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Single-Issue Psychology

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"Now I see that my life's hardships can all be traced back to a single event. Psychoanalysis is so easy when you're an anime character."

Human psychology involves many moving parts. Of these parts, the actual "issues" are merely one of them. Whether one has multiple issues — psychological, some biological, some cognitive, and some related to experiences and memories — or singular issues — these issues, by themselves, are not always determinants or agents of human behavior. It very much depends on the patient. Whether these "issues" are problems is also not clear, since sometimes Misery Builds Character and psychological neurosis at times manifests as a coping mechanism to difficulties in a society, and merely adjusting to society without taking into account what the values of that society are and whether it's worth adjusting to, makes psychological treatment very difficult and almost always a person-to-person situation.

Overcoming psychological problems takes lots of time, effort, and sometimes medication. While finding the source of the problem is important to helping a mentally ill patient, it is only part of the process, seeing as it simply allows the psychiatrist to get an understanding of just what is wrong. Once the source of the problem is found and they understand how the mind has been affected by whatever causes, it makes it easier to work out the proper methods and/or medication necessary to help the patient overcome it. And even then patients often regress, or rather they inevitably do regress since where fiction allows the illusion of an ending where a character surmounts a problem and achieves permanent Character Development, in real-life, as Sigmund Freud pointed out memorably, every part of human consciousness rests side-by-side at all times, and while people do change and grow, they never entirely sever continuity with who they once were. There is much repetition, much regression to earlier habits that people believed they had kicked apart. And the frequency with which, and the reasons why people repeat or regress often, and whether they are self-aware about these occurrences, often says more about the character and individual than their actual issues ever do.

In fiction, to serve the demands of narrative, i.e. telling a complete story with a beginning-middle-end and having Character Development, these things are flattened out. Psychological therapy and its tropes mirror narrative in many ways, it involves a plot to find some mystery, to tie together disparate parts into a coherent whole. So this feeds into storytelling easily, as well as creating story-arc and character-arc, it's a handy way of creating a distinct ensemble that sticks out to readers, simply give different characters different issues and have them grow and change by identifying and then overcoming those problems. In story terms, finding out the dark secret of the past, serves as the MacGuffin, what it is specifically, is not important to the plot, but finding it out is the goal to be attained. Used this schematically, single-issue-psychology comes off as especially trivial. It's much easier when all a person's problems stem from a single traumatic incident, and working through that single incident will instantly cure them, so fiction tends to represent character psychology in this way, especially genre fiction where much of the story is about an external plot and not character. In a plot, using such a trope explains the character to the audience, allows the latter to empathize with the main character, and likewise the action of the plot becomes emotionally resonant since audiences are aware of how it directly affects the character in his inner being. Realistic drama, character studies, and serious fiction will likely avert or complicate this; whereas Deconstruction-oriented stories will heavily subvert and at times mock this concept.

Remember, Tropes Are Not Bad, as it serves a purposes in condensing a character's personality for the sake of run time and comprehensibility. If psychological healing were played with 100% complexity, certain mediums couldn't manage to deliver it in time. Movies, for example, have time limits of about 2-3 hours maximum, and it would be impossible to cram that much detail into the story without risking a Kudzu Plot or the Eight Deadly Words. Likewise, having a single issue by itself does not mean that a character is one-dimensional, if a story uses a single issue as a means and not an end, it's on solid ground. Going too far in the other direction, i.e. giving the character multiple issues risks beggaring disbelief in the audience that an individual with that much baggage could actually be functional, and simply making everything about a character an "issue" is just as trivializing and misapplying psychology as single-issues can be at their most banal.

Compare with Cynicism Catalyst or Freudian Excuse, when a Dark and Troubled Past is used to explain why a villain is/became evil, and Idiosyncrazy, where a villain is obsessed with a single issue around which all their crimes are themed. See also Bored with Insanity. Contrast There Are No Therapists, for when characters' mental and emotional problems aren't addressed at all.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Nodame Cantabile, Chiaki is unable to pursue his dream of becoming a world-class conductor because an incident in his childhood (watching a man die while their plane was crashing at the age of 10) gave him a phobia of flying. Partially averted in relation to the cure of the phobia, since Nodame's hypnosis compels him to get on a plane, but he's still terrified, and only after many times traveling without incident does he get used to the experience.
  • Rosemarine from Kaze to Ki no Uta would have been more stable if he hadn't been raped by Auguste.
  • Great Teacher Onizuka relies heavily on this trope. Nearly all of the students (and several of the other teachers) have incredibly hostile personalities, but once Onizuka finds out about the traumatic event in their pasts, one dramatic example is usually enough to at least tone them down, although many continue to struggle with their old problems throughout the series, or acquire new ones.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Despite the page quote, the situation with Asuka is a bit more complicated. Most of her mental issues reach back to her mother going insane and subsequently killing herself, fact, but it is evident that she had problems beyond that. It's mentioned that her mother neglected Asuka even before her illness, and the rest of her childhood was apparently pretty bad too: her relationships with her father and stepmother seem to be horrible (in the flashback to the hanging scene, she mentions that she 'doesn't have a papa') and completely loveless respectively. She lumps them both in as people she hates. Hearing her father and future stepmother going at it at the hospital probably contributed to her unhealthy attitude toward sex as well.
  • Half the cast of Naruto fit this trope pretty well. Not so much in the "one trauma" thing- that is there, but they are usually well aware of it. Rather, in the Defeat Means Friendship way, in that their trauma tends to inform their philosophy of life and fighting, which is why Naruto (or whoever they are facing) can't defeat or understand them. It's more like they are shocked that people can have as bad or worse lives than they had, but not be a psychological trainwreck.
    • Though the big one, Sasuke, averts it. He's had to confront his issues repeatedly over the course of the series but, while he made progress a few times, they still continued to haunt and drive him, plus each time he looked like he was getting better, something came along that screwed it all up. He's crazier than ever, and after dealing with the source of his troubles (albeit in a fight to the death). In Part 1, Kakashi actually warned him that he wouldn't be able to play this trope straight, since he'd seen too many people like Sasuke who let revenge consume their lives, even after they had achieved it because their issues by then had grown beyond the initial trauma.
    • Naruto, as well, since though he had, as he put it, been "saved" from his depressingly lonely childhood and the neuroses that went with it early on in the story, it was only the worst of it that was over, and he spent much of the rest of the story gradually overcoming them, as well as constantly running into situations that brought back his painful memories.
    • Downplayed with Gaara. Defeat Equals Friendship and sanity are in play after his fights with Sasuke and Naruto brought his issues to the fore, but while he's cured surprisingly easily of being a deranged and psychotic Serial Killer, and is now closer to his family and has friends, he is still emotionally withdrawn and obviously has some progress to make.
  • The Little Busters! anime ended up explaining Riki's narcolepsy this way - in the final episode, Riki realizes that he falls asleep like that as a response to any bad things happening so that he can run away from them rather than confront them directly. In the visual novel, this wasn't so, as Riki's narcolepsy was just a condition he happened to have that affected some but not most areas of his life, like in reality. Though at least, as he's shown waking up at school in one of the final scenes, the anime may not have intended to claim that coming to terms with the event 'cured' him.
  • Homunculus has this as a general premise, since the Homunculi themselves often take a form that represents each person's deepest insecurity. When time comes to resolve the person's issue, the Homunculus will usually break down and become more normal-looking until the person looks more like themselves again.

