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Heroic Journeys: Healing Through Fantasy Worlds

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[This article was originally posted on Jennie Steinberg’s website. It has been republished here with permission. ]

Trigger Warning for discussion of suicide and depression.

It was clear that the client sitting in front of me was in pain. I listened to her story, I acknowledged and validated her hardships, and I nodded as she told me she sometimes wrestled with the decision of whether to live or die.

I nodded empathically. “Sometimes,” I said, “the hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”

Her head snapped up and the anguish flew off her face. She started laughing, and I immediately knew why: I’d been caught.

“That’s Buffy!” she exclaimed. “You just quoted Buffy the Vampire Slayer!”

I chuckled and acknowledged that I had, indeed, taken the words straight from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s mouth. “You caught me,” I mused, mirroring her laugh. I paused and grew more serious. “But these fantasy worlds we immerse ourselves in… they’re important. They’re important because they provide an escape from harsh realities, but they’re also important because they sometimes speak words that resonate deeply with us.”

As a therapist who is fairly knowledgeable about geek culture, I use a lot of what I’ve picked up in session with my clients. When I’m describing the importance of acknowledging emotions and the wisdom they contain, I reference Star Trek’s Spock’s reliance solely on logic. Clients who have heard of the character immediately know what I’m talking about. Once I gave a client who loves Dungeons and Dragons a homework assignment to make a character sheet of the person he wishes he could be. He found it transformative.

Therapy, to a large degree, is about stories. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves, and the power to rewrite our stories in a way that makes us feel stronger, create meaning, and empower ourselves. It’s about going into our library of pain, pulling a book off the shelf, reading what it contains, and deciding to edit the ending. So it makes a great deal of sense that the stories we read and watch often resonate deeply with us.

But fantasy stories in particular hold a different kind of power. In addition to providing narratives we can relate to, they provide worlds we can lose ourselves in. A number of clients have spoken extensively about how they feel a lot less awful when they’re bonding with others over The Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings. Many feel at their best when they’re dressing up as characters from Harry Potter or Doctor Who.

Some might feel that this is unhealthy escapism – that it enables people to live in a fantasy world rather than facing their day-to-day problems. I think that you have to have some relief. Of course it’s important to address issues head-on. Of course it’s healthy to process hardships and wither shame with judicious application of vulnerability. But sometimes you need a place where you can zip all that up and just be for a few hours. Immersing yourself in these worlds can be fun, and fun is important!

Besides, as Dumbledore reminds us, “Just because it’s in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC is a strength-based psychotherapist practicing in Downtown Los Angeles.  She loves working with clients who are on identity journeys, working to live authentically, make major life decisions, and build their self-esteem.   You can visit her website to make an appointment or read more articles she has written at http://www.jenniesteinberg.com.

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