The Hero’s Journey

As a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in grief therapy, most of my time is spent meeting with people one-on-one for psychotherapy in my Denver office. My training is working from a depth psychology lens, or what some might refer to as a Jungian (following the principles of Carl Jung) therapist. Even though I am always looking for the unconscious (depth) influence in my work with clients, it’s not something that is always obvious. Sometimes we might get in geeky conversations about counseling theory where I get to talk about the nuts and bolts of depth therapy, but most of the time it’s more subtle and doesn’t require going into any level of detail or explanation. It’s just a certain way of being that I, as the therapist, assume with my clients.

I also am adjunct psychology faculty at a college in Denver, where I have the privilege of really geeking out and getting into the nuts and bolts of psychological theory with my students. I’m not their therapist in this context, so I don’t feel bad about filling our class session discussing theory rather than personal application. One topic that always catches my students’ attention is The Hero’s Journey. The journey is a sort of pattern that has been seen across cultures and continents, throughout humanity (we could call this pattern archetypal) that describes how humans handle challenges. Joseph Campbell, perhaps the world’s leading authority on the topic, also called it the monomyth, or the single framework that underlies every story.

Because depth psychology looks toward mythology to understand human phenomena and especially the workings of the unconscious, I often use this framework to help understand what a client is going through and to anticipate what might come next. The pattern is rather simple, but it helps people feel more grounded when they understand there is nothing wrong with them — it’s just the way the human psyche operates.

The journey works something like this: We are going along in our regular day-to-day life, pretty much without a lot of drama or significant changes or challenges. Then, something comes. Perhaps there’s an emergency in the family, or perhaps there’s a realization that someone’s feeling unsatisfied and wants something more. Whatever it is, there is something that pulls us out of our ordinary life and we are thrust into the unknown. We call this initial call The Call to Adventure.

Once we are called, we eventually take steps and find ourselves in the unknown. It’s here that we experience challenges and temptations and often find a mentor to help guide us through this unknown. Often, this is a therapist or trusted advisor. If you’re a SciFi geek, you could consider this mentor as someone like Yoda or Dumbledore. But I will digress before I plunge us both into true geekdom — there are innumerable examples of who this mentor figure could be. This mentor helps us realize something about ourselves — but not before we are tested. It’s this final test, after being mentored, that feels the most daunting. It’s here where we feel we are in true crisis and aren’t sure we are going to survive.

This part of the journey we could describe as The Abyss. It’s in this abyss that we find a death to our old way of being, because it no longer works. We find something new in ourselves, a new way to cope with a problem. We have a sort of revelation, and a part of us is changed forever from this test. We are transformed.

Once we experience this transformation from the challenge, this new awareness about ourselves or the world we can make peace with the challenge. We become at one with the challenge (at-one-ment, atonement), no longer resisting it. We recognize that we learned something from the journey and perhaps experienced ourselves in a way we had never experienced ourselves before.

And, it’s at this point that we leave the unknown and return to ordinary life. The Return is when we come back to the familiar, but not without a transformed way of being or a new way of thinking about things. We are again grounded, and generally experience peace of mind — that is, until we receive the next Call to Adventure.

Conceptualizing challenges this way, especially when it comes to our experience of loss and grief, helps us understand that it is normal to feel like we don’t know everything, or to even feel a bit lost. It helps normalize that feeling like we are in an abyss is absolutely part of the journey, and we probably shouldn’t avoid it. Right after our experience of the abyss is always transformation, and a return to a new normal.

So try it on. What do you think? How could framing your current challenges as a hero’s journey help you move toward transformation? Are you currently in the known or unknown — and if you’re in the unknown, what part of the journey are you on?

No matter where you find yourself on the journey, you can take comfort knowing that psyche is operating perfectly, and you’re moving toward learning more about your best and highest self — even if it doesn’t feel good. The Hero’s Journey is an inescapable part of being human. And that includes you.

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