Updated: Jul 8
**Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series spoiler alert**
I recently spoke with someone about button-pushing—provoking a reaction in others—and the conversation reminded me of a scene in Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA). It involves the technique of redirecting lightning.
Admittedly, ATLA isn’t something I suspect most people reading my blog expect to be discussed. It’s one of my all-time favorite animated series, though I understand not everyone shares my sentiment.
Rather than presenting psychotherapeutic techniques in a stale fashion, I like to tie in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) skills with various pop culture themes. If ATLA isn’t something you appreciate, you may want to forego reading beyond this point.
When considering how to describe the show to someone unfamiliar with the glory of ATLA, one source states, “Tell ‘em it’s about some magic people bending the elements at their will that’s kind of quirky and gets pretty intense and serious.”
I’ll go with that and add that it’s one of the most philosophically and spiritually complex animated series Nickelodeon ever aired. Also, I’d like manage people’s expectations by suggesting the sequel The Legend of Korra and ATLA live-action movie…aren’t for me.
In the scene related to this post, Iroh (a superior firebender) informs his nephew Zuko (an apprentice firebender) about a new defensive technique the uncle discovered and mastered. While other skilled firebenders can manipulate fire, Iroh can also direct lighting.
Iroh explains lightning redirection thusly:
“Waterbenders deal with the flow of energy. A waterbender lets their defense become their offense, turning their opponent’s energy against them. I learned a way to do this with lighting.”
Though perhaps considered a derogatory term, using Oxford Languages, Google defines woo-woo as “unconventional beliefs regarded as having little or no scientific basis, especially those relating to spirituality, mysticism, or alternative medicine.”
Discussion of “magic people bending the elements at their will” and “the flow of energy” is where I may lose some people. If you’re willing to challenge your resistance, I can tie this into REBT practice.
Iroh expands his description of the technique thusly:
“If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow it. You must create a pathway from your fingertips up your arm to the shoulder, then down into the stomach. The stomach is the source of energy in your body; it is called the sea of chi. Only, in my case, it is more like a vast ocean [laughter]. From your stomach, you direct it up again and out the other arm. The stomach detour is critical; you must not let the lightning pass through your heart, or the damage could be deadly.”
Once Zuko receives a brief period of instruction and practices with Iroh, the nephew asks for a demonstration in order to test his skills. When the uncle declines by expressing how dangerous lighting is, Zuko is left disappointed.
Iroh then explains, “If you’re lucky, you will never have to use this technique at all.” Dissatisfied by this response, Zuko ascends to a mountaintop during inclement weather.
He then yells at the sky, perhaps representative of projecting his anger at the world or life in general, declaring, “You’ve always thrown everything you could at me! Well, I can take it and now I can give it back! Come on, strike me! You never held back before!”
The scene ends without lightning striking Zuko, as he yells in agony. Per my interpretation of the scene, the viewer is left to understand that Zuko’s unfulfilled purpose—proving to himself and likely others that he is capable of fulfilling his destiny—leaves him with a meaningless existence.
The scene addresses concepts discussed throughout my blog, such as:
Specifically regarding lightning redirection, I turn to the REBT ABC Model which teaches one to dispute irrational beliefs which lead to self-disturbed consequences. The ABC Model is framed as follows:
(A)ction – What occurred
(B)elief – What you told yourself about (A) that resulted in (C)
(C)onsequence – What you felt (emotion or bodily sensation) about what happened and what you did (behavior)
(D)isputation – How you might challenge (D) what you told yourself (B), which led to (C)
(E)ffective new belief – What (E)ffective new beliefs you can tell yourself rather than using unhelpful or unhealthy narratives (B).
For the sake of discussion, let us consider lighting as the (A)ction—represented by obstacles Zuko faces in life—and anger as the (C)onsequence. Understanding that there is no A-C connection, suppose we conceptualize Zuko’s (B)eliefs as representing his stomach or his “sea of chi.” This isn’t antithetical to a scientific concept.
Per one source, “Because the enteric nervous system relies on the same type of neurons and neurotransmitters that are found in the central nervous system, some medical experts call it our ‘second brain.’ The ‘second brain’ in our gut, in communication with the brain in our head, plays a key role in certain diseases in our bodies and in our overall mental health.”
Initially, it may be somewhat confusing to understand abstract concepts. Therefore, let’s plug Zuko’s experience into the ABC Model format. As well, I will use quite brief disputation for this example.
(A) According to ATLA lore, Zuko “is recognizable by the distinctive burn scar on the left side of his face, which was given to him by his father, Ozai, shortly before his banishment as a result of an incident in which he [Zuko] unintentionally disrespected his father by speaking out of turn and refusing to duel him [Ozai].”
When working with clients, I find it useful to determine the critical (A)—the most meaningful element of a situation. Suppose Zuko expresses that the action he considers most relevant relates to his scar, because it symbolizes shame.
(B) Most often, I hear irrational beliefs expressed using some form of should, must, or ought statement. Zuko may tell himself something like, “My father should love me unconditionally,” “I must preserve my honor,” or, “I ought not to have been abused by my dad.”
