A Psychologist's Review of Doctor Strange
A Psychologist Review of Doctor Strange:
How we can view the film from an ACT perspective
We are now in the Endgame. The time has come to learn the fate of some of our favorite Marvel characters. One character I am particularly interested in is Doctor Strange. When the Doctor Strange film came out in 2016 I went to see the film and review it. Though Doctor Strange did not make the short list of the marvel films to revisit before seeing Endgame I still think it is an important film and has much that we can learn from it.
In therapy I often try to use films, videos, books and other tools to help illustrate complex psychological points. Doctor Strange is a film that I often cite and used with my clients.
The style of therapy I use is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, said as the word act rather than the letters). ACT teaches that psychological health comes from being psychologically flexible. Psychological flexibility is the ability to bend and move with challenges as they arise. One of the central themes in Doctor Strange is to be flexible and not to hold on too tightly to one’s conceptualized sense of self. Okay those were some far out concepts so let me explain and use the story of Doctor Strange to help illustrate the points.
The conceptualized sense of self is our idea of who we are. It is the story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves. This story is influenced by our experiences and by how we interact with the world and how the world interacts with us. The problem can come when we enjoy the story of who we think we are too much and hold onto it too tightly. As people we are always growing, adapting and changing. When we resist the change that creates stuck points in our lives and we cannot grow when we are stuck.
In Doctor Strange the central plot tension comes when following an accident Doctor Strange can no longer be a surgeon. Strange is so stuck on his identity of being a world famous surgeon he does not know how to go on living without that form of identity. The film does a good job of depicting how his unwillingness to change is a distractive force in his life. When he finally reaches out for the training with the Ancient One all he wants is to return to the identity of being a surgeon. As he progresses through his training he keeps trying to use the powers of the multiverse through his held onto identity. The Ancient One tells him that only through letting go of who he was can he grow and transform into someone new.
In ACT we talk about acceptance through the lens of willingness to allow things to be as they are. It is only through acceptance and allowing things to be as they are can we start to understand our own power. In the film the Ancient One describes this as letting go and allowing oneself to be swept away by the current of the river rather than fighting against it. When Steve Strange finally surrenders his former identity, his former life, can he start tapping into the multiverse and all of its power. The performance that Benedict Cumberbatch gives in the film I believe is a wonderful depiction of the struggle to let go.
One of the metaphors that is used in ACT to talk about this struggle is to think about floating on quicksand. If you are trapped in quicksand one’s natural reaction would be to struggle against it but the more you struggle the faster you sink. To get out of the quicksand and to move on, you need to float on the quicksand. You put as much of your skin in contact with the quicksand as possible. Cognitively this is easy to understand but when you stop to really think about this, how terrifying would it be to try and lay back and float onto of a surface that is actively trying to pull you down into it? It is no less terrifying to accept something difficult in your own life.
Now let us think on the Ancient One’s metaphor of surrendering to the river. Letting go and flowing with the currents is terrifying because we give up control. The thing is though, we never had control, we only ever have the illusion of control. That to me is the crux of true acceptance, admitting that we do not have control. Only by realizing that we do not have control and accepting that we are being swept away can we start actually doing something that will impact our lives.
If you disagree with the above think on this, if you are in a river and trying to control the flow of the river, how much time effort and energy will that take? And will you ever really control how the river flows? Say you build a dam, what happens after a large rainfall? How much of your time and energy is going to be spent on maintaining and repairing the dam? What if ,rather than trying to control the flow of the river, you understood that controlling the flow was beyond your powers and instead, worked on using the power of the river to achieve your ends? You would become more powerful, have more energy and more time to focus on the task at hand.
Once Stephen Strange learns how to let go of his conceptualized sense of self, the world opens up for him. The film though is not finished with this theme of surrender. Toward the end of the film Strange and his friend Mordo learn that the Ancient One has used powers that she teaches are forbidden. Strange is able to be flexible in his thinking and can see that how she used the powers mattered and that holding onto the rule that any power used from this source is bad was not helpful. Mordo cannot let go of his old teachings. He holds onto what he learned and this causes a divide between the two, setting the stage for conflict in future films.
Even without taking the journey through an existential crisis of identity this is a fabulous film! The visual effects are amazing and it is well worth the additional cost for a 3D viewing. I’m looking forward to seeing how the multiverse impacts the future of the Marvel films.