You already may have heard of superhero or geek therapy, a form of psychotherapy that incorporates characters from comic books, video games, movies, and TV shows as a method of inspiring change in patients who relate to those fan-culture narratives and their heroes. It may sound far out, but this form of therapy uses stories and characters that already resonate with certain patients and incorporates them into existing psychotherapeutic techniques, such as those from CBT or ACT.
I see superhero or geek therapy as a welcome addition. As a species, we’ve told stories to each other and to our own selves since before writing existed. The stories and characters that people become most interested in are those to which they can relate and be inspired by. The superhero is like their fan in some ways and more successful and more powerful in other ways. The superhero is seen as a better version of the fan, a model for the fan’s aspirational self. Before we had modern-day superheroes, we had saints and sages, human beings who struggled to be the good person living the right way. Who we create and regard as superheroes changes over time, but superheroes (of whatever stripe) are never going away.
The stories of modern-day superheroes, just like stories of old, have two sides: struggle and success. I believe that balancing these two aspects is crucial for effective use of inspirational stories and characters as a tool for change. This balancing is often in tension, however. Too much focus on struggle can be dispiriting and dissipate the fan’s identification with their hero, while too much success can lead to positive but brittle changes. By brittle, I mean the change can fall apart when the fan confronts failures and setbacks. Let me use two examples to illustrate.
Example 1: In regard to superheroes, if a person identifies strongly with their favorite superhero’s superpowers, that identification can lead to positive changes in that person’s 1) expectations for success, 2) perceptual and interpretation biases in which events that augur success become more salient while those that hint at failure remain unperceived or discounted, and 3) behaviors, with an increase in behaviors that are more likely to lead to success. So, identifying with a superhero’s heroic achievements can become a welcome self-fulfilling prophecy, with initial small changes leading to a virtuous cycle of growing changes.
Example 2: In life coaching, there is a technique called “assuming success.” It goes like this: imagine yourself at a time in the future, perhaps a year from now. At this future time, imagine in as much detail as you can the success you’ve sought and have already achieved. Speak out your imagined scenarios in detail and feel the feelings that you’re experiencing. Make the imagining as real and convincing as possible. Now, with success already having been achieved at that future time, work backward to today, listing all the things you accomplished that led to that future state of success. If it seems hard to imagine accomplishing all those preliminary tasks, remind yourself that, from that future vantage point, you’ve already managed to accomplish them. They’re a done deal.
Now, both of these techniques are powerful and work for many people. But there is a certain brittleness to them: no matter how much you believe you share your favorite superhero’s superpowers and you’ve already achieved success, sooner or later you will question your beliefs, you will falter and fail at some tasks, and you will confront unexpected situations that will leave you stumped and afraid. Then what? Then the whole fantasy can come tumbling down.
You are a superhero until you’re not. You are on the fast path to already achieved future success, until you fall into a ditch. After these inevitable failures, you may be left feeling more helpless, ineffective, worthless, and lacking in agency than before you started.
This same tension between the benefits and dangers of positive expectation plays out in daily affirmations. Here are two from a mindful affirmations website:
- I am good at helping others to [fill in the blank].
- I am always headed in the right direction.
Would it surprise you I wouldn’t necessarily recommend either of those? I believe their absolutist phrasing will lead to a brittle mindset. Here are two other affirmations that differ in an important respect:
- I will strive for compassion in the moments of my day.
- I shall endeavor to gently walk the middle way.
I like these two better. Notice the phrasing they use: “I will strive” and “I shall endeavor.” They are weaker in success – they don’t assume it – but they are more robust in failure, that is, they are less likely to fall apart when confronted with the affirmer’s inevitable stumble. I can continue to strive and endeavor and even improve, even when sometimes I revert back to my previous undesired behaviors. No success and no failure is assured nor final. Affirmations and identifications help me muddle through better than I was muddling through before.
This tension reminds me of an analogy from – of all things – manufacturing supply chains, which face a similar tension. Imagine I sell widgets that I contract to have manufactured for me. I can get the best price if I have all of them manufactured in one factory due to scaling efficiencies. On the other hand, having all my manufacturing done in a single factory leaves me vulnerable to disruption. So, as a seller of widgets, my best approach is to balance between greater efficiency and greater robustness against disruption.
So, yes, having role models, even superheroes, and having confidence in one’s ability to succeed are both goods. Keeping sight of the struggle for success and the inevitability of setbacks both leavens the assumption of success AND inoculates it against setbacks. This tension between these opposing goods – success and robustness – should be recognized and balanced.
I would love to know if you use superhero or geek therapy and, irrespective of whether you do, what you make of it.
Until next time,
“We love our superheroes because they refuse to give up on us. We can analyze them out of existence, kill them, ban them, mock them, and still they return, patiently reminding us of who we are and what we wish we could be.”
“My name is Josué Cardona I am a design researcher with engineering, mental health, edtech, and data analysis experience…. I am also the founder of Geek Therapy, a modality of behavior modification that uses interests and affinity to reach new insights in the fields of mental health, education, coaching, and more. Geek Therapy is part of the wonderful world of geeky helping professionals combining their interests with their professional work.”
“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
“Maybe that’s why superheroes wore capes. Maybe they weren’t capes at all, but safety blankets, like the one Aru kept at the bottom of her bed and pulled up under her chin before she went to sleep. Maybe superheroes just tied their blankies around their necks so they’d have a little bit of comfort wherever they went. Because honestly? Saving the world was scary. No harm admitting that.”