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Harry Potter and the Therapy Tools

Matthew WhalleyMatthew Whalley
January 22, 2019

Photo by Sarah Elhers on Unsplash

Children and adults have been entranced by J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 [1]. There are many times in the Harry Potter stories where the therapist reading wonders whether Harry could do with some extra support:

Don’t think about that, Harry told himself sternly for the hundredth time that summer. It was bad enough that he kept revisiting the graveyard in his nightmares, without dwelling on it in his waking moments too.

Instead of therapy for Harry, it appears that a lot of therapy has been derived from Harry. Unsurprisingly, given their imaginative use of characters and metaphors, many therapeutic connections have been made by child psychologists and psychotherapists but other links have been made in traumatology and cognitive science. Here we take a look at the role of Harry Potter in therapy, and some of the ways in which you might consider integrating discussion of Rowling’s characters into your own clinical work.

The boggart as a metaphor for imagery transformation in PTSD

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [2] Harry’s class are given a lesson on Boggarts by Professor Lupin. Boggarts are shape-shifters which assume the form of our worst fear. Professor Lupin tells the class:

The charm that repels a boggart is simple, yet requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape you find amusingProfessor Lupin [2]

This idea has been wonderfully adapted by Joanne Davis as a way of providing clients with a rationale for imagery transformation in Treating Post-Trauma Nightmares: A cognitive behavioural approach [3]. Clinicians use the therapeutic technique of imagery rescripting or nightmare rescripting with clients who are bothered by intrusive memories or nightmares. In one form of imagery rescripting clients are encouraged to bring the original image to mind (“tell me how that event begins”), and then to generate alternative storylines that branch off from that beginning (“How would you prefer that story finish? Describe what would happen”). Inhibitory learning theory uses the idea of retrieval competition to help us understand why this technique is effective: when the client encounters a reminder the new alternative endings to the memory ‘compete’ for retrieval with the old ending. The goal of imagery rescripting is to create a very memorable new image which is likely to win the retrieval competition. The more emotionally arousing (memorable) the alternative image is the more likely it is to compete effectively with the original image. The clinical take-away from this theory is that if we can find a way to make the competing image funny – as Professor Lupin does with the Boggart – the more likely it is that our clients will benefit from having generated an alternative image. Many trauma clients find it helpful to watch the following clip from the Harry Potter movie prior to attempting imagery transformation.

Using themes from Harry Potter in group therapy with children and adolescents

Without a doubt some of the most creative ways that the Harry Potter stories have been used in therapy are described by Dr Colman Noctor, a Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytical Psychotherapist, in his paper Putting Harry Potter on the couch [4]. Noctor used the Harry Potter story in group psychotherapy setting with children and adolescents.

In my work with children and adolescents with mental health difficulties I have become aware that the themes of the Harry Potter books seem to be almost universally known … I hoped to engage the young people in discussions about the characters in the stories so that they might begin to make links to their own particular difficulties. I thought that the externalizing principles inherent in this type of approach might overcome their resistance and provide a safe method of thinking about and processing their own conflicts.Noctor [4]

His fascinating report describes multiple pieces of work and is well worth reading in full. Themes that emerged from the discussions with clients in his groups included: the importance of developing relationships, the power of jealousy, the value of making clear choices, learning about oneself, and dealing with loss, abuse, and neglect.

The discussions of Harry’s trials and tribulations were animated and were met with a new feeling of excitement. Over subsequent groups, the themes evolved to a point where the young people were encouraged to insert themselves in the story and to use the magical objects and characters to help them discuss their own difficulties.Noctor [4]

Particular story elements that Noctor drew the group’s attention to included:

  • Discussion of Boggarts including what form they would take for different group members, with the group suggesting helpful transformations that might make the imagery less frightening
  • Patronus charms as a way of accessing and sharing positive thoughts and memories
  • A discussion of the characteristics of Dementors to explore similarities in symptoms of depression and PTSD
  • The metaphor of the ‘pensieve’ as a way of discussing and working with memories (Dumbledore uses a pensieve device as a way of storing and exploring old memories)
  • The metaphor of the Mirror of Erised which helped the children to name their dreams, aspirations, and goals.
  • Many group members connected to themes of loss in the Harry Potter story
  • Using legilimency as a way of attempting to tune in to how other members of the group may be feeling (in the books legilimency is a way of reading other people’s minds)

Dumbledore’s ‘reliving’ session with Harry

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [5] Lord Voldemort returns and tries to kill Harry. Harry witnesses the murder of his schoolmate Cedric Digory and is obviously troubled by what he has experienced. Clinical psychologist David Trickey uses a variety of metaphors to help explain to clients why thinking about or talking through a traumatic event can help to ‘process’ the memory and treat post-traumatic symptoms [6]. He annotates a section from the Goblet of Fire to illustrate how Dumbledore (quite forcefully but, on balance, helpfully) encourages Harry to speak about what happened.

