10 Important Mental Health Lessons from BoJack Horseman

Lisa Martens


Photo Courtesy Netflix.

BoJack Horseman is hilarious, and at times way, way too real. This show about a cartoon talking horse delves into responsibility, depression, happiness, loyalty, and one's legacy. What are some of the more serious lessons the show tackles?

1. You don't have to forgive someone.

In S1:E8, "The Telescope," BoJack sees his old friend Herb (who is dying of cancer). I expected the usual TV scene of friends making up before Herb dies.

BoJack betrayed Herb years back by not defending the friend who helped him become a TV star. Herb demanded TV executives hire BoJack for the show he created, and when it came time to stick up for Herb, BoJack faltered. Instead, BoJack never called Herb and let him get fired from the show. Then, BoJack found out Herb was dying, and went to visit him to reconcile.

However, instead of following the usual feel-good TV format, Herb tells BoJack that he's not going to forgive him. He feels BoJack is using Herb as a prop to feel better, and that BoJack isn't truly sorry.

Because Herb isn't feeling better, he's not going to sacrifice his feelings to help BoJack feel better.

This was a powerful lesson for me. I had always thought that you had to forgive and forget, and be the "bigger person." But then I realized how damaging this was. Should we then just forgive the people who do us wrong, over and over, because we had to, and because that was a "nice ending"?

And Herb was right—BoJack wasn't sorry. He was using Herb as a prop. What Herb was doing was not petty. He was setting a healthy boundary. He was not letting BoJack off the hook for something he did wrong just because he was dying.

2. Sacrifice by itself is not meaningful.

Themes of sacrifice are pervasive in BoJack. We learn that BoJack's mother Beatrice feels she sacrificed beauty and success (and possibly marriage to a more compatible partner) to have BoJack. BoJack feels he has to make up for this sacrifice by being successful, but even if he's a TV star, a movie star, an Oscar winner...nothing makes up for his mother's sacrifice.

Sarah Lynn's mother also made sacrifices...it's implied she performed sexual favors to get Sarah on TV, even though Sarah never wanted to be an actress. Sarah Lynn herself seems to have bought into the idea that her sacrifice...living a life she never wanted...had to be for something. We see this in the show's penultimate episode, "The View from Halfway Down." She died clinging to the idea that sacrifice has to mean something.

But sacrifice by itself is not meaningful. We cannot make up for the lives our parents did not get to live. We cannot be perfect and have perfect lives and somehow make up for the sacrifices of others...and true sacrifice does not ask us to do that.

Beatrice demanded BoJack make up for what "he did to her." Is that a sacrifice then? If someone makes a sacrifice for someone, it has to be with the idea that they're not getting something back. Otherwise it's not a sacrifice...it's an investment, and you're looking to get something in return. That is not what sacrifice is.

Many of these characters are yearning and burning to make their sacrifices "mean something" in the end. This is a trap many people fall into. But sacrifice by itself does not mean anything. Sacrifice does not mean you have to get what you want in the end. Thinking this way leads to resentment.

3. Let go of expectations.

Expectations are a bane for many characters. Princess Carolyn expects BoJack to one day shape up and be the man (horse?) of her dreams. She sees so much potential in him, and ignores his self-sabatoging tendencies.

BoJack himself realizes this, and her expectations of him make him feel bad about himself. In S:3, E:9, "The Best Thing That Ever Happened, "When BoJack fires her as his agent, as he mocks her, he says she's always saying that he wasted her 30s.

Princess Carolyn correctly insists that she never said that out loud. But BoJack has been picking up on it for years. It was never explicitly stated, but she does not deny that she feels that way.

When we put expectations on people, they feel those expectations even when we don't state them. Diane feels this way about BoJack as well. BoJack expects Diane to save him and make him a better person. In the very last episode, she asks why he always made her feel that way.

