Social Anxiety in Movies: What About Bob?

social-anxietyin-movies

What About Bob? is a comedy about a psychiatric patient (Bill Murray) who drives his therapist (Richard Dreyfuss) insane.

What About Bob? [1991]

  • Directed by: Frank Oz
  • Story by: Alvin Sargent & Laura Ziskin
  • Screenplay by: Tom Schulman [read script]
  • Starring: Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss
  • Trailer:

First off, Bob does NOT have social anxiety. But the film What About Bob? is interesting to talk about in terms of social anxiety for the fact that Bob is crippled by every fear in the book EXCEPT social anxiety.

Psychoanalysis: (Warning: Full Spoilers Ahead!)

BOB

Well, the simplest way to put it is, I have problems. I worry er, about diseases. I have trouble with toothbrushes. And I, er, I have problems moving.

MARVIN

Talk about moving.

BOB

As long as I’m in my apartment, I’m okay. I have a phone job — selling dental supplies — and that’s fine. But when I have to go out, I get…weird.

MARVIN

Talk about weird.

BOB

I get dizzy spells. Nausea. Cold sweats. Hot sweats. Fever blisters. Difficulty swallowing. Difficulty breathing. Blurred vision. Involuntary trembling. Dead hands. Weak ankles. Twitching. Fainting spells. Numb lips…. Do you think that’s normal?

MARVIN

That depends.

At first, it appears as though Bob may have social anxiety because he acts fine at home but gets symptoms of anxiety when he goes outside with other people. Though in Bob’s case that seems to stem from a combination of agoraphobia, germaphobia, and generalized anxiety, rather than anything socially related. As someone with social anxiety, I have no problem going outside and being among people—it’s only when I have to interact with someone socially that the anxiety arises.

MARVIN

What are you afraid of?

BOB

Well. What if I break my neck and become paraplegic? What if my heart stops beating, or I can’t find a bathroom and my bladder explodes? You ever heard of Tourette’s Syndrome. You know, where you involuntarily shout profanity?

Bob clearly has anxiety, which is constantly thinking about all the negative things that can happen. Social anxiety is a subset of anxiety, where those negative thoughts are about other people—usually fear that they will judge us negatively.

BOB

Sometimes, if I fake it, I know I don’t have it. Like, when I think my heart is gonna stop. I fake it so I know it’s not happening.

Bob fakes a heart seizure — very convincingly — and falls to the floor. After a moment, he sits back in the chair as if nothing had happened.

BOB

If I can’t make it happen, I know it’s not happening. I know it’s all in my mind.

I’m not sure if this is an actual tactic recommended by psychiatrists, but it’s possible it could work. If you faked having social anxiety before an event that you were worrying about, it might help you realize how ridiculous it was to be so worried and then—theoretically—at the event, you won’t feel as anxious.

MARVIN

There’s a saying, Bob, that the best psychiatrist in the world is right inside of you. I can help you, provided you’re willing to help yourself.

BOB

Are you kidding, I’ll do anything!

This is especially true with social anxiety. The best psychiatrist in the world cannot make a patient overcome social anxiety unless the patient is willing to help themselves.

BOB

Baby Steps.

MARVIN

It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself. One day at a time, one tiny step at a time — do-able, accomplishable goals.

BOB

Baby steps.

MARVIN

When you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, just deal with getting out of the room. When you reach the hall, just deal with the hall. And so forth. Baby steps.

BOB

All I have to do is take one small step at a time and I can do anything!

MARVIN

Exactly. But don’t expect everything all at once. Even a baby occasionally falls and hits his head.

The “Baby Step” method is Dr. Marvin’s big claim to fame, and it’s actually decent advice. The key to overcoming social anxiety is gradual exposure to the social situations that cause anxiety—baby steps—and after each step, you will feel less anxiety.

When Dr. Marvin goes on vacation with his family, Bob follows him there. To try to get Bob to leave, Dr. Marvin writes him a prescription.

MARVIN

It’s not pills. Read it.

BOB

It says: “A vacation from my problems.”

MARVIN

I’m giving you permission to take a vacation, Bob. Not a vacation from your work. Not a vacation from your daily life. But a vacation from…

BOB

My problems.

MARVIN

Every time you feel a problem coming on, take that out and follow it to the letter. Doctors orders.

Meditation is like a vacation from your problems. It teaches you to quiet your mind and silence the negative thoughts that cause anxiety.

FAY

If you want to know, I think your father is nervous about going on national television tomorrow. Freud himself would be anxious so let’s be supportive, okay?

Even an expert psychiatrist like Dr. Marvin feels anxiety—everybody does at some point or another. Some people simply feel it more often and/or more severely than others.