Accepted as correct unless proved otherwise, this belief may lead to detrimental (C)onsequences. Suppose Zuko fully believes that he must be treated a certain way. When this rigid demand is violated, how might Zuko act?
REBT operates in accordance to the Epictetian notion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Therefore, it isn’t that Ozai scarred Zuko which creates a (C)onsequence, it’s that Zuko truly believes this is something that shouldn’t have occurred.
Rather than making a case in support of child abuse, as Zuko was 13-years-old when his dad wounded him, allow me to be clear. I think it’s reprehensible for a child to be abused.
Still, I don’t lie to myself by declaring that as a fundamental rule, because I’m opposed to child abuse, it must never happen under any circumstance. As one who was abused throughout my childhood, I’m fully aware that simply because we think things shouldn’t happen doesn’t mean abuse won’t occur.
We may hate that wrongdoing occurs, and that is understandable. However, lying to ourselves about our ability to completely eradicate abuse or how we may somehow control the behavior of others will lead to low frustration tolerance (LFT).
When we tell ourselves, “I can’t stand that this happened,” or, “I don’t think I can take it,” these are LFT statements. Is it true that we can’t tolerate the content, or is it perhaps more accurate to state, “I’d prefer for this not to happen”?
Presuming Zuko understands how shoulding all over himself and others, as well as masturbating himself into a frenzy of rage isn’t something he wants to continue doing, it is important to accurately identify the unhelpful belief. Moreover, if Zuko is tired of using an unhealthy LFT framework, disputing the belief is necessary.
Zuko narrows his irrational self-disturbing belief to, “My dad shouldn’t have marked my face and because my destiny is forever reflective of shame, I can’t stand that this is the case!”
(C) In common parlance, people typically use the word “feelings” to mean a host of (C)onsequences (i.e., thoughts, beliefs, emotions, sensations, etc.). Therefore, I find it useful to clarify upfront what feelings mean in a clinical context.
One, feelings may relate to emotions (i.e., joy, fear, anger, sorrow, disgust, etc.). Two, feelings represent bodily sensations (e.g., “I feel tightness in my chest.”). Saying something like, “I feel disrespected” doesn’t meet the appropriate framing of the term, as disrespect isn’t an emotion or sensation.
Zuko expresses fear of never returning home, sorrow from having been banished, and anger regarding perceived injustice relating to his father’s treatment. When experiencing these emotions, Zuko identifies tightness in his chest, a clenched jaw, and increased jitteriness.
Similar to assessing the critical (A), I find it useful to explore which emotion is most impactful for the client. Suppose Zuko identifies anger as the feeling most poignant to him.
Also in the (C)onsequence category are behaviors. For instance, when Iroh declined to shoot lightning at Zuko, the nephew went to a mountaintop and challenged the world. He yelled, tried to provoke a response, and eventually fell to his knees in anguish.
(Goal) A helpful or healthy goal serves as a useful measure towards which clients may aspire. When (D)isputing irrational (B)eliefs that cause unpleasant (C)onsequences, it may not be constructive to set an impractical goal.
For instance, Zuko may suggest that while wandering lands outside of his home, unable to return due to banishment, he would like to feel joy. How pragmatic is his goal?
Who, when outcast, would experience a pleasant feeling? Therefore, I invite clients to consider transitioning from an unpleasant, painful, or agonizing (C)onsequence to perhaps a lesser impactful experience.
If anger is akin to the burn Zuko suffered from his father, maybe Zuko could realistically transition to mild annoyance or slight disappointment when considering his circumstance. This is an achievable goal.
Suppose Zuko reasons that annoyance would lead to less suffering. Instead of discomforting bodily sensations and unhelpful behavior, feeling annoyed is accompanied by insignificant tightness in his shoulders and practicing his magical martial arts rather than picking a fight with existence.
In short, Zuko prefers to move from anger towards mild annoyance.
(D) In the current blog entry, I’ll briefly discuss how disputation works. If you would like more in-depth understanding about my approach to REBT disputing, I invite you to review entries listed under the Disputation portion of my blog.
When assisting clients with (D)isputation, it’s important to understand that we aren’t critiquing the (A)ction or challenging the (C)consequence. Rather, we confront the irrational and extreme attitudes about (A) that cause (C).
Yes, you read that right. I claimed that not only are our (B)eliefs correlated with (C)onsequences, there is a causative effect. I think of it this way—beCAUSE we tell ourselves all sorts of lies, and readily (B)elieve this nonsense, the effect or (C)onsequence is that we self-disturb.
Suppose after engaging in a period of disputation with Zuko, he realizes that he’s been lying to himself when saying, “My dad shouldn’t have marked my face and because my destiny is forever reflective of shame, I can’t stand that this is the case!”
Zuko is then able to entertain the idea that while he may prefer not to have been mistreated by his dad, and given a scar of shame while being banished from his home, there is no universal law supporting Zuko’s prescription to life.
