A Journey of Resilience
In the Colorado foothills where I live, we have a path that traverses an area of the forest that burned down several years ago. Under the burnt remains of these trees we discover a lush underbrush, bursting with new life that flourishes in the fertile earth. Each time I walk this trail, I am reminded that although traumatic life experiences can be devastating, they can also become a powerful force that awakens us to our aliveness. Painful events inevitably shape who we are; however, it is essential that we learn to look beyond the blackened trees of our internal landscape.
American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, described personal transformation as a hero’s journey. You can imagine the hero who must enter the darkness, face challenges, slay the dragon, retrieve the treasure, and emerge stronger. As applied to trauma recovery, we understand that challenging life events can serve as a call to enter the hero’s journey. You may feel as though you have been thrown into an abyss. The dragons you must slay are the inner demons that remain as a result of the painful memories from your past. You walk into the darkness in order retrieve the treasures that exists within you such as inner strength, wisdom, and hope. You emerge with an enhanced sense of meaning and purpose which become the gifts that you have to offer to the world.
“The work of the Hero’s Journey in trauma recovery is difficult; but, this same work can serve as an initiation into wisdom and an awakening of the heart. You can learn to trust in your capacity for new growth.”
–Dr. Arielle Schwartz
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campell described the Hero’s Journey as a “monomyth” which serves as a blueprint for many of our myths, fairytales, books, and movies. This myth is described as a cycle that begins with a phase of freedom and innocence. This period of ease is tragically disrupted by a crisis that sends our hero into exile. To overcome these challenges, the hero must seek supportive resources to face fears and inner demons. The hero must also come full circle—back to his or her community with new found gifts and capacities. After relying upon naïve childlike fantasies, the hero become a mature adult capable of holding complex feelings and ideas in a world that can cause harm. Eventually, the hero becomes a leader, healer, or guide for others.
Perhaps you can relate to this journey in your own life. Maybe, you’ve been launched into crisis due to a shocking traumatic event, the end of a relationship, or a debilitating physical illness. Or, maybe your journey was set in motion as a result of childhood abuse or neglect. The Hero’s journey can guide your process of trauma recovery by encouraging you to find resources to overcome challenges and transform your pain into a source of wisdom.
You might have uncomfortable places that you don’t like to acknowledge or feel. As a result, you might want to reject the call to enter the healing journey. The desire to avoid peering into the darkness is normal. It is human instinct to move away from pain. Even though you might want to run away, explore the resources that help you to step forward toward the discomfort. Psychotherapy, community support groups, journaling, time in nature, or mindful embodiment practices can all help you lean into discomfort at a pace that is right for you.
A Hero’s Journey in trauma recovery gives you the opportunity to discover that you are more powerful than you had previously realized. The result of this process can allow you to feel more grounded, real, and whole because in truth, transformation is ultimately about revealing who you truly are.
Hero’s Journey as Shadow Work
You can think of the Hero’s journey as shadow work. Shadow is a term first introduced by Carl Jung (1981) to describe the repressed parts of the self. Attending to the shadow can give you access to the disowned parts that you might find too risky to bring out into the world. Getting in touch with the hidden or unconscious parts of yourself is an important step in healing from trauma.
Jung described a series of archetypes that are held within a collectively shared unconscious. In addition to the shadow, two primary archetypes are the animus which represents the masculine side of a woman and the anima which represents the feminine side of a man. Here, we see the hero who saves the princess as a metaphor of a man retrieving his inner feminine. However, according to Maureen Murdock, author of The Heroine’s Journey, it could be equally important for a heroine to reclaim her inner feminine, especially if she abandoned this side of herself at previous times in her life.
With this is mind, it would be important for anyone (male or female) who is less in touch with their feminine side to embrace their emotions and sensitively tune into body awareness as part of a journey to trauma recovery. Moreover, seeking balance ultimately involves finding a balance of both masculine and feminine traits. Therefore, anyone (male or female) who is less in touch with their masculine side would need to explore their ability to rationally reflect upon experiences in order to cultivate wisdom and feel empowered to take action in their life rather than remain passive.
Meaning out of Suffering
Successful navigation of your Hero’s Journey can provide you with a sense of purpose. Without purpose, it is easy to feel lost or to feel caught up in the superficial distractions of life. To be aligned with purpose helps you to steer your life in a meaningful direction. However, we can only grow from our challenges or derive meaning about our suffering by committing ourselves consciously to that task.
Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl offers an important perspective about making meaning after traumatic experiences. In his influential book, Mans Search for Meaning (2006) Frankl suggests that trauma asks us to come to terms with the lack of reason or overpowering senselessness that often surrounds acts of violence, abuse, or even natural disasters. It can feel nearly impossible to comprehend such events, especially when they are delivered by fellow humans. However, this is the task set before us; to reflect upon our unique traumatic events or losses and discover that which helps us derive a sense of meaning out of our own suffering.
Meaning making is a very personal process. In other words, there is no universal meaning that is generalizable to all people or situations. The more difficult the challenge, the harder you will have to work to find your inner strength, courage, and sense of hope. Frankl guides the meaning making process by reminding us that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to our circumstances. It is in the power of your beliefs and attitudes that gives you the freedom to reflect on the meaning that you attribute to your life. Furthermore, this involves a quest to determine your own values, to ask this key question—What is important to me and why it is so precious?
I invite you to use the following questions as prompts for personal journaling about the Hero’s Journey in trauma recovery:
- What events in your life have served as a calling to enter a hero’s journey?
- Have you had previous experiences where you discovered that you are stronger than you previously realized. If so, what did you learn about yourself in the process?
- Have you noticed a desire to reject the call to be the hero of your life? If so, what helps you build confidence in your ability to rise up to challenge? What resources do you need to help you navigate these challenges?
- Are you aware of any strengths that you have discovered as a result of difficult life experiences? Have any of these events resulted in positive changes in your relationships in any way? Have they influenced a sense of purpose to your life?
- Do you feel as though you have a sense of meaning in your life? Do you feel unresolved in regards to a sense of meaning or purpose in your life?
There are no correct answers to these questions. Listening to your inner voice is what is most important in this process.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole (Althea press, 2016) and co-author of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to Enhance Embodiment in Trauma Treatment (Norton, 2018). She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.