SUPERHERO THERAPY – BOOK REVIEW

Dodano: 22 February 2017

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The book by Dr. Janina Scarlet is a psychological guide that, despite its catchy title, is not really that original. On the other hand, the form of psychological help presented in Superhero Therapy is so niche that it will only reach a very limited audience. Maybe that’s exactly where its potential lies.

Dr. Janina Scarlet is a therapist who has been working for years with people struggling with different psychological problems, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder, through panic attacks, depression, to all kinds of personality disorders. During her work she began to notice that some of her clients* responded well to metaphors that were close to their interests – often related to pop culture. It also worked the other way. The author of Superhero Therapy realized that characters from comic books, TV shows and video games were burdened with problems or disorders similar to those of her patients. Being a pop culture fan herself, who used to struggle with PTSD and chronic pain, among others, it was easy for her to join these two observations into a practical proposition.

An example of that is… the book itself. Its structure is based around the idea “Become a Superhero,” which in this case is mainly understood as freeing oneself from problems or disorders, or at least putting up a fight with them, much like superheroes fight villains. And so depression, anxiety, anger or shame are personified here, depicted as Monsters. Dr. Scarlet serves as a guide, a teacher of this “school”, while the “students” are fictional characters, struggling with real-life problems. Due to copyright issues they are only based on well-known characters (one of them is clearly Doctor Who, another a little less literal Harry Potter copy). Because of this formula the book is aimed almost exclusively at the people from the geek environment. The author consistently sticks to the assumption that this is her target. Not only metaphors are based on pop culture, but also some of the proposed activities or terms are only for people interested in comic books or video games. Of course, one can move outside these comparisons and understand everything without being a geek, but this may prove to be difficult for older people.

And I’ll admit, that’s where my problem with this book is. There’s nothing wrong in choosing a target audience and creating something just for them, this will only make the guide more accessible to teenagers or young adults. It can’t be denied, however, that pop culture in Poland can still be infantilized – also by its audience. But just because the text in Superhero Therapy is accompanied by colorful pictures with monsters and heroes in capes does not mean that Dr. Scarlet limits herself. Her book deals with serious issues, from aggression to rape, guilt and trauma. I’m not sure if a Polish reader will feel confused because of that. On the contrary, maybe the guide’s style will make it easier for the reader to process its content? It’s hard to tell. But this still begs a question: does the content have enough substance to prove itself worthy?

I don’t want to answer with an unambiguous “yes” because it’s still just a guide. It’s not the answer to every problem but more of an introduction to the subject of psychological self-help and should be treated as such. Using a metaphor from the book, it’s rather the beginning of the journey towards becoming a superhero. The real change will most likely take place outside of it, with the help of a therapist or another person, not a piece of paper. However, the techniques suggested by Dr. Scarlet are based on reliable therapy methods, described in a clear way. It’s definitely a good thing that the author presents them as possibilities and does not force anything on anyone. She does encourage to take them into consideration, but also stresses the fact that she doesn’t offer a panacea.

Most importantly, Dr. Scarlet is substantially correct. She uses an accessible language, but also describes theories, terms and techniques related mostly to the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)**. There’s no pseudoscience babble here, although one should take some ideas in Superhero Therapy with a grain of salt. What interests the author the most are thoughts and emotions. Is it bad? Yes and no. Although some cognitive methods, those that (broadly speaking) aim at changing one’s way of thinking, are very effective, they won’t always be the best solution. It’s one of the reasons why the book will never stand on its own, because reading it, understanding it and actually changing one’s way of thinking is usually the beginning, which has to be followed by the change in behavior. Going back to the metaphor, the book will teach us all we should know about flying, but in order to really soar into the sky like Superman a more “physical labor” will be required. I’m writing this in order to make the potential readers aware that Superhero Therapy is not the complete and definitive psychotherapy handbook and not everyone will find all the answers he or she is looking for.

So who is this guide aimed at? Certainly for the geeks, we’ve established that. But is it only for persons struggling with some problems in their lives? Not necessarily. They don’t have to be dealing with nightmarish traumas, unable to leave the house due to social anxiety or suffering from depression. While it’s true that everyone comes across difficult situations in their lives, Superhero Therapy will also reach those whose last experience with stress was in elementary school and do not struggle with any kind of suffering. The author’s suggestions not only allow to “fight Monsters”, but also help dealing with everyday situations. It’s the book’s undeniable strength, as it makes the guide (potentially) useful for tired, busy corporate employees or students who would like to work on their procrastination. The division of the entire “program” into stages and the techniques based on professional experience can help practically anyone to become a “superhero” at their own pace and adjust the required “powers” to their needs.

What can one learn from Superhero Therapy? Things like attention techniques, where unwanted thoughts come from and how one can work on them, as well as focusing on one’s own values and goals (and why they’re important). Of course, not everyone is going to be convinced by this type of language and the concepts behind it. Personally, I’m much more conservative when it comes to psychological help and psychotherapy, which doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t find any “fraud”, untrue or nonsensical content here. You may or may not agree with the theories behind them or have some doubts about their effectiveness, but there’s no ground to claim that any of them can be harmful. I’m actually convinced that Superhero Therapy may turn out to be a very valuable position for some people. Its reading will help them understand what they’re going through, how to partially deal with it and what to do next. Although I’ve mentioned before that it’s just a book, not everyone will want or be able to seek professional help or find support in someone close to them. That’s where Superhero Therapy can prove its worth.

To sum up, Superhero Therapy is a well-written, simple and quite clear guide, aimed mostly at those who can’t deal with certain problems – from phobias to depression. Nevertheless ­– it’s not for everyone. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who see metaphors based on superheroes as juvenile – they will only make the reading harder. Everyone else can benefit from the author’s expertise, but unfortunately only those more or less fluent in English, since the book is not available in Polish. As a pop culture fan and someone who’s no stranger to the subject of psychotherapy, I can see a potential in Superhero Therapy… but I can’t help but wonder, “Can’t there be a good guide with more universal examples?” I suspect that there probably can be, or perhaps already is. Which doesn’t mean it’s not worth it to at least consider picking up Dr. Scarlet’s book.

*The word “client” is often used instead of “patient” with regard to those who seek help from a psychologist or a psychotherapist. The term “patient” is more connected to the clinical context, which means patients in hospitals or people visiting a psychiatrist.

**It’s a simplification, since the author actually uses cognitive and behavioral theories, terms from such fields as clinical psychology, as well as the ACT methods.

The author of this review is Paweł Kicman, the Jagiellonian University psychology graduate, editor of the Panteon.pl website. Author of the blog cotyniepowiesz.pl.

Translation by Jakub Michalik.

We would like to thank the publisher, Robinson (a Little, Brown Book imprint) and Dr. Janina Scarlet for providing us with a copy of the book for this review.

Title: “Superhero Therapy: A Hero’s Journey Through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”

Author: Dr. Janina Scarlet

Illustrated by: Wellinton Alves

Publisher: Robinson

Published in: 2016 (in UK)

Volume: 112 p.

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