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.
Self-criticism is the engine which drives long term depression. In Compassionate Mind Therapy we sometimes try to personify our self-criticism through giving it an identify. We call it our "inner critic". The idea is not new. In Jungian therapy, this critical side of ourselves is referred to as our shadow side. In depression we find it hard to reconcile these two sides to our nature. Superheroes go through similar processes. The Hulk will say how much he hates "puny Banner" despite them being the same person. In Arkham Origins, the Joker says to Batman "we are not so different". Although these are traditional villains, they represent the other side of the heroes. We cannot kill them. At the end of the Dark Knight Batman does not try to kill Joker but tries to save him. Ultimately we need to accept ourselves in the fullness of our humanity.
Living according to our values
The real “superpower” that these heroes have is that they do not try to “avoid” problems. The meaning they draw from life comes from working towards what is important to them rather than avoiding them. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we talk about problems and values as being two side of the same coin. In every problem we have there is the seed to its solution. Bruce Wayne witnesses the violent death of his parents and devotes his life as Batman to bringing about peace.
Stan Lee taught me that therapy can come from the most unlikely of sources. Ultimately a picture is worth a thousand words. They convey complex ideas simply and concisely. Superhero stories can act in similar ways telling us how we might deal with emotions, how we might come to terms with ourselves and how we live our lives in accordance to what we value.
Michael O'Sullivan is the author of A Practical Guide To Working With Depression.