    Comic Books 
  • Superhero origin stories often revolve around a single inciting incident:
    • Batman's life, obsession, and psyche hinges on the night his parents were killed in front of him and his desire to overcompensate and overcome the helplessness of being a small, vulnerable child seeing his protectors brutally mown down in the blink of an eye. Later events (the death of the second Robin, nearly shooting Alexander Luthor, being cast through time by a mad god) merely add nuance to his behavior, although as time goes on, people note that Batman's general paranoia, his Control Freak secretive tendencies (which he unleashes not only on villains but his allies and friends: the Batfamily, Justice League, etc.) and his inability to really mature and be a man (i.e. form a meaningful relationship and not be attracted to villainesses), as well as the fact that he dresses up as a giant bat and takes his legend and Cult of Personality seriously, means that there are parts to him that aren't entirely conditioned or based on what happened to his parents.
    • A Punisher one-shot story complicates this. Most people believe everything Frank Castle does is due to his family's death, while journalists, authors, psychologists and other researchers look into his history and pin it on Vietnam. In actuality, The Punisher didn't spring from any one event, his issues built cumulatively and not just from traumatic events either. Reading "The Tyger" in a poetry group inspired a fascination with the greatest killers in the animal kingdom.
    • Spider-Man's obsession with being a superhero stems entirely from his guilt over letting a robber get away who wound up killing his father-figure Uncle Ben. He consistently reminds himself that the one time he ignored his "responsibility", it cost him his father figure, and he resolves to use his powers to help others even if it costs him socially. More realistically than Batman, the comics and the live-action films repeatedly show that this by itself doesn't entirely transform Peter overnight since he can't feasibly devote himself full-time to being a superhero and that he often has to negotiate different parts of his social and professional duties, often trapped in a Cornelian dilemma.
    • About halfway through Peter David's legendary run writing The Incredible Hulk, psychologist Doc Samson sits down with Bruce Banner (and a hypnotist), and tries to work through Banner's issues, particularly his multiple personality disorder. A few hours later, they've covered his abusive childhood and the death of his mother, and suddenly all the personalities are integrated, presto-change-o, and we have a new Hulk, who doesn't transform back into Banner. Lampshaded, in that Samson repeatedly mentions how most people need years of therapy, and there's no way it could have been that simple. (It wasn't.) There are suggestions it might have taken hold if Hulk didn't keep brushing off Samson's follow-up sessions due to superhero business.
  • For the first fifty or so issues of Justice Society of America, Obsidian was portrayed as a threat to himself and others and as suffering from symptoms superficially akin to schizophrenia. This culminated in his attempt to destroy the world, which was thwarted by his father's The Power of Love speech. Obsidian hasn't been in any need of treatment since then, judging by subsequent appearances: apparently, working through his daddy issues was enough to entirely cure him. In this case, the "voice" he was hearing was, in fact, genuinely another entity, making it less "paranoid schizophrenia" and more "daddy issues and receiving a metric tonne of malicious advice". It would still probably be more complicated than it was portrayed to resolve, but it's not quite as bad as curing schizophrenia. Also, in a recent issue, one of his teammates worried aloud if had stopped taking his medication when he began to act strangely, suggesting that when not medicated his problems may return.
  • Comic book supervillains, especially the really popular ones are a rich source of in-universe and out-universe debate on their motivations. The actual answers (Popularity Power, Joker Immunity) are obvious but much of the work is to create that illusion of consistency:
    • Doctor Doom's motivation for his hatred for Reed Richards stems from the fact that he ignored Reed's warnings about an experiment, said experiment backfired and gave him a scar and got him expelled. Said scar is the reason why he wears the mask and armour look. In Jack Kirby's views, the scar is actually a thin cut that Doom exaggerates out of proportion, but John Byrne argues that the scar may have been thin but Doom overcompensated by putting a hot iron forged mask on his face truly twisting his features. Of course, the true reason for the rivalry between these two intellectual rivals is made more complex and entangled as time goes on.
    • Magneto was originally a jackass in purple tights before made into a complex Tragic Villain under Chris Claremont who gave him the powerful and compelling backstory of being a Jewish holocaust survivor, which coupled with other tragedies convinced him that humanity was fundamentally bigoted and would not truly help mutants and that only radical action works to protect the mutant group. His personality is explained and understood as an example of an oppressed individual lashing out at the world and Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us.
    • Alan Moore's The Killing Joke invented the proverbial "one bad day" concept, where the Joker tries to prove that a single instance of Trauma Conga Line can drive anyone insane, demonstrating it with the psychological and physical torture of Commissioner Gordon. It doesn't work on Gordon who despite being traumatized insists that Batman bring him to justice by-the-book. Psychologically speaking, Joker's literal approach i.e. spelling out exactly why he is doing and the purpose he wants to achieve on his victim is not conducive to creating the effect he wants and hence it's fairly easy for Gordon to resist. At the end of the story Batman tells Joker that his "one bad day" theory is bunk, that Joker is mentally ill, and while something bad may or may not have happened to him, Joker still has agency and culpability to try and cure himself. Joker briefly realizes this and decides that he won't get better after all, and Batman himself laments that not only will Joker turn down his offer of help, but that he himself won't kill Joker for the greater good since he doesn't believe himself to be sane to handle the responsibility of killing someone on his conscience. This part of Joker's characterization recurs in The Dark Knight, but the Joker does it to Harvey Dent this time, and it works, resulting in Two-Face, mostly because Joker disguises it better, comes to Dent when he is alone and bitter with his co-workers and by use of the coin flip, gaslights Harvey into thinking that it is his decision.
    • There's also Two-Face in the comics, who originally only had his scarring to contribute to his insanity. Eventually, he was given a severely screwed up mentality including issues due to Abusive Parents and problems with rage, which the scarring only pushed into pure insanity. He was also secretly violently schizophrenic, and actually murdered someone (a Serial Killer who got Off on a Technicality) before the scarring. More modern versions, including The Dark Knight, Batman: The Animated Series and others, argue that part of the reason for his insanity was that the Slave to PR and mass-media nature of modern politics made it harder for him to reconcile his public and private personas, creating a guy who was internally divided which finally becomes a Literal Metaphor.
  • Alan Moore (of The Killing Joke, above) actually dislikes this trope or more precisely the way this trope is applied in comics to merely motivate and explain character actions and plot, which in his view makes the characters automatons who are reducible to their neuroses, and therefore not capable of agency and change and he sought to avert this as much as possible in his superhero fiction:
    • Alan Moore regretted that The Killing Joke became misunderstood for this, and considers it an unsuccessful work, because his application of psychological problems on larger-than-life comic book characters never really worked since the nature of the character and its function was that any complex origin ultimately becomes a single-issue excuse for characterization. In the case of Joker, one-bad-day becomes his rationale for doing horrible things to people because horrible people did horrible things to him, but for him to be a complex villain, Joker must be capable of some amount of change, which doesn't exist as a meaningful choice for him given the nature of the medium and the Batman-Joker rivalry.
    • He averts this most notably in Watchmen which initially had superhero stock characters with, on the surface, fairly superficial traits and motivations, but the comics gradually explore their inner life and bring to light hidden parts of their past and in doing so reveals that none of them are truly consistent, not even to their chosen identities and sense of being and all of them are capable of change: The Cynic Comedian breaks down in tears and dies a lonely old man regretting some of his bad actions, Dr. Manhattan who has grown aloof from humanity gives the Humans Are Special Aesop, Rorschach poses as a tough guy but dies in tears.
    • All of his stories, such as Swamp Thing, are about giving people a complex sense of identity and inner life. Despite his basic motivations, as a plant-based elemental who initially thought he was human, he meaningfully tries to articulate new reasons to like humanity and nature, and falls in love with a human being, despite his understanding that humans can be disappointing.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Avoided in the Terinu AU fanfics Grace of God and Spin Recovery. The alternate universe version of Rufus did suffer from a major trauma, but he managed to inflict plenty of lesser ones upon himself in subsequent years, which he still has to attend therapy and take plenty of corrective drugs to deal with.
  • In the Ranma ½ fic The Bitter End, Akane's rage disorder is depicted as stemming from Akane's "inability" to fight off Death and save her mother. (Note that Akane was barely older than a toddler when her mother died). An obsession exacerbated by Ranma's seeming ability to overcome any opponent.
    • Not quite, they list that as the starting point to her issues, which were built upon by throwing herself into martial arts to make herself stronger (and yet never keeping up with Ranma later), her father emotionally abandoning all his daughters, Kuno's organized attacks souring her on men in general, and everyone supporting her unhealthy abuse of Ranma, who she ends up irrationally seeing as a trigger for her anger issues after thinking he tricked her into thinking he was female.
      • It's more than that; Rage disorder, a chemical imbalance that can be as genetic as it is psychological, so maybe she can't help it, which explains why she just gets angrier after the story forces her to confront her issues and false assumptions that only hurt everyone, plus the fact she refuses to get treatment.
    • Ranma also averts this, his issues stem from the systematic abuse from his father giving him a strict set of what a man should be, and his own morals and honor that his immoral parent didn't stamp out(probably since his wife would kill him and it makes Ranma easier to control), but more specifically in the fanfic, it comes from everyone blaming his foot in mouth comments for Akane's anger, leading even him to blame himself, no matter how far he goes to avoid angering her. Combined with how much he actually loves her, the fact that defending himself, which he is quite capable of, only makes her look at him with hate that he finds worse than the injuries, this all leads to him becoming highly submissive, depressed, and unemotional as he feels that all of it is his fault for failing the one he loves, and thinking of himself as a failure as a man for all of this coming from a woman on top of the more emotional failings.
  • Averted in Hunting the Unicorn; Kurt and Blaine's issues stem from a number of factors, ranging from their own faults and insecurities to various events in their lives.

