Mr. Row Your Boat Loves Elliot—You should Love Yourself
Updated: Feb 16
Full-on dissociative identity or multiple/split personality disorder isn't common, but there are less drastic ways a person will partially lose or subdivide their personality. That's why it's not important to diagnose Elliot of Mr. Robot. As complex as his mental health case is, he's still relatable to a sizable population of "normal" or merely eccentric folks in the real world.
The realistic elements of the contemporary context are important to connecting with viewers, as well. Similarly themed projects often draw on hyperbolic, farther-fetched sci-fi elements, or they project out into the future, just a bit, so they can include technological extrapolations (e.g. Minority Report, Black Mirror, The Feed). As for Mr. Robot, it creates an intrigue on par with strong sci-fi, but the context often rings true of the actual world we live in.
The character Mr. Robot's abilities on a keyboard, though, and his resilience against defeat, might be enough to label him a clearly fictional hero, though he's dramatically flawed. He's more believable and relatable than Batman or Mission Impossible type stuff. Quite the opposite, some viewers may be prone to loving the character, not something associated with caped avengers.
The creator, Sam Esmail, avoided overuse of Elliot's capabilities as a means to create tension or grandeur. Again, no, the focus stays on Elliot figuring himself out, all the while a far-reaching plot goes on through and and round him. Still, if no part of Elliot parallels some aspect of your life, the journeys of the supporting characters very well may. His sister, the FBI agent, the man in the hall Elliot regrets having to emotionally eviscerate . . . there are a multiplicity of sub dramas that touch on most any way humans experience pain or trauma.
Elliot later gets to apologize to that man in the hall. All he did was talk the man into dropping pretenses about himself, though, which may not have been a bad thing in the long run. Elliot is always just trying to make things right for himself and everyone on the earth. If he lapses, he's trying to cope with things that are overwhelming and mysterious inside his own self. Sometimes circumstances and his personal vulnerabilities get the better of him.
Restorative justice, though, might be hard to achieve for at least a few things Mr. Robot does on Elliot's behalf (the murder of Romero, a co-conspirator, sticks in my mind). But Elliot remains a sympathetic character in great part because his flaws are generally relatable. I favored believing in that plenty enough to suspend disbelief in the more fantastic or unbelievably convenient plot points. And that's being harsh on the show. If there were holes, I didn't see them because it was worth it to me not to, so someone else will have to judge the technicals.
The computer hacking and such is fascinating, actually. But I focused on Elliot's inner mission, and I think that's what Esmail intended.
Elliot is trying very, very hard. That's relatable for a lot of folks, too, who are struggling with both themselves and the world, and just wishing they can manage to do the right thing, to make the right choices.
Guilt & Dissociation
Lots of people experience social anxiety, depression, bipolar . . .. Depersonalization or derealization, too, describe when someone feels disconnected from themselves or their surroundings. I, myself, have sequestered parts of myself or alternated faces to handle various perceived crises. I've used that strategy since I was four years old, but a seeming tragedy recently helped make me whole again.
There are some who the show probably disturbed; I don't doubt it. Despite its dark themes, it's entertaining, captivating, and a good story, I would think, even for those who don't need it as therapy. But the intent of the show wasn't just to either disturb or entertain. During on episode, a number is displayed on the screen to call if the viewer or someone they know is suicidal. For me, in particular, the show, itself, not the number, came at just the right time, not while I was in crisis, but at a time I was reading to follow the map back to wholeness.
A person can loose track of parts of themselves, or fail to control themselves the way they'd like. Sudden, inexplicable anger or sadness are sometimes among the symptoms, regardless of remorse. Splintering one's personality to internally cope with external pressures is traumatic in it's own way. It's fraught with inexplicable guilt, sadness, and angst which come seemingly out of nowhere and sometimes most inopportune.
Rugens and Terhune summarize other scholars in saying, "The tendency to experience dissociative states characterized by disruptions between the normally integrated systems of attention, awareness, memory and identity (trait dissociation) is a reliable predictor of state dissociation during or following trauma (peritraumatic dissociation). There is evidence that negative emotional states may mediate this relationship."
Though this is what starts the article on this very complex topic, I wonder how my own experiences are affecting my interpretation, because I feel like I understand nearly every word of that, though I'm not a psychologist, neurologist, or any nearby -ist. Mental illness is sometimes necessary as a means of survival.