Two illustrations:

Harry nodded. A kind of numbness and a sense of complete unreality were upon him, but he did not care; he was even glad of it. He didn’t want to have to think about anything that had happened since he had first touched the Triwizard Cup. He didn’t want to have to examine the memories fresh and sharp as photographs, which kept flashing across his mind. Mad-Eye Moody, inside the trunk. Wormtail, slumped on the ground, cradling his stump of an arm. Voldemort, rising from the steaming cauldron. Cedric … dead … Cedric, asking to be returned to his parents …

To which Trickey replies: “Harry seems to be dissociating (numbness and unreality). He is also suffering from core symptoms of PTSD: avoidance of the memories, which intruded vividly into his consciousness.”

Dumbledore had stopped talking. He sat down opposite Harry, behind his desk. He was looking at Harry, who avoided his eyes. Dumbledore was going to question him. He was going to make Harry relive everything. “I need to know what happened after you touched the Portkey in the maze, Harry,’ said Dumbledore. ‘We can leave that til morning, can’t we, Dumbledore?’ said Sirius harshly. He had put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Let him have a sleep. Let him rest.”

To which Trickey replies: “Now that Harry was safe and comfortable, surrounded by familiar things and people, Dumbledore tried to encourage Harry to tell the story of what happened. Sirius tried to avoid putting Harry through that ordeal – such avoidance by proxy is common.”

Harry Potter self-help

Janina Scarlett is the author of ‘Superhero therapy’ [7]. It’s impossible not to love the unashamed geekery of her book Harry Potter Therapy: An Unauthorized Self-Help Book from the Restricted Section [8]. In it she mixes warmth with a gentle humor as she explores the central conceit:

Many of us try to suppress our own emotions in a similar way as the Dursleys suppressed Harry’s magic without even realizing it. We might try to suppress the very thing that makes us magical – our emotions.Janina Scarlett

Scarlett mixes lessons from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with Potter terminology: psychological skills become wizarding skills, emotions are to be understood and explored. Some of the lovely ways that she uses Potter lore include:

  • Mindfulness becomes the protego charm (a protective shield spell)
  • Avoidance becomes a pink dementor (try *not* to think of one)
  • Emotions are made relatable with reference to the struggles of different characters from the books
  • Self-compassion becomes transfiguration
  • Cognitive defusion becomes an incantation
  • Values are found in the Mirror of Erised (a magical mirror which shows the viewer their heart’s desire) and can be plotted using the Marauder’s Map

Harry Potter as a rationalist, and as an exploration of ideas in cognitive science

Fan fiction adopts and adapts the characters or settings from an original work of fiction. In the world of Harry Potter fan fiction the one piece which stands head and shoulders above the rest is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) written by artificial intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky [9]. This story reimagines Harry as a scientific prodigy and explains wizardry through the scientific method. One line from HPMOR which cognitive behavioural therapists will find helpful is:

What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?Elezier Yudkowsky [10]

This line is fantastically helpful when encouraging clients to test the accuracy of their beliefs and assumptions. Having clients hold on to this idea like a mantra is a brilliant way of helping them remain in a mindset characterized by curiosity and a willingness to test assumptions.

Repelling Boggarts as a metaphor for managing fear

Dr Colman Noctor, a Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytical Psychotherapist persuasively discusses the idea of Boggarts as a metaphor for fear [4]. He argues for the utility of a ritual (the incantation ‘riddikulus’ in Harry’s case) as a helpful part of banishing fears.

