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Positive Psychology

Spells and Charms: Harry Potter and the Power of Positive Thinking

JK Rowling reminds us that true magic lies within us

As a psychotherapist who works with young adults, I often allude to pop culture in my private practice. So when my 20-something client and professed Harry Potter devotee grew anxious about a dreaded trans-coastal visit to her Dementor of a mother-in law in Los Angeles, I naturally inquired, "What Harry Potter would do?"

"Well, of course, he would conjure his Patronus," she replied.

A Patronus is a charm that wards off Dementors, "the foulest creatures that walk this earth" who "infest the darkest, filthiest places" and "drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them." Remis Lupin, a benevolent werewolf, explained to his young protégée, "Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself...soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life."

The charm's magical elixir is "the concentration on a powerfully happy memory" - in other words, the power of positive thinking. Apparently, Potter creator J.K. Rowling was not only a genius of fantasy fiction, but also a sorceress of pop psychology.

Rowling's sorcery also reveals itself in the spell to dispel Boggarts. A lesser menace in the wizard world, these shape-shifting creatures assume the form of the worst fears of any unfortunate sole who crosses their path, and evaporate at the correct recitation of "Riddikulus!"

According to the Harry Potter wiki, "The (Riddikulus) charm requires a strong mind and good concentration....The correct way to perform the charm is to push past the fear, and concentrate on something that will make the Boggart look amusing. The charm does not, in fact, repel a Boggart; it just forces it to assume a shape that the caster will find comical, inspiring laughter."

Fortunately, Rowling's charms are not purely fantasy; they also work their magic in the therapy room.

The Patronus in Practice
Sarah, my aforementioned client, was a self-effacing writer whose self-revelatory blogs addressed racism and religious hypocrisy. On a weekly basis, she received an esteem-boosting slew of emails from her growing fan base.

Her confidence eroded, however, in the presence of her wealthy mother-in-law, who didn't share the same appreciation for Sarah's talents, nor her son's choice in wives.

As her visit with the in-laws approached, we began to brainstorm how she might summon her own version of a Patronus when her so-called "Dementor" of a mother-in-law began to drain her vitality.

Although Patronuses typically appear as shimmering animal silhouettes, Sarah took certain liberties with her talisman. Having survived an abusive childhood, Sarah periodically suffered from depression, insomnia, and physical ailments. Calling to mind her fan mail and emotionally supportive marriage, which felt strained during these visits, wasn't enough. She needed to anchor herself in something physically tangible. And the animal imagery wasn't speaking to her - she was highly allergic to dander.

After tossing around a few ideas, Sarah returned home and assembled a collage of photographs of loved ones, including her and her husband in their happiest hours. Next, she cut out the grateful emails and wove them around the photographs, interlaced with powerful images and affirmations that she cut out from magazines.

Sarah was encouraged to meditate on her makeshift Patronus so that she could conjure it in her mind at will. Additionally, she brought her collage to Los Angeles and prominently displayed it in a separate apartment where she and her husband stayed during their visit with his parents.

Ultimately, the experiment was a success. Granted, it didn't work miracles in every encounter with her nemesis. But when dark thoughts began to creep into her consciousness after spending the day with her husband's family, Sarah studied her Patronus propped up on the dresser, and felt better.

The Boggart in Practice
By assuming the shape of our worst fears, Boggarts mirror our insecurities and unhealed emotional wounds.

For Sarah, a Boggart might have assumed the shape of a giant mother-in-law wagging an accusatory finger, or stomping on her laptop with an enormous pair of Manolos.

Harry Potter references work particularly well with adolescent clients who seem receptive to such interventions, which normalize the experience of being afraid yet offer playful responses. A teenage client imagined a high school bully as a Boggart, much in the spirit of the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia imagines her driving instructor in his underwear.

Although therapists are often expected to be wizards of sorts - to read minds, wave our wands and invoke incantations that banish our clients' demons - Rowling reminds us that true magic lies within each of us when we focus on the positive and see the absurdity in our irrational fears.

More from Kim Schneiderman L.C.S.W., M.S.W
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