The Psychology of Doctor Strange

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Baby-sitter hired, and I’m heading out on the first date I have had with my husband in six months (byproduct of young children).  We were off to see Doctor Strange.  I love super hero movies.  I had very high hopes for our introduction to the Sorcerer Supreme, and I was not disappointed.  Doctor Strange is an entertaining, well-told story with excellent performances.

As a psychologist, this film struck a special chord with me.  They style of therapy I use is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (said as the word act rather than the individual letters).  A core concept in ACT is not holding on too tightly to an identified sense of self, and while this is an important concept I have found it difficult to explain to clients.  Fortunately I now have an excellent and entertaining example to use in the form of Doctor Strange.  For me a central part of the plot dealt with the issues that arise from holding onto ideas, weather they be rules, or a sense of identity too tightly.

************************WARNING SPOILERS!!!!!************************

The Conceptualized Sense of Self

The conceptualized sense of self is our idea of who we are.  It is the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves.  Our story is influenced by our experiences and by how we interact with the world and how the world interacts with us.  Problems can occur when we hold onto this story too tightly.  As people we are always growing, adapting and changing.  When we resist change stuck points are created in our lives. We cannot grow when we are stuck.

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In Doctor Strange we first meet Strange as he is preforming surgery and while doing a complicated procedure he is having his staff quiz him on obscure music.  Dr. Strange is shown to be a brilliant, successful and arrogant surgeon.  His ability to continue to be this person is taken from him when he has an accident that leaves his hands, while functional, no longer steady enough to preform the delicate surgeries he built his career on.  The central plot tension comes as he is unwilling to let go of his conceptualized sense of self.

The Destructive Nature of Inflexibility

In short order the film shows how destructive Strange’s unwillingness to change is in his life.  His once lavishly decorated apartment becomes barren, his extensive collection of watches and valuable trinkets disappears and his once clean crisp look becomes disheveled.  Strange even manages to push away the one person that cares about him.  In a final act of desperation Strange follows up on a rumor that he can find healing in a temple called Kamar-Taj.

Surrender Leads to Strength

When Strange finally reaches Kamar-Taj and is allowed to train under the Ancient One all he wants is to use what she can teach to help him return to his former identity.  The Ancient One tells him that only through letting go of who he was can he grow and transform into someone new.  Strange does not want to let go of who he was before his accident.  He keeps trying to control everything around him, while the Ancient One tells him that it is only through surrender that he can gain power.

You cannot beat a river into submission.  You surrender to it…Silence your ego.  Surrender.

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 Doctor Strange 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.  It is only when Steve Strange finally surrenders his former identity, his former life, can he start tapping into the multiverse and all of its power.  I want to focus on this concept of surrender for a moment because this is no small task.

Struggle and Control

One of the metaphors that is used in ACT to talk about the struggle of surrender is to think about floating on quicksand.  If you are trapped in quicksand, one’s natural reaction would be to struggle.  The more you struggle, the faster you sink.  To get out of quicksand and move on, you need to float.  Cognitively this is easy to understand.  Yet how terrifying would it be to try and lay back and float on top of a surface that is actively trying to pull you down.  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 view doing so as giving up control.  The thing is though, we never had control.  We only have the illusion of control.  For me, this is the crux of true acceptance, admitting we do not have control.  Only by realizing we do not have control and accepting we are being swept away can we start actually doing something which meaningfully impacts our lives.

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Once Stephen Strange learns how to let go of his conceptualized sense of self, the world opens up for him.  Through the stunning visual effects I think the film does an amazing job of showing how understanding the limits of your power and using the power of the world around you can increase your ability to influence the world.  The ultimate conclusion of the film I believe was only possibly through Strange understanding the limits of his power, and the limits of power that others have.

Without giving too much away I think the stage has been set for future Doctor Strange films to further tackle the issue of rigidity verses flexibility.  I am very excited to see this world develop further and to see these characters again.  The bottom line is this is a great film, very entertaining and well worth seeing in the theater to include the upgrade for a 3D experience.

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