Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag was a masterclass in beautiful writing - clever, funny, sexy, and heart-wrenching all at the same time.
It was also full of lessons in how to bounce back from devastating events, how to deal with grief and guilt, and how to keep your humour and your capacity for love intact.
Emotional resilience is a hot topic at the moment; we know that resilient people are less likely to suffer long-term psychological consequences from traumatic events.
That’s not to say that there’s no such thing as an objectively bad situation – for example, austerity has a measurable effect on mental health – or that you should only take personal responsibility for your emotions instead of changing the world for the better. However, even in a perfect society we’d still have to deal with rejection, failure, loss, guilt, and all the other struggles that are part and parcel of the human condition - and resilience can help.
There’s a huge amount of research on how to build resilience, in children, students, doctors, and anyone dealing with problems. The flexibility to adapt to changing and difficult circumstances comes from a set of skills that can be taught. Several common strategies can be found across the literature; here are some examples of the ones that Fleabag used to such great effect.
Build a strong social network. Connecting with your family (or your chosen family, if your real family are awful) keeps you grounded. Social events like “Chatty Wednesdays” can be a wonderful way to meet new people, but even relationships with your pets - like a cuddle with a certain special guinea pig - can help.
Be an altruist. Fleabag transitions from being a self-serving manipulator to being the person who gets her sister to the hospital after her miscarriage, keeping it a secret despite her own embarrassment; bringing her dad all the way to the altar to marry the woman he loves, even though the Godmother is really, spectacularly, impressively hateful. This kind of pro-social behaviour can help to keep a sense of self.
Eat healthily and exercise. Doing whatever exercise you hate the least and eating wholesome foods are just as important, if not more important, in times of crisis as any other time. You have a responsibility to yourself to give yourself the care you need. Putting pine nuts on your salad fucking does make you an adult.
Keep your sense of humour. Fleabag had this one down from the start. Humour keeps your troubles in perspective and makes it easier to tell them to other people.
Face your problems head on. Instead of escaping and detaching from her problems, keeping her distance from the people in her life with asides to the camera, and chasing unsatisfying sexual encounters, when Fleabag starts to actively engage with her issues and face up to her worst memories, she begins to find some kind of peace. Spilling all your secrets, even in a confession box, is never as terrible as you expect (if the priest tries to fuck you afterwards, call the police).
Forgive yourself. The purpose of guilt is to make you take action, whether that’s making things right or just learning a lesson. Once your guilt has nothing more to teach you, there’s no value in holding onto it - feeling guilty doesn’t make you a good person, doing good things does. As Boo tells us, “that’s exactly why they put rubbers on the end of pencils; because people make mistakes.”
Keep an optimistic outlook. So far in your life you’ve survived every terrible, seemingly inescapable situation that you’ve been in. Perhaps you found a way to solve the problem yourself, or it got better with time, or someone helped you, or the worst thing imaginable happened, but you’re still here anyway. Keep that in mind the next time you feel completely trapped.
“I’ve been having me a real hard time,” we heard as Fleabag waved us away, “but it feels so nice to know I’m gonna be alright.”
The love story between Fleabag and the Priest, besides being the reason that Google searches for “sexy priest” are at an all-time high, was only made possible by the hard work that Fleabag put in to build emotional resilience into her life. Much as we all loved the playful, electric chemistry between Andrew Scott and Waller-Bridge, this was as much a story about her love for her sister, her father, Boo, and herself.
She wasn’t saved by a romantic partner swooping in and making everything better – she was saved by her own hard work and bravery in allowing herself to be honest, to take care of herself, and to love. Love, after all, isn’t something that weak people do.