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NBC, Colleen Hayes/NBC
William Jackson Harper, The Good Place

Chidi on 'The Good Place' Helped Me Navigate My Own Anxiety

William Jackson Harper explains how playing Chidi changed his views on masculinity

"I See You Man" from TV Guide

For the month of November, Men's Health Awareness Month, TV Guide is presenting "I See You Man," a series of stories that take a deeper look at representations of men on TV today. Check back here throughout the month for more stories about men on television.

The Good Place, which told the origin story of Chidi's neuroticism its mid-season finale "The Answer," almost never frames the character's nervous nature as an anxiety disorder. But there are times when the show comes pretty close, like in the Season 2 episode "Best Self." Early in the episode, Chidi (William Jackson Harper) failed a test designed to prove he was the best version of himself, and the rejection sent him spiraling in a way that, to me, felt all too familiar. He said he had "worries as well as concerns that could potentially turn into outright fears," a phrase that had Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Eleanor (Kristen Bell) cracking jokes at his expense. But in a tender and vulnerable moment later in the episode, Chidi explains his anxious feelings to Eleanor: "You know the sound that a fork makes in the garbage disposal? That's the sound that my brain makes all the time -- this constant grinding about things that I'm afraid of, or things that I want, or want to want."

I've never used that visceral an analogy to describe my own brain before, but I absolutely recognized the feeling. Over The Good Place's four seasons, Chidi's never-ending cascade of concerns, over-analyzing every possible outcome, and spinning over worst-case scenarios have looked so much like my own that the jokes sting as much as they tickle me. Because I have so been there: sweats, stomachaches, fatigue, shaky hands, alcohol abuse, you name it. And while The Good Place rarely labels Chidi's freakouts as anxiety, the show does portray him as a man who's both high-strung and a hero -- a guy who asserts his most debilitating flaw with a confidence that, for me, has made Chidi a kind of North Star for accepting my own anxiety issues with grace.

I See You Man: TV Guide's Exploration Into How TV Depicts Manhood Now

"I feel there are expectations forced on us that say men have to be someone who's bold, decisive, and takes up a lot of space," William Jackson Harper told me via phone on a break from shooting The Underground Railroad, Barry Jenkins' adaptation of Colson Whitehead's book for Amazon. "It's been cool to play a character who explores different sides of what it means to be masculine. It's really important for me because I've always [struggled] with this idea that I'm not masculine enough. The way I move through the world is not the way most do. Guys like Chidi exist. A lot of us."

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Studies show that women are more likely to have anxiety disorders than men, but experts also say that men are notoriously bad at talking about their mental health. As a result, there may be many more men suffering from anxiety than those who actually talk about it. That's due in part to cultural conventions that teach boys from an early age to be self-assured and tough, to "act like a man," instead of how to respond when they're confused or worried or uneasy -- normalizing a suppression of feelings that contributes to the silence and stigmatization around men's mental health.

Throughout the show, Chidi dismantles the myth that anxiety isn't something men deal with, or that anxiety-prone men are less manly, and in the mid-season finale, we understand that Chidi has never been quiet about his restless mind, or ashamed of it. It's refreshing, and Chidi's forthrightness makes him part of a relatively new crop of male characters who discuss their mental health struggles openly. Chidi -- a philosopher professor whose body is ripped because he heard pushups cure anxiety when he was 14 and he never stopped doing them -- is a man who's sometimes tormented by his own brain, and in being open and honest about what's going on inside his head, he represents a societal paradigm shift.

William Jackson Harper, The Good Place

NBC, Colleen Hayes/NBC

"We're in a time now where lots of men are having to rethink what it means to be a guy," Harper told me, "and I think a lot of characteristics that go with old ideas about masculinity are not all that healthy or useful to people."

This is exactly the type of conversation the men's health group Movember encourages; 75 percent of people who die by suicide are men, so efforts like Movember's "Man of More Words" campaign, which nudges men to open up more, can literally be life-or-death endeavors. But a beloved pop-culture character arguably has more power to make change way than any campaign, and I'm certain Chidi has helped recondition me personally. I suppose people who know me casually perceive me to be social, assertive, and upbeat, which I am, but I am also a man who at times feels, well, like a fork in a garbage disposal. I can't say that I had Chidi in mind when I did this, but a year ago when I needed to bail on plans with a friend due to a sudden but not unfamiliar wave of panic, I shocked myself. Up until very recently, when I felt my mind racing so furiously that I could barely breathe or felt an inexplicable sense of looming dread just before I needed to be present for somebody else, I would shimmy out of obligations with a white lie. "I'm not feeling well," I'd say, a half-truth that hid what was really going on and shielded me from feeling embarrassed or judged about the anxiety disorder I was formally diagnosed with as an adult. But this time, instead of lying, I just laid it out there. "I'm sorry to cancel so late," I wrote in a text, "but I'm having an intense anxiety situation right now, and I really need to stay home and take care of myself." I felt empowered, in control of my anxiety in ways I hadn't before. As cheesy as it sounds, seeing Chidi being honest with his friends about his mental state very likely influenced me to do the same thing. He's a portrait of my type of normalcy.

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I love that Chidi is more than what ails him. He is, like me, able to be both a nervous wreck and also highly competent, perpetually on edge but still of value. He might hyperventilate when faced with a challenge, but he'll figure it out, or at least try valiantly. As he proved when he volunteered to have his memories erased and his relationship with Eleanor forgotten for the benefit of all mankind in Season 3, he's strong, just in a different way than men are usually depicted. Over and over, I've seen Chidi show up for himself by feeling whatever he was feeling, owning it, getting support from his friends, and moving on. "I love how committed he is to goodness," Harper said. "It's all coming from a place of wanting to do the right thing. That's really hard to do in real life, and he's always willing to do it. This character taught me there's no one way to be a man or to be masculine."

When it returns in 2020, The Good Place will show what happens now that Chidi has been tasked with solving yet another philosophical conundrum, with the fate of humanity in the balance. He is unequivocally the right man for the job, freakouts notwithstanding. Chidi is thoughtful, meticulous in his thinking, and he's inspired me to test the radical hypothesis that if I am more honest with people in the same way he is, I can be a better man for myself and for the people around me, too.

The Good Place will to Thursday nights at 9/8c on NBC in 2020.