Most people have no idea that the stories inside our heads determine much of what we notice in the world or how we string our observations together to make meanings of them. This suggests that stories that are invisible to us define a good deal of what we experience, so we continue to live these stories as if they were reality when they are not, even when they make us miserable. Understanding this can help us listen to others who see situations differently than we do. We can recognize that their inner filter is making meaning of different facts, and constructing different narratives than ours is, so we can hold open the possibility that their narratives might be complementary to ours, not necessarily wrong.
If this were not enough, some of the stories we live are archetypal, and thus could provide us with a greater sense of meaning, mattering, and purpose if we were aware of them. Failing that, they can essentially run us, so that we engage in actions that are counterproductive for ourselves and others.
Archetypes are psychological patterns that are so basic to human cognition and behavior that they can be observed in all times and places. All the ways they have been expressed in the past or are being expressed now create a kind of energetic field that we connect with, consciously or not, when the archetype is active in us. C.G. Jung saw archetypes as existing in the collective unconscious, but their origin might also be in our DNA, offering the seeds of our human potential. If you are a Star Wars fan, you can think of them as elements of “the Force” in its light (conscious) and dark (unconscious) sides, since archetypes, lived consciously or unconsciously, infuse us with energy for action.
Many archetypes actually may arise from instincts inherited from our animal ancestors.
Many archetypes actually may arise from instincts inherited from our animal ancestors. For example, the caregiver archetype is characteristic of mammals who nurse their young and who, when sick or old, will sacrifice themselves by moving to the perimeter of the herd, where they are picked off easily by predators. The warrior archetype is derived from carnivores, which kill for food, or, more widely, from animals that become violent when they need to protect their territory, and the ruler from alpha males and females who preside over hierarchical herds.
The archetypal stories I work with are ones that help us mature as human beings through consciously living their narratives. For example, the caregiver archetype motivates us to care for our young and for others we love. As we evolve into ever more conscious beings, we are encouraged to become generous and compassionate toward others beyond our family or subgroup. Our individual and collective challenge today is to expand our concern to include all of humanity, for unless we do so, we will be unable to realize the dreams that inspire us—for example, to achieve peace on earth, environmental sustainability, and social justice.
We can see the unconscious primal undertow of the caregiver in the impulse to martyr oneself for others, which is evidenced in suicide bombers or in less extreme form in so many women and men who give and give without caring for themselves, so they end up unnecessarily depleted and embittered. Christianity and many other religions teach us to love one another as we love ourselves, but this teaching often is perverted to mean “instead of ourselves.” The mythic story of the Greek goddess Demeter, which was the basis of the most honored rite in classical Greece, illustrates how even a goddess has to work that balance out so that she does not sacrifice what is most important to her as she shows love and concern for others.
Similarly, the warrior, expressed in a healthy way, helps us develop boundaries and protect ourselves and those we care about. Its primal undertow is ruthless, coldblooded killing, which can even devolve into sadism. At the same time, the evolved Warrior helps us as individuals and as a society to have the courage and capacity to keep our own violent impulses in check. This requires fighting for the protection of the human spirit by withdrawing projection onto others and taking responsibility for becoming peaceful, loving, competent, and courageous. The dark form of the Ruler is found in the demagogue, who manipulates people, appealing to their darker impulses to gain control, while its more evolved form can be seen in the transformational leader, who brings out the best in all concerned to realize an inspiring and needed vision.
Narrative intelligence can help us become aware of the archetypal stories we are living…
Narrative intelligence can help us become aware of the archetypal stories we are living, as well as their temptations and potential gifts. Choosing to live the archetype’s more positive narratives also assists in the awakening of our inner hero and heroine. Joseph Campbell defined the heroic task as bringing new life into a dying culture, defeating Holdfast the Dragon. Holdfast keeps us locked into anachronistic forms of the archetypes and related ways of living their stories. Heroes and heroines release the archetype’s more positive potential.
Psychoanalyst James Hillman suggested that many of our symptoms and, potentially, mental illnesses come from positive archetypes trying to get our attention. He thus advocated a kind of homeopathic psychotherapy by which the right dose of the archetype provides us with its wisdom and gifts, while not taking us over.
The very act of noticing the archetypes within us reinforces a separate sense of identity, so that we do not confuse who we are with an archetype. Even when one archetype is essential to our vocational calling or to what most fulfills us in life more generally, a series of archetypes can arise in us over time that enable us to gain human wholeness and to handle the many diverse challenges of adult life.
This inner balance further serves as a deterrent to archetypal possession.
Carol S. Pearson, Ph.D., D.Min., is an internationally known authority on archetypes, depth psychology, and transformational leadership.
This article appeared in Psychology Today on 13 January 2016