The therapy lessons bequeathed by Stan Lee’s superheroes
Cognitive behavioural therapist Michael O’Sullivan reflects on the legacy of Stan Lee in sharing stories about parental loss and abuse through Spiderman and other comic book characters.
For me, an era came to an end last month with the passing of the wonderful Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Comics. Marvel and DC comics were a staple of my childhood. Looking back now, from the perspective of a middle aged psychotherapist, I think that there are so many therapy lessons that can be learned from superheroes.
“Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I am angry.” – Stan Lee’s ‘The Hulk’ has been portrayed on TV and in film.
The experiences we’ve seen played out by superheroes are not so different from those with long term depression. For example, the majority of superheroes have had the experience of parental abuse and loss. Doctor Bruce Banner-the Hulk, suffered at the hands of his abusive father. Superman loses his biological parents. Bruce Wayne as Batman witnessed the violent death of his parents. Superheroes will also “mask” who they really are. Like people with depression they have identities that they show to the world which are there to hide their “real selves”. As with people with depression, superheroes run into conflict whenever there is a danger that their real identities will be revealed. If we were to think of some specific lessons that these heroes can teach us, three clear themes emerge.
Fear of negative emotion
In the 1970s Bill Bixby played the Hulk on TV. His catchphrase was, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I am angry.”
For many people with depression there is a fear of the explosive nature of anger. Superhero stories also show us how to work with anger. When the Black Widow shows compassion to the Hulk, he calms down. He then becomes Bruce Banner again. Compassion Focussed Therapy teaches us that showing compassion to anger becomes the way in which we defuse this emotion.
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