  • In Anger Management, David Buznik is encouraged by therapist Buddy Rydell to be more assertive by participating in antisocial behavior like singing an embarrassing song from West Side Story while driving, and harassing and humiliating Buddhist monks, all to help deal with a perceived lack of assertiveness.
  • Mel Brooks' character in the movie High Anxiety, arguably a parody of this sort of thing. Arguably taken to the most unrealistically bizarre extreme possible. After spending the entire movie freaking out due to constantly being put into situations that involve extreme heights, it turns out his fear was not of heights but of...parents. Cue a flashback to Mel Brooks dressed like a baby superimposed behind two arguing parents, which is apparently the cause for everything. He then immediately gets over his fear of heights with no trouble whatsoever.
  • Surprisingly averted in the movie Analyze This. In a wacky comedy about a mobster's analyst, you'd expect there to be one big issue that would, when revealed, leave the mobster miraculously cured. Instead, there is one major trauma — which, when touched upon, opens up a heaving wall of repressed guilt and grief, and renders the mobster an emotional wreck for weeks. After he pulls himself together, he and his analyst agree that, while he's had a breakthrough, he's far from cured and needs a lot more therapy.
  • Orson Welles' Citizen Kane has a Driving Question about "Rosebud" and that it means. The revelation that It Was His Sled and that it symbolizes his lost childhood reveals that Kane at the end of his life, and perhaps for most of his life, never got over his separation from his mother and his happy childhood, that being raised by his bank led to him spending the rest of his life trying (and failing) to win other people's love through superficial means. Welles called this in later interviews, "dollar-book Freud" because he felt that people mistook the MacGuffin for The Reveal. Noting the point of the film was that Kane's motivations and actions are mysterious and unknowable, that Rosebud is The Greatest Story Never Told and that the last scene which shows the sled being tossed in the fire was meant to suggest that maybe the secret is not important either.
  • In Secret Beyond the Door... (1948) by Fritz Lang, the childhood traumatic event that triggered all the psychological issues for Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave) was a mistaken belief that his mother had locked him in a room to keep him out of the way when she was going to the theatre with another man.
  • Seen in the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier where Spock's brother, Sybok, has the power to discover everyone's 'one trauma'. It's somewhat shown, however, that Sybock is invoking this trope in-universe and simply using his abilities to make people think they're cured while leaving them with a psychic-induced glow of happiness and self-fulfillment instead of actually dealing with emotional issues in any meaningful way.
  • In The President's Analyst, the title character gets out of a forced defection to the USSR by getting his KGB captor to realize, in very short order, that he became a spy only out of fear of his father, who had arrested his mother in a Stalin-era purge. He does tell the spy that a cure through analysis is possible but would take years, which he couldn't possibly do if he were bundled off to Russia....
  • Subverted in The Conversation. Main character Harry Caul avoids his terror over having others harmed by his surveillance work by completely ignoring the consequences of what he does. At first, it seems like this is due to a vague job he did some years earlier involving a union dispute, but a Dream Sequence has him narrate his early childhood to an unconcerned female passerby including how he accidentally killed a friend of his father's. In the end, this isn't even the worst of his problems.
    "I'm not afraid of dying... but I am afraid of murder."
  • Subverted in Reign Over Me : Main character Charlie Fineman is a broken shell of a man since his family died during 9/11. He seems to be getting better when he's with his old college friend Alan, but relapses often in the course of the movie. Even when he finally opens up about his issues, it's obvious he still has a very long way to go before he's really cured.
  • In Good Will Hunting, Will, who has successfully fended off helpful and unhelpful psychotherapy throughout the movie, is cured of all his issues at the end by exchanging graphic memories of their respective abusive childhoods with Sean, then crying as Sean repeatedly tells him, "It's not your fault." It was cited by some critics as the one thing in the movie that seems like it was written by people as young as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were at the time.
  • Lars and the Real Girl partly averts this. Lars's problems are all connected to his childhood and his parents, but there's no single defining event—many negative experiences made him the way he is.
  • Cleverly handled in John Carpenter's The Ward. The opening scene involves a seemingly insane young girl burning down a house and then being institutionalized for reasons she does not immediately understand. In fact she's been there for longer than she realizes. She is suffering from split personality disorder, the other patients are not actually patients but merely her other personalities, and the ghost supposedly killing everyone is actually her true self gradually overcoming her psychological issues. As complex as all this is, it is revealed that it all started because she was kidnapped at a young age and sexually assaulted, escaping into delusions as a coping mechanism.
  • In The Penalty, Blizzard is a bitter, rage-filled Evil Cripple and criminal mastermind. It turns out that his murderous criminal tendencies are due to a "contusion at the base of the skull" suffered in the same accident that made him a cripple. After Dr. Ferris operates on his brain, Blizzard is a new man, and he turns to good.
  • In The Three Faces of Eve, Eve's Split Personality is revealed to have first emerged during a childhood trauma where she was forced to kiss her dead grandmother at the latter's wake; once Doctor Luther helps her remember this, her Eve White and Eve Black personalities disappear and merge into her most stable personality, Jane. The real life woman on whom Eve was based, Chris Costner Sizemore, actually had 20 different personalities, and they emerged as a result of her seeing multiple traumatic events rather than just one.

