If you follow the news–or open the TikTok app regularly–you know that John Mulaney is somewhat under fire. But while social critique is valuable, life is more nuanced than the picture we see through our screens.

For instance, it’s easy for us to think that celebrity divorces are always bad. Or that going to rehab is scandalous rather than realistic and healthy. So, it’s refreshing when a public figure does the right thing for themselves, rather than what will be seen as the right thing. 

It’s even more powerful when a public figure opens up about how they’ve handled these personal decisions and experiences–as John Mulaney has done in the wake of his most personally eventful year yet.

Substance use disorders and topics such as divorce or separation are often kept under wraps. John Mulaney is one example of a person who had the courage to take accountability, while maintaining self-compassion. 

Healing insights from John Mulaney

Many fans of John Mulaney love him for the way he owns and expresses feelings about various uncomfortable situations. He voices relatable concern about the difference between how he and others see himself, voices the struggle of being discounted solely due to age, and hints at the pain of having emotionally withholding parents.

Given Mulaney’s separation from his ex-wife, his substance use recovery process, his emotional vulnerability in interviews, and so on–what can we learn from the words and experiences he shares?

1. In recovery, you have to get honest with yourself and others.

Recovery requires honesty. It’s not just honestly related to what you are recovering from, either. 

In recovery, you have to get honest about your emotions, your actions, and what you want in life as you move forward. A lot of the time, prior to recovery from addiction or anything else, we deny our feelings or hold them inside. 

Mulaney’s divorce did coincide with his substance use recovery. Whether or not recovery and the breakup are related is unclear, but often recovery forces you onto a more authentic path.

Sometimes following your authentic path means hurting others, and one thing is true: We’ve all been the bad guy in someone else’s story at least once. We’ve all hurt someone without meaning to. (Of course, in more extreme circumstances, such as those where a person has been physically harmed, this is not quite so applicable)

We have to try to accept the difficult reality of authenticity. What we need to do to grow isn’t always what other people want from us. This truth can be challenging, but it’s key to healing.

2. When your behavior impacts others, it’s best to own up to it.

You’re going to hurt others by being yourself sometimes. But here’s the nuance to the previous point–you don’t have to shame yourself for the impact of your behavior, but you do have to acknowledge the impact exists.

In John Mulaney’s viral interview with Seth Meyers, he repeatedly acknowledges the extent of the harm he’s done. He doesn’t hate himself for it, and in fact laughs about it. But he recognizes the impact of his uncontrolled behaviors on others. This is crucial. 

Alongside being honest with yourself and other people in your life, the next step is to hold yourself accountable. Anyone hurt by John Mulaney does not need to forgive him, but by acknowledging his behavior, he can move forward and be the best version of himself now.

Real accountability often means that you don’t expect forgiveness. You take responsibility for what you did, make the steps to be the best version of yourself now, get honest about who you are and what you want now, and you accept that you may have hurt other people in a way that you can’t make up for. 

Most of us have done something we’re not proud of. If you apologize and you mean it, you don’t expect everyone to forgive you. Instead, you understand the way that you’ve hurt another person and own up to it. There are times in life where we must understand that we’ve hurt someone. They don’t owe us forgiveness. We can’t change that, but we can be the best person we can be moving forward.

Mulaney doesn’t try to downplay his actions, and that’s a respectable trait. He’s able to extend compassion to himself while doing so, too. Considering that all of us will indeed mess up at some point, that’s a practice we can all learn from. 

3. It’s okay to change your mind. 

John Mulaney changed his mind about not wanting kids. While some have seen this as a betrayal to his ex-wife, it’s very human to experience a change of heart. A change of heart may hurt those around you, but that’s just a difficult part of relationships. Acting like the change hasn’t happened won’t serve anyone well.

It’s ok to change your mind about many things in life, whether that is a political standpoint, your career, or something else.

Sometimes, people change their minds about what they want to do for a living, or what they want in an interpersonal relationship. Changing your mind can disrupt the perception that other people have of you. Changing your mind might even shatter your own self-perception.

That said, change is part of life, and accepting the ways you’ve changed (again, while engaging in harm reduction and while being accountable if other people are involved) is a part of authenticity.

Most people can agree that they want other people to grow and that they want the opportunity to grow and change themselves. Sometimes, your growth and change isn’t going to align with what other people want out of you, and other people’s growth and change isn’t going to align with what you want out of them.

4. Healing from grief is tough. 

Perhaps, this is something we can learn from Anna, John’s ex-wife, more than anyone else.

To many, it seems like Mulaney moved forward with his new relationship in a nearly effortless, pain-free manner. None of us can judge if that’s really true or not, but what is real is the pain that Anna is experiencing. John was entitled to leave his relationship, but Anna is entitled to the pain that might bring.

Healing from grief is hard. You’re allowed to be mad. Expressing it and opening up about it, whether you relate more to Mulaney or more to Anna, matters.

5. Emotional openness matters. 

How many men have been told, “real men don’t cry?” What impact does this belief have on society? Statistics show that men are more likely to die by suicide*. Gender-based biases that surround specific mental health concerns prevent people from getting the care they need across the board. We need to normalize displays of emotion in male and masculine-presenting people. If nothing else, John Mulaney’s willingness to express such a wide range of emotion and his own humility is something that should be commended. 

*If you are in need of crisis attention, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

Emotional openness also decreases the stigma that surrounds mental health concerns. As stated previously, concerns like substance use are often kept under the wraps. Despite this, 1 out of every 12 people in the United States alone is said to experience a substance use disorder. Even more, 13% of the general adult population in the US has started using or increased their use of substances since the start of the pandemic. 

When we talk about emotional health, we not only get it off of our own chest, but we show other people that they’re not alone. It’s time to decrease the stigma and talk about these concerns like the very real, diagnosable health conditions they are. 

Shame doesn’t support recovery. Vulnerability does.

6. Support from others (in non-romantic relationships) can be a game-changer.

Perhaps one of the most touching parts of Mulaney’s interview with Seth was the moment where they said “I love you” to each other.

Platonic love matters just as much as romantic love, and it sure is powerful. Tell the people in your life that you love them, and if you need support, reach out. Whether you talk to a friend, family member, a support group, or a peer support network like Supportiv, you’re not as alone as you might feel you are, and you are worthy of a listening ear.

Questions for reflection

Regardless of whether your feelings toward John Mulaney are positive or negative, both of which are valid, there are some emotional lessons to be taken from the human experience he shares. 

Here are some questions for reflection:

What’s a time where you hurt someone else?

Are you able to take accountability and extend compassion to yourself at the same time? If not, how can you work toward that?

Is there something else you learned from Mulaney’s story? If so, what?

This article contains mention of substance use. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, please contact the SAMHSA hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit their website at https://www.samhsa.gov.