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Embrace The Superhero Within

Written by: Andrew Cowie, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

SUPERHEROES have been one of the most enduring staples of popular culture for the best part of a century, stretching right back to 1938 when writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joseph Shuster teamed up to unleash their comic-strip icon Superman upon an unsuspecting world.


Since then the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America have gone on to dominate film, television and radio across the globe, with their larger-than-life exploits spawning multi-million dollar franchises. The genre has never been more popular than it is today and it’s a trend which shows no signs of slowing.

The enduring appeal of these characters is down to their archetypal resonance. They stir the inner knowing deep within our subconscious – that part of us which recognises that we all have a more powerful version of ourselves trapped inside and just screaming to get out. Helping people to unleash their inner superhero – the Phoenix within – is one of the central goals of our work at Phoenix Coaching & Therapy.


Superheroes have their origins deep within mankind’s rich history of mythology. Their precursors can be found in the gods and goddesses of ancient pantheons whose exploits and battles provided a clear template for the characters of today’s DC and Marvel Universes. In the case of some, such as the demi-god Thor, the connection is obvious but the same patterns can be found recurring throughout myth, legend and religion worldwide. Superheroes are merely the latest interpretation of archetypal themes woven throughout history and are ultimately all fictitious expressions of our own internal psychological conflicts and dilemmas.


Superheroes have long been a subject of fascination for psychologists, not least because of the symbolic significance of their dual identities. The superhero’s real-world alter-ego is often portrayed as the complete antithesis of their costumed crime-fighting persona and the very last person you would suspect of being a super-powered vigilante. We see this with the bespectacled and mild-mannered Clark Kent whose clumsy, introverted personality is so strikingly different from that of Superman that his Daily Planet colleagues such as Lois Lane completely fail to recognise him as soon as he whisks his glasses off and dons a cape.


Meanwhile, across in the Marvel Universe, Peter Parker – when he isn’t slinging webs as Spiderman – is a shy, studious wimp who gets bullied at school and is mollycoddled at home by his doting Aunt May. This spectacular juxtaposition is part of the characters’ inherent appeal. We relate to their insecurities, vulnerabilities and neuroses while at the same time yearning for the day when we too can rip open our shirts to reveal the superhero hidden deep inside ourselves. We see in Peter Parker and Clark Kent flawed individuals just like ourselves, but the glamour of their exotic double lives as crime-fighters allows us to fantasise that maybe we too can be something more… the heroes of our own adventure stories.


The key to this profound archetypal resonance lies in the fact that the superhero persona is somehow hidden, buried, locked away beneath the social mask we are forced to wear. We all start to wear masks from an early age, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, as the pressure to conform to society’s expectations causes us to suppress and repress those aspects of our personality which don’t quite fit with those of our peers, our family, our community or our religion.


One of the most popular superheroes of the 1980s was He-Man, who is currently enjoying something of a resurgence with a new series on Netflix. The self-proclaimed “most powerful man in the universe” – is a preposterously over-muscled barbarian designed to adhere to every overtly-masculine stereotype imaginable – but even he isn’t immune from the curse of a double identity. His alter-ego is the pale-faced, floppy-haired Prince Adam, prone to slouching around in a pink jerkin and frequently incurring the ire of his father, King Randor, who believes him to be an idle layabout.


Many commentators have hypothesised that Adam is in fact a metaphor for closeted homosexuality, pointing to the fact that he is only able to be his true self and access his “fabulous secret powers” when he holds aloft his magic sword (a classic phallic symbol) and sheds most of his clothes to become He-Man. Whether the makers of the cartoon actually intended Adam to be a gay allegory is doubtful but the story nevertheless still adheres to the classic archetypal template of the magnificent “authentic self” being buried beneath a more vulnerable, tarnished exterior.


We all face similar conflicts on some level. The nature of that inner conflict can be different for everyone and is not necessarily sexual (though Freud might have disagreed), but it usually takes the form of some inner yearning which has remained unfulfilled due to the fear of being judged by others.


The world-famous hypnotist Paul McKenna puts it rather well in one of his books when he states that we all essentially have three selves. There's the person we're born as – a glittering, untarnished diamond with infinite potential. Then there's the person we become as a result of stressful life experiences and the social and cultural conditioning we're subjected to by our parents, teachers, peers, employers and colleagues. This version, bruised and battered by life experiences, can be likened to a lump of coal due to the original diamond having become covered by years of accumulated muck and grime.


Then, in an attempt to hide all our flaws and insecurities from the outside world, we go and paint over the muck with brightly-coloured make-up, choosing to project a fake image full of false bravado rather than admitting to being monumentally messed-up inside. But the answer to our problems lies not in painting over the cracks. The solution is instead to scrape off the layers of muck to reveal the original pure diamond underneath with all of its shining potential still intact. It's an evolutionary process which the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung termed Individuation.


In Jungian Psychology, the first phase of the Individuation process is the shedding of the false self which Jung termed "the persona". The persona is the social mask we wear to fit into society. Its formation begins early in life as the pull of conformity causes us to identify most strongly with elements of our personality which are in harmony with the social values of our day while rejecting those that clash with social norms. Think "peer group pressure" and you're on the right lines. The problem, however, is that many people reach a point where they believe they are the social mask they wear and in so doing they cut themselves off from the deeper realms of the psyche. Anyone wanting to take the conscious path of individuation must therefore accept that their social mask represents only a tiny fraction of their total personality.


Peeling back that onion can be a difficult and traumatic process, but the destruction and breaking down of old outworn forms is a vital part of the process if we are to uncover the inner phoenix burning brightly underneath.


The second phase of the individuation process is the acceptance and integration of those aspects of our personality which have been suppressed or repressed. No matter how much we might try to deny it, we all have our dark or hidden sides – those parts of ourselves which we go out of our way to keep concealed from other people for fear of facing shame, ridicule, judgement and rejection. But repression is an unhealthy way of dealing with things. These aspects of ourselves are yearning for expression. They want to be recognised, not denied and ignored.


Accepting these traits as legitimate parts of our wider, over-arching personality is the key to making peace with them. This isn't a licence to behave badly or to indulge unhealthy appetites. There's a world of difference between accepting something and indulging it. But denying those aspects of yourself altogether causes the personality to splinter into fragments. Accepting them – welcoming them into the fold and recognising them as legitimate parts of who you are – enables the greater self to become whole again and opens the door to healing.


True liberation comes from letting our guilty pleasures and secrets out of the closet and allowing them to sing openly, just like Prince Adam of Eternia when he unsheathes his sword of power and transforms into He-Man. We become a superhero.


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Andrew Cowie, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Andrew Cowie is a transformational life coach, psychotherapist, and author dedicated to helping people overcome adversity and achieve their full potential. He came to the world of therapy after a 20-year career in newspaper journalism was brought to an abrupt end by severe burnout. In the course of his own recovery, he was introduced to meditation, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, yoga, martial arts, and NLP. He went on to retrain under some of the world's leading spiritual and personal development teachers to become an expert in these fields. Andrew has since dedicated his life to passing on this knowledge, synthesizing the various disciplines into one overarching system blending ancient spiritual practices with the latest cutting-edge techniques from the field of modern psychology. He is the owner of Phoenix Coaching & Therapy and the founder of its associated 'magical training school' The Ancient and Mystical Hermetic Order of the Phoenix (AMHOP). His debut book Rise Like a Phoenix was published in 2021 and is described as a manual for personal regeneration. Andrew works with clients worldwide and is passionate about mental health and exploring the latent potential of the human mind.

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