Other magical creatures described by J.K. Rowling are Boggarts. These are amorphous creatures that take on the shape of what terrifies you the most. Professor Lupin (the Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher) tells Harry that the way to beat a Boggart is to use humour. You simply have to imagine the figure in a shape that can be proclaimed ‘riddikulus’. This defence against the Boggart is conjured up by using one’s power of imagination, concentration, and will. This message here is both reassuring and empowering, suggesting that conquering our most fearsome inner demons is merely a matter of perspective. Within a systemic frame, White (1985) describes a similar process of adapting positive thinking and the reframing of experiences in his technique of ‘fear busting’. Here childhood fears are considered within an interactional context of the family. It is felt that survival of these fears is dependent upon the presence of a ‘fear’s life-support system’. Fear busting describes interventions to disrupt this participation, which include the introduction of a nonthreatening description of the problem and a structured ritual to challenge the fears lifestyle.Noctor 2006 [4]

The Dobby Effect

“Oh no no sir, no… Dobby will have to punish himself most grievously for coming to see you sir. Dobby will have to shut his ears in the oven door for this”Dobby the house elf [11]

A fascinating study published by Nelissen and Zeelenberg in 2009 argues for the existence of a tendency for self-punishment in humans which they refer to as the Dobby Effect. Psychologists often hold that guilt is a helpful emotion which encourages pro-social behavior when we recognise that we have erred. However, Nelissen and Zeelenberg suspected that when we cannot atone for our wrongs we might behave like Dobby and punish ourselves.
Nelissen and Zeelenberg used a variety of experimental tasks which allowed them to manipulate the amount of guilt their participants felt. They controlled whether the participants were able to ‘make good’ for their errors, and gave participants opportunities to ‘punish’ themselves by, for example, withholding rewards. They found that “guilty people punish themselves if they have no opportunity to compensate the transgression that caused them to feel guilty”. Therapists working with clients who self-harm stand to have potentially helpful conversations with their clients about the potential role of guilt in their client’s behavior.

The role of psychology in the wizarding world

For those more interested in the Harry Potter works themselves an honorable mention must go to Louise Freeman who writes a lengthy and scholarly account on the role of psychology in the wizarding world ‘DSM and diagnosis in the wizarding world’ [12].

Other than school nurse Madame Pomfrey occasionally administering a Calming Draught to an overly stressed student, no psychological services exist at Hogwarts School. While witches and wizards seem to have their own set of physical ailments (e.g. spattergroit) and trained professional Healers in place to treat them, mental illnesses are largely undefined, except with the generic term “madness.”. Wizards recognize that symptoms like hearing voices, delusional thinking or memory gaps are abnormal, hence Ginny and Harry’s fear that they are “going mad” in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But there are few options to treat “madness;” most wizards seem to be left alone to cope with their conditions, unless, like Marvolo Gaunt), they find themselves in trouble with the law. If the patient is dangerous or incapable of self-care, they are confined at the St. Mungo’s Hospital closed ward until they recover on their own. Residents of the closed ward include Frank and Alice Longbottom, who were tortured into insanity by the Cruciatus curse; amnesic Gilderoy Lockhart, a victim of his own backfiring Obliviate charm and Broderick Bode, whose attempt to remove a prophecy from the Department of Mysteries left him mentally addled and believing that he was a teapot.”

References

[1] Rowling, J. K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury.

[2] Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury.

[3] Davis, J. L. (2008). Treating post-trauma nightmares: A cognitive behavioral approach. Springer Publishing Company.

[4] Noctor, C. (2006). Putting Harry Potter on the couch. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 11(4), 579-589.

[5] Rowling, J. K. (2000). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury.

[6] Trickey, D. (2016). Explaining the rationale for trauma-focused work: why it’s good to talk. Retrieved from: https://www.annafreud.org/media/4898/07c-david-trickey-handout-it-is-good-to-talk.pdf

[7] Scarlett, J. (2016). Superhero therapy: a hero’s journey through acceptance and commitment therapy. London: Hachette.

[8] Scarlett, J. (2017). Harry Potter Therapy: an unauthorized self-help book from the restricted section. ISBN 9781548107154

[9] Yudkowsky, E. (2015). Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Retrieved from: https://hpmor.com

[10] Retrieved from: https://www.reddit.com/r/HPMOR/comments/6rsfaz/what_do_you_think_you_know_and_how_do_you_think/

[11] Rowling, J. K. (2000). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury.

[12] Freeman, L. M. (2015). Harry Potter and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Muggle Disorders in the Wizarding World. Study and Scrutiny: Research on Young Adult Literature, 1(1), 156-214.

APA reference for this article

Whalley, M. G. (2019). Harry Potter and the therapy tools. Psychology Tools. Retrieved on [date], from https://www.psychologytools.com/articles/harry-potter-and-the-therapy-tools/

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