  • Used in The Seven Per Cent Solution, where Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis of Sherlock Holmes traces his misogyny, his hatred of the innocent Professor Moriarty, and his constant search for justice, to one event: when Holmes witnessed his father kill his mother and her lover. Moriarty comes to be hated by Holmes either as the bearer of bad news (Freud's version) or because he played some deeper but unknown role in the affair (Watson's version, based on observations of Mycroft Holmes). Subverted slightly: Freud helped Holmes through his cocaine addiction in another way entirely.
  • Played straight and subverted in House of Leaves, where one of the several narrators relates to the reader a period of several months where he lived with a kind doctor friend and his loving wife, who helped him get his life back together mostly by prescribing him one medication. The subversion comes at the end of the chapter, where the narrator tells you he made the whole thing up and then laughs at you for believing such a ridiculous story.
  • In The Color Purple, the high-spirited Sofia is a broken shell for some time after being released from prison. It takes just one opportunity to make a good joke at the dinner table to snap her out of it, and she's her old self again.
  • Justified in the Everworld series, with Jalil's OCD. One of the few things he likes about Everworld that there, his OCD goes away. Partially subverted in that it literally is like an on-off switch: he continues to experience it in the "real world" as he alternates between the two. Played with in a mental torture scene.
  • The patients of Brazilian character O Analista de Bagé (The Bagé Analyst) are usually this. And solved through his unorthodox methods, which usually involve violence/fear for males and sex for females ("we can only hit women to relax!").
  • Averted in The Regeneration Trilogy, with the characters being based on real people and being set in a mental health institution. Although traumatic events are described, they are likened to the straw which breaks the camels back and it is the long gruelling state of the war in the trenches that is the cause for the patients breakdowns. Also, lots of focus is given to the patients' history prior to the war.
  • Subverted in Trainspotting. Mark Renton (a drug addict) has several different psychiatrists trying to tell him that everything wrong with him is the result of a single issue, though they disagree on what the issue is. The fact that he doesn't believe them is confirmation that, despite being addled by heroin, he is by no means stupid.
  • Parodied in Cold Comfort Farm: Aunt Ada Doom Starkadder is apparently bedridden and near-raving because she once saw something nasty in the woodshed/cowshed/toolshed/bikeshed (pick one). Of course, it quickly becomes apparent that it's all an act, and Ada is quite comfortable lording it over the family from her bedroom.
  • Averted in The Rowan: After "Prime Travel Sickness" was found to have a single, psychosomatic causenote , the only other Prime to actually be able to travel between worlds is The Rowan herself. She was shown as working at overcoming her mental blocks and later books of the series stated that she only leaves her home base of Io (Jupiter's moon) in case of emergencies.
  • 1632 While incredibly heartwarming and awesome, the scene of Gretchen and Jeff Higgins was incredibly goofy and a little jarring for those who had studied psychology about how fast she "got over it". In a broader sense, the way downtimers react (in part thanks to Eric Flint's "Middle Man" ideology) can also break a little flow, adapting to monumental changes both social and technological far faster and with better results than many "Middle Man" people can do to things that had barely happened in their own society. It could be explained that since they'd been living in a literal Hell on Earth, it was easier and better to just go "insane" as put by Gretchen, but still it can come as quite unrealistic, in a human behaviorist kind of way.
  • Parodied in the Blandings Castle book A Pelican at Blandings:
    "I don't think I can go as far as that," he said, "but he certainly ought to see a psychiatrist."
    "A what?"
    "One of those fellows who ask you questions about your childhood and gradually dig up the reason why you go about shouting "Fire" in crowded theatres. They find it's because somebody took away your all-day sucker when you were six."

