Overcoming Boggarts, Dementors & Roderick Spode: The Transformation of Emotion as a Coping Strategy

I have been meaning to write a new blogpost for months now, but due to the demands of my clinical psychology course I have been struggling to find the time. The evidence for my plea that this course seems to have taken over my life is clearly illustrated by the fact that even this blogpost has a psychology-related theme to it. It also, however, mentions Harry Potter and Wodehouse, so all is not lost just yet.

In case any of you have eyed the title of this post with scepticism and are concerned that it will in some way be celebrating the “power” of positive thinking, let me reassure you that this is absolutely not the case. I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to affirmations, mantras and “inspirational” quotes – and feel vindicated by studies like this, which demonstrate that positive thinking can actually be harmful rather than beneficial. But why should positive thinking be harmful? Why can’t we just wish our negative thoughts and feelings away? If it doesn’t work, how do we know if we’re just not wishing hard enough?

Having recently learned about emotion-focused therapy in one of my clinical psychology classes, I became interested in the concept of emotion transformation. This is the idea that in order to overcome a maladaptive emotion, it must be replaced with a more adaptive one. “Maladaptive” in this sense means unhelpful or not useful. Examples of maladaptive emotions: fear, shame, guilt etc. These emotions can lead to us feeling stuck and unable to move forward with our lives. Adaptive emotions, on the other hand, are those that help you to process the experience and move on: joy, humour, forgiveness – even anger, in certain cases. Leslie Greenberg (one of the founders of emotion-focused therapy) says that the philosopher Spinoza was the first person to point out that in order to change an emotion, it must be replaced with another emotion (Greenberg, 2002). In other words, all the rationalization and positive thinking in the world will not help you change your maladaptive emotion unless there is a stronger, more powerful emotion to take its place. Thoughts cannot change our emotions – only emotions have the power to transform other emotions.

Greenberg incorporates this idea into the theoretical orientation behind emotion-focused therapy. I won’t go into detail about this here because I don’t suppose it would be particularly interesting to anyone who isn’t studying psychology, but if you want to learn more about emotion-focused therapy and how it works, check out the article in the references section at the end of this post.

While transforming negative emotions may seem at first a purely psychological concept, it occurred to me, even as I read the article, that I had seen examples of this kind of emotional transformation before, in literature. Any of my readers who are Wodehouse fans will no doubt have spotted the Spinoza reference above. I have no idea whether Wodehouse actually read any Spinoza, so the fact that Jeeves uses the theory of emotional transformation to help out Bertie and his friends on several occasions may be a complete coincidence – I suspect it is.

Let me use a quote from Greenberg’s article and a quote from Wodehouse (“The Code of the Woosters”) to illustrate my thoughts on this.

“Thus in therapy, maladaptive fear, once aroused, can be changed by the more boundary-establishing emotions of adaptive anger or disgust, or by evoking the softer feelings of compassion or forgiveness.” ~ Greenberg

 

“Well, as I say, I went to Jeeves, and put the facts before him… He approached the problem from the psychological angle. In the final analysis, he said, disinclination to speak in public is due to fear of one’s audience…We do not, he said, fear those whom we despise. The thing to do therefore, is to cultivate a lofty contempt for those who will be listening to one…You fill your minds with scornful thoughts about them.”  ~ The Code of the Woosters

And there you have it. Gussie Fink-Nottle’s fear of Roderick Spode and Sir Watkyn Bassett is turned into contempt and dislike and he is able to view the prospect of making a speech in front of them with no qualms whatsoever. Jeeves really does know all about the psychology of the individual!

For those among you who have not yet read Wodehouse, I set forth another example – well, two, in fact, from a book series that is so popular, I have no doubt that everyone will be familiar with it. In the third Harry Potter book, Harry has to cope with several new challenges that are of a somewhat darker nature than those he has encountered in his first two years at Hogwarts. As well as trying to solve the usual mystery and intrigue, Harry also has to try to overcome his own fear, as illustrated by his encounters with Boggarts and Dementors. In the first case, Professor Lupin shows Harry and the rest of his class how to beat a Boggart – a creature that turns into the object or person that you most fear and can only be defeated by laughter. This is a perfect example of transforming the maladaptive emotion of fear into a more adaptive one – humour.

“Nobody knows what a boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears…The charm that repels a boggart is simple, but in requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a boggart is laughter. What you need to do is to force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.” ~ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Of course, when Neville Longbottom is forced to confront his greatest fear (Professor Snape), he manages to overcome his terror by imagining Snape wearing his grandmother’s eccentric and old-fashioned clothes, thus providing considerable amusement for the rest of the class, as well as himself.

The final example I shall mention is also taken from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In this book, Harry encounters Dementors for the first time – dark, soulless creatures who prey on human emotions by sucking all the happiness and hope out of anyone that comes near them. The negative emotions associated with them are fear and despair – both of which are obviously maladaptive. As with the Boggart, the way to defeat a Dementor is to summon up the opposite of despair – a powerful, happy memory:

“‘The Patronus is a kind of positive force, a projection of the very things that the Dementor feeds upon – hope, happiness, the desire to survive – but it cannot feel despair, as real humans can, so the Dementors can’t hurt it….’

