Dr. Janina Scarlet uses examples from television and movies to connect with students and therapeutic clients. She led a recent WonderCon panel, “The Psychology of Cult TV,” and has spoken on this in interviews including a HuffPost Live session. Today, Dr. Scarlet writes a guest piece for us to talk about some of this work.
What is Superhero Therapy? by Janina Scarlet, PhD
Superhero Therapy is becoming a bit of a buzzword on the Internet and in clinical communities. This concept isn’t entirely new—a number of therapists have in fact been using Superhero Therapy for years. The definition of Superhero Therapy is a bit broad and this post intends to offer some clarification on the matter.
As the concept is fairly new, its exact definition has not yet been established. Generally speaking, in the world of psychology Superhero Therapy can refer to either psychoanalyzing Superheroes or to using Superheroes in therapy in order to facilitate recovery. Both can potentially be helpful and informative: the former by helping us understand our favorite characters (for example through books such as Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight; and The Psychology of Superheroes), the latter by potentially helping us shape our own behavior in order to recover. My work is primarily in the latter.
Several therapists, including myself, have been using Superhero Therapy to treat a variety of disorders, including anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is done by incorporating examples from comic books, movies, and TV shows as the means to allow the client to better understand what he or she is experiencing. Often when someone is struggling with a painful experience it might be difficult to make sense of the present situation. In addition, painful emotional experiences, such as depression or trauma, can potentially be alienating, creating false beliefs that we are the only ones going through this or that no one else will understand. Sometimes recognizing that some of our favorite heroes have been through a similar experience can potentially be healing. Research suggests that when we identify that we have gone through a painful experience just as others have (the concept of common humanity), that this can allow us to feel more connected and that connection with others might even inspire physiological changes in the body, such as the release of a hormone, oxytocin, which has been shown to be related to increased feelings of love and compassion, reduced stress, reduced depression and anxiety, and increased lifespan.
Superhero Therapy calls for the integration of examples of heroes relevant to the client, such as Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and others. I typically start the treatment by asking the client whether there are any characters from books, movies, or TV that they like and then work on drawing connections with the client’s current presentation, as well as for setting and implementing treatment goals. Superhero examples can be easily incorporated into nearly every therapy modality, including evidence-based treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Since I primarily use ACT in my work with my clients, I have been using Superhero Therapy with ACT. ACT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on increasing the client’s willingness to mindfully experience thoughts and emotions in order to lead his or her life according to personal values. This is where Superhero examples can be especially useful. For example, after young Bruce Wayne (Batman) suffered a painful loss of his parents, he realized that what he valued most was making Gotham City a safe place. Although it was not an easy journey, he mastered a number of fighting techniques, as well as science skills in order to follow his value. In addition, since the Caped Crusader does not believe in unnecessary violence, he does not use guns or explosives despite the fact that it means that sometimes he gets injured. This example can be used to assist the client in figuring out how he or she can become their own version of a Superhero. For example, if someone wants to help people as Batman does, the therapist can work with the client in identifying ways to follow this intention, such as by volunteering at a homeless shelter or by performing random acts of kindness. When people lead their lives that are in line with their values, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other struggles can sometimes be reduced.
Finally, I would like to point out that Superhero Therapy does not only need to include characters that we traditionally think of as Superheroes. For example, Buffy (The Vampire Slayer) can be used as a powerful example of acceptance of one’s destiny and doing what is right despite how difficult or painful it might be. What are some of your favorite heroes that you identify with? Whom do you relate to or wish to be like?