Highly Sensitive Superheroes

Can Superheroes Help “Save the Day” for HSPs and Empaths?


Listen to HSP S.O.S Episode #4- Sensitive Superheroes 

In 2002, I went to an afternoon matinee to see The Powerpuff Girls.  I was in my twenties.  I had no children, and I was possibly the only adult in there of my own free will.  It wasn’t that I was a huge superhero fan, or comic book aficionado.  I was never really that into the genre growing up, but something about Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles captured my heart. The little girl superheroes created from sugar, spice, and Chemical X were cute and complex.  Each character brought a different personality trait to the mix, which helped formulate a powerhouse of smarts, sensitivity, and sass.  When asked, I could never answer which one was my favorite, because I needed all three of them.

As a young girl growing up in the era of excessive consumerism and exaggerated female beauty standards, I often felt fragmented.  I felt like I had all these different aspects of my personality that helped form my identity, but I didn’t know when to be smart, or when to be sensitive, or when to stand my ground and fight back.  I love that The Powerpuff Girls are unapologetically themselves. They are by no means perfect.  They sometimes get a bit too carried away and inadvertently destroy sections of Townsville.  Even after botched communication, bouts of anger, and explosive meltdowns, however, the community still loves The Powerpuff Girls.

Subconsciously, this type of unconditional love is perhaps what drew me to their story in the first place.  I have struggled with my own identity as a highly sensitive, introverted young woman over the years.  I have always longed for a world that could accept all facets of my personality.  I have always wanted the freedom to make mistakes, have meltdowns, mess up and still trust that I would be loved.  

You might be thinking that all of this is just a little too deep for a show with pigtailed crusaders and talking monkey supervillans.  This analytical approach, however, is not a new concept.  Analyzing comic book characters, and hero archetypes, falls within the area of something called Superhero Therapy.  I first learned about Superhero Therapy when researching for HSP S.O.S. episode #4 Sensitive Superheroes.  In that podcast, I featured the work of a clinical psychologist named Dr. Janina Scarlet.  A therapist, author, and speaker, Dr. Scarlet uses superheroes and their stories to help her clients.  Much of her work centers around using stories to assist patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD.  Which completely makes sense, when you think about the parallels between some of your favorite superheroes and individuals coping with fears, phobias, and traumatic experiences.  I fell in love with the idea and her work months ago.  I haven’t stopped thinking about the concept of Superhero Therapy since that podcast.

My role on The Captain’s Pod is to produce episodes for HSP S.O.S. with Highly Sensitive Persons and emotional empaths in mind.  Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a trait, not a disorder.  According to the leading researcher on the topic, Dr. Elaine Aron, approximately 20% of the population has a sensitivity trait.  These individuals with this sensitivity trait process sensory data much deeper and more intensely than non-HSPs.  It can be very exhausting, and if individuals with highly sensitive nervous systems do not develop coping strategies to maintain balance, they can end up with a variety of mental health disorders like the ones Dr. Janina Scarlet treats.

The question I’ve been tossing around for a while now is can some superhero self-help be used preventatively for HSPs and emotional empaths?  It would seem that individuals with the sensitivity trait might relate to superheroes going through similar struggles.  Can superheroes help “save the day” for society’s most sensitive  souls?  What follows are some of my personal thoughts on how we as a community of HSPS and empaths might be able to adapt what Dr. Janina Scarlett does in her Superhero Therapy for our own purposes.  It’s a reflection on how superheroes can also benefit the 20% of the population needing a little extra support to achieve a sense of balance.

How Can Superhero Stories Help “Save the Day” for HSPs and Empaths?

  1. They provide examples of characters struggling with sensory overload and feelings of isolation. HSPs are capable of processing larger amounts of sensory information than non-HSPs.  They pick up on subtle cues in their environment and often experience over arousal, or sensory overload.  Some highly sensitive people are also emotional empaths, this means that they are so in-tune with their environment, and the energy around them, that they can actually sense and absorb the emotions of other people.  This heightened sensitivity often allows HSPs to understand or “read” people better, but it is also very draining.  Many individuals with sensory processing sensitivity end up needing breaks from people to recharge, but since empathetic individuals like to help and make other people happy, they don’t often take the best care of themselves.  This can lead to melt-downs, outbursts, and a sense of being misunderstood.  HSPs and empaths often feel like they are “weird” or that there is no one else quite like them.  You can’t always tell by looking at a person whether or not they are struggling with sensory overload, so superheroes like Marvel’s Matt Murdock (a.k.a. Daredevil) can really help make the invisible visible.  The characters that interact with Matt Murdock don’t always know just how much he is struggling to keep it together.  Because we are allowed inside the mind of this character, however, we can experience exactly what he goes through each day.  Just as Daredevil’s heightened senses are a strength for him, they are also his vulnerability.  If he is in an environment that contains too much noise, strong odors, or a lot of people, he struggles.  He may need to do something to dull his senses just to regain a bit of control over what is happening to him mentally and physically.  This is exactly how it is for HSPs and empaths, and it’s refreshing to see what sensitive individuals go through played out in comic books, movies, and television.

