Wearing a cape, emulating the heroes we admire and vie to be, is something most of us have done from a young age. Becoming Superman or Wonder Woman as we chase our friends or jump around our bedroom, made us feel fearless as kids. There was a sense of invincibility when we donned the cape and became someone else, someone more powerful, someone admirable.
Now as adults, we may have lost the cape, but not the admiration or interest, and most importantly the connection to those childhood dreams. We have more than likely gathered a few more heroes along the way.
Whoever our heroes are, be it Batman, Harry Potter or my personal favourite She-Ra, there are more to them than their strength, power and ability to throw some bad guy through a brick wall. Often, they are imperfect characters with dynamic stories many of us can relate to on a very human level. For this reason, superheroes are now used in a form of therapy, encouraging us to consider our background and our own origin story which forms our identity, motivation and internal battles.
Janina L Scarlet, founder of superhero-therapy.com and author of Superhero Therapy: Mindfulness Skills to Help Teens and Young Adults Deal with Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma, explains the idea of exploring our origin story allows us to view our struggle as the beginning of our heroic journey. "And it is up to them to decide the rest," says Scarlet who herself has an interesting origin story as a Ukrainian-born refugee who survived Chernobyl radiation and persecution.
“The client’s heroes, real or fictional, are called upon to provide guidance for the individual. For example, someone who experienced a traumatic loss may learn to view their loss in a similar way to Batman, while also doing an exercise in which Batman may offer guidance and support for that individual.”
Therapy is often a sequence of stories, our personal narrative as we attempt to understand our focus, rationale, and verbalise what we are going through. “Superheroes are far from black and white,” says Dr Trish Leonard-Curtin, counselling psychologist and co-director of Act Now Purposeful Living.
“Exploring their vulnerabilities and flaws can be a bridge to come to terms with and accept all parts of themselves, even the ones they have struggled with. Superheroes are enduring in their appeal because they are complex people, often with traumatic and painful backstories. No matter how fantastic we can be, we all have our flaws, and most people can find freedom in relating to that. Even our heroes have off days or dark parts they battle with.”
Scarlet, a clinical psychologist, scientist, and self-professed geek based in the United States, developed superhero therapy after being inspired by the X-Men. She now treats patients with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She explains superhero therapy refers to incorporating examples from popular culture, such as characters from TV shows, movies, books, comic books, and video games into evidence-based therapy to help manage and recover from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other struggles.
“The goal of superhero therapy is to help the client become the heroes of their own journey,” describes Scarlet, “by learning from their favourite hero role models. Many people struggle with being able to talk about and process their emotional experiences. Fictional characters and storylines allow viewers the ability to use metaphors and examples from their beloved series to be able to explain what they are going through and to be able to see that they are not alone. Like Batman, someone might have lost a loved one; like Superman, someone might have felt like they could not be themselves in front of others; and like the X-Men, someone might have felt bullied and excluded.
“Using stories, we can create a quick sense of connection with others, gain an insight into our own experiences, and find a sense of hope,” says Scarlett, who will be in Dublin in 2020 to train mental health professionals in this approach and to provide a public workshop.
Not restricted to characters with mind-bending powers, superhero therapy uses characters which resonate to the client, says Scarlet, including traditional superheroes, as well as characters from fantasy (eg Harry Potter), science fiction (eg Star Wars), as well as TV shows such as Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sherlock.
“We’ve all felt that aspirational connection with a character,” says Leonard-Curtin who lectures in University College Cork, “be it in books, movies or series. They don’t necessarily have to have superpowers. There may be one character we look at longingly and think, ‘If only I were more like that. If only I could stand up for what I believe or have the strength to overcome my fears like them’.”
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is focused on accepting the aspects of our lives that are outside of our control and bringing our actions more in line with our inner core values. Superhero therapy can help people draw out the qualities, or values, they aspire to most in that character, and then through evidence-based skills, show them how they can internalise these qualities for themselves.
“In ACT, we are essentially encouraging people to step in and be the protagonist in their own lives. Superhero therapy can help people to identify firstly with other hero journeys, until they are able to believe in their own superpowers.”
This form of pop culture therapy is growing in pace with limited exposure just yet in Ireland. Leonard-Curtin believes storytelling and narratives are a huge part of the Irish psyche and there is a place for superhero therapy here. "There continue to be many Irish people who hold stigma around traditional psychotherapy," she says. "Superhero Therapy can bridge a gap between our natural curiosity for stories and heroes whilst also providing evidence-based skills for our mental health. It could be helpful for many Irish people."
Practitioners claim this form of therapy works for both children and adults, promoting positive changes in the client as our heroes give us a sense of purpose, reminding us of our values, inspiring us to become the best version of ourselves and overcoming our traumas.
For children, heroes are role models promoting a sense of justice, inspiring courage, and encouraging them to stand up for what they believe in.
And, most importantly, anyone can be a hero but no one is perfect.