Superheroes have been part of American fantasy for more than 75 years. According to the work of psychologist Lawrence Rubin, people use the mythology of superheroes to deal with real dangers of the world and to “master reality.” Superheroes have struggled with emotional regulation (the Hulk), parental abandonment (Luke Skywalker), alienation (X-men), and even mental illness (Aurora).

Recently, superheroes address such issues as sexual and cultural identity (Ms. Marvel).

Ethnic identity involves actively learning about one’s ethnicity and developing a clear understanding of the meaning of ethnicity in one’s life. This understanding includes the development of positive feelings toward one’s ethnic group membership. Ethnic identity in younger children is viewed in terms of physical characteristics. As they mature, ethnicity takes on more social and membership implications

Researchers Timothy Smith and Lynda Silva identified an increase in ethnic identity formation during middle adolescence. . Furthermore, evidence suggests that ethnic identity is a predictor of well-being among minority adolescents.

The 20th Century invention of the superhero is thought to be the embodiment of the fast changing world.  Einstein’s theory of relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle were presumed to contribute to a general unrest that challenged supposedly stable notions such as “truth” and “honor.” These scientific theories were not limited to time, space and physics. Many early psychoanalysts and philosophers applied the idea of relativity to the human mind and to the very human concepts of justice, morality and self. Therefore, the superhero mythology became the model of virtue and justice, conquering evil and transcending failing systems.

Plight of Society

Modern superheroes, as in those of days gone by, capture the plight of society and fight the battles of the oppressed. Each existing in the duality of an alternative persona, the superhero  must integrate both identities and find community. For example, Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is just a teenager from Jersey¦until she discovers her superpowers. Conflicted, Kamala must come to terms with her whole identity as a Muslim, teenage superhero!

Mental health clinicians and educators can utilize super hero icons in a number of ways:

1.Have the patient identify a superhero and the back story. Ask, “What about this story resonates with you? What challenges does she or he have to overcome? What is her or his superpower? What do you like about the superpower?”

2. Create your own superhero. What are your strengths? Powers? What have you had to overcome? What is your kryptonite?

3. Craft a comic book using your superhero. What is the plot?  Who or what is the enemy? How does your superhero battle the enemy? What does your superhero do when she or he is not “on duty?” Who can she or he trust?

These are but a few ideas of how to use these iconic figures in a therapeutic manner. For more information, don’t miss my workshop, “Geek Therapy 101: Clinical Application of Superhero Archetypes” at this year’s Association for Creativity in Counseling scheduled September 8-9.

Capes and wands are welcomed!

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; Nature-informed therapy: and Geek Therapy. She will be presenting Geek Therapy 101 at the Association for Creativity in Counseling conference in September.  She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.