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Mental Health Themes in Music: Anti-Hero

Welcome to the first entry in this exploratory series of Mental Health Themes in Music! Today we’ll dig into Taylor Swift’s very popular single, Anti-Hero, which was released in October, 2022 on her 10th studio album, Midnights. Regardless of whether you’re singing along or cringing when it comes on, there are some pretty noteworthy mental health themes present.

Let’s take a look…

When my depression works the graveyard shift all of the people I've ghosted stand there in the room ... While flat out identifying depression as a challenge, this lyric also touches on a consequence of ghosting, which is seen commonly these days. While it can be primarily a result of lower mood or energy levels, it sometimes begins and/or continues due to a shame response, which often results in more shame. It’s unclear what the narrator’s full experience is, but what we do know is that they are affected enough that the individuals they’ve ghosted show up in their dreams.

Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism? ... Although narcissism is often used clinically, I believe what Swift is getting at is the idea of selfishness and self-absorption, leading to doing things for others (altruism) as a way to make herself feel better either in general or, more specifically, about herself. Which brings us back to the theme of shame and related compensatory behaviors.

I'll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror ... What this lyric names is an avoidant behavior that is, similarly to the above mentioned disguised altruism, a function of ego or self-esteem protection — that we’d rather be blinded than look at our flaws.

It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me ... And here we get to either acceptance, self-deprecation, or as I hold space for, a combination of the two. It’s acceptance of a problem, however, it is phrased in a way where the narrator is defining themself as the problem. I could go into black and white thinking patterns and ways to integrate dialectical thinking, but that would be a whole separate discussion.

So, now that we’ve taken a brief look at Anti-Hero, I’d like to leave you with something to reflect on: How would you choose to define yourself if you were the narrator of this song?

Regardless of your answer, I invite you to remember that you are complex and dynamic, therefore it would be an oversimplification to define yourself entirely by your perceived flaws or as problematic.


Kim Johnson, LMHC, MT-BC, is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and board certified music therapist (MT-BC) who graduated with her master’s from Lesley University in 2017. She has experience with adults and adolescents in group private practice and community mental health settings. The levels of care she has worked in are outpatient, with both individual and group therapy and in partial hospital programs for mental health and substance use disorders. Additionally, she has had intensive training in dialectical behavioral therapy and cognitive processing therapy for PTSD.

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