It is one of the tenets of being human that we are all inclined to “be” a certain way—and then cling to that identity. But where do those original definitions come from? Below, Carder Stout, a Jungian psychotherapist who practices in Los Angeles, explains their primordial origins—and what we can all do to ensure that they’re serving, rather than hindering us.
The Wisdom of Archetypes
You’re at a cocktail party, and someone describes an incident that resonates with you completely. You listen intently because it almost feels like your story. The similarities to your own life are uncanny. You’ve been there. Actually there. You understand the specific nature of her plight. You feel connected and share an unspoken kinship with her emotional state. You think to yourself, “This feels so oddly familiar. Have I had this exact conversation before? Am I having a déjà vu?” No, you are not going crazy. In fact, there is a simple explanation to this powerful moment—you are connecting with an archetype.
Ah yes, archetypes. Many of us instinctively know their meaning, yet would be hard-pressed to define them. Archetypes are universal patterns of energy that reflect our collective human experience, transcending time, place, and even language. Appearing in many different forms—from the most heroic faces of our humanity to the darkest and more fearful—archetypes allow us to express and understand the storylines of our lives. Through them, we tell the tales of our tragedies and triumphs; our weaknesses and strengths; and the life lessons that are a part of our soul’s evolution. So when we are talking about shared patterns of thought, feeling, belief, or behavior, we are referring to archetypes.
From the moment we take our first breath as infants, we come into the world with a developed sense of morality. We understand the difference between good and evil. We sense the opposition between safety and threat, between love and fear. Where does this knowing, this information, come from? These instinctive feelings are also archetypes. We have a primordial connection to them that long precedes our birth in the world. As the stars exploded and planets were formed, archetypes began to take shape. They are the original imprints of the ideas that mold our perceptions and direct our movement through life. We are born with certain fundamental knowledge that is embedded in our DNA—information that is not only passed down from previous generations but dates back to the beginnings of all life. Looking into the mysteries and messages that archetypes hold for us is a powerful way to grow and evolve.
Sometimes we feel stuck in life, repeating patterns of behavior that do not serve us. This repetition demonstrates some of the power of the archetypal field. Archetypes possess the ability to pull us in with a commanding surge of energy. Once we begin identifying with a certain archetype, we can take on its characteristics and not realize it. The qualities of the archetype become fused with our personality. The archetype can then become a dominant force that is capable of doing considerable harm until we face the life lessons it is attempting to offer us.
There are five universal archetypes that powerfully illustrate this phenomenon: the Puella/Puer, the Victim, the Fighter, the Savior, and the Martyr. As you read a brief summary of each, see if you identify with any of the characteristics and their inherent lessons.
The Puella (Puer is the masculine) is the child inside of you that is forever young—never wanting to grow old. The Puella is playful, adventurous, and even irreverent. People with strong Puella tendencies spend more time doodling in books than they do reading and studying them. They love to daydream about future scenarios where they are blissfully free of any responsibilities. Puellas are often creative and express themselves best through their artistic nature. Whether engaged as a profession or a hobby, Puellas are often actors, musicians, dancers, poets, and painters who lose themselves in the enchantment and promise of their art.
However, as the Puella grows older, the childlike energy can hold them captive. Puellas have often experienced some type of abuse or neglect from their primary caregivers. They may have been raised by narcissistic parents and did not receive the attention and love they needed to flourish. Therefore Puellas may create an imaginary place to retreat to when life feels overwhelming. Puellas are repelled by the adult world, which seems too complicated, challenging, and unforgiving.
Yet, while they rebel against the natural arc of their psychological development, the requirements and pressures of the real world eventually calls them out. They reach a critical point where they must choose between their child and adult selves. If they remain stuck in the liminal space between, the Puella ends up feeling lost, misunderstood, and ultimately depressed by the prospect of growing up.
To the Victim, the world is an unfair place where feelings, needs, and wants are either ignored or unwelcome. More than simply knowing what it feels like to be mistreated and abused, the Victim expects to be devalued, whether by their family members, friends, or society at large. Victims have a difficult time defending themselves and rarely speak out on their own behalf. They hold their emotions inside, and the silent rage they feel often mutates into a depressed state of existence. Victims do not have a developed sense of who they are and suffer from low self-esteem. Deep down, they believe that they deserve to be treated poorly, but it still frustrates and hurts them. Victims are envious of others and compare their ongoing challenges with people who they consider to be more fortunate. They don’t realize or believe that they play a part in their own fate and therefore point the finger at the perpetrators of injustice. Victims look for sympathy, colluding where possible with other victims who live under the same bank of dark clouds. “Misery loves company” is one of their mottos. Victims never genuinely take responsibility themselves, but instead condemn others for their misfortune—blaming parents, bosses, partners, their children, friends, society, the government, or an imperfect world for their woes.