  2. They remind us that being self-aware is an important part of achieving and maintaining emotional balance. In the X-Men film series, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is a well known safe haven for mutants to train and learn to control their powers in order to get along better in the real world.  The first time I watched an X-Men movie, I found myself daydreaming and wishing there was a school like that for me to go to.  As a highly sensitive person and emotional empath, I have plenty of stories about letting myself get out of balance, exhausting myself, and exposing my vulnerability to the wrong people.  While you are born with the power of sensitivity, you aren’t born with the knowledge of how to manage and master this trait.  Maintaining emotional balance is a life-long battle for sensitive superheroes.  It is a topic that we address routinely on our podcast on episodes like HSP S.O.S. #22.  In this episode we discuss how HSPs and empaths often have unrealistic expectations of themselves.  Like the superheroes attending Xavier’s school, people that struggle with intense emotions are prone to outbursts of rage, intense sadness, and possible panic attacks.  HSPs have a strong sense of not wanting to hurt or burden the people they love, so they routinely suppress less desirable aspects of their identity.  Like we talk about in The Captain’s Pod Star Wars and The Shadow episode, ignoring “The Dark Side” only makes it stronger.  As do virtually all superheroes, HSPs and emotional empaths have to acknowledge and master their own shadows in order to achieve a strong sense of self-control and stability.

  3. They appeal to our empathetic nature and “save the world” mentality, while accurately portraying the level of self sacrifice and energy needed to live in this manner. For individuals that feel everything so deeply, spend a great deal of time in deep thought, and approach the world with a desire to make it better, it is easy to become disenfranchised with a seemingly apathetic and cruel world.  A superhero’s mission in life is to make sure that justice is served.  Stories allow us to see both the internal and external struggle of well-intentioned characters.  Complex superhero narratives will test the moral values of empathetic characters, much how society often tests its most sensitive citizens’ principles and standards.  HSPs and empaths recognize when something is not right in the world.  They have a hard time accepting things that go against their own code of ethics or doing something that they know will hurt another person. It is an exhausting aspect of the sensitive personality, and sensitive individuals do run the risk of feeling like life has given them an unfair hand.   It can be helpful in these instances to turn to fictional characters experiencing similar struggles.  Comic books, movies, and television shows are relatively short, which allows a reader to weigh the benefits and drawback of sacrificing one’s self for the greater good in a short period of time.  An HSP or empath struggling with whether or not to remain loyal to a profession that is compromising a personal belief system could, for example, take a look at Captain America in Marvel’s Civil War series.  Cap is being forced to make a decision to go along with people he has called friends a good portion of his life or go against his friends in the name of what he believes is just.  Seeing the negative and positive outcomes associated with a character’s course of action can assist HSPs and empaths as they start to assess what needs to be done in their own circumstances.  Rarely in superhero story lines do characters have easy decisions to make, so they are great models for real world issues as well. 

  4. They help us find people like us in the real world. Superhero stories are quite popular.  The comic book and superhero movie franchise is a multimillion dollar industry.  Needless to say, there are a lot of people out there that are connecting to these stories.  A few years ago, I never would have thought I would be so interested in the psychology of superheroes.  By taking a closer look at a genre I once overlooked, I have made many new fictional friends, as well as real friends.  There are plenty of social media sites devoted to superheroes and their fans.  People love analyzing characters and discussing their complexity, so it’s really easy to connect with like-minded people from the comfort of your own home.  Having people to talk to that share similar interests is something the highly sensitive desperately seek, and there is no better way to connect to people than through a shared interest.  

Superheroes come in many varieties these days, and it’s no surprise that the highly sensitive can find themselves reflected in these characters.  HSPs and emotional empaths have a lot in common with crusaders of compassion, and their stories have the power to connect, comfort, and challenge us on our journey towards emotional balance.

Author, Michelle Lynn, is a podcaster on The Captain’s Pod, and she creates content specifically for HSP’s, empaths, introverts, INFJ’s, and Myers-Briggs enthusiasts.  Her weekly podcast, HSP S.O.S. (Highly Sensitive Persons Supporting Our Sensitivity), can be found on The Captain’s Pod website, The HSP SOS website, and Facebook. Also connect with her on Twitter @hsp_sos.