Author: Janina Scarlet, PhD
Have you ever had a client that you were sure you wouldn’t be able to build a rapport with no matter how hard you tried? Perhaps someone who was combative, distrusting, and clearly not wanting to be in therapy?
One of my students, let’s call him “Albert,” found himself with the most challenging client he could ever imagine, as his first ever client in his first ever practicum.
I met Albert when he was a clinical psychology doctoral level student. Albert enrolled in several courses I was teaching, one of them was the Superhero Therapy course in which the students and I reviewed the mental health themes in various examples of popular culture, and discussed how they can be implemented in therapy on a weekly basis.
Albert was an international student. He was new to the U.S. and had not previously been exposed to Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, or the Avengers. It was precisely one week after we talked about the Avengers, that Albert was assigned his first clinical case – a 16-year-old girl, (let’s call her “Amy”) who had been passed from foster care to foster care and was kicked out of multiple high schools.
When Amy first saw Albert and heard his accent, she crossed her arms and said, “I’m not working with you.”
Albert was understandably flustered but he asked if Amy would be willing to give him one chance, reassuring her that if she still wanted to switch therapists, she would be able to do so at the end of their session.
Presumably, Amy expected Albert to ask her why she was in trouble at school again but Albert didn’t do that. Instead, he simply asked her, “What do you like? Are there any movies, TV Shows, or books that you enjoy?”
Amy looked surprised for a moment. She thought about his question and then said, “I dunno. I guess, I like Ant-Man.”
I should state that we did not cover Ant-Man in the Superhero Therapy course. There was no time to include all the superheroes and Ant-Man was not one we were able to get to. So Albert simply asked her, “Who is Ant-Man?”
“Ant-Man is one of the Avengers,” Amy replied.
“Oh! I know the Avengers! I just learned about them. I know there’s Hulk, and Black Panther, and Thor, and Iron Man.”
Amy lit up. “Yes! And Ant-Man is one of them too. He’s the one that can make himself really small, like the size of an ant.”
“And what do you like about him?”
Amy thought about it. “Hmm. I guess… I guess I like that he can make himself so small that he can almost disappear.”
“Have you ever wished you could almost disappear?”
“Yes.” She said. “All the time. I just feel like there’s always a spotlight on me, you know? Like people are always waiting for me to get into trouble.”
They spent the rest of the session talking about the times that Amy has wished for this super power, what she would do with it, as well as her favorite moments of the Avengers films.
At the end of the session, Amy requested to only work with Albert from there on out.
The truth is, that in order to do Superhero Therapy, in order to bond and connect with our clients, we do not need to know all about pop culture. All we have to be is open minded and curious. Because sometimes, a little bit of warmth can soothe an aching heart, and the willingness to see the person as they are can allow them to feel whole again.
In the age of the pandemic and a worldwide mental health crisis, we could all use some magic in our lives.
In learning to incorporate our client’s passions as their inner strength, we can help our clients to discover their own path to their heroic journey. Capes are optional.