    Live Action TV 
  • In Everybody Loves Raymond, before Ray was born, Mamma used to play the old "airplane" game when feeding Robert, invariably touching his chin before she put the spoon in his mouth. When Ray came along and became the eternal centre of attention, Robert was left to fend for himself and subconsciously began touching his food to his chin the way Mom used to do. This never gets resolved. They just found out why he does it, but he didn't stop (though the audience now had one more reason to like him). His doing it then just fell into Running Gag status.
  • The patient-of-the-week in any M*A*S*H episode that includes Dr. Sidney Freedman. And that Single Issue is almost always The War. There is at least one exception: the patient was Hawkeye, and the problem was rooted in a childhood experience in which his cousin pushed him off a boat. It was still a single issue, though. Possibly justified in the cases of most 'victims of the week', since Sidney was mostly just charged with getting a diagnosis so they could get a handle on what to do with the kid in question. Usually the diagnosis was "Send him home, he needs a lot more therapy than we can give him in the middle of a war zone."
  • Parodied in 3rd Rock from the Sun when it is discovered that Evil Dick is the way he is because of an unloving father. This is unearthed during a scene played as a mock tabloid talk show.
  • Subverted in Red Dwarf. We meet Ace Rimmer, a parallel universe's version of Arnold Rimmer. Ace lives up to his name, while our Rimmer is a cowardly, neurotic, bullying, officious, psychological train wreck. We learn that the difference between them is that one Rimmer undeservingly passed a grade in school, while the other was held back. The subversion is that it's the loser-Rimmer who got the lucky break; Ace got left down a year and learned to stand up for himself as a result. Rimmer's the mess he is today for lack of a single traumatic event.
  • Subverted and played straight in The 10th Kingdom: Wolf's issues with food, love, and his animal urges are hilariously sent up in scenes with a New York Jewish psychiatrist, and after only one session (which he later describes to Virginia as "extensive therapy") he suddenly pronounces himself a changed man and produces "the books to prove it," consisting of several titles of real, well-known self-help books. These books make the journey with the heroes and, seemingly after one read-through, manage to correct character flaws and induce positive developments in all the protagonists. On the other hand, the source of the Evil Queen's wicked nature seems to stem from one event: once it is revealed that she is actually Virginia's missing mother, Tony then reveals that she attempted to drown Virginia as a little girl because she was 'sick and getting worse and worse', a rather vague statement of mental illness. And it was this instability that made her easy prey for Snow White's Wicked Stepmother.
    • To be fair, Wolf as a character acts as Plucky Comic Relief most of the time, and even after enthusiastically devouring (pardon the pun) the self-help books with all their cliched phrases and pop-psychology he's still half-werewolf and can't entirely control his urges (such as during full moon).
    • The Evil Queen was also a could-have-been starlet with an unplanned-for daughter and a husband who went from business tycoon to janitor thanks to a lousy investment.
  • Averted on The Colbert Report. While the character Colbert is clearly very screwed up, the writers introduce new reasons for him to be that way about as often as they introduce new screwups. One fan theory is that the character is exhibiting symptoms of PTSD: again, from a whole bucket of different traumas, ranging from his abusive parents to his repressed homosexuality. Either way, he's clearly not going to be 'fixed' any time soon.
  • 30 Rock:
    • Jack gets Tracy an appointment with the staff therapist to deal with Tracy's combative attitude. Over the therapist's objection, the two start up a role-playing session with Jack playing Tracy's dad, mom, the upstairs neighbor, Tracy himself, the man his mom ran off with (in a rapid-fire stream of comical impersonations)...and within a minute Tracy is weeping and cured...of his compulsion to transgress, anyway. He's still a complete madman otherwise.
    • Jack helps Liz realize that her sexual issues stem from a childhood trauma involving rollerblades and a Tom Jones poster. While the trope is specifically defied in that he assures her she'll still need years of therapy, they do realize that she can function much better if she avoids Tom Jones posters.
  • Subverted in Slings & Arrows. The main character goes crazy for a while after his fiancee cheats on him with his director, but years later (after that specific trauma has been dealt with) he is still experiencing unpredictable mood swings and the like.
  • The X-Files
    • Deconstructed by Mulder in "Oubliette". When Scully suggests that Mulder's willingness to protect the potential suspect was due to the fact that she was a kidnapping victim (like Mulder's own sister), he argues that not everything he does goes back to his sister and states that "sometimes motivations for behavior can be more complex and mysterious than tracing them back to one single childhood experience". Despite that, though, it is beyond doubt that Mulder's obvious Big Brother Instinct is a consequence of his sister's abduction.
    • It's played straight in the episode "Fire". Mulder has to face his fear of fire, which goes back to a single traumatic event in his childhood when his best friend's house burned down. He overcomes it — he saves two children from flames, and it's never mentioned again.
  • In Monk, while the title character has had his OCD and phobias since he was born, when he met his wife Trudy he began to suppress them and live a fairly normal life. When she was killed by a car bomb, they came back worse than ever, rendering Monk unable to leave his apartment for three years and barely able to function on his own even after he did. He's implied to get better again when he finally solves Trudy's murder and meet her daughter Molly in the series finale.
  • In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "Murdochophobia", Murdoch reveals that he has a previously unmentioned fear of butterflies. By the end of the episode, he realises that this is because he associates them with his mother's death, and he seems reasonably comfortable in a room filled with them.
  • Invoked in Victorious. Throughout the show, Robbie treats his ventriloquist dummy Rex like a real person, even having conversations with him when no one's around. In an episode where Rex gets broken, Jade suggests they use the opportunity to trick Robbie into thinking Rex is dead, believing it will solve his mental problems. Tori backs out at the last minute and convinces Robbie that his puppet is still alive, so the audience never gets to see if this will work. However, there's a later episode where Robbie sells Rex. Robbie simply buys another puppet, which he treats the same way, suggesting that his psychological issues are more complex and that getting rid of Rex wouldn't have solved anything.
  • Played with in Criminal Minds. The team usually isn't too concerned with curing unsubs, just stopping their rampages, while many of the unsubs are the ones who believe that playing out their fantasies will cure them, but a lot of their psychology does come down to a single issue. For example, one unsub was abducted and molested as a child and forced to stare at an hourglass during it. He becomes obsessed with the image of sand in an hourglass and blames his mother for not protecting him; after she dies, he believes the only way to get closure is to recreate his own trauma by abducting children (though he doesn't copy the molestation), leaving an hourglass at the scene, and getting one of his victim's mothers to apologize him. The team points out that this plan is doomed to failure because it won't undo the trauma he's experienced, but it ultimately falls apart because the victim's mother refers to her daughter and breaks the unsub's fantasy.
    • Outright defied in one episode, where the unsub hijacks a therapy program that has people write out their violent fantasies as a means of getting to the roots of their problems. The team tells the therapist that it doesn't work like that and he's just letting people dwell on their fantasies, and the unsub is specifically doing just that. The therapist agrees with them outright. The program as intended only uses the writings to get to the root of an issue so that future therapy can target it; it was never intended as a miracle cure-all. When he saw how easy it was for the program to be mishandled, he discontinued it and took his name off the project.