Walking alone on an empty country road…

BOB

Vacation from my problems. Take a vacation from my problems. There’s nothing to fear, there’s nobody here. Nothing to fear—

(he suddenly panics)

THERE’S NOBODY HERE!

He starts running and screaming.

Bob essentially has the opposite of social anxiety. He feels anxious when alone, rather than with people.

Marvin’s daughter tells Bob about the plagues of growing up with a psychiatrist as a father…

ANNA

I analyze everything to death. Every time a guy smiles at me, I ask myself is he really smiling or is he just orally fixated? When I smile back, I wonder, am I really attracted or just smiling out of some residual Cro-Magnon instinct? If I ever actually have sex, I’m not sure I’ll know the difference between an orgasm and an anxiety attack!

BOB

I have the same problem.

ANNA

The kinds of urges other girls act on impulsively, I analyze until either the urge goes away or —

BOB

Or what?

ANNA

The boy goes away.

Anna appears to suffer from some social anxiety—overthinking and worrying about what boys think about her.

BOB

Actually, it’s not that I don’t want to go. It’s just that I’ve never been on a boat and I’m not sure I can handle it.

ANNA

There’s nothing to it. George Stark’s doing the sailing.

BOB

Just thinking about it gives me hives.

Cut to them on the sailboat…

BOB

You’re right, this is great! I never actually thought I could do this. I never thought this could be me!

A common problem with social anxiety is overestimating our fears and underestimating ourselves. Bob didn’t think he could ever sail because it was too terrifying, but then he did it and realized it wasn’t so scary. The same thing applies to most other fears, including social anxiety.

Bob tries to help Marvin’s son Siggy get over his fear of diving off the board into the pool.

BOB

Face a fear and it goes away.

SIGGY

Okay. I’m facing it, now what do I do?

BOB

Hit it. Fast. While it isn’t looking.

Siggy takes a deep breath, summons up his courage, and makes his approach. He springs but can’t dive.

SIGGY

My mind says “yes yes” but my body says “no no.” It’s hopeless.

BOB

If I’m not hopeless, nothing’s hopeless…

Bob gives Siggy the basic advice to overcome any fear, social anxiety included: face it. If you do the thing that scares you (with baby steps) eventually it will no longer scare you.

Dr. Marvin is nervous before the big TV interview at his house. He thinks he’s a fraud and a failure because his daughter is falling in love with Bob.

MARVIN

I’m doomed!

FAY

No you’re not.

MARVIN

I’ll be a laughing stock!

FAY

No you won’t. You’ve blown this way out of proportion, Leo, and you have to get control. Now try your breathing.

MARVIN

Okay.

(breathes hard)

I’m being ridiculous.

(more breaths)

You’re right.

He walks around breathing exaggeratedly.

MARVIN

It’s a brilliant book… Our daughter’s fine… I’m great.

Dr. Marvin feels some social anxiety himself, worrying about what the public will think of him after seeing the interview. It sounds simple, but breathing deeply and thinking positively can help in overcoming any kind of anxiety.

BOB

Yes! I used to be so afraid of everything, it was like dying a thousand deaths a day. Now, that you showed me I have only one death to be afraid of, I’m not afraid of anything anymore!

As Bob gets better, Dr. Marvin gets worse. It culminates with Dr. Marvin trying to kill Bob. He gets caught and is sent to a psychiatric center. Bob goes on to become a psychiatrist and write a bestselling self-help book. In the end, the two of them essentially swap positions as doctor and patient.

Judgement:

It’s clear Bob doesn’t have social anxiety. He’s not at all afraid to talk to random strangers and shout in public. Plus, he’s very talkative, even overbearing and aggressive, in his interactions with Dr. Marvin.

For someone who supposedly suffers from every psychiatric condition and fear imaginable, he should theoretically suffer from social anxiety as well, yet he does not. The question is why.

There are two potential explanations:

1) The screenwriters and filmmakers were unaware of social anxiety and the fact that people can have a fear of talking to other people.

2) They thought portraying a character with social anxiety would be boring to audiences.

3) It’s just a wacky comedy, and none of Bob’s psychological conditions are meant to be taken seriously.

I think it’s mostly a case of #2 and a little of #3. It can be difficult to convey social anxiety on screen while maintaining compelling drama. If Bob was debilitatingly shy then they’d lose the over-the-top wacky performance of Bill Murray, which is the main reason anyone would want to see the movie.

So there’s no social anxiety in What About Bob?, but Bob suffers from a myriad of other fears, and the advice Dr. Marvin gives to overcome those fears can be applicable to social anxiety as well.

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