Superhero Therapy: a hero’s journey through ACT

People, both young and adults, who have problems talking about themselves and expressing their emotions may report greater difficulty in metabolizing painful experiences.

The Superhero Therapy can help in these situations. Transferring problems to stories that are external to their own personal circumstances makes patients speak more openly. This allows them to access resilience resources and processing processes more easily.

The origins of this therapy

The Superhero Therapy , based on fundamental principles of ‘ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy , was developed by Dr. Janina Scarlet. It leads patients, often adolescents, but also adults, on a journey of awareness and change.

The author starts from her personal experience of difficulty: exposure to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster during her first years of life. The serious psychological and physical consequences of this exposure led her to a progressive isolation, to a sense of helplessness and helplessness common to many patients.

When she was 12 when she first saw the X-Men movie, inspired by the Marvel comic book series of the same name, young (not yet Doctor) Scarlet began to look at her diversity and her difficulties with different eyes.

From that moment on he became passionate about the world of superheroes , noting that his favorite characters all had something in common. Most of them went through painful personal experiences that shaped their personalities until they turned them into the heroes they eventually became.

The first publications

Continuing her studies and becoming a psychologist and researcher at New York University she decided to try to apply her personal experience and her passion for comic book culture to help her patients. So in 2016 his first publication “ Superhero Therapy – A Hero’s Journey through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ” was born, masterfully illustrated by Wellinton Alves.

In the small and dynamic self-help manual, the author guides the reader through the realization that one’s suffering can be faced in a different way, when this is considered a starting point for the path that leads to the discovery of the superhero within. us .

The journey unfolds in 10 chapters that address well-known issues of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy . 6 characters, each with different powers and symptoms, tell their own story and their journey to become superheroes.

In the first chapters we meet Monica Mercury, Doctor Semper and Neil Scott, all victims of anxiety , shame and sadness . Through the descriptions of the destructive behaviors of these characters, the author introduces us to the concept of experiential avoidance (Hayes et al. 1996). He points out how this maintains many disorders, including OCD (Abramowitz et al. 2013), specific phobias (Singh and Singh 2016), substance abuse disorders (Worden et al. 2015), eating disorders (Rawal et al. al. 2010), as well as anxiety disorders (Drake et al. 2015).

The trap of experiential avoidance

The real “enemy” is identified in this mechanism, as a trap that holds us back in an attempt to control or avoid difficult emotional experiences . It makes these more likely to occur and sustain than to resolve.

Two other characters, Katrina Quest and Shadow Gray, who are faced with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder , introduce the concept of mindfulness as a conscious presence even in the face of disturbing emotional and physical experiences.

Practical exercises are illustrated here, such as focusing on the five senses, daily informal practices, and the practice of gratitude.

Perceived self and superhero self

Going on, the author differentiates between the perceived self and what she calls the superhero self.

Unlike the perceived self, which highlights our flaws and imperfections through often harsh judgments, the superhero self embodies the positive, instructive, and altruistic self with which those with a psychological disorder often lose touch.

Drovin and Dr. Semper again show us how trapped they are in their negative patterns by identifying with them. Giving so much space to judgments that the most painful emotions such as shame, anger, anxiety and sadness fuel and having great difficulty in cultivating the healthy parts of oneself.

Personal values

We continue on the path of personal values , the cardinal principle of ACT. The identification of one’s own positive characteristics automatically leads to more clearly identifying the significant directions of one’s life.

Here the concept of a superhero takes its most relevant form: what is important for me to do with my superpowers?

The exploration of what is important in our life, creativity, altruism, friends, family and more, helps people understand how and where to invest their efforts and bring their “superpowers” together.

The defusion and availability

The superhero path continues with ” the spell of defusion “, another founding concept of ACT, which allows us to distance ourselves from the worst scenarios that the mind, by its nature, offers us in the face of moments of anxiety and insecurity.

We then come to the “definitive weapon”: the Sword of Availability . The counterpart to experiential avoidance is the willingness to open up to all emotions and experiences, even the most painful ones.

This allows you to know your “monsters”, to be able to have them next to you while continuing to pursue your values. Not to be forced to use all energy to avoid painful experiences such as anxiety, shame, anger or sadness, but to be free to feel what normally emerges, because we are superheroes but also humans.


After this challenging part of the journey we arrive at the “secret hiding place” of self-compassion . Elements of self-compassion are analyzed and some practical exercises are suggested, such as the compassionate letter (Gilbert, 2009).

The small handbook concludes with encouraging committed action and normalization of setbacks.

The author takes us by the hand on a truly rich and profound voyage of discovery, through the use of images familiar to younger patients, but also to some of the “not so young”. The book can be a valuable aid, based on evidence-based approaches, for those suffering from anxiety disorders, PTSD, mood disorders, substance addiction disorders and disorders related to physical pathologies.

Its blend of compassion, emotional intelligence, honesty and fun makes it a valid method of presenting principles well known in the third generation of cognitive-behavioral therapy for those patients who, like myself, sink their imagery into the colorful and moving world of Super heroes.


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