“Geek Therapy” or “Superhero Therapy” Is Much More Than Extra Fun

When I was young, Animorphs was a popular kids’ book series. One especially popular character turned into the specific species a Red-tailed Hawk. I remember looking at my parents’ field guide to birds as a raptor made low circles overhead. My first conclusion was that I was seeing a Red-tailed Hawk. This bird didn’t look like any of the other pictures, only that one. But I decided that had to be wrong, because that would have been so exciting to me that I must only want to think it was a Red-tailed Hawk. Later in life (and still thinking of Animorphs), I spent time at a hawk watch and learned that, if you see that typical chunky hawk shape, in this part of the world (most of North America, in fact), it’s very likely a Red-tailed Hawk! The point of this story is that sometimes the cool answer is also the real answer.

Anecdotes and metaphors are often used in change coaching processes such as NLP, perhaps exemplified by the Metaphors of Movement programs created by Andrew T. Austin and taught in the US by Andreas NLP. The reason for this has to do with the outsize influence of the subconscious. Austin writes that “metaphors […] are remarkably stable and resistant to suggestion and influence, unlike memory and other forms of mental representation.”

The change coach Clarence Thomson writes that “all spiritual masters use stories rather than just exhortation. I also point out that the best communication for the sake of change that money can buy is on television advertising and all the smart money is on imagination. There are no professors giving lectures on why you should buy Fords or Tylenol.”

“Superhero therapy” consists of densely-packed metaphorical content. The concept of “superhero” has a structure including having powers, facing challenges, having enemies, having a secret identity, and being valued. An individual story or character comes with specific metaphors. Some of these are particularly well-suited to mental health struggles. For example, J.K. Rowling intended her Dementors to represent depression. You fight them off by concentrating on a happy memory… and chocolate helps you resist their influence.

While these metaphors don’t typically contain the “movement” element used in Metaphors of Movement, they often share the quality of being “autogenic,” “the metaphors that naturally arise in the language and communication of individuals.” In other words, for the many people today whose first thought about a problem is something like “I feel like a hero with the weight of the world on my shoulders,” or “I feel like I’m in the Hunger Games,” or “I feel like I imagine Batman felt in this particular comic,” talking about these things is speaking their internal language. (That doesn’t mean you need to speak the same internal language, just to take it seriously and ask, “Okay, what happened to Batman in that comic?” or “Can you tell me what that means to you?”)

For some people, this kind of internal language is so dominant that it’s not only helpful but vital for therapy to engage with it. Let me be blunt: we live in an age where some people think about fiction a LOT. Some people also think about it deeply or in a special way. Whether that’s adaptive overall is an open question, but it is unquestionably true that engaging with this pattern when it’s present can produce sudden progress and incredible leaps.

Understanding the language of metaphors can point to elements of a person’s worldview. Many people have a story or two that they feel “shaped them.” Whether it’s cause or effect, one can ask, gently, in a similar way to Metaphors of Movement, “You feel like you’re in the Hunger Games. Does that mean you feel like you can’t rely on anyone? You can’t trust anyone to be on your side? Is part of it that you don’t have any control over your life? Do you see things as zero-sum, where for one person to get ahead, everyone else has to lose?”

I didn’t realize how much Animorphs shaped my worldview until much later. Digimon Tamers, which, like Animorphs, is kids’ media with a darker tone in which some bizarre and creepy things happen, started airing the year after the last Animorphs book was published. In Animorphs, technologies interact in unpredictable ways, terrifying things can happen to you, your DNA, mind, and identity are things to be guarded, and sometimes things will never be the same. In Digimon Tamers, technology, trust in strange new things, and losing yourself are positive, and things can always be put right in the end.

My younger brother loved Digimon. I didn’t see the appeal at first. But the more I thought about it and liked it, the more I found that things like losing yourself felt “good” to me at a basic level. Intensity and repetition are two of the three factors Maxwell Maltz, the source of many of today’s staple self-help ideas, lists that influence subconscious beliefs about yourself and the world. Unless you’re saying affirmations in the mirror every morning, media may be your main source of repetition.

This doesn’t mean Animorphs was only a bad influence. It had positive metaphorical content too, and sure expanded my mind! By examining the metaphors that constitute a story, we can choose which of them are helping us with what we want to do. Fiction without positive metaphorical content is rare. Literary fiction is often written to make meaning, and popular fiction usually comes with a happy ending and solutions to the dilemmas and problems in the story. Identifying with a hero is a metaphor that suggests, to your subconscious, agency, capability, and ability to change things.

In a 2000 study, metaphors in treatment worked best in heightened states of experience and emotion. Compelling fiction can create this kind of experience in a safe environment, which has other beneficial effects, described here by another study, on the topic of music: “…optimal emotional processing in psychotherapy should contain activation of emotional arousal, and the ability to emotionally tolerate that arousal, and also allow self-reflective meaning-making about the experience.” Another reason your favorite stories are fertile ground for metaphors to effect change: research going back to the 80s found that making someone happy produced more flexible thinking. The more you love it, the more power it has. So hardcore fans have a superpower indeed.