At his mother's funeral, BoJack reveals that part of him was always waiting for a grand gesture from his parents. Now that both of them are dead, he will never receive that. In a heartbreaking moment, we see that his expectations will never be fulfilled. His parents never had a revelation or showed him a grand gesture. They died as they lived.

We cannot expect anyone else to save or fix us. We cannot expect someone who does not want a relationship to give that to us just because we want it. We cannot expect someone to radically change their behavior.

Sometimes, we have to just move on.

4. Relapsing doesn't diminish the work you have done.

After rehab, BoJack relapses and almost kills himself by drowning. When he's in jail, he gets sober again, but he's worried he will relapse again.

In the show's finale, his friend Todd tells him that if that happens, then he will get sober again.

I've known many who struggle with this idea. What if they try to quit, and go to therapy and do the work, only to relapse? The truth is, relapse is possible...but it does not diminish the work done. BoJack still learned a lot about his trauma and began to take responsibility for his actions. Even though he has his moments of relapse, he grows as a person.

We like to think our problems can be solved simply. But it's hard to form new habits and new ways of thinking, and there are times where we may resort to methods that we know are unhealthy. However, this does not mean the work we did was for nothing. Every time BoJack puts effort and work into healing, he does improve. He becomes, gradually, a better person and friend.

5. It's hard to apply wisdom to real life.

After months in rehab, BoJack reveals that he's afraid to leave because when he's in rehab, it's easy. When he's outside and has to make his own choices, all the wisdom he learns in rehab is difficult to actually apply.

It's easy to say what we have to do. It's easy to say that we need to find a job, or find this kind of person for a relationship, or stay sober, or pay our taxes on time. It can be easy to give advice. If we're in a sheltered environment, decisions seem easy.

However, when we are dealing with interpersonal relationships, everything can become muddy. Our unresolved issues come out. People trigger us. We may experience strong emotions that sway our decisions. We may tell ourselves that it's okay to have some alcohol to help us through the stress.

BoJack often knows what the right thing is, but his impulses constantly sway him in another direction.

During his TV interviews, we can see he's unaware that he makes bad choices when it comes to women. He's in a position of power over them and often has inappropriate sexual relationships with them. And, he usually gets his way. Of all the women in the show, Diane is the only woman BoJack respects that he hasn't slept with...and only because she dared to say no, even though at the time, BoJack was sort of her boss and could have had her fired from writing his book.

BoJack is so wrapped up in his own feelings that he literally doesn't see his own pattern, a pattern that, when pointed out to him, he detests.

The issue is our subjectivity. In rehab, an environment where BoJack really has no authority or power as a celebrity, he is just another person. But the moment BoJack gets to make decisions and use his influence, he abuses that power.

6. Intergenerational pain continues unless stopped.

BoJack's grandmother suffered from depression after her son died in WWII. She never healed from this tragedy, and was instead lobotomized. Her daughter, Bojack's mother Beatrice, witnessed this and so decided that all emotions were bad. She spent a lifetime bottling up her emotions and resenting her husband and BoJack because of her inability to feel, express her feelings, and do what she wanted with her own life.

BoJack, feeling his mother's resentment, felt like he owed it to her to be great.

All of this agony stems from something that happened years ago. BoJack's grandmother never healed, and so Beatrice never learned how to deal with her feelings, either, except to push them down. This intergenerational pain falls on BoJack.

When we do not solve our issues, the consequences stretch further than we could imagine. The consequences extend to our children, and their children, and so on and on.

This show caused me to look at my own family's intergenerational pains. How could they stop with me?

7. Success =/= happiness

BoJack continues to believe that success will finally stop the pain he feels. He believes, when he's young, that he will be fulfilled if he becomes a star. Then, he thinks his book will make everyone love him. Then, he thinks happiness is receiving an Oscar. Or being in indie movies. Or being in a New York play.

This happens over and over again. BoJack continues to think of happiness as something he wins, like a trophy. He will accomplish something, and then the happiness will be there. The pain will go away.