I perceive another individual, sometimes, as a proud soul who thoroughly loves themselves, knows who they are, and finds equilibrium in life pretty much all the time. That's not me. That's not lots of folks. And maybe I'm merely fooled by bubbly extroverts; everybody goes through something. We just handle it differently and have differing approaches to self-assessment. Self-esteem and self-worth are central to human function, and yet, capitalism, media, and culture erodes and complicate, perhaps more often than they support stability and self-love. Some cases get so complex and threatening that a person has to divide themselves in order to live to fight another day.
Rugens and Terhune had fifty graduate students and their professors stare at themselves in the mirror. Prior to the experiment, none of the participants self-reported any mental illness. However, the researchers were able to elicit and measure dissociative responses in those formally educated, "sane" people. Merely by making them look at their own reflections. Saying guilt-laden phrases to the participants made them dissociate according to the data. More precisely, what they find is that guilt "moderates the relationship between dissociative tendencies and dissociative states." That's not a new finding. Back in 1998 H J Irwin wrote that guilt and shame "contribute significantly to the prediction of dissociative tendencies."
It's not usually possible to make things 100% right and explained, especially when others wrong us or take advantage of our vulnerabilities. Perhaps we "enjoy" blaming ourselves, in that we can control that and apply whatever penalties to ourselves that we see fit.
I think, for me, I needed to reach a point where I could read myself like a book or look in the mirror casually, without something of myself hiding under the counter. To not see failures or injustices as random, but, rather, as meaningful destiny. A person can choose whether to let someone else's actions outright identify them, but they can't escape such realities entirely. "No comment" is not an option.
There's a spectrum of distortions short of someone making a full break with themselves. Regardless, reintegration probably won't happen without a person forgiving themselves. That much is clear.
For Elliot, finding that required that he not give up, though he sometimes gave in. He returned to seeking resolution no matter what. And that's what redeemed him: his need to be whole and right despite so many things tearing him apart.
Tragedy & Mr. Robot = Love?!
Ultimately, the show is a supremely articulated (to me) and timed (for me) request that I unify or consolidate my personality and abandon projected or internalized artifice apart from its proper uses.
People call that being authentic or real, which are apt, except that artifice is real, too, and I don't want to confuse or muddle such an important thing as treating one's self with the utmost respect and wishing good for all the world.
Just as someone writing about a show that last dropped an episode three years ago, Mr. Robot could confuse. A person could get the wrong idea. There's nothing nefarious, though, once the show is considered in its totality.
Nonetheless, as I got into the first few episodes, I had to overlook derivative concepts on loan from The Matrix, Fight Club, Person of Interest, etc . . .. As the story develops, I found these loaner ideas were used creatively and productively.
I also stuck it out through the seemingly cliché and yet sometimes controversial themes and plot points: sex, drugs, computer hacking, mental illness, terrorism, corporate villainy, the idea of sheeple, bleak imagery . . .. My taste and disposition only sometimes tolerate such things, but it became easier and easier to do so as I picked up more of the breadcrumbs.
When a person has partitioned themselves internally due to some extraordinary stress or complexity, it can be hard for them to stabilize their mood and feel they even understand themselves. And it can be hard to put everything all back together once it's been taken apart . . . if the sufferer even realizes what they've done to themselves in an effort to cope.
Elliot switches between various sub-personalities at times. Other times he merely censors himself for the wrong reasons and with limited self-awareness. But he plays detective on his own self as he also navigates extraordinary circumstances.
His greatest accomplishment comes when he stops fighting what's wrong in the world and within, and finally finds his way to letting himself be fully present. The last sub-personality to reintegrate shares with himself (and the viewer, explicitly) an encouraging incentive.
I'd hate to give too much away, so I'll just say that the point made is that the best thing for the world is for people to find their ways back to themselves, that they have the courage to do whatever is requires to let go of the false pretenses they accepted to survive. It's a call to healing through love, truth, patience, and honestly within one's own self.
Rare People & Honoring The Self
Before Elliot can unfetter from self-imposed divisions of his own personality, before he's ready to love himself and bare his heart . . .. Before he even realizes the extent to which he's not being true to himself, only allowing a part to surface . . .. Prior to that achievement, he tells Whiterose there are rare people who persist in loving him, though he gives them reasons not to, and though he tried to force them away, eschewing their love.
