Superego: A Clinical Psychologist Puts Superheroes on the Couch
Man of Steel’s record breaking June opening has confirmed (once again) that the real power players in Hollywood are teenage boys.
Yet the huge audiences that saw Man of Steel this past weekend weren’t all fanboys. And this has been true of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, and the Spider-Man, Iron Man, and X-Men films.
So why do we go? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the one (and possibly only) common thread between all these superheroes is that these people are messed up. They’re guilt-ridden, sad, insecure, occasionally anti-social, stressed out basket cases.
In other words, they’re just like us. Which means they’re in need of therapy. And we want to help them.
So we contacted Philadelphia-based clinical psychologist Dr. Natalie Petyk in an attempt to find out how these poor souls might be treated if they stopped saving the world for just a minute and took some time to save themselves.
But here’s the thing—we didn’t tell Dr. Petyk they were superheroes. Instead, we did our best to sum up their backgrounds and traumas (based on the recent films, not the myriad multi-narratives offered by the comic books) and presented them to her as if they were the biographies of her new patients, of real people with real problems. We wanted to get a sense of how these superheroes might really be treated for their myriad, quite horrifying issues.
In this way, perhaps we can help turn the Man of Steel into the Man of Heal (how many readers did we lose with this pun?)
Dr. Petyk stressed this disclaimer: “An ethical psychologist does not pretend to be able to diagnose or work with someone who has not been in their presence for an assessment or evaluation.”
*Identities for the Superheroes revealed at the end (although they'll be fairly obvious to most of you savvy pop culture experts).
Patient Name: C.K.
Core details: Raised by loving parents, discovers in adolescence that he was adopted through a traumatic experience that showcases his ‘otherness.’ Both his biological parents (who are not American) are dead. Feelings of alienation increase as he discovers special abilities he has are related to his biological parents and their birthplace, the latter of which is no longer a viable travel destination. He wants to know who he is—the person he was raised to be, or the person he feels he was born to be. Despite an array of specialized skills, he actually chooses to go into journalism.
DR. PETYK: I think for this young man there are parallels of being a part of two worlds. The core of the therapy would be about helping him integrate both the nature (where he’s originally from) and the nurture (how his adoptive parents raised him). The part that he feels he’s learned and the part that he feels more in his core—which is his generational heritage. These issues are only complicated by this push-pull between an adoptive family versus a biological family. One of the ways someone can work through this is by trying on different identities for size, which could result in a real amplification of those attributes or traits. Almost like a kid playing with masks.
Patient Name: T.S.
Core details: Workaholic, massively successful capitalist father. He grew up to become very much like him. Obsessive about his career, he’s brilliant, charming and womanizing—and careless with other people’s emotions. The past decade has included a series of severely traumatic experiences, on the level of a war veteran coming home from combat. He’s also found himself in a relationship with woman he fears he might actually have broken through his hard shell. While he’d like to change, issues with insomnia, alcohol, and hubris continue.
DR. PETYK: In exposure to this type of trauma, he may have developed a deeper, existential dilemma questioning his own mortality, which may have initiated some of the looking back and the questioning of how he’s living his life. And then he’s in a pickle with his dad, since one of the ways that personality development unfolds is through identifying with—or dis-identifying with—part of our parents’ traits. On the one hand, his dad seems to have the possibility for some great attributes to emulate: brilliance, the kind of guy with a lot of agency, and confidence. Then there’s the underbelly of his dad’s traits: the manipulation, the unavailability, etc. So we’d be talking about his struggle to identify parts of his dad that feel good and he doesn’t want to get rid of, and those which he should minimize or mitigate repeating or emulating.
It also sounds like he has difficulties establishing intimate relationships, fearing that he would be making himself vulnerable. In some ways, the recklessness and carelessness almost assures that he keeps people at a distance.
Patient Name: S.K.
Core details: Grew up poor, resents the rich. A thief by trade and a man-killer by temperament, she feels she can take whatever she wants from the rich because their accumulation of wealth was criminal to begin with. She’s forever playing a part, never able to be herself, and always on the move. Yet she’s in your office because, on some level, she perceives that what she’s doing is not making her happy. She is distrustful and distant.
DR. PETYK: It sounds like she is beginning to question the morality of her actions, but what I think she’s not as aware of, possibly, is relationally how it has isolated her from others, and that her own loss is having to constantly be on the run. She’s been talking the talk like it’s exclusively a moral dilemma, when I think now she’s beginning to recognize a relational one, too.
To plant roots, create a community and forge relationships, she’d likely have to give this lifestyle up, so I’d work with her on looking at the intersection of those two parts of herself. She sounds like she might try to keep me in this “What’s morally just?” conversation as a means of distracting me (and her) from looking at how this attitude has affected her relationships. I could see myself feeling that tension, and encouraging her to see it the other way.
Core details: Raised by his aunt and uncle after his parents died, he has had feelings of inadequacy—the girl he moons over feels always out of reach, he never has enough money, he’s a dork— for a long time. His world is forever altered by a moment of inaction, when he had a chance to stop a petty crime from taking place, but instead let the criminal go, resulting in the death of his beloved uncle. A sticky situation that devastates him.
DR. PETYK: What I’m hearing from him is that the primary conflict here—in all aspects of his life—is the dilemma between passivity and action, a fear of his own action, but also guilt around his inaction.
I think therapy with him would really focus on getting a sense what he makes of this dynamic. Also, we’d revisit and work through that trauma with his uncle. It sounds like he’s avoided doing that, and only come up with the narrative that he’s at fault for allowing this criminal to escape. So we’d try to contextualize that more for him so he can forgive parts of himself that didn’t choose to intervene, but then also motivate engagement in other parts of his life where it makes more sense.
