Using Archetypes to Navigate Your Challenges
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Some of you may be familiar with Archetypes, but do you realize you can actually choose an Archetype that will allow you to navigate challenges you face in life? All of us have the power to tap into the different elements of the universal human psyche—the Archetypes—in order to transform our everyday challenges. Understanding the power of Archetypes can empower us to move from feeling and acting like a Victim to confidently traverse the difficulties we face in life.
What are Archetypes?
Archetypes are patterns of behavior that can be found across different cultures. It’s a collective, unconscious idea or pattern of thought that is universally present in individual psyches. I also think of Archetypes as roles we play in life. Carol S. Pearson, in her book The Hero Within, says that Archetypes are “inner potentialities, allies, or guides that always are available to you” (p. 19) She goes on to say, “Gaining an awareness of other archetypes helps you to awaken other possibilities within yourself” (p. 26).
You’re probably aware of some common Archetypes: the Nurturer, the Martyr, the Hero, the Sage, the Leader, and so on. They often have different names, depending on who you talk to, but the behavioral patterns remain the same. For instance, the Nurturer might also be called the Caregiver or the Mother. The Leader might be called the King or Queen, the Ruler, the Sovereign, etc.
Unconsciously Choosing Archetypes
Carl Jung distinguished 12 Archetypes that represent most of human behavior. I believe we each have what I call our "go-to" Archetypes, the Archetypes that show up regularly in our lives. These are our typical patterns of behavior, what often feels most natural to us. Most of us utilize these Archetypes without even thinking about it, it almost feels like it's just part of our personality. My go-to Archetypes are the Nurturer, the Sage, the Critic/self-critic, the Learner or Student, and the Teacher. But we are not limited to just the Archetypes that come naturally to us; we can tap into the power of any Archetype.
We often slip into archetypal patterns of behavior subconsciously, but we can consciously choose different Archetypes, if we want. Our patterns of thought and behavior can change. It’s part of rewriting your story.
There are several things we can do to help us utilize an Archetype that feels most
appropriate for our situation. In order to choose Archetypes, we must first become aware of and understand what Archetypes are and how they show up in our lives. I’ll delve in to this a little bit before I talk about four specific Archetypes that I feel are particularly useful when we face challenges in life.
Any Google search on Archetypes will bring up scholars and authors like Carl Jung, Caroline Myss, Carol S. Pearson, Joseph Campbell, Maureen Murdock, Robert Moore, and Douglas Gillette. Other terms for Archetype include words like Type, Form, Pattern, Model, Role, and Kokoro Mindstyle. Some people utilize symbols of different animals to portray the different Archetype energies. You can find Archetype cards for sale, which in many ways seems like a variant of Tarot cards, but don’t have the same type of future-telling properties to them. And as I mentioned, the names of Archetypes are somewhat fluid, but overall patterns of behavior and consciousness remain. When you become familiar with Archetypes and your own behavior, you might even recognize your own patterns of behavior and give them names that make sense to you. I have given names to some of my own “Archetypes” that often show up in my life, including the Driver, the Critic (who is always my Self-Critic), and the Perfectionist. I’m not sure if Jung would have named them such, but they work for me. I bring all of this up to illustrate that Archetypes can function in our lives in many ways.
Archetypes vs. Stereotypes
Some people have asked how individuality and “universal” Archetypes work. How is an Archetype different from Stereotype? Caroline Myss said, “Although archetypes are impersonal patterns of influence that are both ancient and universal, they become personalized when they are a part of your individual psyche” (Archetype Cards Guide Book, p.4). In other words, these patterns show up in each of us in unique ways. Although there are common traits to a Leader, those characteristics can be expressed in uniquely different ways in each individual. While a stereotype pigeon-holes a person and limits them to an overgeneralized set of qualities, Archetypes are universally present in all individuals. For instance, to say that all women are maternal is a stereotype. However, all individuals, both men and women, have access to the patterns of behavior of a Nurturer. An Archetype is not meant to confine an individual to a set of behaviors and ideologies, like stereotypes do. Archetypes expand our possibilities as individuals, improving our ability to choose how we will act and interact with the world around us. Every person has access to the Archetypes, whereas stereotypes refuse to allow a person to act in anything other than a preconceived set of behaviors and ideologies. We can all tap into our Spiritualist or Sage Archetype, regardless of gender, political affiliations, or religion. Whereas a stereotypical Christian, Muslim, Atheist or Wiccan will be reduced to an expected way of thinking and behavior.
