t make it–

ANGELA

You promised me that you would try this time.

FLASHBACK: Last night, Elliot nervously walks up to the entrance of a packed bar. Through the big windows outside he sees Angela, laughing, smiling, drinking with friends. Elliot’s hand goes for the door, but his hand trembles–

ANGELA (CONT’D)

Stop thinking about something else when I’m talking to you. I hate when you do that.

In the flashback we see Elliot afraid to go into the bar full of people talking and laughing. Even though he may feel comfortable with Angela, because of social anxiety, he is uncomfortable being with her among other people. Then, after the fact, he regrets it and wishes he had gone to the party. I constantly second-guess myself like that and think about the events I missed out on.

Another symptom of social anxiety is constantly thinking about past social interactions and potential future scenarios. Essentially always thinking about something else when someone is talking to us. Which is why we are unable to talk back, because we are not focused on the present moment.

Angela’s boyfriend/co-worker Ali (Ben Rappaport) asks Elliot out for lunch, but he says he has plans.

ALI

I just feel like it’s awkward between us, don’t you?

ELLIOT

I’m okay with it being awkward between us.

ALI

Well, it’s not okay with me.

A lot of conversations feel awkward when we have social anxiety, but the problem is we ourselves are usually not okay with it being awkward between us, so we avoid having any conversations that may become awkward.

Elliot regularly meets with a psychologist, Krista (Gloria Reuben).

KRISTA

We have to deal with your anger issues, Elliot. You’re angry at everyone, at society–

ELLIOT (voiceover)

Fuck society.

KRISTA

You have a lot to be angry about, but keeping it to yourself, staying quiet like you’re doing, that’s not going to help you. There’s pain underneath. That’s where our work needs to go.

With social anxiety, we tend to keep our emotions to ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are angry inside. I’ve never felt anger like Elliot. But there are other emotions I’ve held inside, including positive ones like love, that I should have shared with others.

KRISTA

What is it about society that disappoints you so much?

ELLIOT (voiceover)

Oh, I don’t know, is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit, the world itself just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our running commentary of bullshit masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections– But with our things, our property, our money. But I’m not saying anything new. We all know why we do this. Not because earrings or the Hunger Games books makes us happier. But because we want to be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend. Because we’re fucking cowards. Fuck society– but I’ve said that already.

After that long monologue in his head, Elliot finally responds out loud to Krista with one word:

ELLIOT

Nothing.

Elliot is afraid to tell Krista what he really thinks, and simply says “nothing.” I’ve done the same exact thing countless times, afraid to share my opinions with others, mainly because I feared they might get offended by my opinions or think my opinions were stupid.

Another problem people with social anxiety have, is many of us are introverts, as well. Most introverts aren’t interested in general small talk, and instead are interested in having deeper conversations, such as some of the topics Elliot mentions above, which are considered inappropriate for casual social conversations.

ELLIOT

You’re different than most. You at least try… you at least understand.

KRISTA

Understand what?

ELLIOT

What it’s like to feel alone. You understand the pain. You want to protect people from it. I respect that about you.

Loneliness seems to be the core issue for Elliot that fuels all his other problems—the depression, the hacking, fsociety, and his relationship with Mr. Robot.

KRISTA

Let’s talk about last night. Did you go to Angela’s birthday party?

In the flashback, we see Elliot too afraid to go into the party and leave the bar.

ELLIOT

Yeah. It was nice.

KRISTA

Did you try to talk to anyone?

ELLIOT

Sure, a few people. I got a girl’s number.

KRISTA

You did? Are you gonna call her?

ELLIOT

I think so, yeah. She’s cute. She likes The Hunger Games.

Elliot is ashamed to admit how bad his social anxiety is, so he lied to Krista. Self-shame only makes social anxiety worse.

Ali is angry that Elliot didn’t show up for lunch.

ALI

Why are you such a weirdo, Elliot? This isn’t normal, you know? You don’t just tell people you’re going to be somewhere and then not show up!