The Fighter archetype is present in people who are perpetually going against the grain. Fighters believe in a cause (or two) and want to have their point of view heard. If their opinion differs even the slightest bit from yours, they will let you know. Fighters hold their beliefs to be the truth (“the way it is”) and often will fervently explain their position to ensure that you understand and ultimately agree with them. Fighters do not back down and are known to take action based on their beliefs. On the plus side, it is wonderful to have a Fighter in your corner if you want to get something accomplished, but there will be no calm in the center of their storm of activity. Kiss your serenity goodbye when the Fighter is in your immediate circle. They often attempt to demonstrate or prove their strength through psychological and/or physical domination. But underneath, there are feelings of disconnection and sadness. As a defense mechanism used to hide their true fragile nature, Fighters often lash out in anger. Needless to say, they’re not the easiest of romantic partners, often exerting their aggressiveness on “the domestic battlefield.” While Fighters typically work hard to develop their intellectual resources, they often shy away from their spiritual nature. Similarly to the Victim, Fighters are overburdened. But rather than retreat in defeat, they push on in their certainty that they must reach the top of the mountain and plant their flag.
The Savior archetype takes hold of people who are naturally inclined to be caretakers. The Savior is overflowing with a desire to be helpful and always reliable in a crisis. Saviors frequently express their sympathy for those in distress and often become over-involved in the lives of others. Saviors define themselves through their philanthropic pursuits and believe their hearts to be guided only by noble intentions. Saviors do not want credit for their selfless behavior because their acts of benevolence infuse them with a sense of fulfillment that far surpasses their need for credit. They burrow into the needs and issues of their friends and family and usually neglect their own lives. They often arrest or abandon their own psychological and emotional growth in order to fully be available on the front lines of those they love. This is an avoidance technique that arises from the unconscious to protect them from having to address unresolved trauma held within the depths of their own psyche. Saviors are usually burdened with unattended wounds from the past that are buried deeply. It’s easier to focus attention on the lives of those surrounding them than it is to face the paralyzing fear of addressing the old pain. Saviors may be wonderfully supportive parents, partners, and friends, but they suffer when they are alone. Saviors are codependent by nature and cannot find happiness through their own merits. It is only through their relationships with others that they find some semblance of joy.
The Martyr archetype is expressed by those who are filled with passion and a sense of purpose. Similar to the Fighter, Martyrs aligns with a cause and work tirelessly toward furthering their mission. Martyrs are often unconventional in their belief system, firmly standing in opposition to a more established perspective or mode of operation. There is a rebellious spirit in the Martyr’s blood that compels them to question authority and fearlessly oppose any injustice. Martyrs are always ready to join the picket lines and will not relent until they have been heard. They are quick to judge others and get a sense of power from their misguided belief that the underdog is always right. They can be tyrannical in their opposition to tyranny. Martyrs are hindered by an inability to remain humble, as they often believe that they are speaking for the masses. They are unable to see past the singular nature of their calling and easily become blinded by the potency of their righteousness. The omission of self at the core of martyrdom leads to an underdeveloped psyche and little desire to evolve or grow as an individual. Martyrs attach themselves to an idea and put the blinders on. They will live or die by their stringent beliefs and place the lives of others before their own. There is a beauty to the selflessness of Martyrs, but their strength is often overshadowed by an internal emptiness. Even in a room full of people, the Martyr feels alone.
Receiving the Gifts of Awareness
In order to reconcile with the archetypes that may be controlling our identity, we must first become aware of them. We must admit to ourselves who is running the show. They are squatters who have taken up residence in our psyches and grown all too comfortable with our kindhearted hospitality. But this is understandable, because we have been uninformed and have therefore allowed them to thrive in our unconscious without resistance. Archetypes are like once-cherished guests who have outstayed their welcome or family members during the holidays who have decided to stay for another week. It is now time for us to graciously nudge them out the door.
But how do we evict them without discarding the wisdom they have to teach us, without disrupting the positive attributes of our authentic self? How do we not throw the baby out with the bath water? What I have found in my many years of work as a therapist is that there is no need to worry.
Your essential nature will continue to guide your intuition, and now with far more room to breathe. Not only will your true character remain unfettered, but finally it will be able to flourish.
And these changes can happen with ease.
Ask yourself if you feel dominated by a specific way of thinking. Is there a pattern of behavior that is not allowing you to move forward? Are you lying in a trench of negative beliefs? If so, you have likely been holding hands with an archetype and probably for a long time. Here is a simple formula to assist you in your process of emotional and psychological integration:
- Describe the pattern in a few sentences.
- Name the archetype that is associated with the pattern. Is it one of the five described here?
- Describe how this archetype has limited you—what it has cost you.
- Describe the wisdom this archetype holds for you—the gift it has been waiting to offer you until you were ready to receive it. Is there a quality or strength that it is reflecting to you?
Now you can simply unclasp your fingers and let it go. By engaging in this simple process, you are ready to move forward with greater access to the fullness of who you are—more empowered and ready to express your highest potential.
Dr. Carder Stout is a Los Angeles-based therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, where he treats clients for anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma. As a specialist in relationships, he is adept at helping clients become more truthful with themselves and their partners.