ACT Therapy and “Rest and Ricklaxation”
The most recent season of Rick and Morty promised to be the darkest season yet, and it delivered. Jerry left, the Citadel faced the aftermath of Rick’s fury, there was death, explosions, and a Mad Max homage episode where Summer got married and then shortly divorced. It’s no surprise that upon facing their most “fucked up” twenty-minute adventure (as Rick states) that they decided to take a vacation to a health spa.
But this was not just an episode about the dangers of intergalactic health spas—this episode highlighted the different aspects of Acceptance Commitment Therapy, or ACT. ACT is defined by the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) as “a unique empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility”. What this means is that one dealing with anxiety, depression, and other mental illness learns to better handle their bad feelings by accepting that they are a part of them, and learning how to work alongside them instead of avoiding them completely. I myself have undergone an ACT program for my anxiety disorder and it has helped immensely; so, while I was watching Rick and Morty, I noticed the episode served as a crash course in ACT.
The episode begins with Rick’s promise of a “quick twenty-minute adventure” that turns into the thing of nightmares resulting in severe psychological trauma. Rick and Morty then go on vacation to a day spa where they encounter the brain detox chamber. A staff member tells them that the chamber “removes all your cognitive toxins and purifies your system”. After a brief debate on whether or not the employee was on commission, they enter the chamber and receive their complimentary detox.
What the writers are highlighting here is that we, as humans, love a “quick fix” solution to everything. We don’t want to feel bad feelings so we decide to avoid them either by physically avoiding things that bring on the bad feelings, or by using various vices to forget we have them in the first place. Here in lies the danger: all the chaos that comes after the detox is a result of Rick and Morty completely getting rid of all the bad feelings they experience.
The toxin-filled Rick and Morty are the manifestations of what Rick and Morty perceive as the feelings that they wish they didn’t have. Rick’s toxin version is filled with anger, pride, and a need to control everything: “You can die when I say so. I control you. I control the universe! Why am I bragging about that? I have nothing to prove. I’m surrounded by inferior pieces of shit!” Meanwhile Toxic Morty is filled with fear, anxiety, sadness, and insecurity: “I don’t wanna be on camera. I’m ugly and gross, please… Everybody hates me”.
At first Rick and Morty seem completely fine and happy, which is what happens when we use vices or avoidance: we feel a temporary happiness. What this happiness actually does is make our threshold for feeling bad feelings decrease, so when we are faced with them again we feel the bad feelings at a more intense rate. What we perceived as a 10 on a level of 1-10 of feeling bad then becomes a 9. The more we avoid or push down these feelings the threshold decreases more and more until what was a once a 1 becomes a 10.
After the detox, Morty begins to love his life without his anxiety holding him back. He becomes confidant, happy, and finally asks out Jessica (his crush for the past three seasons). When Rick shows up later wanting to reverse the effects of the chamber, Morty refuses to help. Morty mentions how he feels better and healthy and spits out a lot of self-help methods to try to convince Rick to also continue avoiding things that he perceives are bad. The following is their exchange:
MORTY: He sounds like he’s in a lot of pain. Lot O Pain. But look you shouldn’t have to deal with that. You know let’s work off your trauma with some urban spin yoga. It’s amazing you do yoga on a bike, but you have an at-risk pre-teen—
RICK: I don’t think I can just blow this off, Morty. If I had known it worked this way, I wouldn’t have detoxed…I’m accountable for my toxins aren’t I?
MORTY: I think I know what to do [Morty breaks his phone] Rick! You know the only problem here is a big fat brain that misses eating all them big fat problems. Focus on the good thing. Trust me, things are good. Taking that away from me that wouldn’t be healthy.
This exchange is all too familiar. These beliefs become more toxic than our self-perceived toxins, as the episode continues to show what happens when we refuse to feel bad feelings.
Morty becomes overly confident and ends up becoming a very successful stock broker due to his lack of conscience. He ends up ruining his date with Jessica, having a random girl sent to the toxin zone, asking if everything is organic or not, and generally not giving a damn about anything. He may think he is happy, but in the end he merges back because he knows deep down that without his toxins he is not himself.
Rick, throughout the episode, keeps trying to merge back with his toxins because he realizes that his toxins include his empathy as well. The following is the exchange between Rick and Toxic-Rick:
Rick: Oh I had all my problems removed—my entitlement, my narcissism, my crippling loneliness, my irrational attachments…they must be somewhere, they aren’t over here bro.
Toxic-Rick: I’m not going back in there!
Rick: Honestly I don’t care either way. I hate having you in me. And when I say honestly you can believe it, because we know I’m too healthy to lie.
Here we see a key component of ACT, which is acceptance: “We need both sides of the coin, good and bad, because without the bad we can’t have the good.” Rick saw that without his toxins he also didn’t feel anything towards Morty, who he knows he should love. We may hate our feelings and want them to not exist, but without feelings at all we can’t have happiness, love, and empathy. The good truly comes with the bad.
The episode ends with Morty finally merging back with Toxic Morty and becoming himself again. While he now feels the fear, self-consciousness, and depression, his threshold for the feelings went back to normal. He learned to accept what he perceives as the bad parts of him and ends up better for it. This is the main goal of ACT, to make one realize that you cannot avoid bad feelings, they are a part of who you are, and you just need to learn how to manage living with them.
If you or a loved one are suffering from depression, anxiety, or the urge to enter your own brain detox chamber, please consider getting help first from an ACT licensed therapist.
To find an ACT program closest to you or to learn more about ACT please visit: https://contextualscience.org/act