For more about my brother, read my original stories:
It's been one year since I wrote "The Parallel Universe Where My Brother Lives", the story of how I tried to move on after my brother's suicide. Re-reading the story now, I remember how painful it was for me to even think about my brother. But “Parallel Universe” doesn’t fit with who I am now. Writing, sharing, and talking about my story was tremendously healing. For this anniversary, I want to explore what it is about stories that can be so healing.
Stories validate strong emotions
Most of us feel like something is wrong when we're experiencing strong emotions. This happens to me a lot when I get mad. I remember running late to work one day and getting pushed into a dirty New York City puddle of water. I was soaking wet and smelled like sewer. All morning long I felt like I was losing my mind – I was furious, couldn't stop replaying the situation in my mind, and was flooded with criticizing thoughts ("You're so stupid for letting this happen to you").
It wasn't until I talked to a friend that I started to feel better. "I would have been so pissed off if that happened to me!" Hearing that helped me calm down. My friend helped me understand that my feelings made sense given the situation. The more she validated my feelings, the more comfortable I felt.
Validation is one of the main reasons why stories can be healing. By introducing characters who are experiencing similar situations, stories can make us feel less alone and make it easier to talk about what we're thinking and feeling. That's why coming of age films like The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are so important – they validate the experience of being a teenager at a time when so much of the world can seem invalidating. It's also a big part of the psychology of cult TV shows like Firefly, Buffy, and Doctor Who.
Watching Broadway's Next to Normal was deeply validating for me. The musical is about a mother's struggle with bipolar depression and the impact it has on her family. Not only is the music beautiful (check out "I Miss the Mountains") but seeing the family’s struggle to support their loved one captured much of what happened to my family after my brother’s diagnosis.
Stories challenge stigma
Done right, stories can also reduce stigma about mental health. Many still believe problems with mental health are caused by personal weaknesses, that individuals should feel ashamed for their struggles, and treatment should be kept secret. We know this stigma has no basis in reality. Problems like anxiety and depression are caused by many biological, psychological, and environmental factors and affect a wide variety of people from all backgrounds. Stories can challenge these stigmatic beliefs and speak to the reality of mental health.
Often, the most helpful stories are true accounts of mental illness. That's why I'm a big fan of Glenn Close's Bring Change 2 Mind campaign, which encourages people to share their personal stories and start a dialogue about mental health.
Films such as A Beautiful Mind and books like The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing have also done a lot to tell the story of schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. I also love what Temple Grandin has to say about autism and why the world needs all kinds of minds.
Reading Willy Linthout’s graphic memoir Years of the Elephant, a story about a father's struggle to mourn his son's suicide, went a long way to challenge my stigma about suicide. I used to think “I should be able to cope with this” but Linthout’s story taught me that most people grieving from a suicide go through a complicated process that lasts for a very long time. The Live Through This project also made this think our culture might be ready for a conversation about suicide.
Stories demystify mental healthcare
Because of stigma, there’s a lot of confusion about what actually happens in therapy. Stories about mental healthcare have the power to demystify treatment. The best example of this is Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles. Forney shows what it’s like to be diagnosed with bipolar depression, what treatment with a psychiatrist looks like, the role of medication, and how things outside of traditional mental healthcare can help recovery. Marbles is a masterpiece in the world of graphic memoirs and should be required reading for all therapists in training.
I also use stories to explain what I am doing in treatment. As a cognitive behavioral therapist, I'm essentially a coach whose job it is to teach my patients new ways of coping with distressing feelings, intrusive thoughts, and challenging situations. Whenever I teach a patient a new skill, I link it to a story they're passionate about. Relaxation training becomes Jedi training, cognitive coping skills are linked to Harry Potter's patronus charm, and exposure therapy is grounded in Batman's origin story. That's what geek therapy means to me – using stories people love to make therapy more fun, relevant, and effective (for more on this topic listen to Geek Therapy's "How Comic Books Saved My Life" or read Dean Trippe's "Something Terrible" ).
Stories help us grow
So far, everything has focused on consuming stories. It turns out that creating your own story can also be very therapeutic.
Many scientists and clinicians believe that avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings is the common problem among all mental health concerns. Avoidance works in the short term but as a long term strategy it just ends up intensifying problems. Therapists Giorgio Nardone and Paul Watzlawick summarize this nicely:
“Clinical experience has shown that, ironically, it is often the patient’s very attempt to solve the problem that, in fact, maintains it. The attempted solution becomes the true problem.”