…‘And how do you conjure it?’

‘With an incantation, which will work only if you are concentrating, with all your might, on a single, very happy memory.’” ~Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Here again, we see that a powerful, positive emotion is used to displace a negative, maladaptive one. Even though Harry has to think of a memory in order to overcome his fear, it is the emotion attached to that memory, rather than the thought itself, that is the key to his success.

The musings that prompted this post have definitely helped me understand the theory of emotion-focused therapy a little better and I hope it might have entertained you as well. As much as I like studying psychology, it definitely adds to that enjoyment when I can also link it to my favourite books!

 

patronus6

 

References

Greenberg, L. (2002). Integrating an Emotion-Focused Approach to Treatment Into Psychotherapy Integration. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 12(2), 154-189.

Rowling, J. K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Wodehouse, P. G. (1938). The Code of the Woosters.

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7 Responses to Overcoming Boggarts, Dementors & Roderick Spode: The Transformation of Emotion as a Coping Strategy

  1. honoria plum says:

    I think this is my favourite blog post ever. I love Wodehouse and loathe the modern mania for positivity (I’d never for a moment suspect you of promoting it). I am going to reblog instantly. Hoe that’s ok.

  2. honoria plum says:

    Reblogged this on Plumtopia and commented:
    Today’s reading comes from the blog of ZanyZigZag, Clinical Psychologist and training and P.G. Wodehouse lover. Her post today touches on subjects close to my heart.

    I’m not opposed to a bit of positive thinking. Some of my best friends are optimists. My concern is that ‘positivity’ has become a socially desirable behaviour, helped along by claims that it’s good for you. We are encouraged to distance ourselves from ‘negative people’ and ‘negativity’ has been demonised as behaviour to overcome (or at least hush up in society and the workplace). Under the guise of negativity, some very useful and important behaviours — like criticism and complaint — have been demonised too. It’s hardly surprising that these ideas gain traction. They are a gift to governments, employers, and maladjusted spouses the world over.

    Yes, a world without criticism and complaint would be lovely. But until our world is also free of its problems — violence, injustice and inequality — criticism and complaint remain necessary forces for change. If you’re concerned about wealth or gender inequality, for example, just imagine how things might be if nobody complained. One can hardly be blamed for bouts of pessimism in such as world, and I’m deeply suspicious of the idea that a life of sustained positivity, unbalanced by ‘negative’ thoughts, is a healthy goal to aspire to.

    As someone who is not one of nature’s optimists, this isn’t something I’m likely to suffer from. I worry and I brood. I fail to spot the bluebird. I feel that until the world is put right, I’m somehow failing in my responsibilities as a human being. For me, and I suspect for many people, P.G. Wodehouse is more than a great writer. His writing has a transformative power –providing bluebirds when bluebirds are in short supply. As I said in my recent talk in Seattle on the Psychology of the Individual: for some people, reading Wodehouse is the icing on the cake of a happy life. For others, he is a lifeline.

  3. Ken Clevenger says:

    What Wodehouse may have known as a matter of science, social or otherwise, and scholastic study may be speculative but what Plum experienced in life is surely more knowable. Some serious isolation from parents, no real closeness from siblings, great contentment at Dulwich and great disappointment at not going to Oxford, great professional success but at a fearsome working pace, all this wide range, and his mature letters reflect the constant ups and downs of his search for a new plot, and then the whole internment and controversy over the broadcasts thing. In sum, from personal experience, Wodehouse understood the impact of negativity and seems to have turned to a positive emotion of joy in the creation of superb literature to win his way through the roughs and the smooths.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thanks for your comment Ken! I think you’re right to say that Wodehouse certainly knew how to fill his life with joy, despite numerous setbacks and obstacles. And the fact that he managed to also create joy for so many others is even more remarkable.

  4. peggyblank says:

    This is a great post! I’m so glad I found your blog, I love reading and thinking about psychology (biologist by trade).
    Unfortunately I had a mini-meltdown recently after being in a bit of a negative emotional spiral for some time. I’ve had some cognitive behavioural therapy before (for grief and work stress) so I knew that I should be able to ‘pull myself back out’ with a little self-talk. My rational mind was whirring away, trying to tell my overreacting emotional self that it was all over reaction. Of course this didn’t help (just made me feel pathetic and inadequate) but then I did find the right phrase. ‘You got this’. I think in that moment it was the pride that helped. It was actually an amazingly quick transition from self-pity to pride and confidence in myself as a person and in my abilities. I also don’t like ‘positive thinking’ because it has always seemed to over-simplify. In this case I didn’t discount my challenges, I just re-focused my emotions on the fact that I was strong enough to overcome them.

    • zanyzigzag says:

      Thank you very much for your comment peggy! I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been through a tough time lately, but I’m really pleased that you found something that helped you. Your explanation of why your strategy worked makes sense to me – thank you for sharing your experience.

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