Patient name: B.W.
Core details: Born into an incredibly rich family with a loving mother and father (and butler). Trauma began in childhood when he fell down a well and into a cave on his family estate, where he is engulfed by a swarm of bats. Soon after this trauma his parents take him to the opera. What he sees on the stage reminds him of the cave and he’s panicked and terrified, forcing his parents to grab him and leave early. They exit through a backdoor into an alleyway, where a thief shoots his parents dead. Along with the crushing guilt he feels is an overpowering desire for revenge. He devotes his life to instilling fear in criminals.
DR. PETYK: He’d be an unlikely dude to stumble into therapy–it sounds like you’re describing someone who’s not experiencing much remorse or universal attributes likes compassion, so we’d likely maybe not see him inside the walls of my office. But, should he come through my door, it sounds like he, very early on, learned to associate his own fears with danger. He seems like he then gets his rocks off later in life inducing fear in other people and putting people in that state, almost to do away with any sort of processing or realization about his own needs. He just turns into a predator and puts fears in others – which is very retaliatory. I also think it’s a coping mechanism to no longer really be in touch with the vulnerability of his own fears.
Patient Name: B.B.
Core details: A scientist whose response to extreme stress is panic attack-induced bouts of violence. He feels like he’s being used and/or persecuted by others, and while he doesn’t want to hurt people, he can’t help his rage when he’s triggered. He’s attempted, several times, to remove himself from society in an effort to avoid any further stress triggers.
DR. PETYK: I’d be wondering about a differential between severe anxiety and any possibility of a paranoid thinking process—which can look similar. I’d be really curious about his description of this persecution, manipulation, and his sense of being taken advantage of. Is he reading reality accurately, or, is he lending a paranoid lens to a personal exchange? Differentiating between anxiety and psychosis would guide the treatment approach. It sounds like, on the anxiety side, it would be more of an agoraphobic presentation if he’s isolated to the point of staying in his home for fear of coming outside into the functioning world. A lot of the time in therapy you’re going to feel the dynamic with the person that happens outside in the world, so I would be vigilante, yet aware, that he may need to express his rage with me, to the point where questions, comments and validations of any kind in the context of therapy could ultimately be stressful for him. So, I’d be taking it very slow.
Patient name: M
Core Details: This young woman has trouble connecting with anybody, both physically and emotionally, because she fears she’ll inadvertently hurt anyone she becomes close with. She also has a history of unhealthily adopting negative aspects of other people’s personalities when she finds herself getting close. She feels she has no choice but to isolate herself.
DR. PETYK: You hear a lot of her focus and her conjecturing about other people’s hurt, whether that’s emotional hurt or sometimes it sounds like there have been physical actions or accounts that are hurtful, but I think with her I would be very curious about her own hurts and pains. Intimacy is a two-way street, and she probably has all of the stuff that comes up internally for her when she gets close to someone, and it seems like there’s such a focus in a magical thinking kind of way that her closeness does things to other people. I think I’d want to support her own exploring of what comes up for her when she gets close and what her experiences are of making herself vulnerable. I’d try to help her focus the shift onto herself.
Patient Name: L
Core details: A loner and a drinker with a razor-sharp wit and disposition just this side of permafrost. Born with physical attributes that made him an asset to others (think a top-flight athlete recruited by all the best schools), his unique skill set was later exploited by his own country, a scenario he scarcely remembers but carries the scars from. Suffers from anger and resentment, and the reality that the gifts he possesses are violent in nature. Does not get hangovers, though.
DR. PETYK: So his gifts have a lot of baggage, as if the gifts are set up to be guilt-ridden. I don’t know what control he has over the gifts, but it sounds like that’s probably a huge question of his – whether it’s his desire to utilize them or not. I’d have several questions for him. Does he have any say over how much of his life he wants to spend utilizing the gifts? Does he feel a sense of loss when he uses them? Does he feel like he can never really trust anyone because he’s a means to an end to people. It sounds like he doesn’t have too much practice formulating what his own needs are in his own relationships. I’d try to get him to consider who the people in his life are who can meet his needs.
Some Final Thoughts from Dr. Petyk
I would be curious to know more about each subject’s relation to siblings (if they have them). Especially when it comes to gifts and attributes and having them and not having them, that’s a whole constellation that would be very interesting to get into with them. You wonder if any of their personalities would be softened, or, if the blow of the traumas would have been mitigated to share in it with siblings. It’s interesting – none of them have been depicted in a type of family other than the parents.
When we told Dr. Petyk she had been offering therapy ideas for superheroes, she laughed. Laughed at us, to be honest. Then she admitted to "knowing, like, five of them, maybe." When we read through their core details again and asked her to guess who they belonged to, she only correctly named Catwoman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk.
Which is weird, considering we brought up a boy molested by a swarm of bats. But we thank her for giving us the time, and for being such a good sport.
SUPERHEROES IN THERAPY:
1. Superman (Clark Kent)
2. Iron Man (Tony Stark)
3. Catwoman (Selina Kyle)
4. Spider-Man (Peter Parker)
5. Batman (Bruce Wayne)
6. The Hulk (Bruce Banner)
7. Rogue (Marie)
8. Wolverine (Logan)
Illustrations by Ivy Tai.
Featured image photo by Chris New.
A big thanks to Abracadabra in New York for loaning us the fantastic cape for our featured image.