  • The title character of the rock opera Tommy is thrown into a borderline catatonic state by the childhood trauma of watching in a mirror as his mother's second husband kills his biological father.. After years of unsuccessful attempts to treat his condition, his mother loses her temper and smashes the mirror he's staring into — and he's instantly cured.
  • Averted in Equus. Alan's problems are a result of various issues that were building up over his entire life, and he would probably have continued to be a fairly normal (if withdrawn) boy if they had been spotted earlier, or if there hadn't been a fairly specific series of triggers. Dr. Dysart uses the metaphor of a group of metal pins lying scattered with no shape or structure, until a magnet is applied to one part and then suddenly all these previously harmless experiences and thoughts snap together and form links to various outcomes.

    Video Games 
  • Die Anstalt is a Flash game based entirely on this trope; every toy so far has one, singular psychological issue and once you get them to face it and accept it, they are cured. The process of treating each of the insane plush toys is incredibly complex and risky, though, and mistreatment can cause them to completely revert to their original state, so at least the game subverts Epiphany Therapy. That said, the Ridiculously Cute Critter and Kick the Dog factor alone makes the headaches worth it.
  • The Big Bad and some of the asylum patients in Psychonauts can be cured through finding out what their specific issue is and then defeating the level boss in order to cure them. To be fair, this battle is going on inside their minds rather than outside their heads and much of the cure seems to be sorting out their problems on a very deep level in a metaphorical fashion.
    • Also averted in that you also help relieve emotional baggage, remove the clutter of figments, clean up the mental cobwebs, and unlock mental vaults to further cement their sanity. Though any major problems can probably be fixed with a boss battle.
      • Also averted in that the slide-shows reveal in pictures nuances to the character's issues, without bogging narrative with exposition and explanation, without slowing down gameplay, and without going over the heads of the intended audience.
      • Even further averted in relation to people like Big Bad who are capable of hiding some issues from even the deepest mental probing, the only reason you can cure Olieander is because his mind becomes tangled with the main character's less crazy mind. Not to mention the security guard whose mind was so twisted that Raz made him even worse after the boss fight.
      • The last may be a minor moment of character development for Raz as well; he didn't go in with the intention of making Boyd better. He just wanted to find the Milkman, who had the keys to get past a door. He succeeded far too well, and when you get down to it, Plot Armor is the only reason a lot of people didn't die that night as a result (and that's the only reason Boyd ends up at all better). Raz's attitude towards the minds he enters gets a bit more altruistic after that point.
  • Averted as much as logically possible with Jack in Mass Effect 2. She's a big bundle of crazy, caused by the fact that she grew up tortured and experimented on. Blowing up the facility she grew up in is a big step, but talking to her before and after is what really helps her get a hold of her sanity.
  • Averted in Persona 4. While the party members does realize and accept their inner flaws after meeting their shadows they still need help from the main character, through their social links, to fully embrace them and work them out.
    • The same can also be said about the non-party member social links.
    • It's explored further in Persona 4: Arena, as the heroes doubt themselves and continue to wrestle with their old issues. This is the basis of the Malevolent Entity's plan to steal their personas. They ultimately decide that they will likely never be able to resolve their issues completely, but they'll continue to work against them with the help of their friends.
  • The various shipgirls of KanColle usually have traumas related to sinking based on their real-life counterpart's demise. For example, a good majority of them have issues with submarines, due to their historical counterparts being sunk by them. Ranging from fear (usually the destroyers) to pissed off (ex: Atago and Maya) to threatening (Tatsuta).

