These days, it is hard to flip through the television or cable channel listings or search movie offerings without being bombarded by ads, coming attractions or trailers for something or other superhero. These men, women, earthlings, aliens and everything in between are everywhere; flying in and out of our consciousness, challenging us to be bigger, better and stronger. They are in many ways role models for strength, morality, virtuosity and humanity, while also being poster children for weakness, vulnerability and fragility… heroes with feet of clay.

As a matter of “fact,” superheroes, despite their unflagging heroism and unwavering commitment to the greater good, are typically misunderstood, marginalized and often persecuted by those they seek to protect. Superheroes notoriously come from broken homes, have complex and conflicted family of origin relationships or have suffered immeasurable childhood traumas. They are lonely, self-doubting and tormented figures, shadowy reflections of our own frailties and fallibilities.

The brutal childhood loss of Bruce Wayne’s parents, Superman’s dislocation from his home planet Krypton, the Thing’s exposure to mutagenic radiation and Wonder Woman’s quest to find her place among humanity are but a few metaphors for the struggles that are common to all of us, whether or not we change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in our bare hands or save entire civilizations.

Yet somehow, superheroes seem to wake up every morning, pull on their boots and spandex, ready to face the challenges of the day, just like you and me. But as it turns out, they manage to find strength, meaning, and identity in the very same ways that we mere mortals do; by aligning themselves with others such as in the X-Men, Avengers and Justice League. They seek comfort in relationships, continually and painfully look inward for a deeper sense of self understanding and self-acceptance, and when these methods fail, turn to psychotherapy. Yes, superheroes go to psychotherapy!

As it turns out, quite a few superheroes have turned to the therapeutic couch when all else and all others have failed them. Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk turned to fictitious neuromuscular psychiatrist Angela Lipscomb to help integrate his deeply fractured personality. Oliver Queen, a.k.a. Green Arrow sought solace from Dr. Edmond Cathcart to resolve painful inner conflicts, and Peter Parker, a.k.a. the Spiderman who is tormented by intrusive memories and the pull to his dark side (Venom), turned to Dr. Ashley Kafka so that he might vanquish his inner demons.

Interestingly, the psychotherapists who come to the rescue of these tormented superheroes struggle in many of the same ways that real-life psychotherapists often do. Dr. Frederick Wertham Blink, so-called “superhero shrink,” struggles to raise his own tormented teenage daughter, psychiatrist Leonard Samson wrestles with his own existential angst as he simultaneously struggles to render therapeutic assistance to the various heroes of the X-Factor, and Dr. Edmond Cathcart must somehow decompress from the challenging work of healing others just to muster the energy to leave his office at the end of the day.

Clearly then, superheroes are far more than two-dimensional fantasy heroes who model impossible standards for us to achieve. They are, despite alien origin, profound trauma and inevitable estrangement, very much human, and as such like the rest of us in need of connection, meaning and inner peace. So, they turn to psychotherapy. And in turn, their psychotherapists are often quite realistically portrayed in the comic-book world as caring, committed and loyal helpers, who also like the rest of us try to find a balance between our lives in and out of the office, within our own skins and in our own real-life relationships…all the while battling self-doubt, seemingly insurmountable odds and forces beyond our control. In other words, just like the rest of us therapists out there in the real world struggling to give it our best shot. 

File under: Musings and Reflections