He realizes, finally, that nothing is going to "happen" to "make him happy." He can have fame and money and awards, but his unhappiness remains. Why? Because he never tackles the real reasons why he feels so inadequate. He never confronts his issues with his parents, with love, or with his own self-esteem.

Happiness is not on the other side of an accomplishment. It is within ourselves, all the time.

8. It's possible to hide behind relationships.

Mr. Peanut Butter is a character who, on the surface, seems like BoJack's opposite. But we see in later seasons tht he is using relationships to mask his own issues.

Mr. Peanut Butter does not think life has any meaning. He flies from activity to activity, distraction to distraction, to avoid thinking about serious issues like mortality, sickness, and poverty.

Mr. Peanut Butter also consistently dates women who are young...in their 20s...and then they break up when these women want more substance in their lives. Mr. Peanut Butter doesn't seem to ever be confronted with big decisions, and when he is, he just finds another girlfriend who is carefree. He realizes this in "Mr. Peanut Butter's Boos," one of my favorite episodes, because I feel like I've known many men who fall into this pattern of perpetually "Peter Panning" and dating younger women every time a girlfriend starts to come into her own.

We start to see shifts in this when he realizes his pattern, and becomes discontent. He finally begins to see the value in being single and really working on himself, instead of alternating between fighting with a spouse and making up for it with a big romantic gesture. Like BoJack, this is how Mr. Peanut Butter thinks love works—a grand gesture makes everything okay in the end.

9. Emotional unavailability is damaging and dishonest.

Diane is an emotionally unavailable character, which is partially why her marriage to Mr. Peanut Butter fell apart. She never feels like she is at home when she's in his home. She acts like a guest, a feeling that her boyfriends always pick up on.

Diane never commits to being an "us" in a relationship. She's too afraid of losing a part of herself, and she's afraid that if people know who she is, they will stop loving her. So she's always holding back. She's always preventing herself from being truly vulnerable.

Princess Carolyn also resists a relationship for the same reason. She ends up finding the perfect man in Judah, but even when she's dating other men, her inability to be herself gets in the way. When she has a miscarriage while dating Ralhph Stilton, she's reluctant to tell him because she feels like he only loves her because she's an "easy" girl to get along with (S:4; E:9 "Ruthie). This reinforces the idea that she has to be easygoing at all times to deserve love, and can't reveal parts of herself that may be dark or complicated.

Funnily enough, it is Judah...her secretary who sees her at her lowest...who ends up being the perfect partner for her. She is not hiding for him or putting on the act of "easygoing" girlfriend, and so, he's able to get to know her in a way no other boyfriend has.

10. Pain doesn’t have to mean anything.

In Season 6, Diane, who finally does not have to write for anyone else, can write exactly what she wants. She has a supportive boyfriend, a cash advance, and she's doing well mentally.

So why can't see seem to write her book of essays, the book that will make all the suffering she experienced as a kid "worth it?" The book sends her into another depression, and she goes off her meds.

Diane feels the need to turn her pain into something good. She does not heal from it because she identifies with it. She still thinks of herself as a high school nerd...something that is pointed out to her again and again when she goes to parties. Nobody thinks of her as a nerd. She's a mature adult with a very lucrative writing career.

But Diane cannot get over this image of herself. Even though she's in her mid-30s, she continues to define herself by her childhood and adolescence because she HAS to make the pain "mean something."

Eventually, she starts writing a middle grade book "just for fun." But since it isn't her serious book of essays, she feels like it doesn't represent her true self. Why? Because she had fun writing it.

Diane has defined herself with pain, meaning she actually prevents herself from feeling good most of the time. She has to make her pain mean something, and refuses to let it go.

Diane teaches us to define ourselves in other ways—what we do, our relationships, and our positive impact on the word. When we define ourselves with pain, we remain stuck.

Wow! What a show. By using the trope of the sitcom and turning expectations upside-down, BoJack the horse teaches us how to be...more human.

Who knew.

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