Light and Dark Sides
There is another important point about Archetypes that needs to be mentioned. All Archetypes have a Light and Shadow side to them, meaning that each Archetype can be empowering or disempowering. For instance, because of my personal experience with passive-aggressive martyrs, I often think of the Martyr only as a negative Archetype--the person who sacrifices with great resentment or as a means to manipulate others. However, the Martyr can also be the individual who is willing to put their life on the line for a cause or belief, and whose suffering redeems a group of people. Another example is my Critic who belittles and browbeats me to the point of creating great self-doubt and encouraging me to give up. Yet, my Critic, at its best and functioning in its Light side, prods me to work harder, makes sure I’m doing my best, encourages me to reach a little further. Moore and Gillette, in their book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, talk about the Light and Shadow side as the Mature and Immature sides. I think that is a very insightful way to think about it.
But one of the most effective ways I've found to think about these light and shadow sides is from my good friend and fellow coach, Lisa McGee. She talks about these two sides as Gifts and Warnings. I just love this because what it means is that the different traits and energies any one Archetype can bring us can empower us (the Gift it gives us) but if taken to the extreme the behavior becomes a Warning to us that something is out of balance.
Paring it Down
I mentioned Jung’s 12 main Archetypes. They are: Caregiver, Creator, Explorer, Hero, Innocent, Jester, Lover, Magician, Orphan, Rebel, Ruler, Sage. These are 12 patterns of behavior that can be found across all cultures (with different names, but essentially the same roles). These 12 Archetypes are present in all of us, to varying degrees of development. A balance of all 12 would presumably provide a balanced individual.
But 12 Archetypes can feel a bit overwhelming when you are first becoming acquainted with the concept of Archetypes. To help people new to Archetypal work, Lisa McGee and I are hosting a workshop on how to use Archetypes specifically to navigate challenges. To avoid causing undo overwhelm, we have come up with four Archetypes we call the Core Four. These are the Archetypes that we feel are especially important as we face personal difficulties. We’ve given them names that speak more generally to society in the 21st Century. These 4 Archetypes are the Queen (Ruler), the Lover, the Hero, and the Catalyst (Magician). One reason we divided them into these four is because they seem related to the 4 basic parts of an individual and the 4 elements, namely Mind/Air, Emotion/Water, Body/Earth, and Spirit/Fire.
Think back on a time when you had a particular challenge. What helped you through it? What thoughts, beliefs, or actions could have made the challenge easier? When I consider different challenges I’ve faced, I can see a pattern of things I really needed as I navigated those difficulties. They include self-compassion and non-judgment, deciding to face my challenge, persistence, and the belief that I can change/improve. Each of these qualities can be found in the 4 Archetypes I listed. Deciding to do something about my challenges comes from the Queen Archetype. Self-compassion can be found in the Lover Archetype. Persistence comes from the Hero Archetype. And the faith/belief that I can actually change comes from the Catalyst Archetype.
The Core Four
So, how do the Core Four Archetypes help us in overcoming challenges? Let’s take a look at each of them.
The Queen (or Ruler) Archetype is the epitome of decisiveness and command. The Queen calls the shots. She knows how to make the tough decisions, how to lead. But she also takes in counsel. She has strong boundaries and balances mercy with justice. The Queen rules with dignity and has high demands of those around her. Yet she is willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her kingdom. Think about a challenge you might have faced when you felt indecisive--you just didn’t know what to do. Maybe it was about what job or school to apply to, or whether or not to move to a new city. The Queen would help you step into your power by gathering and weighing information. And she would give you confidence and energy to make a decision. The Queen knows what to do and when you tap into her energy, you will know what to do as well. The Queen helps you make a decision based on the information you have at hand and own the consequences of your choice. She is a strong force to be reckoned with.
The Lover Archetype is the seat of both our passion and compassion. Within the Lover there is not only eros (physical and sexual desire) but also love for our fellow humans, love for the earth, and love for ourselves. The Lover can help you uncover your deepest desires, embrace a passion, or move you to act with kindness and empathy. Sometimes when we face an obstacle, we get caught up in acting from a scarcity mindset, which leads us to act from a place of fear. The Lover can help us move from fear to love. The Lover can show us when we need to show compassion to others or to ourselves. If we take time to listen to the Lover, we will find that our body often tells us what we really need--when to act boldly and when to slow down. Have you ever been in a toxic relationship, either personally or professionally? If you listen to the Lover, you will know, deep down, what is best for you. The Lover helps you embrace what you need most and then move forward to meet those needs.