Ali fails to recognize that Elliot may have avoided going to lunch with him because of his own social anxiety, rather than purposely ditching him as a personal insult. A common fear of mine is that other people will mistake my social anxiety for disrespect.

At lunch, Ali puts his arm on Elliot’s shoulder, which makes him uncomfortable.

ALI

Sorry, forgot about your touching thing–

I feel uncomfortable when others touch me, but not so much because I don’t like being touched. It’s more that I’m uncomfortable because I don’t know how to respond. I don’t know whether I should touch them back. And if I do, I’d fear that I was doing it wrong. For instance, I always feel awkward during handshakes, as if I’m messing it up.

ELLIOT (V.O.)

I hate when I can’t hold in my loneliness– this crying has been happening too often, every other week now. What do normal people do when they get this sad? They reach out to friends or family, I think? I do morphine. I can’t make friends. And family–That’s not an option.

Elliot resorts to drugs because he thinks that’s the only way to cope with the loneliness he feels. But the negative thoughts Elliot has aren’t true. He does have friends that try to reach out to him, such as Angela and his neighbor Shayla (Frankie Shaw). Social anxiety comes when we believe these negative thoughts to be true.

SHAYLA

What are you up to tonight? I was gonna post a party thing on your Facebook, but you still didn’t create an account. I thought you said you were going to.

ELLIOT

I never said I was going to.

SHAYLA

Why not?

ELLIOT

Because I hate Facebook.

SHAYLA

(offended) That’s crazy.

I was one of the first people on Facebook in 2004, but I never go on the site anymore. On one hand, Facebook can help people with social anxiety communicate online rather than face-to-face. But on the other hand, exclusively using Facebook can worsen social anxiety AFB. And if you don’t have many friends IRL, Facebook can make you feel more lonely when you see updates about everything you’re missing out on. For me, I stopped going on Facebook, not because of social anxiety, but because as a writer, it’s an enormous time drain and distraction.

ELLIOT

I think Angela blames me for what happened with the Evil Corp meeting. What do I do? I need to talk to her.

KRISTA

I think you just answered your own question. Talk to her.

ELLIOT

But she won’t respond to any of my texts or emails–

KRISTA

Go to her apartment, knock on her door and tell her you need to talk. Communication is key, Elliot. Real human interaction. That’s what’s important for you right now.

Online communication, whether it be through Facebook or hacking, can only do so much. Elliot’s psychologist gives him the key to overcoming social anxiety—going out and facing our fear by talking to people in person.

ELLIOT

My boss invited me to a dinner party at his place tonight. I thought you could come as my girlfriend.

SHAYLA

What? Are you actually asking me to be your girlfriend right now?

ELLIOT

Yeah. Anyway, I need you. I’m not good in social situations like that.

Going out with a date or a wingman can help us feel more comfortable in social situations that may cause social anxiety if alone. They can take some of the pressure off of us by introducing us and joining us in conversations.

ELLIOT (V.O.)

I have clinical depression, social anxiety. A day job, a night job, confusing relationships. Others depending on me. Taking down the largest corporation in the world. And I chose it all.

I don’t suffer from depression like Elliot, but I know many people with social anxiety do. I can only imagine how difficult social anxiety must be to deal with on top of depression. As for taking down Evil Corp—I can’t really imagine how that feels.

ELLIOT (V.O.)

I feel the sensation. Fight or flight. It’s constant. I should just pick one. I, Elliot Alderson, am flight. I am fear. I am anxiety, terror, panic.

Social anxiety comes from the basic evolutionary instinct of fight or flight. We fear social interactions, so we choose “flight” and run away from them. That’s what makes social anxiety so difficult to overcome—it’s been ingrained in us through thousands of years of evolution. But we can overcome social anxiety if we train ourselves to realize social interactions are not a fearful situation that should trigger “fight or flight.”

ELLIOT (V.O.)

