Superhero Therapy: Mindfulness Skills to Help Teens and Young Adults Deal with Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

Chapter 4

Your Superhero Self

Whenever he closes his eyes, Drovin still sees the images from the Space War. He can still smell the cauterizing odor of the laser beams cutting into human flesh. He can see his best friend jOrrin’s body, or rather the pieces that remain. He still remembers picking up the cold limp pieces off the ground and packing jOrrin up to be shipped back to his family. Drovin also remembers the anger he felt toward the enemy troops. He does not remember opening fire, but he does recall his Commander throwing him on the ground after Drovin had killed two unarmed people on the opposing side.

I’m evil, Drovin told himself.

Two weeks prior to starting at the Superhero Training Academy, Drovin was sitting in his apartment, back on his home planet Kridaq, located in the northwest arm of the Pinwheel Galaxy. In his left hand he held a remote to the Intergalactic television projection device, and in his right he held a bottle of locally made beer, Pobég. Mindlessly changing the channels, he was not actually aware of what he was watching. His mind was back in that moment when he first saw jOrrin’s body.

Periodically, he would also flash back to the incident that occurred three months previously, when Drovin was back home with his family. Drovin’s four-year-old son, Zeelik, accidentally spilled a carton of milk and walked away without cleaning it up. Drovin’s patience had been very short since he returned from the war and he could not tolerate his son’s apparent lack of responsibility.

Tense and hot with fury, Drovin grabbed Zeelik’s arm, almost twisting it, dragged him to the kitchen, and shouted, “When you spill something, you clean it up! Why is that so hard to understand?” Zeelik’s cries only made Drovin angrier and it wasn’t until his wife intervened that he let go of his son.

I’m evil, he reminded himself again.

When his wife left him and took Zeelik with her, Drovin believed that it was for the best, as he did not feel that they were safe around him.

What Drovin is essentially experiencing is an attachment to an identity he created for himself. Because he believes that he is evil, Drovin is in some ways acting according to this adapted identity. Most people, when presented with a highly traumatic situation, are going to be affected by it, and many might do something that is otherwise out of character for them, like hurting their loved ones. Many trauma survivors I have worked with—including military service members with combat trauma, like Drovin, or sexual assault survivors, like Shadow, or people who witnessed homicide or torture, or former gang members—might develop a new sense of self, such as “I’m evil,” “I’m weak,” or “I’m broken.” Most of the time, however, people base these stories on an incident that was out of their control and occurred over a short period of time (on average, one to two minutes).

We all have such self-stories. I have one too. Mine is “I’m an amateur.” I still remember when it first happened. I believe I was about six or seven years old when I wrote my first short story. I was so excited by it. It was going to be a bestseller! Excited and beaming with pride and joy I showed my “masterpiece” to my brother. My brother is nine years older than me and was the kind of guy that guys wanted to be friends with and girls wanted to date. In short, my brother was cool.

So, what do you think?” I asked him, awaiting generous praise.

But it never came. My brother turned his hand over and down again, the kind of gesture that people might make when they are neither overly pleased nor overly disappointed with their evening meal.

“Ehhh. It’s kind of amateur,” he replied.

Amateur.

That was the day I first learned that word. He was completely right of course, if not overly generous. However, the six- year-old me took this word to heart so much so that I stopped writing for many years. To this day, when I give a talk, whenever I teach, and even now, writing this book, this self-story is triggered—“I’m an amateur”—which in turn triggers other self-stories, such as “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m a fraud and everybody will find out.”

Still waiting for the “fraud police” to find me, I realized that by overidentifying with this self-story, I was holding myself back and not taking the kind of chances that would be most meaningful to me. In a lot of ways, by not even trying due to my believed not-good-enoughness, I was essentially setting myself up for failure. If this sounds familiar to you, that is because this is a fairly universal experience.

In fact, over time our self-stories can start to control our behavior by essentially turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-fulfilling prophecy is (usually) a false prediction, inadvertently made true by the people who believe in it. For Drovin, the story that he tells himself is that he is “evil” or “damaged,” and as a result he might distance himself from others or become more aggressive toward them. For Doctor Semper, his self-story is “I’m incapable” and “I’m not brave enough.”

