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What ‘Ted Lasso’ gets right about resistance to therapy, according to a therapist

A woman rides a bike.
Sarah Niles plays a sports psychologist in Season 2 of “Ted Lasso.”
(Apple)

The following contains spoilers from Friday’s episode of “Ted Lasso,” “Man City.”

Wherever you go, there you are.

In my work as a therapist, this is a concept my clients and I often explore. No matter how far or fast you run from your troubles, the one thing you absolutely cannot escape is yourself. Wherever you go? There you are. It’s a saying that Ted Lasso himself would surely love.

In the first season of the Apple TV+ series “Ted Lasso,” Ted (Jason Sudeikis) travels across an ocean to coach a professional football team with zero experience. He’s an aw-shucks Kansan with a can-do attitude, and his perpetual positivity proves infectious to almost everyone he meets. Although “Ted Lasso” is a comedy, Ted’s tortured inner life has been hinted at from the start — in the form of conflict with his ex-wife and a panic attack he experienced late in Season 1, triggered by a karaoke version of “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” For Ted, the song served as a crushing yet temporary reminder that he was putting off the inevitable. It’s only in Season 2, the adjustment to a new life and job complete, that Ted has been left to sit with his feelings — and realize he might not be able to outrun himself after all.

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Enter Dr. Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles), sports psychologist, whose presence clearly rattled Ted. Niles imbues Dr. Sharon with an even keel and disciplined temperament: Whether she’s engaging with a client or observing the team at practice, her active body language and ever-searching eye movements indicate that Dr. Sharon strives to treat each moment at her job with the utmost care and seriousness. She sets personal boundaries but also knows when to head out for a drink with the team after a particularly needed win.

It’s the addition of the enigmatic Dr. Sharon that catalyzes the central action of Season 2 — which, though it’s received criticism for a lack of dramatic momentum, has been laying a trail of biscuit crumbs to Friday’s game-changing “Man City.”

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Ted’s insistence that life has infinite happy endings already bordered on toxic positivity, and it catapults over that line into maladaptive behavior in Season 2. As Ted starts to strain against the weight of the trauma he carries, he shifts into near-manic mode. The pressure to be himself — a man who consistently puts others’ needs above his own — finally becomes too great, and he experiences a debilitating panic attack in the middle of a crucial match. In a striking scene, Dr. Sharon finds Ted curled up in her darkened office, finally asking for help.

Therapy is all about sitting with and processing uncomfortable emotions in a safe space. Unfortunately, much of Ted’s ethos runs completely counter to this idea. His “be a goldfish” saying and his staunch belief in “rom-communism” both center on selective amnesia of the negative and overemphasis on the positive. But Ted has another mantra: “bird by bird.” Originating in the book of the same name by Anne Lamott, the term connotes perseverance and patience: It means to take things one step at a time until a daunting task is completed. So when Ted finally decides to engage in therapy with Dr. Sharon, he’s determined to not give up. And, wouldn’t you know, there’s a bird involved.

When Ted finally sits down for his first session with Dr. Sharon, he is a mess. He spies a bobbing drinking bird and taps it. The bird, much like Ted, can say only “yes.” But in a powerful moment, Ted begins to gently oppose the bird, shaking his head “no” as he watches the toy come to a stop. Shortly after, he pops out of his chair and leaves the session. Something similar happens during the second session, but this time he picks a fight with the good doctor before storming out.

Two coaches in a soccer stadium.
Jason Sudeikis, left, and Brendan Hunt in “Ted Lasso” Season 2.
(Apple)
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The bird is an important visual illustration of the cognitive dissonance Ted is experiencing. He’s programmed himself to use relentless positivity as a coping mechanism, always saying yes to every experience and aiming to please in every interaction. Therapy is an unknown for him, and his fear of uncovering the truth is far greater than his fear of not being liked. So he bolts.

This scene could well have been lifted from many of my sessions over the years. There’s a bit of Ted in every therapy client I’ve ever worked with, and an instinctual pushback to therapy is understandable, given there are deeply entrenched societal stigmas associated with reaching out for help. Asking for help is an act of courage, as therapy can be scary and even at times unpleasant: As Dr. Sharon says, “The truth will set you free, but first it will p— you off.”

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It takes a leap of faith to engage in therapy, as it’s a process often filled with challenging emotions. Ambivalence is normal and even expected. “Ted Lasso” delivers a raw and honest portrayal of how — with the right therapist — a person can overcome their fears and begin to pursue a more hopeful path. (It’s worth noting here that Ted represents the best-case scenario for someone seeking therapy. He has a quality therapist who has time for him, is conveniently located and is presumably free of charge. In real life, availability, location and cost are major barriers that can prevent people from even getting in the door.)

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Still, though Ted is staying for the duration of his sessions with Dr. Sharon at this point, he’s not actually doing the work. So she tries a different angle: Following a traumatic accident on her bike in “Man City,” she worries she’ll be too scared to do one of her favorite activities going forward — and shares these feelings with Ted, using self-disclosure to model behavior for her client. When she’s vulnerable and honest about her emotions, it gives Ted the license to do the same.

A day later, Ted witnesses an altercation between Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) and his abusive father, and it triggers a reaction. It’s easy to imagine the old Ted swallowing his own feelings and trying to smooth the situation over, but that’s not what happens. Instead, he races outside, calls Dr. Sharon, and tearfully confesses to her that his father took his own life when Ted was 16. And Ted Lasso — both the character and the series — has fully earned this moment, as we’ve witnessed absolutely every step that has led up to his breakthrough.

For a show such as “Ted Lasso” to depict the initial stages of therapy with such care and nuance is an act of generosity. Just as Dr. Sharon modeled desirable behavior for Ted, the series successfully modeled a very real experience that can and does hold people back from finding the support they need. Perhaps Ted will eventually be the catalyst for many of the people in his orbit — looking at you, Nate, Rebecca and Jamie — to seek out time with the doctor as well.

Qualey is a licensed therapist specializing in addiction and trauma with more than a decade of experience in the field. She also works as a freelance writer, often focusing on the intersections among mental health, addiction and pop culture.


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