By Lauren Helm, M.A.
“At their best, superhero origin stories inspire us and provide models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for good purpose.” Dr. Robin Rosenberg
Mythology has long shaped and been shaped by our human experience. Myths are stories or legends that typically include fantastic, colorful, and powerful individuals and events. Different cultures have different perspectives and ways of understanding the human experience, and thus cultural myths vary. There are unifying themes, however. Mythology makes use of symbols and metaphor, both of which represent and communicate significant, underlying meaning that may help us to understand ourselves better. They serve to illustrate a message and to explain the wide range of human experiences, on a collective or individual level, that may occur in life. In a mythical story, such as a fairytale, certain characters may symbolize different aspects of ourselves.
The journey that the mythical hero embarks on is often filled with adventure and fraught with challenges. Many lessons are learned along the way, and growth is often the result. The mythical hero’s journey serves as a metaphor for what we ourselves may encounter; metaphor can be a guide. Joseph Campbell identified recurring, core themes that characterize both ancient and modern mythology, which tend to follow a pattern that he called, “the hero’s quest.” The hero’s quest and journey can also be seen as a metaphor for our own inner, psychological journey of growth and change.
“A hero is someone who rises above his or her fears and limitations to achieve something extraordinary ... a hero embodies what we believe is best in ourselves" - Danny Fingeroth
Whether we are aware of it or not, mythology continues to permeate our society today, and even influence how we think. In fact, our society’s modern-day myths may even help us along the path towards healing. Where might one look to find the mythology of our current times? We can look to our movies, our books, even our comic-books. Modern day mythical heroes take on all shapes and sizes.
Most easily recognizable are the superheroes that we find in comic books, but we also find heroes that may look differently than we expect. Mythical heroes are abundant and appearing regularly: Think of The Doctor of Dr. Who, Harry Potter of Hogwarts, or Katniss from the Hunger Games, for example.
“[Superheroes are a] modern day iteration of our ancient mythologies. There isn’t that much difference between the story of Icarus and that of Iron Man… They have seen prior incarnations in mythology to help explain the world around us or to teach instructive lessons…I think it is an important way to think about how fictional superheroes can make useful additions to our real lives. Not to literally become superheroes, but to use their context as a way to extend our abilities.” – E. Paul Zehr
Not only do fictional comic book superheroes, sci-fi, or fantasy characters represent our personal or collective values, they tend to be relatable on some level. Despite their supernatural or unusual powers or gifts, they also have uniquely human characteristics and flaws. The hero does not go through his or her journey unscathed; rather, the hero seems to step more fully into his or her power by transforming struggle into triumph. This is not done easily. There are losses, and there are gains. However, the hero continues forward, connecting to, and representing, a system of values that allows the hero to be successful.
“Some sort of strength of character (though it may be buried), some system of positive values, and a determination to, no matter what, protect those values ... the superhero—more than even the ordinary fictional hero—has to represent the values of the society that produces him” – Danny Fingeroth
Dr. Janina Scarlet of CSAM knows firsthand the powerful role that superhero/fictional characters can play in helping certain individuals along the path to healing. The relatable nature of our current mythical heroes help us to connect with them, and access our own inner “hero.” Since the story of the modern-day hero’s journey can act as a metaphor for common human experiences, it can remind us that we are not alone in our suffering, Dr. Scarlet says. It can also provide us with a bit of a road map, helping to remind us to tap into our core values as we learn how to overcome our own life challenges and obstacles. The very idea of relating to superheroes in order to turn struggle into triumphs is what draws Dr. Scarlet to superhero mythology, and why she uses these metaphors in her practice of psychology.
This perspective is mirrored by other psychologists who use superhero mythology as a way of understanding the human experience. In a similar fashion to Joseph Campbell’s identification of core psychological themes and processes that underlie most mythical stories, psychologist Dr. Robin Rosenberg writes in her Smithsonian magazine article that “superheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to. The first is trauma, which lies at the heart of Batman’s origin story, in which Bruce Wayne dedicates himself to fighting crime after seeing his parents murdered. In real life, many people experience ‘stress-induced growth’ after a trauma and resolve to help others, even becoming social activists. The second life-altering force is destiny. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a normal teenager who discovers she’s the ‘Chosen One’—endowed with supernatural powers to fight demons. Buffy is reluctant to accept her destiny, yet she throws herself into her new job. Many of us identify with Buffy’s challenge (minus the vampires) of assuming a great responsibility that compels her to grow up sooner than she wants to. Lastly, there’s sheer chance, which transformed a young Spider-Man, who was using his power for selfish purposes until his beloved uncle was murdered by a street thug. Spider-Man’s heroism is an example of how random adverse events cause many of us to take stock of our lives and choose a different path.” When we identify with these characters, we may better come to understand our own difficult life experiences, and what we want to stand for. It may lead to increased insight, growth, and healing.
