Social Anxiety in Movies: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

SA-Eternal Sunshine

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel (Jim Carrey) discovers that his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had him and their entire relationship erased from her memory. Heartbroken, he decides to have the same procedure done, but as he relives his memories while they’re being erased, he begins to have second thoughts.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004]

  • Directed by: Michel Gondry
  • Written by: Charlie Kaufman
  • Starring: Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet
  • Watch: Online – DVD – Blu-Ray
  • Read: Screenplay



Whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I never really know what to say. There are so many and they’re each so different, that my current favorite depends on the day. Since I first saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind years ago, it has always been one of the movies at the top of my list. I loved the low-key grounded sci-fi concept merged with a heartbreaking love story. I loved the nonlinear storyline and the surreal aspects of reliving memories as they’re being erased. Most of all, I deeply connected to the character of Joel Barish. I never thought that connection may be because we both suffered from social anxiety, mainly because I wasn’t self-aware enough of my own social anxiety at the time. But after re-watching Eternal Sunshine again from the perspective of social anxiety, I realize just how similar Joel and I are.



At the beginning of the film, Joel and Clementine meet at a beach in Montauk, but Joel is afraid to approach her.


Constitutionally incapable of making eye contact with a woman I don’t know.

Forget about approaching a woman to speak, like Joel, I am afraid to even make eye contact with women I don’t know because of social anxiety.

After the beach, they separately stop to eat at the same diner. Joel watches her from his table…

As soon as Clementine acknowledges Joel, he looks away. Again afraid to make eye contact even though she smiled at him.

After the diner, they wind up on the same train. Joel continues to be too shy to say anything, but Clementine breaks the ice and speaks to him.




I’m sorry?


What? I couldn’t hear you.

Another symptom of social anxiety is mumbling and speaking softly, something Joel and I both do.


I said, I’m sorry.


Why are you sorry? I just said hi.


No, I didn’t know if you were talking to me, so…



JOEL (embarrassed)

Well, I didn’t want to assume.


Aw, c’mon, live dangerously. Take the leap and assume someone is talking to you in an otherwise empty car.

I always assume people aren’t talking to me. Even if it’s obvious they are, such as in this case, I sometimes ignore them, hoping they’ll give up trying to speak to me.

As they talk from across the train car, Clementine moves closer and closer, until she slides up right beside Joel, which makes him uncomfortable.


Sorry. I was just trying to be nice.


I just don’t think “nice” is a particularly interesting thing to be… It doesn’t reveal anything. Nice is pandering. Cowardly. And life is more interesting than that. Or should be. Jesus God, I hope it is… someday.

With social anxiety, we often don’t voice our true opinions because we are afraid to insult or upset others, so we are always “nice.”


It’s no problem. Anyway, I have some stuff I need to — I’m trying to work out some — I’m writing some thoughts, sort of.

Joel tries to get Clem to go away, even though he likes her. That’s one of the most paradoxically frustrating parts of social anxiety. Even if we like someone, and deep down want to be with them, we still feel uncomfortable and can’t help but push them away.

There’s a silence, which seems fine to Clementine but makes Joel anxious.


Well, I should probably get going.


No, stay. Just for a little while.


No, I sort of have to go and —


Stop mumbling.

Joel gives Clementine a ride home from the train station, and she convinces him to come up to her apartment. Joel seems to like her, but continually tries to leave. And he continues mumbling.


You’re kind of closed-mouthed, aren’t you?


Sorry. My life isn’t that interesting. I go to work. I go home. I don’t know what to say. You should read my journal. It’s just, like, blank.

I feel the same way. I never know what to say. Like Joel, people with social anxiety and/or low self-esteem tend to think their lives are uninteresting, but that may not necessarily be true.


Does that make you sad? Or anxious? I’m always anxious thinking I’m not living my life to the fullest, y’know? Taking advantage of every possibility? Just making sure that I’m not wasting one second of the little time I have.


I think about that.

I think about that, too. That social anxiety has held me back in life and caused me to miss opportunities.


And, anyway, you sell yourself short. I can tell. There’s a lot of stuff going on in your brain. I can tell.

