We are past Groundhog Day on the calendar, but sometimes it feels like we are still living it. Ever since the 1993 movie, “Groundhog Day” has become part of our everyday lingo that many people can relate to, and it certainly comes up in psychotherapy. In the movie, a weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over. The term has come to mean an unpleasant situation that repeats despite efforts to change it. But is there a way?
In the movie, Phil, an arrogant and sarcastic weather forecaster, spends the night in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to broadcast the annual ritual of the coming out of the groundhog. The groundhog sees his shadow and goes back into his burrow for 6 more weeks of winter. When Phil wakes up the next morning at 6 AM again, he is annoyed to discover that he is trapped for a second night because of a snowstorm. It turns out to be the morning of the day before, and everything that happened the day before happens all over again. Click to watch the trailer to refresh your memory or just get a few laughs if you haven’t seen it.
This goes on day after day no matter what Phil does. If he does nothing different, events repeat as on the first day. When we can’t change or fix something, it’s common to believe that tomorrow will be exactly like today. If I just try hard enough, I’ll get through it. Thinking like this binds us to the stories of our past, clouds the present, and limits our vision of the possible. When we approach life in this way, we are rendered powerless.
But when Phil changes his behavior, people respond differently and then possibilities open up. What is so powerful about “Groundhog Day” is the window it gives us into the experience of what it would be like to make a breakthrough like this in our own lives. When we get beyond denial and resentment and accept our situation, then life becomes authentic and full of meaning.
On February 2, 2018, an example of relating differently to a demanding situation came up in my psychotherapy practice. In his therapy session, a father told me it had been 11 years since his son was diagnosed with autism. He had been struggling with his own impatience and irritability daily. When he came home from work, he was quick to become frustrated with his wife and children. He desperately wanted things to change in his family. Understanding his experience as a personal Groundhog Day, he had identified adding exercise to his routine as something he could do differently that might change the way he related to his situation.
When we began our session, he told me that he had gone to the gym and exercised several times in the previous week, and he was changing. He was walking in the door with more patience, and this led to different reactions to his son’s repetitive language, his daughter’s requests for attention, and his wife’s stress. Instead of becoming immediately grumpy, he listened and did his best to be helpful. He used his sense of humor to defuse some of the tension in the family.
Like the weatherman in the movie, this father has begun to transform himself. He reacts differently. He becomes a better man, not a different man, with the same family. Challenges will recur in our lives; this is part of our shared human experience. My patient is doing his best to be a better father and a better husband. He will still have bad days, but now he knows there is something he can do about what he brings to the situation. Like the rest of us, when we change something in ourselves, we can become better humans.
So, when you find yourself stuck in your personal “Groundhog Day,” take a step back; check in with your thoughts and feelings; question your perspective. Look for a fresh viewpoint; reach out for support. Search for the light by coming out of that hole you’re in. As Mahatma Gandhi implored us, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”