“[The story of The Doctor of Dr. Who] is about love, it is about courage, it is about honor, and it is about pain - deep, emotional, psychological, inexplicable pain, that many of us, despite not having been in exactly the same situation can still very much relate to on a very deep, very personal level. And through this connection, we heal.” – Dr. Janina Scarlet
Indeed, the use of metaphor as a tool for psychological healing can be powerful. Metaphor is regularly used within Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a modern behavioral theoretical orientation, as a way of assisting people in achieving a greater understanding and experience of the core processes that comprise ACT. These 6 core processes (acceptance, cognitive defusion, mindfulness, self-as-context, values, and committed action) are theorized to lead to psychological flexibility and optimal well-being (read more about the 6 core processes here). Since language (i.e. verbally thinking, explaining, or talking about these concepts) can interfere with direct experiencing (and learning and true integration of these processes into one’s life), metaphors and symbols can serve to bypass this issue and help us to dive into the underlying meaning and message that the metaphor communicates.
Superheroes or modern-day fictional characters often embody or live out the 6 core processes of ACT, acting as a guide or compass, and helping us to better understand what ACT is all about. A major piece of ACT is committing to live a life that is guided by your values (i.e. what is truly important to you) instead of living a life guided by avoidance of fear or discomfort. Our values also act as a compass, showing us the way to go, and what action to take. This is easier said than done, however. “ACT allows you to be the kind of person that you want to be…. [but] ACT is a bit abstract and people can get overwhelmed when they are asked to talk about their thoughts and feelings. They have a difficult time identifying what they are going through. However, most people have seen or read Harry Potter. People understand what he is going through when he has the flashback of his parents dying. He has a really hard time coping with that, and this is where the concept of acceptance may be introduced….Depending on the patient and which favorite character they relate to, I will use The Hunger Games, The Golden Compass, or Harry Potter to help them understand these core processes. For example, in the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings, the main characters are really nervous, but they valued completing their mission and they did so. [This illustrates how] ACT allows people to see that you don’t have to be brave in order to act bravely if you value something, such as helping your friends and helping get the treasure back from the dragon,” Dr. Scarlet says in her interview with Geek Therapy.
Thus, Dr. Scarlet regularly incorporates superhero-informed metaphors in her therapeutic approach. Superheroes and other modern-day mythical heroes can be used as metaphors in therapy in a uniquely useful way because they remind us that “in our deepest darkest moment when we feel like no one gets us, when we can find someone to relate to [like a superhero]; we then feel less alone, we have hope to go on, and we feel more connected to others,” Dr. Scarlet says. Superhero metaphors can be a way of accessing ourselves, when we don’t yet know how to. They can even act as a roadmap for becoming our own superhero.
Stay tuned for our next blog, which will interview Dr. Scarlet about how she uses this innovative approach to therapy, and about her upcoming book! Dr. Scarlet will also be featured on a panel at Wondercon in Anaheim on April 19th.
You can also follow Dr. Scarlet on Twitter @shadowquill!
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.
If you'd like to speak with Dr. Scarlet or another professional at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, please click here.
Cardona, J., & Scarlet, J. (2013, October 18). Episode 25: ACT and Using Fantasy in Therapy. Podcast retrieved from http://www.geektherapy.com/2/post/2013/10/episode-25-act-and-using-fantasy-in-therapy.html
E. P. Zehr (2012, September 28). The Superhero in You. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/black-belt-brain/201209/the-superhero-in-you
Fingeroth, Danny. Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society. New York and London: Continuum, 2005. ISBN: 0-8264-1540-7
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. Guilford Press.
J. Scarlet (2014, March 04). What's wibbly wobbly, timey wimey, and goes EERRWhooSShhEEERWhooSShhhEEEEERRWhoooSShhhWhoooshhee. Retrieved from http://shadowquill.com/1/post/2014/03/whats-wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey-and-goes-eerrwhoosshheeerwhoosshhheeeeerrwhooosshhh.html
J. Scarlet (2013, August 22). Geeky Therapists Take Over Comic Con. Retrieved from http://shadowquill.com/1/post/2013/07/geeky-therapists-take-over-comic-con.html
R. Rosenberg (2013, February). The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories: How does following the adventures of Spider-Man and Batman inspire us to cope with adversity. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-psychology-behind-superhero-origin-stories-4015776/#yLSvAEA5qhzq4oKK