Like a hard drive blasted by excessive voltage, my mind is frayed. Close to fried. I can feel the static running through my brain. Serotonin receptors working overtime. I need more time.

Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) antidepressants control the level of serotonin in your brain and are often prescribed for depression and social anxiety. I could see SSRI’s working for depression, but they didn’t really work for my social anxiety.

ELLIOT (V.O.)

This is failure. This is the old Elliot. The one who turns to morphine, to drugs when he feels weak.

Elliot doesn’t take prescription antidepressants, but self-medicates himself with illegal drugs. He uses morphine to numb the painful feelings of loneliness and uses Molly to feel more emotionally connected to Shayla. Elliot eventually stopped taking the drugs as he realized it wasn’t the answer to his social anxiety and depression.

SHAYLA

You don’t like people, huh?

ELLIOT

Not most of them, no.

SHAYLA

Okay. Well, so by that rationale, if you were to really like one person, it’d be, like, considered an aberration or an abnormality—or special, even.

ELLIOT

I guess.

SHAYLA

Well, I aim for special, so challenge accepted.

A misconception of social anxiety is that we dislike most people, but that’s not necessarily true. I like most people. I’m just afraid to talk to them.

ELLIOT

I wish we already knew each other. It would make this feel less awkward.

SHAYLA

You really feel awkward right now?

ELLIOT

Yeah.

SHAYLA

Well, then I wish we knew each other too then.

I don’t feel social anxiety with people I know really well. If I know how they truly think and feel about me, then I don’t need to worry about trying to figure out what they think and feel about me—which is the crux of social anxiety. In order to get to that point where we really know somebody, we need to battle through that initial awkward period.

SPOILER ALERT (Skip this next paragraph if you haven’t seen all of season one.)

Mr. Robot is eventually revealed to be a figment of Elliot’s imagination—in the form of his dead father—and everything Mr. Robot did was actually Elliot. Beyond social anxiety and depression, Elliot suffers from dissociative identity disorder and hallucinations. Plus, he blocks out painful memories, so he doesn’t even recognize his own sister, Darlene. Elliot missed his father so much and was so lonely that he created Mr. Robot to be with and talk to him. Most people with social anxiety and/or depression don’t hallucinate like Elliot. I know I haven’t—that I’m aware of. But prolonged loneliness can have negative psychological effects, and Mr. Robot takes that to the extreme for dramatic effect.

Behind the Scenes:

samesmail2

Sam Esmail (creator of Mr. Robot) with Rami Malek

To create such a nuanced and accurate portrayal of social anxiety on the screen, someone involved in the show must have had some personal experience. Sam Esmail, the creator and showrunner of Mr. Robot has talked about his social anxiety in interviews.

When asked on Reddit if there was a social anxiety consultant on the show, Esmail said:

“Well, that consultant would be me. I am very familiar. I’m like the Picasso of social anxiety. But we also have a psychologist as a consultant on-staff who we talk to as well.”

“I was diagnosed with OCD when I was younger. And I was also diagnosed with social anxiety disorder later on in my life.”

Judgement:

Rami Malek does such an excellent job at portraying someone with social anxiety that it could be misconstrued by some as bad acting. Elliot rarely shows any emotion, but that’s not flat acting, that’s accurate acting of someone with social anxiety. If you see Malek in interviews or in other roles, then you realize how much of a performance his character of Elliot actually is. It’s ironic because social anxiety makes me feel like I’m a bad actor in real life. Like all of life is a movie and I’m the star, but I keep messing up my lines.

Not only is writer Sam Esmail and actor Rami Malek’s character of Elliot Alderson an amazing portrayal of someone with social anxiety, Mr. Robot is an amazing television show, period. I can’t wait to continue following Elliot’s journey in season two.

Mr. Robot as a TV show: 10/10

As a portrayal of social anxiety: 10/10

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One thought on “Social Anxiety on TV: Mr. Robot

  1. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Movies | Tim Barry Jr.

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