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Taylor Swift Therapy: The Eras Tour, identity and mental health



Though I sadly missed out on a ticket to The Eras Tour, I was lucky enough to see the film during its limited release last October, and am excited to watch it again when it comes out on Disney+ next month. I think everyone knows by now about the record-breaking nature of Taylor Swift’s tour due to its excellence not only musically, but also artistically, technologically, culturally and economically. As someone who has been a Taylor Swift fan since some of her earliest albums were released, I found watching The Eras Tour quite moving, especially seeing it in a cinema full of other fans singing along to every song and dancing as though they were really there. It has taken me some time to process exactly what was different about The Eras Tour compared to the many other concerts I have seen and enjoyed. High quality artistry and technology aside, I believe part of the answer lies in what the concert represents for Taylor at this particular point in her life, and the personal relatability and applicability of this for the millions of “Swifties” who hold a deep appreciation of her music.


A mural of Taylor Swift recently painted down the road from my clinic - the closest I'll be getting to her any time soon!

 

The Eras Tour as a therapeutic metaphor

 

I recently attended a workshop with the great Dr Robyn Walser, an experienced and highly respected American clinical psychologist and trauma expert. We learned ways to help trauma sufferers facilitate calm and compassionate conversations between the different parts of their identity that may be in conflict (in the context of trauma therapy, ‘parts’ means ‘ingrained patterns of emotions, thinking and behaviour that have been repeated frequently throughout someone’s life, and usually have origins as protective responses to a threat’).

 

These ‘parts’ often hijack a person’s decision-making and keep them stuck from living an enriching and fulfilling life. An example of this could be someone who has a “fighter” part of their personality that becomes defensive and/or aggressive when challenged, which developed as a protective reaction to being in an abusive environment earlier in life.

 

Often, we find clients trying to numb or suppress these parts of their identity in various ways, combat them, or allow them to completely take control of their decisions. For example, someone who drinks every night to deal with their fighter part’s intense feelings of frustration, because they don’t know how to effectively communicate their dissatisfaction to those involved. Or someone who lets their fighter part take over by aggressively expressing their frustration any time they dislike something, even though it hurts the people around them.

 

Acceptance and commitment therapy (also known as “ACT”) helps clients to accept the presence of all these parts of themselves, and reminds them that their true identity is one that can hold calm and compassionate space for all these parts to communicate, interact and feel appreciated for the various ways they have helped the client throughout their life, while not allowing any particular part to dominate or hijack their choices.

 

You are probably thinking “what on earth does this have to do with a pop concert?”

 

I believe we can learn a lot from Taylor Swift about how to hold compassionate space for ourselves, our histories and the different parts of our identities. The purpose of The Eras Tour is for Taylor and her fans to come together and celebrate the different eras of her career, life and musical identity by fully embracing and embodying each one through music, dance, costume and visual artistry. Taylor portrays each era as being as equally important and valuable as the other eras, and the audience can decide which, if any, they most identify with or appreciate for themselves.



The Netflix documentary Miss Americana (2020) provides some interesting insights and context for Taylor’s creative journey from country music star to accomplished pop icon, and how she has continually used her music and performances to explore her identity and process her emotions. In the documentary, Taylor speaks about how, for most of her career, she was actively encouraged to play into a “good girl” image by never expressing opinions, so as not to alienate people within her fan base and to protect herself from criticism. She makes the following telling comments about her mindset during the earlier phases of her career:


“I just wanted to be thought of as good”


“I lived entirely for the approval of strangers”.

“I was so obsessed with not getting in trouble that I was like, I’m just not going to do anything that anyone could say anything about”

 


Here we can see that Taylor’s decision-making was dominated by a protective part of herself that psychologists call an “approval seeking schema”. Like Taylor, it’s not uncommon for people with this schema to have a history of being bullied, to end up in careers that depend on the approval of others for success, and to struggle to express their full authentic self, due to fear of rejection and alienation. It’s also not uncommon for people with the approval seeking schema to struggle with challenges related to their physical appearance, such as disordered eating, as they fear that their looks, and character, will be negatively judged if they don’t look a certain way (an experience Taylor candidly describes her own struggles with in the documentary).

 

The approval seeking schema can develop and cement itself in adulthood, even for those who are not public figures like Taylor, who was regularly shamed in the media for having a slightly bloated stomach, or having her achievements undermined through hurtful hashtags such as the #TaylorSwiftisOverParty (the number one trend online for part of 2016, the culmination of a longstanding hate campaign against her). So, I can only imagine the pressure Taylor has had to deal with as the spotlight has pointed at her more and more, particularly in difficult moments like this.

 

The Eras Tour embodies a resilient and transcendent experience of identity

 

Taylor has taken the tough periods of her life and has used music as both a vehicle for processing her emotional reactions to them, and to transcend the various boxes that others have tried to put her in. During each era of her career, she has leaned more into particular identity labels such as the “good girl”, the “scheming temptress”, the “feminine princess” and the “party girl”. She has done this in a way that has simultaneously removed the power from the labels that others gave her, but also empowered her to step in and out of various parts of her identity at will, celebrating what each of them have given her.


In going through this process, Taylor has become more confident in living out her values openly, even if others don’t agree with them. By recognising that the “good girl” identity wasn’t always good for her, and shedding it to explore other aspects of herself, she has arguably done a lot more good in the world (and hopefully for her own wellbeing too) by being willing to upset others. For instance, she has added her voice and music to numerous political campaigns such as women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, workers’ rights and fair pay in the entertainment industry, getting more young people to participate in the political process, and promoting justice for sexual assault victims such as herself. She has also become a role model for ways to call out sexism and double-standards not only through her iconic song The Man, but also simply through calling people out when she sees it happening in front of her (and given Taylor is often being filmed, there are plenty of examples of this on YouTube to draw inspiration from!)


The Eras Tour is a celebration of Taylor Swift’s journey both personally and musically, and her attitude throughout the performance is an incredible embodiment of strength, compassion, presence, connection and gratitude. I imagine (and hope) that creating this tour has been a therapeutic process for her - one that her audience can share and grow from too.


Images taken from Miss Americana (Netflix, 2020) and The Eras Tour (Taylor Swift Productions, 2023).

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