Most people with social anxiety don’t talk to others because we are too busy talking to ourselves in our brains.


You’re nervous around me, huh?


No. Yeah. Sort of. Not really.


I’m nervous. You don’t need to be nervous around me, though. I like you.

With social anxiety we feel nervous to talk, so we don’t. But Clementine admits she feels nervous too, yet she talks anyway. That’s the key to overcoming social anxiety:  feel the fear but do it anyway.

At a crowded flea market, Clementine gets upset when Joel says she may not be ready to raise a kid.

JOEL (mumbly)

I don’t want to talk about this here.


I can’t hear you! I can never the fuck understand what you’re saying. Open your goddamn mouth when you speak! Fucking ventriloquist.

JOEL (over-enunciating)

I don’t want to talk about this here!


We’re fucking gonna talk about it!

Joel looks around. People are watching.

I can’t count how many times someone has made me repeat myself, saying they couldn’t hear me. I feel like I’m speaking at a normal volume, but am actually mumbling without realizing it.

At this point, Joel and Clementine have been in a relationship for a while, so he is comfortable speaking to her, but he feels social anxiety speaking to her in public, especially about a sensitive topic. Social anxiety makes us afraid of what random strangers in the flea market will think of us, even though we’ll probably never see them again in out lives.


You don’t tell me things, Joel. I’m an open book. I tell you everything. Every damn embarrassing thing. You don’t trust me.


You don’t have to be afraid of silence, Clementine. Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating.


I don’t do that. I want to know you. I don’t constantly talk. Jesus. People have to share things. That’s what intimacy is. I’m really pissed that you said that to me.


I’m sorry. I just don’t have anything very interesting about my life.


Joel, you’re a liar. You’re like one of those locked room mysteries. I want to read some of those journals you’re constantly scribbling in. What do you write in there if you don’t have any thoughts or fears or passions or love?

Joel is an extreme introvert, while Clementine is an extreme extrovert. Sometimes opposites attract, but their wildly different personalities can also cause tension. Again, Joel says that there’s nothing interesting about himself. Like him, I find it easier to express my fears and passions and loves through writing rather than talking.


Mary (Kirsten Dunst) the Lacuna secretary, is a true believer in Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his work to erase painful memories.


To let people begin again. It’s beautiful. You look at a baby and it’s so fresh, so clean, so free. Adults… they’re like this mess of anger and phobias and sadness… hopelessness. And Howard just makes it go away.

This presents an interesting concept. What if we could have every memory of feeling social anxiety erased? Would we still feel social anxiety?


Dear, dear Joel: Thank you so much for joining me on the Charles River last night. I know how nervous you were about stepping onto the ice, but that you overcame your fear just to please me is so fucking sweet I could eat you.

Joel felt the fear and did it anyway. It’s easier said than done, but it works, whether you’re walking on ice or just talking.


Joel, you’re always so negative. Just try. You never try anything. Remember all the times I tried to get you to taste sour cream and you wouldn’t? Remember? Then you tasted it and you loved it. I rest my case.


Okay, fine. You want me to try? Will that make you happy? Look, trying…

Joel concentrates, pulls open his eyes with his fingers.

With social anxiety we tend to think negatively—that we can’t say or do certain things—so we don’t even try. But if we do try something we’re afraid of, we often find out that it wasn’t as bad as we thought. Just like Joel. When he concentrated, he was able to see Stan and Mary in his bedroom and figured out a way to hide Clementine deep in his childhood memories.

Mary recites the quote by Alexander Pope, on which the title of the film is derived.


The quote goes “How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot: Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign’d.”

I think this quote means that if you can’t remember any of the depressing things from your past, then you can’t be depressed. Therefore, completely forgetful people are always happy. But I don’t think that means you need to have your memory erased in order to be happy. You just need to not dwell on the past. The same thing goes for anxiety and trying to predict the future. Meditation can help in keeping your mind present and in “eternal sunshine.”

At their first date at the theater, which was a deleted scene:


I was nervous. I remember I couldn’t think of anything to say. There were long silences.