The Hero Archetype is associated with boldness, fearlessness, and action. The Hero is on a quest and moves forward with courage, even while facing her fears of the unknown. And the Hero does those things that have to be done, whether she wants to or not. She will slay the dragon, even if she’d rather curl up and read a good book or watch Netflix. I love the energy of the Hero--it is a high energy, very action oriented. There is a physicality to the Hero. Often during a struggle or challenge, it’s easy to want to give up, to feel like there is no way we can find our way out of the mess we’re in. And while the Hero is not immune to these feelings, the Hero does not wallow in them. When we find ourselves feeling paralyzed and unable to act, the Hero Archetype can push us into action. While the Queen helps us decide, the Hero helps us act.
The Catalyst Archetype is all about transformation. There is a magical element to the Catalyst, because transformation and growth are inherently mysterious. The Catalyst can be both fun and seemingly frivolous (like the Trickster or Jester) but is also serious and mystical. By calling on the Catalyst we are daring to believe we can change. We are embracing the unknown and leaning into uncertainty. Using the Catalyst Archetype and allowing transformation is the essence of faith. So, when you are faced with a challenge where you are unsure of the outcome, the Catalyst can help you overcome that fear. Maybe the challenge you face is one that requires you to believe there is a different, better outcome for you, but you fear that either you or your situation will never change. The Catalyst Archetype will help you remember that transformation is possible and give you the faith to make the changes in your life that you need most.
Working with Archetypes
These are just brief descriptions of four of the Archetypes, but there are many more and the possibilities for growth are limitless. Understanding Archetypes can help you make changes to your life and your story. Thinking about the different characteristics of each Archetype can show you a variety of ways to face any situation. You can play different Archetypes off each other, like the Destroyer with the Creator, or the Dreamer and the Realist. They each have important roles in our lives, but usually not at the same time. For example, if you are in a relationship where you typically take on the Shadow side of the Martyr Archetype, you may consider what qualities the Advocate Archetype has and find ways to incorporate those characteristics to help you stand up for yourself, whenever you feel yourself slipping into the Martyr role.
When I find myself getting stuck in unproductive thoughts or behaviors, I will have a dialogue with my different Archetypes. I often have my Critic creating a lot of self-doubt chatter in my mind, so I try and counter those thoughts by giving voice to my Risk-Taker. My Critic is usually coming up with reasons why I can't do something, but my Risk-Taker counters those concerns with providing a lot of reasons why I can do something. Sometimes this has been a powerful enough dialogue to shift me out of self-doubting, self-defeating behaviors and move me into a much stronger emotional position. In fact, I’m getting so good at navigating this particular dialogue that my Critic is not as powerful and domineering as it once was. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful:
First and foremost, I stop and recognize the importance of the Archetype, even if it is functioning from its Shadow side and causing me some harm. I will let it know that I hear it and that I appreciate its concern. I try and remember that at some point in my life, this particular Archetype was tapped into as a means of survival and it probably kept me very safe. I thank it for how it has helped me in the past. Basically, I take time to recognize the Light or Mature side.
Then, I let it know that I have new tools and experiences that allow me to choose a different, more mature way of dealing with my life.
And if that Archetype is still really noisy, I ask myself, “what would the opposite Archetype say to me at this time?” That’s when I come up with listening to those Archetypes that have played a much smaller role in my life, like the Risk-Taker and the Advocate. I’ve even taken this to the point of having a “Team Building Meeting” with many different Archetypes.
Archetypes Empower Us
The amazing thing about utilizing Archetypes is that it empowers us to make some choices about how we interact with others and the meaning we make of our experiences.
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” --Carl Jung
Understanding Archetypes and making active choices on which ones to use in a given situation is how we choose to become. We move from Victim to Hero. When you change your Archetypes, you change your perspective and relationship with your challenges. This is what rewriting your story is all about. And when done with enough practice and persistence, it can end up changing your life.
Learn more about my upcoming virtual workshop-- Rise Above Challenge: Connecting with Archetypal Patterns to Overcome Obstacles. It takes place on April 24 & 25, 2021, 1-3pm (PST, each session). I would love to have you join us and delve into the exciting world of Archetypes!