The solution is to help people experience all emotions, both the positive and the negative. That's the basis behind a number of effective treatments like exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and the unified treatment for emotional disorders. Short-term focused writing about emotions can bring about many of the same effects. Psychologist James Pennebaker's research has shown that writing can reduce anxiety and depression while increasing immune functioning. Some therapies also integrate writing as a major part of treatment. Cognitive processing therapy, which is used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, helps people get unstuck from their thoughts and develop meaning out of the events that have happened.
Just knowing that people can recover from traumatic experiences can make it possible for someone to start moving towards post-traumatic growth. Hearing stories about recovery from a loved one's suicide was key to my growth. My friend and colleague Melinda Moore shared her story with me, how recovery from her husband's suicide led her to become a psychologist who promotes suicide prevention. Hearing from her made me believe that I too could gain something from my loss.
Stories ignite social support
Following difficult emotional experiences, the single best predictor of recovery is how much support someone gets from their friends and family. That's what made my recovery so difficult – I didn't talk about my pain with anyone so I didn't get much social support. Of course people asked how I was doing but I ignored them because I wasn't ready to open up.
When I did finally share my story, I was overwhelmed by messages of support. It wasn't just people I knew, but also individuals I never met who went out of their way to let me know they wanted to help. To date, I've received over 3,000 messages in response to “Parallel Universe”. I save each one and re-read them on particularly tough nights.
Sharing a story, regardless of the way in which you do it, has the potential to activate a support network. One of my favorite examples of this comes from 7-year-old Katie Goldman. Katie was repeatedly bullied for bringing a Star Wars water bottle to school. Her mom wrote about the experience on her blog and asked for help. The story quickly spread across the internet. Here's how Katie's mom describes what happened next:
Katie is overjoyed by the comments coming in!!! My sweet first grade daughter has been sitting with me at the computer, reading aloud all the wonderful, supportive notes from readers, and her face is shining...We are going to print the comments out and make a book for her to read whenever she feels the need. Today she wore a Star Wars shirt to school and said to me, "Tell the people about it!!!!" This is really restoring her self confidence. She did a jaunty little pirouette in her Star Wars shirt before school.
The future of "Parallel Universe"
The stories we develop about ourselves shape our behavior, filter our memories, and inform our decisions about the future. My story is now forever linked with "Parallel Universe". Every month it's the most widely read article on Brain Knows Better and it’s what I’m most known for outside of my professional work.
Like other survivors of suicide, a part of my life is now dedicated to promoting suicide prevention and helping others who are experiencing complicated grief. That’s why I’m announcing a new project that will turn my story (Growing Up Trekkie, Parallel Universe, Most Honest Year of My Life) into a graphic memoir. I hope to share this new story with you in one year’s time at the third anniversary of “Parallel Universe”.
I recently caught up with a Trekkie friend of mine. He's a psychiatrist and I'm a psychologist, so of course we did a deep dive into the psyche of the latest film — Star Trek Into Darkness. Our conversation kept coming back to Spock.
"He's the most important character in the Star Trek universe," Dr. T said. "Spock has wielded more influence on the alpha quadrant than anyone else."
I never thought about Spock like that before, but Dr. T was right—he is the only character who's made an appearance in every era of Star Trek including The Original Series, The Next Generation, and J.J. Abrams’s new parallel universe.
"Why is Spock such an enduring character?" I asked. "What makes him so unique?"
Dr. T and I spent the rest of the night trying to understand Spock. After a small detour debating who would win an “Amok Time” fight — Leonard Nimoy or Zachary Quinto, we eventually decided that Spock's teaches us that the things that make us different, strange, and weird are the same things that make us awesome.
This is not only an expansion on my conversation with Dr. T., but an attempt to summarize 47 years of canon and 2 parallel universes into 1 comprehensive conceptualization of a character. I present to you the psychology of Spock — past, present, and future.
Who we are is the result of our biology, psychology, and experiences. So let's start our conceptualization of Spock by exploring his unique biology.
Spock is half human and half Vulcan. While we can't begin to imagine how the biology of an interspecies human would work, we can extrapolate based on what we've seen in Star Trek and know about science.
- Spock is genetically diverse, making him more adaptive to new environments and less susceptible to genetic diseases (like his father's dementia).
