How else can I make sense of part of my experience except to say that I discover myself, or that there is an aspect of me that simply is?
The ideas in this post started with my being puzzled about the books that I like (or feel at home with). I’m pretty heady and like ideas. But I also have a pragmatic heart: I want to know how the ideas can be used, how they can help us see the world differently, or act differently, or change the world. I feel most at home in the world of therapy, teaching, training, coaching and so forth.
I’m pretty wordy too: I read lots of books. And when I’m not reading just to relax, I read for ideas — especially how ideas can be applied to make a difference.
Over the years I’ve come across a few books that I feel at home with — I feel they just fit with me. They are books on archetypes. Archetypes, roughly speaking, are particular kinds of energies or personalities that are part of human nature (they are presumed to occur across cultures) expressed in a particular social role. The sage archetype, for instance, is characterised by detachment and wise counsel — whether this is a tribal shaman or a king’s counsellor. The weakness of these books is their application: they have little concrete about what to do with the archetype in your life. So, I would have expected that I wouldn’t be interested in them for long. And yet I feel they fit me somehow.
This was brought home to me forcefully because I borrowed a book from my local library on archetypes (not a very good one, so it had best remain nameless). It had little original to say, gave little practical guidance, so far as I could see was pretty useless, and yet…I felt that this was my kind of book. This was weird enough to get me thinking.
What I started thinking about was what made these books on archetypes different for me. The feeling I got was relaxation. The therapy-teaching-training-coaching world is about making changes. This usually means an emphasis on choice, seeing that we participate in creating our experience. This can be a liberating and empowering discovery. When I thought about this the feeling I got was an underlying tension — not hopelessness or frustration but some kind of undercurrent nonetheless.
What the archetypes perspective offered me was a sense of wholeness, action flowing effortlessly and naturally from who I am. The emphasis on choice usually means effort and struggle, even when it is in the cause of living more joyfully and easily (the purpose of any educational or therapeutic modality worth the name, in my view).
The emphasis on choosing is grounded solidly on the insight that we participate in making our experience. I believe this to be absolutely true; there is nothing I know of in my own experience or that of others to suggest that this is wrong. I have been thinking about this on and off for twenty-five years, and I know of no evidence that contradicts this insight. Agency, our ability to choose, may be fragile, but it is infinitely precious. It is one of the necessary conditions for any education or therapy which engages the person who wishes to make the change.
And yet…I’m drawn to the archetypal perspective.
Thinking and feeling more about my feeling of relaxation, I realised the difference was the feeling of receiving rather than doing or making.
The sense that we receive ourselves is usually talked about as temperament or spirituality. These perspectives certainly have their difficulties.
Believing that we are of a particular temperament can lead to the sense that we are stuck with responses that affect our relationships badly: e.g., “I’m just an angry person (I can’t help losing my temper/yelling/lashing out)”.
Spirituality can have the sense that the physical is less real or less important, which seems to me to undercut the seriousness of compassion: if physical suffering isn’t real or important then we don’t need to be moved by it or seek to remedy it.
I think these are real and important concerns. An archetypal psychology needs to deal with these sorts of challenges. There are traditions of temperament, spirituality and the archetypes which do attempt to deal with these problems. How successfully they do this would take much longer to examine than this one post.
I hope this makes clear that I don’t think an archetypal approach is without difficulties. What I want to say is that I don’t know how else to make sense of one part of my experience. The part of my experience I mean is the sense that I discover myself, or that there is an aspect of me that simply is.
I feel that some things simply are me and others simply aren’t. I can force myself to do things that aren’t me, and I’ll be less happy. I may get used to them in time, but they will never bring me joy.
Likewise I have come across new ways of thinking (like archetypes) or new forms of artistic expression (like drawing) that feel like they fit me. Other ways of thinking (like logic or the psychoanalytic) or forms of expression (like oil paint) simply don’t fit me.
I have the sense that some things about me I discover — they are already ‘there’. I have the sense that in some way I receive my self — or some aspect(s) of my self. I’m wondering if you have this sense about parts of your experience also. I would love to hear about your experience in the comments.
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