Self-stories don’t always have to include self-judgments. Sometimes they contain specific roles we believe we ought to play, which (frequently) include unspoken rules about how we are expected to act. For example, Shadow is a demon hunter, and in overidentifying with this identity, she might believe that a demon hunter must be someone who never cries, someone who is never “weak.” She might then either try to hide her own feelings in order to try to fit into the role that she believes is expected of her, or she might believe that she is “not capable” of being a demon hunter.

The opposite of overidentifying with self-stories is what is called self-as-context, or as I like to refer to it, your superhero self. These are unlike self-stories, which are usually not only unhelpful but oftentimes also limiting. The connection with your superhero self is a reminder that you can practice being you in any environment, in any situation, no matter the circumstances. What it means is that no matter how young or old you are, no matter what happens to you, you can still be your superhero self, whatever that might mean to you.

One exercise I like to practice with all my superheroes is to have them write their self-story items on sticky notes and then put them on themselves. The first one people usually think of has to do with negative judgments, such as “I’m fat,” “I’m unlovable,” or “I’m not good enough.” In fact, none of the single sticky notes represent the big picture, the real you. However, we often take one or two of them, usually the harshest, the most self-critical ones, and overidentify with them, as if they represent the absolute truth about us. As the exercise continues, other aspects of one’s overidentified self might present themselves. Pretty soon, the person might be fully covered with sticky notes, the real superhero self hidden somewhere underneath them.

For example, Doctor Semper’s superhero self consists of many different parts. He is a time-traveling scientist from another planet. He is also someone who values saving people. He is heroic, and he is also someone who gets scared sometimes. He is compassionate and kind, he is creative and loyal, and he is someone who likes strange foods, such as cheese sticks dipped in chocolate sauce. All of these make up his superhero self. No matter where he is, no matter who he is with, no matter what happens to him, Doctor Semper can remind himself of who he really is. Being true to ourselves, transcending time and our life circumstances, is one of the most courageous things that we can do.

In fact, it was his sense of his true self, his superhero self, that reminded the Doctor that he is someone who is passionate about helping others. This is what prompted Doctor Semper to arrive on Planet Kridaq that fateful morning in order to try to convince Drovin to come to the Superhero Training Academy with him. Unfortunately for Doctor Semper, Drovin’s angry refusal to come with him to the Training Academy, coupled with Semper being more than twenty feet away from the Simulator, sparked the Doctor’s beliefs, such as “I’m incapable,” and caused him to have a panic attack.

Feeling his hearts pounding in his chest, he began to shake, trying to breathe, which suddenly became extremely laborious. Doctor Semper leaned on the wall, scared that he was going to faint. His stomach tightening into knots, his brain feeling like mush, Semper wasn’t sure if he was going to die or lose his mind.

He suddenly felt a warm, heavy hand on his shoulder. It was Drovin.

“Hey, it’s OK, man,” Drovin said softly. There was a genuine sense of concern in his voice. He helped the Doctor back into his spaceship and, after some negotiating, agreed to come to the Academy with him, though he remained convinced that it was not going to be helpful.

It is not unusual for us to think that a particular situation is hopeless when we are going through a hard time. One of the reasons this happens is that we might begin to think of ourselves in terms of unhelpful self-stories. However, the truth is that no matter what happens to us, we are still the same superhero selves. As a way to remind ourselves of that, we could practice the superhero-self grounding meditation.

Superhero-Self Grounding Meditation

Get into a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. See if you can close your eyes and begin to bring your attention to your body. Notice the bottoms of your feet and where your feet are at this moment. Notice if they are warm or cold, tired or relaxed, tense or comfortable.

Perhaps placing your hands on your heart, see if you can recall the first time you ever wanted to be a hero. See if you can remember a time when you helped someone, when you really made a difference. What was that like? Do you notice the sensations in your heart as you recall this?

Throughout your life you have probably experienced many obstacles and changes. Your hair might have changed, your face might have changed, and your tastes and preferences might have changed too. However, the one thing that remains is your superhero self—that part of you that wants to make a difference. And through all the changes you ever encounter, the one thing that will remain the same is your superhero self. It is here for you always. It is who you are, the very core of your being no matter what life might throw at you.

Take a few moments to reflect on this experience and once you are finished, open your eyes.

Superhero Steps

We spend so much time essentially zooming in on the aspects of our personality/appearance that we don’t like, but we should also consider the other aspects of our superhero self, including the neutral ones, and the ones we like.

This week, practice identifying what you like about yourself three times a day and write it in your superhero journal.