“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.”
~ Richard Bach
We are living in a time of great uncertainty. Every news cycle seems to produce a new story about a prominent man sexually harassing women in his orbit. No one knows who will be called out next, but we all know that this string of exposés is far from over.
I’ve found it interesting to hear from women who summoned up the courage to speak out only after hearing other women do so first. And even more interesting to hear that some of them didn’t understand that what they’d experienced actually was harassment until news stories broke about others enduring similar treatment. It’s like a part of our collective unconscious is waking up, and linking women all over the country in unexpected solidarity.
It might seem odd that anyone could lack the self-awareness to know she’d been violated, but it’s really not. We all strive to know and understand ourselves, but few of us achieve that knowledge and understanding beyond the surface level. We fail to identify and face our strengths, weaknesses, and defining traits, which leads us into the same behaviors and frustrations over and over again. Leadership expert Warren Bennis says that true self-awareness is “the most difficult task any of us faces. But until you know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word.”
One of our strongest desires as human beings is to have the freedom to be ourselves, and when we do, we access the power to transform our passions into realities. But we may face obstacles, both internal and external, to this knowledge and freedom. We’ve all heard the parables; A fish swims in the ocean, but out of water he struggles. An acorn grows to be a towering oak tree, but only when given the proper nourishment.
To live the life we want we need to know ourselves. But this is easier said than done.
Self-understanding through archetypes
“Extraordinary individuals stand out in the extent to which they reflect—often explicitly—on the events of their lives, large as well as small.”
~ Howard Gardner
Although we must explore and embrace our uniqueness, sometimes the things that unite us make us stronger. This has definitely been the case with women who are speaking up about sexual harassment; Their shared experiences have created a tidal wave of courage and support. Along these same lines, our individual quests for self-knowledge can be kicked into high-gear if we begin them by examining our relationships with timeless archetypes. By seeing ourselves in these eternal dimensions—Mother, Lover, Warrior, and Sage—we begin to unlock the tools we need to understand ourselves. And the deeper we dive, the more able we are to leverage these tools to grow our power and achieve our goals. These tools can help us live more productive lives, both professionally and personally.
When we consider the four archetypes, we’re better able to understand ourselves. This self-knowledge is crucial because we can build happy lives only on the foundation of our own natures, our own interests, and our own values. With wisdom, experience, and insight from the four archetypes, we can use our time more productively, generate better ideas, suffer less stress, and get healthier.
Plus contemplation of the four archetypes helps us to better understand and engage with other people. We can live and work more effectively with others when we identify their archetypes. As coworkers and bosses, teachers and coaches, husbands and wives, parents and children, health care providers and patients, we live more harmoniously when we see and acknowledge each other on deeper levels.
Understanding the four archetypes gives us a richer, fuller understanding of the world.
Four faces in flux
When I describe the four archetypes, I sometimes get the impression that people want to identify with only one. But although some of us may resonate with one over the others, they are all part of us. The happiest, healthiest, most productive people are those who have figured out how to harness the strengths of each archetype, counteract the weakness of each archetype, and build their lives accordingly.
It’s also important to note that these faces are fluid. While one may emerge strongly during one phase of life, another may take over as time passes. We are a hybrid of all of them, and our expressions of Mother, Lover, Warrior, and Sage can emerge in isolated or blended ways. In my own life, I have seen my relationships with these four ebb and flow. I’ve sought to find balance among them, and doing so has helped me get in touch with my deepest desires and strive toward my loftiest goals.
Refine without confining
“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3
Bear in mind that the four archetypes framework is meant to help us understand ourselves more deeply, not to limit our sense of identity or possibility. Some people say, “When you define yourself, you confine yourself.” I’d argue that systems of self-definition are very helpful because they serve as starting points for our self-knowledge explorations. This framework isn’t meant to be a box that stunts our growth or a label that captures everything about us. Instead, conceptualize it as a spotlight that illuminates hidden aspects of our nature.
Think of exploring the archetypes as augmenting the best parts of yourself, supercharging traits and strengths that were always there. When your inner Warrior sets goals, she doesn’t just write the book, she gets it published. When your inner Mother gets promoted, she doesn’t just praise her direct-reports, she makes them feel deeply appreciated. When your inner Lover works the lunch shift at the diner, she doesn’t do it on auto-pilot, she speaks kindly to her patrons and gets bigger tips. When your inner Sage goes on her dream vacation, she doesn’t just take photos, she journals and meditates and uses the time to explore her internal landscape. Connecting with each of these aspects within yourself can help you build confidence, achieve more, and have a deeper impact on the world around you.
These archetypes have been a powerful influence on my life, and I’m currently working on a project that will help YOU dig deeper into your own understanding of them. Stay tuned for more posts on this topic, and a few hints about the larger archetype project!