- Since Vulcans evolved in a harsher environment, Spock is stronger than humans.
- Vulcans are touch telepaths, giving Spock the ability to share thoughts through a mind-meld.
- Vulcans experience powerful emotions, making Spock more vulnerable to very intense feelings.
The last point is key to understanding Spock's psychology. Here's how Spock's father describes Vulcan emotions in 2009’s Star Trek:
Sarek: "Emotions run deep within our race. In many ways more deeply than in humans. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience. The control of feelings so that they do not control you."
Since Spock has a nervous system that experiences powerful emotions (I.E. a very fast limbic system), he can make decisions very quickly. What about his human biology? The following conversation from Star Trek: Enterprise helps us understand the difference between humans and Vulcans:
Soval: We don't know what to do about Humans. Of all the species we've made contact with, yours is the only one we can't define. You have the arrogance of Andorians, the stubborn pride of Tellarites. One moment, you're as driven by your emotions as Klingons, and the next, you confound us by suddenly embracing logic.
Forrest: I'm sure those qualities are found in every species.
Soval: Not in such confusing abundance.
We humans are very flexible in our thinking — which explains why we can be so erratic and unpredictable. This is due to our prefrontal cortex, the region that coordinates our thoughts and decides what to do. It's also the area responsible for regulating our feelings. Because humans can entertain many different ideas at once, sometimes we’re logical while at other times we’re deeply emotional.
This is why Spock’s brain is so unique — he's got the flexibility of a human mind combined with the strength of Vulcan emotions. Yes, his human side might make it more difficult for him to control his Vulcan feelings, but the integration of the two gives him the opportunity to quickly think in very creative ways.
"A Child of Two Worlds"
The central psychological experience of Spock's childhood is growing up in a bicultural home. Not only is he a minority on Vulcan, he might be the only human/Vulcan child ON THE WHOLE PLANET!
The major challenge for bicultural children is to integrate their two cultures. People who are able to do this usually feel proud about being unique. Others find their cultures to be in conflict with each other and feel pressure to choose one over another. Psychologists call this the Bicultural Identity Integration construct. Kids who are able to integrate their cultures become very good at cultural frame-switching — being able to think, act, and feel like a human on Earth and a Vulcan on Vulcan. Kids who can't integrate their cultures don't have this flexibility and have more rigid personalities.
This is one of the reasons I love 2009's Star Trek so much—Spock's struggle to figure out his identity is beautifully portrayed. In a pivotal scene, a group of Vulcan boys bully Spock for being half human and push him hoping it will make him mad. Since showing strong emotions is a big taboo in Vulcan culture, this situation created a lot of anxiety for Spock because he was afraid of confirming a stereotype (that he can’t control his emotions). That’s stereotype threat in action—anytime we worry about fulfilling a stereotype we usually preform worse. In Spock's case, stereotype threat contributed to him losing his cool and beating the crap out of a kid (who totally deserved it by the way).
Situations like that caused a lot of identity conflict for Spock. Look closely at the conversations he had with his father and mother after the fight:
Spock: You suggest that I should be completely Vulcan…?
Sarek: …Spock, you are fully capable of deciding your own destiny. The question you face is: which path will you choose? This is something only you can decide.
Spock: Should I choose to complete the Vulcan discipline of Kolinahr and purge all emotion, I trust you will not feel it reflects judgment on you.
Amanda: Oh, Spock. As always, whatever you choose to be, you will have a proud mother.
In both conversations we can feel the tension between Spock's Vulcan and human identities. It's clear that Spock was questioning who he is and who he wanted to become (“Should I complete Kolinahr?”). Rather than guiding Spock down one path or another, both of his parents encouraged him to make his own decisions. By allowing him to independently explore his identity they increased the chances of Spock integrating both cultures. This type of parenting is a core component in resilience — the psychological factor that keeps kids healthy despite chronic stressors (like constant discrimination for being a “green-blooded hobgoblin”).
"I Choose Not to Feel"
One of the key changes in the new Star Trek parallel universe is the destruction of Vulcan. Not only did Zachary Quinto’s Spock witness this trauma firsthand, he also lost his mother in the process.
After this terrorist attack, the Spock of the present was overwhelmed by powerful emotions. In response to his sadness and rage, Spock’s primary strategy became numbing himself to his feelings. After James Kirk ridiculed Spock for "feeling nothing" (another stereotype threat, “Vulcans have no emotions”), Spock attacked Kirk. After almost killing Kirk, Spock gave up his command of the Enterprise because he was "emotionally compromised".