    Visual Novels 
  • Daughter for Dessert:
    • A direct line is drawn from Cecilia’s priveleged status and her extreme sense of entitlement.
    • Invoked with Amanda. She directly says that her romantic attraction to the protagonist comes from a time when he saved her from drowning as a small child.
    • Implied with Lily. Her passive personality is hinted to be reflective of her strict upbringing, and her free spirit is framed as a rebellion against the same strict upbringing.
    • Interestingly, this trope is also parodied with regards to the protagonist. The psychologist who comes to the diner and analyzes him bases her assessment only on his childhood experiences. And for his part, he bullshits these “experiences” as Kathy sucks him off under the bar.
  • Double Homework:
    • Both Lauren and Morgan are implied to have psychological issues resulting from their efforts to hide parts of their respective identities for social reasons: Lauren hides her humble background in order to appear “posh” and popular, and Morgan hides her love of fantasy books and movies to preserve her street cred.
    • Johanna’s people pleasing tendencies are linked to her not always fitting in with the protagonist and Tamara, not being as intelligent or as athletic as either of them.
    • The protagonist comes to suspect that Dennis’s behavior is all because of daddy issues.
  • Melody:
    • All of Melody’s psychological issues are attributed to her history of loss, and of being mistreated and abandoned.
    • Becca’s painful shyness is traced back entirely to her one past failed romantic relationship.
    • Implied with Xianne as well. Her politeness and discomfort with her own mistakes are both hinted to come from cultural expectations.

  • In Megatokyo, Piro and particularly Kimiko are subject to a whole host of deep and troublesome issues (Kimiko's boss directly identifies Kimiko as the 'neurotic, messed-up kind of actor') but none of them have any real source or solution. Largo and Erika on the other hand tie many of their issues to a single event, one which both of them prove extremely melodramatic about. Largo hangs all the neuroses that he cares about on the Endgames incident. He was probably still an obsessive, hard-drinking, and generally unstable guy before that, because he seems to think that's fine and normal. Erika, on the other hand, sees her big incident not as the cause of all her problems, but as the moment of her epiphany, when she realised just how screwed up her life had become. It proceeded to get even more screwed up from there, of course.
  • Parodied in these two Sluggy Freelance strips.
  • Averted and lampshaded in The Class Menagerie. "And you're always bugging everyone to work hard so you'll fit in, right?" "No, I'm just a perfectionist. This doesn't define all my traits, you know."
  • In a Flash Back storyline in Gunnerkrigg Court, Surma accidentally agrees to go on an entomological expedition despite having a severe phobia of insects. (She thought Tony said etymological.) Then a bug lands on her notebook and has babies, and suddenly she loves them and has happy arthropodic dreams.
  • Present to a degree in Check, Please!. Bitty's fear of checking stems from several instances of intense bullying, but the comic builds to the reveal of the first moment Bitty developed his fear: during a game of peewee football. However, one of Bitty's major arcs in the comic involves him working to beat his fear of checking, facing triumphs and setbacks along the way, and he is never 100% fear-free.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Day in the Limelight episode "The Beach" of Avatar: The Last Airbender, all four of the Fire Nation teenagers explain that their personalities are entirely to blame from Single Defining Psychoses (save Zuko): Ty Lee joined the circus and craves attention because she was ignored in a set of seven sisters, Mai has no emotions because her mom shut her down whenever she tried to express herself, and Azula believes that her mom hated her and saw her as a monster similar to her and Zuko's father Ozai. They eventually decide the best therapy is to completely trash the house of the guy who slighted them together. Well, they are still the villains in the story.
    Azula: {Morose} My own mother... thought I was a monster... {Upbeat} She was right of course, but it still hurt.
  • Batman: The Animated Series:
    • While the writers deserve credit for giving a fairly accurate explanation of dissociative disorders, its demographic demanded that the horrific abuse aspect be trimmed down. Instead, Harvey "Two-Face" Dent has a Split Personality as a result of a single, seemingly harmless childhood misunderstanding in an otherwise healthy upbringing that led to his emotional repression. However, Harvey's knowledge of that misunderstanding as an adult hasn't cured him, and getting betrayed, nearly killed and grotesquely scarred only makes things worse...
    • The other villains in the animated series also tend to follow a similar pattern while narrowly averting the trope. Except for the Joker, who's just flat-out crazy, many of the villains start off with single-issue mental disturbances: the Mad Hatter is an Alice-fixated Stalker with a Crush, The Riddler is obsessed with winning, the Scarecrow is a lifelong sadist. But we never find out, at least within the animated series, what sort of experiences might have driven them to their current mental state.
    • Batman's crime-fighting obsession (which has been portrayed at times as stemming from an extremely unhealthy Guilt Complex) seems to come from witnessing his parents' death. The DCAU develops his history enough to gradually avert it (like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm shows that he was ready to put his obsession to rest until Andrea's apparent abandonment of him left him all the more embittered and devoted to the cause), while the Joker sadistically mocks him for it in Return of the Joker...
      Joker: "Behind all the sturm and batarangs, you're just a little boy in a playsuit, crying for mommy and daddy! It'd be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Oh what the heck, I'll laugh anyway!"
  • Inverted in Birdz: Morty Storkowitz's regular patient, Mr. Nuthatch, has a different hang-up in every episode.
  • Defied in Bojack Horseman season six. When BoJack is in rehab, Dr. Champ's method of therapy focuses on finding the first time his patients took a drink; he assures them that, once they figure out why they took that first drink, they'll be cured. BoJack, who's struggled with alcoholism his whole life, knows how naive that is and repeatedly takes Dr. Champ to task for feeding the patients false hope. Throughout the episode, we get flashbacks to significant incidents in BoJack's life that led to him relying on alcohol. Ultimately, they all contribute to his current substance abuse problems, and it's illustrated very clearly that removing any single one of those incidents wouldn't resolve the underlying issues that led to them.
  • Mocked in Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension, when Doof's alternate counterpart is far eviler than him because of his Freudian Excuse: that he lost his toy train when he was little. Compared to our Doof, who has Freudian Excuses Of The Week and an extremely abusive childhood.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Parodied when Marge had a fear of flying related entirely to the shame of learning her father was a flight attendant. Her many, many other traumas coincidentally related to airplanes were ignored by her psychologist: "Yes, yes, it's all a rich tapestry." Inverted in that they were ignored not because they weren't relevant, but because now that they had made headway with her fear of flying Marge's therapist wanted to move forward with her far more serious problem- being married to Homer.
    • Similarly parodied in the episode where Homer reveals that he found a corpse when he was twelve: "It's responsible for everything wrong with my life! My occasional overeating! My fear of corpses!" While his examples make logical sense, there is certainly a lot more with Homer's life that's wrong.
    • It is implied that Mr. Smithers is gay because of a lie Mr. Burns told him when he was young.
      Mr Burns: I told him his father was killed in the Amazon by a tribe of savage women. (to Smithers) I hope it didn't affect you in any way.
      Smithers: We'll never know, sir.
    • In another one, Ned Flanders has a huge string of bad luck culminating in his family's house being destroyed by a hurricane. Eventually he snaps and yells at the whole town after everybody had turned out and done a poor job of rebuilding his house. He checks himself into a mental hospital where we learn that Ned never learned to express anger. This is apparently because he was a hellion as a child, and his parents were beatniks who never disciplined him. He got over that by being spanked continuously for a year by a therapist. That same therapist comes back and gets Ned to admit that he hates his parents, and Ned is immediately "cured." Hard to be completely sure if it's supposed to be a subversion, a parody, or what. However, considering Ned then says, with a cheery grin and an eye tick, that he'll run anyone who really pisses him off over with his car, and that this is The Simpsons, you'd get good odds on a parody.
  • Time Squad parodies this with the episode where they go back in time to set Sigmund Freud back on track. The climax sees Freud rapidly diagnosing people's psychological issues in a comically rapid manner. For example, one guy brings up that he dreamed he was a watermelon, and Freud tells him that he hates his mother.

