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Planting a Memory Garden

by Melanie Greenberg, LSW

It’s interesting to grow up with Taylor Swift and experience various milestones and heartbreaks along with her. Folklore and Evermore were incredibly important to me. I identify as a cottagecore queer, so the folky, soft lyrics that felt like warm candlelight became a source of comfort and helped me get through the darkest parts of COVID-19. I never anticipated that her new album, Midnights, would resonate so profoundly with me too. Now I ask everyone I know, “Have you listened? What are your top three favorite tracks?”

This is my personality for the next few weeks, so please bear with me…

What is it about Taylor Swift that resonates with us so deeply? As a sex and couples therapist, I feel that Taylor provides a therapeutic tool for understanding our past and present emotions. Admitting that you still have strong feelings about a past relationship can be taboo. But the reality is intimate relationships change and shape us. Sex and love are essential parts of our identity. It would be nearly impossible to differentiate who we are as people without the relationships we experience. Taylor sings freely about heartbreak, allowing us to express our feelings without feeling guilt or shame. From a therapeutic standpoint, she provides a perfect platform for us to identify and express these feelings with words.

Taylor has also long provided insight into heartbreak, betrayal, and yearning. Red was an album for the sad girly in all of us. “Forgetting him is like trying to know somebody you never met.” When we share parts of ourselves with others, we share the good and the bad- the parts of us we might want to forget and the parts of us that we want to celebrate. Everyone wants to be seen, heard, and loved for who they are at their core. Good or bad, falling in love requires vulnerability. That part of us is why we make certain decisions, have specific desires, communicate our needs, or don’t. To experience love at its most intimate is to bare ourselves to the person we seek that deep connection with.

“All Too Well” (Taylor’s version, the 10-minute one) returned with a vengeance this year, reminding us of feeling sure that we had found the person who made us feel like enough. When it ended, we were left wondering, “did the twin flame bruise paint you blue, just between us did the love affair maim you too?” In other words, was I the only one to experience this hurt? Did you ever care about me the way I did you? I’ve heard countless clients (and my own brain) wonder why it seemed so easy for their ex to move on. Feeling like a “crumpled up piece of paper” and just wanting reassurance that we were significant enough to be sad over.

Before diving into her new album, I want to highlight some of the lyrics that stuck with me personally and professionally. In her song “Better Man,” Taylor sings, “I know why we had to say goodbye like the back of my hand, but I just miss you, and I wish you were a better man.” How many of us have ended a relationship, looked back, and wished things could be different? The if onlys pile up. Why is it essential for us to acknowledge that these feelings are widely experienced and familiar? Because knowing we aren’t alone is validating.

The lyrics in Mastermind continue to reverberate in my brain. “No one wanted to play with me as a little kid, so I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since to make them love me and make it seem effortless.” I’ve spent 15 years in therapy trying to erase the hurt I felt as a child who experienced bullying and struggled with my body, sex, friends, and identity. As an adult, I’ve made many mistakes in relationships. I’d be lying if I didn’t play “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” more times than I can count already, scream-singing, “I regret you all the time.”

With the release of Midnights, there has been much commentary on how Taylor presents herself to the world. She has even stated that she sometimes doesn’t feel like a person, as if her life isn’t hers. As a therapist, I see in her lyrics the struggle of working through years of trauma, work that we don’t have the right to see or understand. She doesn’t owe us any explanations–she is allowed to be human. I’ve seen tweets and posts about Taylor singing about an ex from over a decade ago and how she needs to move on. This music is where I see the beauty in someone allowing us to feel raw over moments that changed us.

For those who have done trauma work in therapy for years or who are trauma-informed, these lyrics might not feel groundbreaking for you. Still, for those who work with people and learn how our bodies and minds respond to trauma and pain, Taylor gives us a voice, something to turn toward and say, “See?? You’re not crazy! Your feelings are valid, and you are not alone.”