Trying to numb powerful feelings and having uncontrollable emotional outbursts are common experiences after trauma. What becomes problematic is if such patterns continue long after a trauma has passed. This is exactly what happened to Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness. The events of Into Darkness take place about a year after the destruction of Vulcan. In the comic prequel, we learned that Spock has insomnia, nightmares about his mom and Vulcan’s destruction, and bursts of rage. In the film, it's very clear that Spock's trauma is impacting his relationship with Uhura. This exchange captured exactly how Spock has changed:
Uhura: At that Volcano you didn't give a thought to us, what it would do to me if you died, Spock. You didn't feel anything, you didn't care.
Spock: Your suggestion that I do not care about dying is incorrect. A sentient being's optimal chance at maximizing their utility is a long and prosperous life…It is true that I chose not to feel anything upon realizing that my own life was ending. As [REDACTED] was dying I joined with his consciousness and experienced what he felt at the moment of his passing — anger, confusion, loneliness, fear. I had experienced those feelings before, multiplied exponentially on the day my planet was destroyed. Such a feeling is something I choose never to experience again. Nayota, you mistake my choice not to feel as a reflection of my not caring. Well I assure you the truth is precisely the opposite.
The Spock of the present meets all major criteria for PTSD — re-experiencing traumatic events, avoiding situations, and becoming very sensitive to certain feelings. This isn't the resilient child we discussed earlier— this Spock is emotionally stuck, much like soldiers and veterans returning from service with PTSD. But this is not the man Spock is destined to be.
The Spock of the future (the one played by Leonard Nimoy) isn’t emotionally stuck, he’s incredibly flexible. Unlike most Vulcans, this Spock rejected Kolinahr, deciding to pursue logic and emotions. He integrated both of his cultures, switching his perspective as needed depending upon the situation he’s in. He understood conflicting points of view, making him highly empathic and open-minded. That's why he was so good at negotiating peace between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets as well as the Vulcan High Command and Romulan Empire. Captain Picard even compared Spock's tactics to "cowboy diplomacy," an emotional comparison never made of any other Vulcan. When you think about his unique biology, bicultural youth, and supportive parents, it's easy to see how Future Spock came to be.
What does this mean for the Spock of the present, the one who’s struggling so deeply with his emotions? Individuals experiencing PTSD can go down many different paths. While Zachary Quinto's Spock will never turn out exactly like Leonard Nimoy's (one experienced significant trauma, the other didn’t), Present Spock can learn to overcome his trauma and grow from the experience.
Post-traumatic growth is the positive change that happens to a person as a result of their struggle with a trauma. Trauma doesn't cause a person to grow, it's about the decisions a person makes as a result of their trauma. Many people who experience post-traumatic growth describe feeling changed by their traumatic experiences, feel more connected to others, become more resilient against crises, or have a greater appreciation for life (think Captain Picard in “Tapestry”). Growth doesn't mean people don't suffer; pain is a part of the process. Growth cannot happen until you to learn how to face difficult emotions and talk about the things going on in your head.
This is the challenge for Present Spock—to overcome his emotional demons. I won't give anything away, but based on what happens at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, we're already beginning to see signs of growth in Spock (and a lot of it has to do with his friendship with Kirk—his new source of resiliency).
A Reflection of Us
Why is Spock such an enduring character? He is a reflection of who we are.
Each of us has at one time or another felt different, strange, and out of place. As a child, Spock didn't completely fit in among Vulcans or humans. Yet he goes on to become the most influential officer in Starfleet. Growing up as a bicultural kid, I looked to Spock to give me hope that I too could overcome my “culture clash” and find confidence in myself.
The current Spock honors our experience of living in a world where we are constantly exposed to traumatic events (real or televised). While I’ve been fortunate not to be immediately impacted by a terrorist attack or natural disaster, I responded to the tragic death of my brother by avoiding my feelings. Watching Spock struggle with the loss of his mother in a similar way made me feel less crazy.
Spock’s future reminds us that our differences are our strengths. That’s the ultimate lesson from the psychology of Spock—if we can find a way to embrace all aspects of ourselves and approach life with an open mind, we are capable of great things.
March 5th, 2015 Update: Today on THE PSYCH SHOW I remember the life of Leonard Nimoy and celebrate the psychology of Spock.