Harry Potter and the Therapist’s Couch

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Harry Potter has some devoted fans — and good advice, too.
Credit: Getty Images

As a psychotherapist who works with young adults, I often use metaphors from pop culture in my private practice. So when my 20-something client and professed Harry Potter devotee grew anxious about a dreaded visit to her “Dementor” of a mother-in law in Los Angeles, I naturally inquired, “What would Harry Potter do?”

“Well, of course, he would conjure his Patronus,” she replied.

A Patronus is a charm that wards off Dementors, specters that “drain peace, hope and happiness.” The only way to ward against a Dementor is with the Patronus charm, which requires “the concentration on a powerfully happy memory” – in other words, the power of positive thinking. Apparently, Potter creator J.K. Rowling was not only a genius of fantasy children’s fiction, but also a sorcerer of pop psychology.

Rowling’s therapeutic savvy further reveals itself in the spell to defend against Boggarts. A lesser menace in the wizarding world, these shape-shifting creatures assume the form of their observer’s worst fear — but evaporate at the recitation of “Riddikulus!” which transforms the Boggart into something amusing instead.

Fortunately, Rowling’s charms are not purely fantasy; they also work their magic in the therapy room. 


The Patronus in practice

Sarah, my aforementioned client, was a writer whose self-revelatory blog posts addressed racism and religious hypocrisy. On a weekly basis, she received an esteem-boosting slew of emails from her growing fan base. Her confidence eroded, however, in the presence of her wealthy mother-in-law, who didn’t share the same appreciation for Sarah’s talents.

As her visit to California approached, we began to brainstorm how she might summon her own version of a Patronus to confront her own personal Dementor of a mother-in-law as she began to drain her vitality.

Although Patronuses typically appear as shimmering animal silhouettes, Sarah took certain liberties with her talisman. Calling to mind her fan mail and emotionally supportive marriage, which felt strained during these visits, wasn’t enough. She needed to anchor herself in something physically tangible.

After tossing around a few ideas, Sarah returned home and assembled a collage of photographs of loved ones, including her and her husband in their happiest times. Next, she cut out the grateful emails and wove them around the photographs, interlaced with powerful images and affirmations that she cut out from magazines.

Sarah was encouraged to meditate on her makeshift Patronus so that she could conjure it in her mind at will. Additionally, she brought her collage to Los Angeles.

The experiment was a success. Granted, it didn’t work miracles in every encounter with her nemesis. But when dark thoughts began to creep into her consciousness after spending the day with her husband’s family, Sarah studied her Patronus propped up on the dresser, and felt better.


The Boggart in practice

By assuming the shape of our worst fears, Boggarts mirror our insecurities and unhealed emotional wounds.

An adolescent client of mine imagined a high school bully as a Boggart. The magic of pop culture references, which work particularly well with adolescent clients, is that they normalize the experience of being afraid yet offer playful responses.

Although therapists are often expected to be wizards of sorts – to read minds and invoke incantations that banish our clients’ demons – Rowling reminds us that true magic lies within each of us when we focus on the positive and recognize the absurdity of our irrational fears.

Kim Schneiderman’s book, “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life,” is being published this summer. Email your questions to askkim@metro.us and check out her website, Novel Perspective.


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