    Web Original 
  • Either neatly subverted or simply averted in Sailor Nothing. At first, it looks like Himei is the way she is because she has to fight monsters. Then she goes on to explain she's been doing this for five years. The war has gone nowhere, all that happens is that innocents get hurt, and it even gives examples of some of the worse fights, highlights of which include getting boiling fat poured on you, being attacked by a fireman (complete with axe) and being at the tender mercies of an evil ten-year-old with a sharp pencil.
  • Flashbacks in The Awkward Compilation reveal Alex's stalkerish tendencies are rooted in a series of bad dates and harsh rejections. Possibly justified in that the straw that broke the camel's back was him being rejected for not being enough like Edward Cullen.

    Real Life 
  • Much of this confusion stems from "ego psychology", the school of Freudian-inspired psychology (which made significant alterations to Freud) that flourished in The '40s and The '50s and more or less defined Hollywood Psych and Pop-Cultural Osmosis for generations. Ego psychologically argued the existence of a "conflict-free" part of the mind and argued that people could adjust to society and become better people, which was fundamentally against Freud's views, which refused to pass moral and qualitative judgment on conflicts inside the ego as being necessarily good or bad, and which certainly was skeptical that "adjusting to society" was any sort of goal, especially since it implied that the society in question was good, which Freud (a Viennese Jew in a very anti-semitic Austria) certainly did not believe to be true, and which wasn't entirely true of forties and fifties' America either.
  • Sigmund Freud is often flanderized by some for advocating that once you unearthed someone's big ol' trauma, they were cured. In actual fact, he repeatedly argued the opposite. He noted that psychology in the individual has multiple aspects, there's the ego formation, the Oedipus complex, the development of the sexual drive, then repression and substitutions, but in a later state, there is "the return of the repressed" and "the repetition-compulsion complex" which actively prevents people from fully removing or tackling their issues, and which might actually not be entirely a bad thing since it was likely that this neurosis actually led to other positive qualities that person may have, and that a better way is self-awareness and attaining a level of control rather than entirely removing it. Notably, Freud criticized Carl Jung for arguing that humanity has multiple issues and multiple paths but merely catalogued these issues and argued that knowing this will solve problems.
  • This is Truth in Television in regard to three things:
    • The discovery of a "mental" illness actually being a physical/hormonal/neurological illness. Someone who is anemic, hypo or hyperthyroid, epileptic, in severe pain, or having a major hormonal imbalance can seem to be speedily recovering or even cured when being properly treated, especially because many of the "coping" and "disordered" behaviors disappear with their body and brain recovering.
    • Someone realizing what their triggers are, if their mental illness is trigger-dependent (as some forms of depression and anxiety are, as PTSD and complicated grief are, and as some other illnesses can be). Not in the sense that it totally resolves all of their problems, but identifying triggers and focusing on response to them (or at least on avoiding them while they work on it) can be almost as dramatic as any Hollywood "cure," in providing relief and remission of the worst symptoms, even though it's not a 100 percent cure and is only a first step.
    • Someone being removed from a situation of abuse/leaving a situation of abuse, leaving a high-demand organization, or freed from slavery can experience a huge amount of relief and happiness upon leaving, especially if they've realized the situation as abusive/enslavement/manipulative or the like. Whether they actually need intense follow up psychological and psychiatric care (such as inpatient programs or the like, as opposed to a counselor they are free to contact or not contact) depends on the person, how long they were "in," what their own coping mechanisms are, what types of abuse and control they experienced, and far more individually.
  • The Enneagram self-help tool is based around this idea, positing nine personality types which are all responses to a single overriding insecurity. Slightly subverted in that the Enneagram does not insist that anyone is only one type, instead focusing on identifies dysfunctional behaviors.