Superheroes and Using Your Imagination in Recovery

Superman is Supervulnerable

“Are you tired of trying to be like Superman?”

When people go to see a therapist, often they have spent a good deal of their lives attempting to be like Superman. Trying to appear invulnerable, having no weaknesses will make us weak. Neuroscience has taught us that our emotions are a type of inner landscape, a language that our bodies use to understand ourselves, our world and each other.

There can be many reasons why a person will attempt to limit, or distance themselves from their emotions. It can feel safer to stay in our head, and think rather than feel. We may feel secure and intelligent when we think, whereas feeling can be vague and confusing. We may not know what to say or how to respond to others, so avoiding emotions may seem like a good idea. Social relationships can be complicated, and emotions can complicate our conversations. Emotions can change quickly and may cause us to lose our objectivity, and they can trigger us to want to avoid, or return to unhealthy coping strategies like alcohol, drugs or food.

Hero stories can be incredibly powerful in our lives!

1. Hero stories inspire us as we face our own difficult experiences.

2. Hero stories can be validating and empowering. As we learn about the characters we may realize that they are telling our story.

3. Hero stories can serve as type of emotional practice.

Heroes and therapy

Hero Therapy is a creative experience, using video games, comic books, superheroes, science fiction and other “geeky” things to support your mental health and your recovery.

“I have a question for you. ‘Did you ever wanted to be a superhero? Or did you ever look in the mirror and imagine yourself with a cape, or holding a sword?… When I saw the X-Men, the movie forever changed my life. The heroes in the movie were people who had been exposed to radiation, just like me. They were able to use their changes (from the radiation) not to feel sorry for themselves, but to help other people. Even though they were ostracized by society, picked on and bullied, just like I was, they managed to find a way to use their differences to be stronger, to be better, to be different.” Janina Scarlet, PhD.

To learn more about Janina’s story, click on the Hero Round Table link.

Superheroes and visualizing more of the life that you want

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (2014 Winter Olympics) — The Canadian bobsledder Lyndon Rush had not yet arrived in Sochi. But he was already on the Olympic sliding track as he sat in a chair in the Munich airport several days before the Winter Olympics, his eyes wide open but his mind’s eye far away as he traced a sinuous path through the air with his left hand. 

Visualization is a powerful tool that is often used in sports performance, like this bobsledding example. Salespeople use visualization to hone their craft, seeing themselves . It can be used to improve self-esteem and confidence, and many people use visualization or imagination to focus on their goals. We can visualize, or imagine, a new look for our home decor. Whenever I speak in public, I use visualization to help build confidence and refine my speech.

Visualization is a practice of using imagination to ‘see’ yourself practicing the behaviors and routines necessary to achieve your goals. It is a form of guided, detailed, story telling. Visualization cannot replace physical practice, but what it does is teach our mind how to focus and then to refocus. Again and again.

Superheroes, fictional stories, movies and TV programs, and gaming are different ways that we can use “Heros” in our visualization. Their stories are a form of emotional practice that can inspire, empower and teach us to focus and refocus.

I have had conversations with young adults who described being lost in video games for most of their teenage years and well into their 20’s. When I ask about what the games did for them, they talk about how gaming helped them to face their parent’s divorce, the anxiety of growing up, losing friendships and facing grief and loss over the deaths of people they cared about.

Some people may have an experience with gaming where they over-use it as coping skill to the place where it can become a compulsive habit, or even an addiction. However, for many people, gaming (and Super/Hero stories) can help in their passages through difficult experiences and situations.

Imagination and your well-being

Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes. Mark Twain

Virginia Commonwealth University and Hope College conducted a study that investigated how looking at superhero images can influence social behaviors and motivation. The study recruited 245 participants and divided them into two groups. One group was shown everyday images and the second group looked at the same images, along with other images that reminded them of superheroes.

The study found viewing pictures of Superman made a person more likely to help someone than viewing a photo of a bicycle. “Even subtle visuals of superheroes can inspire us to want to help and to actually perform helpful behaviors. Why? Because they stand for honor, integrity, and everything else many of us hope and strive to embody in our lives.

What this illustrates is that imagination can be a powerful ally. We can use our imagination to help support our recovery (in spite of emotional ups and downs), or we can let our minds wander wherever they may go and then hope for the best. This is where Superheroes, or Hero Therapy, can be a tool to help you in your recovery.

Some examples of how you can use Heroes and imagination to inspire your recovery and your health:

– Have images of your favorite superhero on your desktop computer or cell phone

– Read biographies of people that inspire you

– Watch Tedtalks

– Remember, or bring to mind, people in our lives who faced their own challenging experiences and overcame

– Read fiction, or any stories that capture your imagination

– Listen to recovery stories

– Talk with people who face triggers, memories, depression or anxiety and yet they do not give up

– Use our imagination to have a conversation with a hero where they offer us advice, or support

– Watch superhero action movies or movies based on real life

– Whenever you want, celebrate your superhero! Wear a superhero t-shirt under your more official work clothes or on the weekend. Collect, and proudly display, action figures or other items

You don’t have to don a superhero cape or mask to benefit from using your imagination. Often, all that you need  is give yourself permission to explore your interests or what inspires you. This week, ask yourself “Who are my heroes?”

• • •

For a related post, see “Geek therapy: Connecting with clients through comics, video games and other ‘geeky’ pursuits” I invite you to sign up for my blog by clicking “Follow Getting High on Recovery.” When you enter your email, you will get free access to the blog. I do not send spam or share your email with anyone.

What I ask in return is that you comment on articles that connect with you and please share my work. And please take a moment to vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.

Geek Therapy: Getting High with Geek Therapy

In the new year, I will be offering Geek Therapy using popular culture and superheroes. My specialties include addiction and mental health recovery, parent-teen relationships, emotions and communication skill-building, family counseling, trauma support and spirituality in counseling. If you would like to experiment with Geek Therapy and how it can benefit you, contact me at

Keep it Real


Bennett, T. (Dec 6, 2018). New research says your favorite superhero can inspire you to become a better person and act heroically, too. Counseling News, Mental Health, Research in Psychology.

Scarlet, J. (2016). Superhero Therapy. Little Brown Book Group.

Van Tongeren, D. R., Hibbard, R., & et al. (2018, November 23). Heroic Helping: The Effects of Priming Superhero Images on Prosociality. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from

Photo by Raj Eiamworakul and Yogi Purnama on Unsplash

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