Growing up, I was never the kid who sat in front of a TV and lost myself for hours. But that all changed when Pretty Little Liars came into my life. Soon enough, I was invested, and when the series finale came and went, I pined for Tuesday nights with Aria, Emily, Hannah, and Spencer. I felt a void, as if instead of saying goodbye to fictional characters, I’d parted ways with four of my best friends. This was the first time I’d felt this deep connection to a TV show, but it wasn’t the last. So, why do I get so attached to TV shows if I’m fully aware the people and storylines before me are 100% fabricated?
You would think someone who studied fiction in college would be capable of separating herself from what’s real and what’s not, but according to experts, it’s not the fantasy of a TV show that draws you in, but rather the very real emotions captured on the show that get you so involved. Doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC says it's perfectly normal for someone to become attached to fictional characters on TV because of how our brain recognizes human emotion.
"When there’s a character that you feel emotionally connected to, despite the character’s personality likely not being who they really are in the real world, your brain recognizes the human emotion they are portraying and starts to feel connected to those characters," Forshee tells Elite Daily. As a result of this, she explains, "a bond begins to form."
Your attachment to fictional TV shows has a scientific explanation.
According to Jennifer Barnes, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma, it’s because of your brain's inability to differentiate between real and fictional relationships that you're able to still feel the same kinds of emotions from one as you would the other. For example, self-esteem boosts, decreased loneliness, and even feelings of belonging are all real-life benefits you can reap from the fictional bonds you create when you regularly watch a TV show, Barnes told TIME.
For example, I’m currently watching Dawson’s Creek from start to finish (yes, I realize I'm about two decades late on this one), and in one episode, Michelle Williams’ character, Jen Linley, over-analyzes a new relationship with a heartthrob named Charlie, played by IRL heartthrob Chad Michael Murray. Amid the couple's witty banter, Charlie responds to Jen's paranoia by saying, “Some things aren’t conspiracy; some things just are.” Despite the fact that this little nugget of wisdom comes from someone who A.) has no idea who I am or what my story is and B.) isn’t real, his words hit close to home for me. His words have stuck with me and helped me get through times of doubt.
But even though these relationships can feel authentic, in reality, these types of bonds are what psychologists refer to as parasocial relationships, aka human connections that are strictly one-sided. If you think about it, especially when you’re a die-hard fan who’s watched a show from the very beginning, you probably know everything there is to know about your favorite character and are able to rattle off trivia facts like who their friends are, their love interests, their favorite place to eat, and more. They, on the other hand, know literally nothing about you, because again, they don’t exist.
Here’s how to tell if your attachment to fictional TV shows is unhealthy — and what to do about it.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever ugly cried over the death or downfall of a fictional character on TV. It makes total sense why you’d feel sad about the loss of a character or feel empathy for them when their storyline takes a turn for the worse. "When we witness a character experience pain, happiness, loss, or any emotion, our brain recognizes that and we immediately start feeling that same pain as if it was real," Forshee says.
If you find yourself taking the death of a character or the ending of a show hard, there are solutions. According to licensed marriage and family therapist Erica Curtis, it’s helpful to look into your personal attachment to the character and explore those feelings. “Consider journaling or talking to someone about the meaning that this character held for you,” she says. “What did the character mean to you and what does it mean now that they are gone? Might it remind you of other unresolved losses in your life? Does it mean the end of a television series, and a void to fill? Does it bring up concerns about your own mortality?” Curtis also suggests performing a “farewell ritual” after the loss to “honor what this character brought to your life, what you will miss, and what legacy they have left,” which can help bring you closure.
But how do you know if this parasocial relationship has gone too far? Your attachment to TV may be an issue if it takes precedent over the people and events happening in the real world. “Anything can be unhealthy when it gets in the way of other important life factors including work, school, socializing, personal care, sleep, exercise, spiritual pursuits, and so forth,” Curtis says. “If any of [these] areas are being negatively impacted, consider self-imposing some limits on researching, reading, and watching show-related content. Set an intention to nurture other relationships, interests, and pursuits.”
Another sign you may want to lay off Schitt’s Creek for a while? According to psychotherapist and relationship specialist Lisa Brateman, LCSW, if the feelings you have attached to the show “impact your mood in a negative way over an extended period of time” or “if you notice you are isolating or can’t stop thinking about it,” it’s a good time to reassess your relationship with your favorite show.
Attachment to TV shows can be a great thing.
As long as you keep it in check, it can actually be good to be so attached to TV shows. “A character on screen enables a person to be seen and represented, which can increase self-esteem as well as decrease loneliness,” Brateman says. “Deep emotions can be evoked while viewing the stories that the characters experience. These connections conjure many different types of emotions. Living vicariously through the characters’ experiences can offer insight into themselves.”
This parasocial relationship can also help you look inward. “Being attached to a TV show, especially if the show is character-driven, could definitely suggest a strong interest in people or relationships,” clinical psychologist and author Dr. Chloe Carmichael says. “It is also a great way to build empathy skills because you spend most of the show trying to understand things through the perspectives of different characters on the show.”
Your attachment to TV doesn’t need to be something you keep to yourself, either. “Attachment to a particular television show or character can be fun, educational, and spur connections with like-minded folks,” Curtis says. You can incorporate your fictional attachment into your real world by having watch parties, discussing the show with friends, or even writing and sharing fanfiction with others.
So, there you have it. Your attachment to your favorite TV show typically isn’t anything to worry about — just remember to express that same love and affection toward friends and family IRL, because they're the ones who can love you back.
Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker
Jennifer Barnes, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma
Lisa Brateman, LCSW, psychotherapist and relationship specialist
Erica Curtis, licensed marriage and family therapist
Dr. Chloe Carmichael, clinical psychologist and author
Additional reporting by Lexi Williams
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