Zuko further reasons that while his preference wasn’t fulfilled by Ozai, Zuko is actually able to tolerate his scarred appearance. Most importantly, Zuko understands that his destiny isn’t marked forever by his mistakes or the shortcomings of other people.
(E) Zuko concludes, “I used to think this scar marked me – the mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately, I’ve realized I’m free to determine my own destiny, even if I’ll never be free of my mark.”
Once the (E)ffective new belief is achieved, I find it useful to replace the irrational (B)elief with the more helpful, healthy narrative. This is done to assess whether or not a client’s goal is fulfilled.
(A) Ozai scarred Zuko’s face.
(B) Zuko tells himself, “I used to think this scar marked me – the mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately, I’ve realized I’m free to determine my own destiny, even if I’ll never be free of my mark.”
(C) Zuko experiences mild annoyance regarding his childhood abuse instead of anger.
Matters for Consideration
Zuko decides to no longer allow hostility, rage, aggression, and hate associated with irrational beliefs to result in unhelpful or unhealthy consequences. As such, he eventually confronts his father, Ozai, as a battle quickly ensues.
Before the fight, Zuko tells his dad, “For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted but really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn. My father, who challenged me—a 13-year-old boy—to an agni kai. How can you possibly justify a duel with a child?”
All too often, many people seek answers for the behavior of their parents. I suspect that seldom will any answer ever suffice when trauma has been perpetrated against a child.
Ellis is credited with having stated, “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.”
While I understand healthy anger and righteous indignation, I’m unconvinced that one will not simply use justification for any degree of emotion, thus allowing consequential behavior to ensue accordingly. I may merely JUSTify my actions when punching someone in the face by stating, “I was just defending my honor.”
Zuko’s use of anger when speaking with Ozai is left open to interpretation. What I consider worthy of mention is that Zuko demonstrated significant emotional restraint and character growth throughout the series, and leading up to the moment he confronts his father.
While people are free to fuck around and find out, I’m not certain that provoking others is necessarily helpful. Even from a non-aggression principle (NAP) perspective, confronting a parent many years after mistreatment occurred may constitute aggression.
Per the NAP:
“The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”
Nonetheless, this is a matter that I would address with Zuko if he were a client of mine. Since he isn’t, and the series is arguably worth considering, I appreciate the direction in which Zuko—the non-REBT client—went when speaking with his dad.
Initially, Ozai attempts to provoke Zuko to anger, which doesn’t result in the intended consequence. Displeased by his son’s decision to seek “peace and kindness,” Ozai eventually attacks Zuko with a lightning strike.
Applying the technique taught to him by Iroh, and not containing the lightning (challenge or obstacle) within his body (gut or mental process), Zuko is able to redirect lighting back to his father—symbolic of the release of anger or hatred. This is akin to the A-B-C-D-E process.
Towards the end of the show, Zuko faces off in an individual battle with his sister Azula who is able to conjure lightning. Throughout the series, Azula is represented as a superior practitioner of the elemental arts and one who instills fear in others while using hostility and aggression to achieve her desires.
Instead of attacking Zuko, Azula directs a lightning attack at Katara, Zuko’s friend. Not expecting his confidant to be the target of Azula’s ire, Zuko impulsively dives in front of the lightning bolt and manages to redirect it.
Still, Zuko retains damage from the encounter, as one is left to believe that some of the lightning entered Zuko’s heart—having cared enough for Katara to absorb the attack. To me, this scene represents selfless compassion.
While my attempt at framing ATLA in an REBT perspective may not be something many people will appreciate, I enjoyed writing this piece and I hope someone may benefit from the effort. If not, that’s okay, too.
REBT isn’t solely a technique I use in my professional life, as I regularly practice it in my personal life. For instance, suppose a studio decides to “reimagine” an ATLA reboot for a “modern audience” and by using diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility standards.
This has already occurred in ATLA fanfiction, called The Legend of Gennji. In my opinion, many original intellectual properties are ruined using an intersectional framework of storytelling. Still, do I self-disturb and experience LFT if or when this happens to ATLA on-screen? No.
While I may prefer that the series remain untouched, I accept that others may not share my sentiment. Besides, The Legend of Korra and the ATLA live-action movie exist. I haven’t melted into my footprint because they do.
This is how to redirect lightning. Rather than internalizing the action, zapping the mental and physical nature of your being, you can cast out the shocking content.
Understand that when Iroh or Zuko redirect lightning, it isn’t as though they are immune to discomfort regarding the process. It isn’t necessarily easy to dispute our interpretations of events.
What in your life that was ever worth doing came easy to you? With some degree of discomfort, and not shying away from suffering, use of REBT techniques may help you to metaphorically redirect lighting.
Once you grasp this technique, people who push your buttons may soon learn that their actions are ineffective. Likewise, past, present, and future persons, places, events, and things—previously considered distressing—may not impact you without your approval.
With further practice, not only can you redirect figurative lightning, you may “bend all four elements” and become the master of your own destiny. If that’s the aim, there’s much work to be done!
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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