‘This Is Us’: reflections on Randall, anxiety and achievement

BY NIKKI ADEBIYI, FOUNDER @ BOUNCE BLACK

SPOILER ALERT:

This post assumes readers have some familiarity with the TV show, characters and storylines. So, some scenes from the series are discussed in detail. If you haven’t already, you might wanna catch up (or begin) first. Read on at your own risk!

As a writer myself, what appeals to me most about the TV show This Is Us is the depth, power and beauty of the screenwriting. Frankly, the show is in a league of its own here. I thoroughly appreciate the gentleness and nuance they bring to complex and sensitive issues, especially race and mental health. So, I wanted to share some personal reflections and impressions from the show, its themes and its characters, in particular Randall Pearson (played by Sterling K. Brown), and the lesson is:

Don’t judge someone’s capabilities based on their circumstances

In Season One, we are introduced to Randall’s mental health journey from schoolboy Randall to grown-and-killing it Randall. He’s struggled with anxiety since he was a child, and has suffered panic attacks at various points in his life. By the end of the season, the accumulation of stress from balancing work while dealing with the grave illness of his biological father (whom he just met and started getting to know) culminates in yet another breakdown.

Smart people get sick too

We see him unable to focus on work or even at work (even though his track record is that of a high performer). We see him make a last minute cancellation on his brother Kevin’s big, important theatre debut (even though he is a man of his word). Instead, we see him in severe distress as he’s collapsed in tears in the corner of his work office that night (even though he’s usually the one to care for other people’s emotions and talk them off the ledge).

And yet all that doesn’t in any way take away from who he is and what he has to offer in terms of excellence in skills, abundance in gifts, warmth of personality, and strength of character.

Although the circumstances are different, I saw myself in Randall in those scenes. I felt visible and understood. I felt the representation of severe anxiety was accurate.

I remember times in the past when depression and anxiety became so debilitating for me, that I found it difficult to carry on with life as normal. And when I tried to, often without seeking help, or knowing how and where to get it, I was sometimes met with harsh condescension from all sides, personal and professional.

Mental ill-health and imposter syndrome

At times it felt like prospective employers, as well as classmates and acquaintances, didn’t believe the achievements listed on my CV/Resumé. They couldn’t match the struggling person in front of them to the illustrious roles and experiences of the person on paper.

It’s not uncommon for people from historically underrepresented backgrounds to feel a sense of imposter syndrome in their work. It comes with the territory. But when you’re fighting to reclaim your life and sense of self from difficult circumstances and trauma in a world where most people do not understand those things or how to respond to people who live them, sometimes you are literally made to feel like a fraud.

I was subject to cutting and demeaning remarks, some said directly to me, others of which I overheard or read between the lines. It was a weird place to be, and I remember constantly mourning “if only these people knew me in the prime of my abilities” because “I haven’t always been this way”.

Thankfully, I know better now. I hadn’t really lost my high aiming and high achieving abilities, I just needed to acknowledge and deal with the other stuff taking up brain space.

Underestimate none, be compassionate to all

Not only can we learn about Randall in these scenes, we can learn a lot from him here.

If you haven’t been through it to know it yourself, simply imagine that you personally met Randall at that latter point at which everything became too much for him. Imagine if the period of time you’ve known him for coincides with the lowest or most challenging point in his life. It might be understandable that this impression of him shapes how you interact with him because that’s all you’ve ever known and seen. “Believe who they are” is popular social media wisdom, which definitely applies in certain circumstances. But this isn’t that.

It matters how you interact with people like Randall, because you could be unknowingly hindering (even hurting) rather than helping their recovery process. At the very least, you would most definitely be mistaken in assuming that all that you see is all that he is, or worse, all that he’ll ever be.

As viewers, we are fortunate to have followed his whole life story, but with people in our everyday lives, we just don’t know what they’re battling or what they’ve overcome. If you have enough sympathy for the stories featured on Humans of New York, you should be equally sensitive to the embodied stories right where you are. Because they are there, even if they’re not being shared.

Know your worth and remember who you are

Anxiety and overwhelm aside, Randall is a conscientious, caring and capable man that has plenty to offer his family, his friends, his work and the world. Anxiety and overwhelm considered, Randall is still the same person, he just needs support (which he gets from his brother, who ends up bailing out on his own show at the last minute to seek Randall out at his office). Therapy also helps (which Randall eventually agrees to).

As I navigated my own recovery journey, I had to fight hard to remember and believe in my worth and capabilities. So, I want to encourage anyone with a similar story to hold on to this truth in the tough times.

Own your story because it can be a great source of power and fuel for resilience.

No matter how many dark clouds cast shadows and doubt on what you have to offer, you still have something to offer. You still have value in yourself, and you can still add value to others.

Being underestimated is something I’ve experienced throughout my life, so it doesn’t hurt as much as it used to. Now, I enjoy exceeding my own expectations (because that’s what matters in the long run) while simultaneously defying other people’s low expectations.

Now, I’m not one to say “I hate to say I told you so” because I did tell you so.

And Randall told it better.