That could describe just about every conversation I’ve ever had. Though sometimes our perception of ourselves is worse than it actually is to others. Case in point, Clementine fell for Joel after that date despite his nervousness and awkward silences.


Joel, I’m not a concept. I want you to just keep that in your head. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.

Sometimes we may think if we find the right person, they’ll fix us. Certain people like the super extroverted Clementine may compliment us and help us to overcome our social anxiety, but relying on waiting to meet that special person is probably wishful thinking. We have to fix ourselves.

Joel’s first memory of Clementine is when they met at a friends’ party at the beach.


I was so nervous. What were you doing there, I wondered.


I saw you sitting over here. By yourself. I thought, thank God, someone normal, who doesn’t know how to interact at these things either.


Yeah. I don’t ever know what to say.


I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that. I mean, I don’t mean I’m happy you’re uncomfortable, but, y’know… I’m such a loser. Every time I come to a party I tell myself I’m going to be different and it’s always exactly the same and then I hate myself after for being such a clod.


Even then I didn’t believe you entirely. I thought how could you be talking to me if you couldn’t talk to people? But I thought, I don’t know, I thought it was cool that you were sensitive enough to know what I was feeling and that you were attracted to it.


But, I don’t know, maybe we’re the normal ones, y’know? I mean, what kind of people do well at this stuff?

I always feel out of place at parties, just like Joel and Clementine. I never know what to say. And like Clementine, I’d say to myself that I won’t be so shy the next time, but I almost always am.

Clementine breaks into a beach house abandoned for the winter:


I couldn’t believe you did that. I was paralyzed with fear. I didn’t want to go. I was too nervous. I walked out the door. I felt like a scared little kid. I thought you knew that about me. I ran back to the bonfire, trying to outrun my humiliation.

Joel clearly liked Clementine, but his fear and social anxiety forced him to leave her.

Clem runs onto the ice of the frozen river:


Yeah, come join me.


I don’t know. What if it breaks?


What if? Do you really care right now?

Part of social anxiety is constantly thinking “what if?” We think about all the possible negative outcomes of saying or doing something, that it paralyzes us from acting. But most of those worst case “what ifs” never actually happen.


Joel thinks Clem wants him to make love to her on the ice, but says he can’t.


I’m just too nervous around you right now.


I’m nervous, too.


Yeah? I wouldn’t have thought that.


Well, you obviously don’t know me.


I’m nervous because I have an enormous crush on you.

Again, Clem shows us that it’s okay to feel nerves and fear, but we shouldn’t let that stop us. Joel takes her advice. It’s not shown, but later implied that they do make love on the ice.


Behind the Scenes:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was written by Charlie Kaufman, one of my favorite writers. He has admitted to feeling social anxiety and provided a good example in his BAFTA speech.

“When I got my first writing job I couldn’t talk in the writing room. I was working on a sitcom and I could not talk. It wasn’t like I chose not to talk, or I didn’t talk, I couldn’t open my mouth. No words would come out. And that went on for six weeks. I thought I was going to get fired, and I probably should have been, but they didn’t. But I was so terrified in this room of six guys, you know? That’s who I was.”

Eventually Charlie did speak up, and thankfully he did, because otherwise, we wouldn’t have Eternal Sunshine, or any of his other great films.



Joel Barish has all the hallmarks of social anxiety. You can see it through Jim Carrey’s actions and mannerisms on the screen and in his dialogue and tone of voice. Also if you read the screenplay, Charlie Kaufman uses the words “shy,” “anxious,” and “quiet” numerous times to describe Joel. Kaufman portrays the character in such an honest and true way that you can tell it comes from a personal place. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the top movies that influenced me to become a writer, and I hope to one day write something on that level. Regardless, I think I have my answer for the next time someone asks me what my favorite movie of all time is.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a movie: 10/10

As a portrayal of Social Anxiety: 10/10


3 thoughts on “Social Anxiety in Movies: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

  1. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Movies | Tim Barry Jr.

  2. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Movies: Stranger Than Fiction | Tim Barry Jr.

  3. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Movies: Stranger Than Fiction | TZ Barry

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