Elliot says these people—these rare, special people—care about him and feel about him something he's unable to feel about himself.
These few people in his life are touchstones and motives along his journey back to a cohesive existence. He reached a point where he felt emotionally ready to stop partitioning, suppressing, and denying parts of himself. He was ready to be open with his sister, at least, who proved herself to him and who also finds healing along with the FBI agent who just badly needed a vacation to Budapest.
As for me, I also key-in on how the show asks a person to value all of the events of their life: the good, the bad, and the ugly. That's very complicated, and much of the reason the show isn't one episode. I associate this, though, with divine decree and wisdom. Religion is featured in the show, but not too prominently. I'm not even exactly sure what the show is saying about it, and I didn't analyze it for that. It does touch here and there on some negative or delusional attributes of religiosity, though, which we all witness among pretty much all the organized religions.
There are so many things wrong with society and which appear in Mr. Robot. The primary context of the show really only denigrates the top 1% of the top 1% among the wealthy, though there's even a somewhat sympathetic character among them. It's gritty, hard-hitting, and yet emphatic and hopeful. It's sort of like, you can just row, row, row your boat to heal. It can be hard and we have to give ourselves and each other chances to turn over a new leaf.
But, I digress, as did the show at times. At the very end, it's not about taking down international conglomerates, wealth redistribution, identifying the face of evil, or anything like that.
It's about having the courage not to accept shame to the point of disfigurement. It's about not selling out. It's about confidence that you are supposed to be you in your time, in your space, and you owe no one any justification.
Evil & Forgiveness
Probably there are caveats. We have to make amends for our wrongs, as best we can. Some people don't seem very capable of doing that, though we don't know who might unexpectedly find sincere contrition.
But we have to face it. Some people are not merely ill. They're evil. I really believe that, and I think the ideology of the show is in line with accepting this is part of the pageant of life, as well. Some change, find their way to rein in whatever's gone wrong in them, while other folks willfully commit themselves to perilous treachery on the earth . . . and die that way. And yet being consumed by hatred of such isn't the way to change the world.
A lot of us try very hard. We do evil things, too, probably mostly because we haven't healed from the evil done to us. It's hard being calm and kind on the outside, while inside I keep being a different person. It's like talking to someone from a battlefield, but all they see is sunshine and roses around you. Invisible disease, or whatever you care to call it.
I saw a poster today that suggested to its readers to find their true north and to follow their inner compass. A nearby poster was an anthropomorphic whistle, like those used in sports, that held up a sign reading, "I (heart) coaches." I'm thinking the writer of the true north poster, or whoever it quotes, was perhaps thinking of finding one's calling or occupation.
Science hasn't yet nailed down how human consciousness is generated, not at the time I'm writing this. There's lots humans don't know.
But one of those things a person should know, if at all possible, is how to be comfortable in their own skin, to have an ounce of confidence, and to feel loved. And yet things go horribly wrong. For some people, as we've been saying, they splinter under such circumstances.
Someone who has to live in persecution might feel such dissociation to an extreme, as well as anyone oppressed in a relationship or at work or wherever. Anyone who has been abused or got really confused in life. Those who've been jailed or empoisoned.
The purpose of all the traumatic situations represented in Mr. Robot is to speak constructively to them, along with relative diversity among the cast with many interesting rolls. The show's strength is not consistent, but no one would handle intensity of situation any more constantly. Mr. Robot is loaded with subtext and tangents; it's a show that could be rhetorically analyzed if internalized.
That I watched it when I did gave me tools to further psychoanalyze myself (not in any traditional sense, though therapy is also featured prominently in the show).
Mr. Robot tells a story about a hacker who unhacked his complicated self, while also making headway toward toppling global networks of evil. My life isn't that extraordinary, at least not on paper, but Elliot's ordeal helped me sort through my own.
If someone feels fragmented, like I describe, I think what else helps is devoting sustained focus to what's most important. I talk more about that in another blog post called "Uninterrupted Focus Heals & teaches."
Irwin, HJ (Feb 1998) Affective predictors of dissociation. II: Shame and guilt. Journal of
Clinical Psychology v 54 iss 2 pp 237-45.
Rugens, Alex & Devin Blair Terhunee (2013) Guilt by dissociation: Guilt primes augment
the relationship between dissociative tendencies and state dissociation. Psychiatry Research v 206 pp 114–116.