Archetypes might seem like a mystical notion and in one sense this is true. When Plato describes archetypes, he is referring to the perfect, spiritual origins of things which reside in the world of forms. All things that have a physical manifestation, according to Plato, can attribute their source to an archetype. In another sense, an understanding of archetypes can lead to deep personal insights into the forces of the psyche – our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviours. It was Dr. Carl Jung (1875-1961) who brought an understanding of psychological archetypes into play in the field of depth psychology.
Jung believed that standing behind our individual personal unconscious, which is unique to each of us, “there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal and impersonal nature that is identical in all individuals”. (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p. 43). When someone mentions a warrior, for example, we easily conjure an image of what this means. A warrior has courage and discipline, can focus on goals and aims to win. The Warrior is seen as an archetype in a Jungian framework. We all have this energy in us, at least as latent potential.
Another example of an archetypal energy is the Caregiver or nurturer. This part of us recognises the suffering of the world and wants to help. It is characterised by empathy and compassion. Again, we all have this capacity in us.
We experience psychological archetypes as energy. Do I feel courageous and competitive? Do I feel the world is there to be shaped by me? If so, then the Warrior in me is strong. Or am I a caring type, moving through life mainly in response to the needs of others as I encounter them? The more clarity we gain about ourselves, the more we are able to differentiate the sometimes-conflicting energies we have inside of us.
We can talk about 12 key psychological archetypal energies which gradually emerge over the course of a lifetime. A couple of other examples which arise early in life are the Innocent, which is our open, trusting, relational nature, and the Orphan, which holds the other end of the trust continuum and leads us to become independent, discerning, and critical in our thinking.
Here’s where it can get complex: Dr. Carolyn Myss observes that ‘some archetypes step out from the backdrop of this great collective to play a much more prominent role in people’s lives, and that each of us has our own personal alignment of key archetypes’ (Sacred Contracts, 2001 p.14). What Myss refers to here will either characterise our unique personality or manifest as an imbalance and distort our personality and give us scope for personal growth. There are differing reasons this can happen:
- We are naturally called upon to manifest different energies as life situations change. When you have a child, for example, you will probably feel very protective and caring for this baby and have a corresponding surge in your Caregiver energies. Or when you encounter something you simply have to have or do, you might pull out all stops and risk things you might not otherwise risk, in order to get your desired outcome. That’s the Warrior being called forth in you. These energies change with circumstance.
- Another thing to consider is that we have a purpose in life. In this case one or two of our archetypes might remain at the forefront throughout life. When I do profiles for people, I can be reasonably sure a teacher of young children will have a high score for the Caregiver archetype. Life does not make sense to them without being in a caring role. It is their core value. Or if a person is in late life where the Sage or Ruler archetype are taking the ascendency, yet their Warrior is still acting as a lead archetype, there is a good reason for this.
- The other possibility – and this is where an understanding of the balance of our archetypal energies can bring deep insight – is that we have adapted our personality in ways which ensured our survival, or found ways to gain a sense of belonging and acceptance, yet these adaptive traits are now holding us back. If, for example, we were rejected or neglected as a child, the Innocent referred to above did not get a chance to enjoy the trusting openness that a secure childhood would nurture. Instead, if the people who were charged to care for us did not or could not, then we needed to take our emotional wellbeing into our own hands. Instead of open and trusting, we became wary, independent and discerning. Maybe as adults we still hold back from relationships and critically appraise others. And maybe we want to bring some balance now, because we’ve decided the distance between ourselves and others is no longer the best thing.
The gift of seeing our energies through the lens of Archetypal psychology is that we can get a sense for all of these parts of ourselves and understand what drives us, for better or worse. We can shine a clear light on our gifts and also see where our patterns might be entrenched and holding us back. More importantly, we can learn how to bring balance to areas that we wish to address.
In the name of growth…. Godspeed….