Meet Jimmie Laird: The Renegade TV Therapist

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and thought to yourself, “Oh wow, that character is me”? Well, that’s exactly how I felt watching the new Apple TV series Shrinking. Jason Segel’s character, therapist Jimmy Laird, is me. Well, more precisely, parts of me. Jimmy is a grand paradox: profoundly imperfect and wounded and yet rife with deep levels of empathy and compassion for his clients. That sounds like my Psychology Today bio!

Jimmy is also frustrated by the shackles placed on clinicians by the grand poohbahs of the counseling profession. He becomes so exasperated that he decides to color outside the lines. Jimmy steps beyond accepted therapeutic orthodoxy and becomes a bit of a renegade. He has dual relationships, gives advice, self-discloses unabashedly, and has never met a curse word he won’t utter. Yet, he is guided by instinct, heart, his intimate understanding of clients, and the North Star of his moral compass. He even admits when he screws up—and apologizes. Thumbing his nose at psycho-pedagogy, Jimmy shouts, “You’re not the boss of me!”

I feel you, Jimmy. All of you. I have a David Bowie “Rebel, Rebel” T-shirt. Sorry, not sorry, if that’s too much self-disclosure. At least I don’t use any #&*#@ four-letter-words in therapy sessions (sarcasm). I do, in all sincerity, become emotionally invested in my clients. I care deeply and accept them unconditionally for who they are and where they’re at. Oh, and Jimmy and I are both huggers. We wear our hearts on our sleeves.

Laird is supposedly patterned after Los Angeles psychiatrist-to-the-stars Phil Stutz, the object of a recent Jonah Hill Netflix documentary. Stutz is depicted as a psychotherapy maverick in the film. He counsels people his way, which is not the way we’re taught in graduate school. And by following Sinatra’s “my way” approach, he’s become a wealthy, in-demand Hollywood icon.

“Shrinking” is a nice play on words for a title but this series is really about growing—in awareness, understanding, and acceptance. It portrays therapists as perfectly flawed human beings, which we all are. The narrative that we are above reproach, have all the answers, and are free of problems and baggage is hogwash. Yes, most of us have done a great deal of self-exploration and have made significant progress exorcising our demons. We’ve become thoughtfully self-reflective and emotionally aware. We’ve studied psychology, emotions, and human behavior. We’re well-versed and well-trained. The difference between therapist and client is that we’ve learned how to process and work our way through our psychological morass. We know the way without using GPS.

And yet, we don’t have all the answers. We don’t say and do everything perfectly. We make mistakes. We say too much or too little. We get overly involved. We get triggered. We experience anxiety, depression, relationship issues, trauma, insomnia, compulsions, addiction, and grief, and yes, we numb our feelings too. We’re wounded and have the scars to prove it. Our cumulative baggage weighs on us just as it does everyone that sits across from us on the couch.

When I watch the Jimmy Laird character navigate through his complicated life as a therapist/human being, I do think of myself. Laird is a slightly different version of the Robin Williams-played therapist, Sean Maguire, in the classic 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Maguire was unorthodox too and acted in ways counseling purists would discourage. They’d say he got overly involved with his client, Will Hunting. Heck, Jimmy Laird provides shelter for a client in his guest house. I’m sure glad that, as an intern, I never wanted to lend an air conditioning unit to a client during a heatwave. The right thing to do? Well, Mr. Intern, it’s not quite that simple.

Shrinking is a sweet, messy, genuine human story. It dances in shades of gray, floating between the margins. I think it’s important for the public to see the humanness and humanity in those of us who help them with their emotional challenges. The therapists I know and associate with are warm, caring, and giving. Like Jimmy Laird and Sean Maguire, they are heart-centered. Sadly, some practitioners see only in black and white, at the expense of their humanity. They forget that psychotherapy is an art, that there are few certainties and myriad creative ways to approach problems. Maybe I’m too romantic, but it’s what I believe and what I feel. And yes, it’s complicated.

Maybe Jimmy Laird and Sean Maguire go too far. Maybe they’re too soft, too feeling, too authentic. But I don’t think so. If I’m looking for a therapist, those guys are at the top of my list. And as a TV series, Shrinking gets two big thumbs up from this perfectly imperfect, heart-centered therapist.

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