The Hero’s Journey and the Heroic Ego
Scott D. Gilliam, PhD, LMFT
The archetype of the Hero is a popular one in our culture. It is the winner, the one who works hard and wins the day, he or she who defies all odds to make it on top or masters their own emotions and thoughts. In this view the Hero is a perfect person who has learned to master him or herself.
The hero’s journey from the perspective of Carl Jung is the path of Individuation which pulls us to become most fully who we are. However, the resulting perfection is much different than the ego’s for it contains the whole psyche of an individual, the light, and the dark, strengths and weakness, and even one’s virtue and vice.
When the Ego literalizes the Hero it can be our greatest downfall, for it is not our weaknesses or inadequacies that harm us or create obstacles on our path, but the way the Ego covers them up. In fact, our wounds and inadequacies are places of deep wisdom and insight, allies on the path of the Self. The Ego often feels it must be strong and go it alone, but the Hero’s quest always includes allies on the way, welcome aid that comes in the most surprising ways. The Hero never goes it alone but enlists companions on the journey.
Often this journey begins when there is some trauma or task that the ego just cannot heroically conquer. This is the first time many people realize that the Little King of the psyche is really just a child playing at being the real Self. It is telling that some form of trauma often brings people into therapy, and to the threshold of the hero’s journey. This means that to begin, the ego’s preferences of reality must be made small, so one is ready to accept a larger perspective in life. To embark on the path of true courage and heroism is to surrender to a process while pushing forward, embracing the conflict rather than defeating it.
The Hero’s Journey shrinks the ego’s perspective of how things should be and begins the process of viewing the world from a more holistic sense of Self; one of the light and the shadow. To be a true hero we must embrace the light and darkness, and take allies along the way, admitting that we can’t do everything on our own. In fact, one could say, we must be able to admit defeat and allow the true hero the self to emerge.
“In myths the hero is the one who conquers the dragon, not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both have to deal with the same dragon. Also, he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the ‘treasure hard to attain.’ He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself. This experience gives him faith and trust, the pistis [faith] in the ability of the self to sustain him, for everything that menaced him from inside he has made his own. He has acquired the right to believe that he will be able to overcome all future threats by the same means. He has arrived at an inner certainty which makes him capable of self-reliance.” – C. G. Jung in Mysterium Coniunctionis p. 53
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