By Lauren Helm, M.A.
In our blog “Modern Metaphor: Tapping into the Power of the Superhero to Turn Struggle into Triumph,” Dr. Janina Scarlet discussed how she uses superheroes and fictional characters in therapy as a way of connecting with values and inspiring healthy psychological change. Read below for an interview with Dr. Scarlet about how she uses modern metaphors in therapy.
CSAM: What inspired you to start incorporating fictional characters in the therapy room
Dr. Scarlet: I wanted to incorporate fictional characters into therapy because I found that many clients found it difficult to talk about their own feelings or experiences and found it easier to identify with certain fictional characters, which made it easier for them to understand what they were going through. Too often, people who are going through depression, anxiety, trauma, or another difficult experience have no one to talk to and do not believe that anyone can understand their experience. Once they find a person or character they can relate to, they usually feel more understood, and that’s when healing can begin.
CSAM: How do you use superhero and fantasy characters in therapy? What might you do to help people access their inner superhero while working with them in therapy?
Dr. Scarlet: Usually, I ask the client to tell me if they like comic books, movies, TV shows, etc. and ask which is their favorite and why. Often there’s one or more that people can name and usually there’s a character they feel that they can relate to. We then begin by exploring what the character has gone through, what made them who they are today, and what makes this particular character special to the client. For example, if someone likes Batman, they might like that Batman is a Superhero, that he saves other people, and that he is brave and strong. This allows me to understand what kind of person the client would like to become, to get at their values. We then explore what Batman had experienced (i.e., the death of his parents, the phobia of bats, and years of isolation) and how through the terrible pain he went through he was able to become the Superhero of Gotham that he is today. We then bring it back to the client’s values and identify ways that he or she can begin to take steps to become their own kind of Superhero.
CSAM: Is there any particular issue that you’ve found superhero-therapy to be most helpful for?
Dr. Scarlet: I think that since Superheroes tap into someone’s individual value system, that they can be used for any issue someone is going through. I believe that the biggest remedy for emotional pain is connection with one’s values and Superheroes and heroes of works of fiction, such as Harry Potter and Frodo, lend themselves very nicely to value identification.
CSAM: You have training in mindfulness and meditation techniques, compassion and self-compassion, and biofeedback. How might you incorporate a superhero approach when using these interventions in therapy? Do they complement one another?
Dr. Scarlet: I think that they complement each other very nicely. For most people, what they value is helping others. Unfortunately, often people don’t know how to go about that, feel too depressed to do it, or don’t believe that their efforts matter. In addition, I often find that people burn out when they don’t know how to provide compassion toward themselves. In my “Superhero training” sessions, I teach the clients about Jedi mindfulness, as well as the magic of self-compassion, and the Superhero steps behind being compassionate toward others.
CSAM: How do you think that being a therapist who uses superhero metaphors aligns with your own value-system?
Dr. Scarlet: The person that influenced me the most was my grandfather. He spent his life helping people every way that he could. He wasn’t only a hero, he was my Superhero. He really inspired me because he showed me that it only takes one person to make a difference. I became a therapist because it was the main way I knew how to help others, and in using superhero metaphors in therapy, I find that I can make therapy more accessible to my clients.
CSAM: What kinds of triumphs have you seen people create in their lives when working with you?
Dr. Scarlet: The bravest people I have ever met are my clients. They are the ones that have been most impactful to me. They face their fears every single day, and just like Batman, they do what they can to fight for what they believe in. I was working with one client with severe PTSD and agoraphobia and I will never forget the day that he was able to step out of his house with me. This person now drives and travels and in my opinion, deserves his own comic book for everything he has been able to overcome.
CSAM: What can you tell us about the book that you are working on about using superheroes in therapy?
Dr. Scarlet: The book will be a self-help book, on how to become the Superhero that you would like to be and will specifically focus on overcoming anxiety. It will follow the acceptance and commitment therapy format with a chapter on self-compassion, and will primarily include metaphors from comic books, fantasy novels, science fiction, and TV shows.
More about Dr. Janina Scarlet:
Dr. Scarlet earned her Ph.D. from the City University of New York. Her clinical experience includes using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help individuals with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, sleep, and other mental health and medical conditions, as well as using Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD. Dr. Scarlet also has experience working with a variety of mindfulness and meditation techniques, as well as compassion and self-compassion and is certified in biofeedback. In addition, she is fluent in Russian and can conduct therapy with Russian-speaking clients. Finally, Dr. Scarlet is a proud geek and is able to incorporate clients' interests into therapy, including but not limited to Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, and many others. She was recently interviewed by an award winning podcast, Geek Therapy, about her use of fantasy and geek culture in therapy. Above all, Dr. Scarlet believes in establishing an active collaboration with a client and working as a team in targeting the presenting problems.
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