Harvesting the Fruits of Popular Culture in Psychotherapy By Lawrence Rubin, PhD, ABPP on 2/15/22 - 11:55 AM

I heard a news report the other day about video games. It wasn’t about which new, must-have game would be flying off of the shelves during the holiday buying frenzy. Nor was it about which would be next in line for weaponization by the ladder-climbing politician du jour, a familiar trope dating back to the early 20th century around fears that radio, television, comics, and the movies would somehow pollute and derail our youth. Instead, the report offered a long view of the video game industry and the influential, mostly positive role video games have played in popular culture. It made me reflect on my work with the Popular Culture Association, my lifelong romance with popular culture, and the way I have integrated this passion into my clinical work.

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During my editorial tenure with Psychotherapy.net, we have featured a few blogs demonstrating the creativity, resourcefulness, and appreciation for the way that the fruits of popular culture—film, comics, books, television, movies, and/or video games, could be utilized therapeutically with clients of all ages. In Watch this Movie and Call Me in the Morning, I highlighted the role that movies play in therapy and the work of South African clinician Enzo Sinisi, who created an encyclopedic website of movies related to mental health and illness. In The Queen’s Gambit and Me: The Surprising Similarity between Therapy and Chess, Vikki Stark shared her own burgeoning passion for the game and how it influenced her clinical work with a 28-year-old who hoped to make just the right move to improve her relationships. And then there is the work of the dynamic duo of Larisa Garski and Justine Mastin, who brought the fascinating world of fanfiction and its clinical application to our readers through essays such as Therapeutic Fanfiction: Rewriting Society’s Wrongs.

The children and teens with whom I’ve worked over the years have kept me tuned into the latest figures and stories of popular culture characters, particularly fictional ones. I’ve never drawn a distinction between the stories of real-life popular culture celebrities and fictional ones because their stories are often very similar, plus or minus tales of galactic apocalypse or alien origins. But even then, I have found that the most far-fetched narratives can be mined for metaphoric significance and clinical gold.

And so it was with 10-year-old Kiko, whose looming expulsion from his third-grade placement compelled his desperate parents to seek therapy for him. Kiko had a school-centered history of impulsivity, inattention, mild learning difficulties, and occasional aggressiveness—just enough to alienate peers and leave him feeling “dumb” and like an outsider. He had his gifts, but those were largely masked by the struggles he had keeping up and fitting in. And, like all such gifts, they were overshadowed.

Kiko and I spent our sessions together in the playroom, where his creativity, playfulness and intelligence were unfettered by the rigid demands of the classroom. It was in this shared space that Kiko’s passion for and encyclopedic knowledge of the Japanese anime character Naruto took center stage. In the beginning of our work, I didn’t know much manga or anime, and even less of this fictional bad boy who was orphaned at birth, mysteriously implanted with the nefarious Nine-Tailed Demon Fox who was ever ready to and often did break free, leaving mayhem in its wake, leaving Kiko that much more isolated if not feared.

In puppet play, vulnerable weaker figures were victimized by stronger predatory ones, with the latter feeling contrite after misbehaving, a reflection of their deeper desire to be liked and a part of, rather than apart from others. Anger and difficulty controlling it were clearly salient elements of not only Kiko’s inner narrative but that of his parents and their often-tumultuous, alcohol-riddled relationship. In the original Naruto story, Team 7 played a dominant role as the group of characters who shared much in common as well as many heroic adventures. Being a part of this group became important for Naruto, as did Kiko’s desperate need to feel a part of his peer group and to somehow unite his often-embattled family.

In addition to the various creative media available to Kiko in my office was a shelf of vintage lava lamps, each of which percolated at their own unique rate, and which I often used as projective tools to gauge young clients’ inner emotional states. Kiko was mesmerized by these lamps and instantly connected their various rates of flow with his own ever-changing and occasionally explosive emotionality. He even fashioned an amulet in the shape of a lava lamp, adding it to Naruto’s armamentarium to fight the inner Demon Fox, and so learned to better regulate his emotions, particularly at school.

I won’t say that Naruto saved Kiko, but this complex and compelling fictional character, whose trials and tribulations often mirrored his own, provided an unforeseeable and invaluable metaphoric therapeutic conduit for us. And the many adventures that Kiko and I shared along his own road to self-regulation and burgeoning self-awareness were a testament to the power of the rich and limitless metaphors available in the characters of popular culture.


As a footnote, I remember leading a workshop years ago on the use of superheroes in play therapy and counseling with children and teens. During these particular workshops, I would search the audience of clinicians for the invariable one or two clinicians whose knowledge of superheroes far exceeded my own, and who I could enlist as my sidekicks (although I often felt as if it was me who was the sidekick). During one particular sidekick search, a burly, tattooed biker in the very back row volunteered himself as my surrogate superhero expert. The man had superhero tattoos as far as the eye could see, and probably some even further than that. I asked him the seemingly simple question, “How have you harnessed superheroes and their metaphors in your own clinical work?” I was flabbergasted to learn that he had never crossed that line. He had never used superheroes in his work with children or teens.

So, I leave you with a question, what’s in your pop culture wallet, and how might you integrate its content into your own therapeutic work?

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, Child & Adolescent Therapy