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The Heroes Journey

Posted on July 10, 2015

Thanks to Spotify, I have spent a great deal of time lately reconnecting with one of my favorite authors, Joseph Campbell. Campbell is known mainly for his research on mythology across diverse cultures and Spotify has put days’ worth of his lectures on their streaming service. While many of these lectures repeat common themes, I used it as an opportunity to really dig deeper into his work and conclusions.

I’ve always been pulled towards Campbell because I believe he speaks about the human experience in a way that is powerful, and connects us across cultures and time. One of his well know works is The Hero with 1000 Faces, where he presents the hero’s journey from normal life, into darkness, and back up to the light, taking with her/him all the power and wisdom gained on the journey. Since learning about this model years ago, I’ve used it as an interesting filter through which to view movies, current events, and popular culture.

After listening to him present this model for the hundredth time on Spotify, I suddenly had a realization. I shifted my thinking of the hero from religious and fictional characters (i.e., Jesus, Luke Skywalker, and Cinderella) to the traumatized clients I’ve worked with over the years. Suddenly, the commonalities of their journeys started to be described in Campbell’s examples and, while he used mythical characters from Homer and Hindu scriptures, I saw both the challenges facing my clients and the strength they seemed to achieve when these challenges are overcome. As I sat through another 15 hours of lectures, I saw our clients’ own journeys, which in many ways are much more difficult and powerful than any in our current or past mythologies.

In many of my trainings, I have a group activity where I have people consider the words “trauma victim,” and what role trauma plays in the “victim’s” life. First off, I always state that everyone who has been traumatized is a victim, and that the exercise is created to show the power of words, labels, and perceptions. Next, I have people consider the words “trauma survivor,” and the role that trauma plays in the “survivor’s” life. All groups eventually come to the same point – that a “victim” is under the control of the traumatic event and that the event (and pain it caused) is more powerful than their ability to cope. On the other hand, the survivor has become more powerful than the event and associated suffering. This strength transcends the trauma and they can bring it to other aspects of their life.

We then discuss the power of perception and how as long as someone sees themselves as a victim, they remain stuck in the victim mindset and how those that come to see themselves as survivors gain strength from overcoming past suffering. While this group activity makes its point, I always struggled with the word survivor. It didn’t seem powerful enough to describe the challenges and suffering facing many of our clients. When I made the connection between the Hero’s Journey and the process of achieving post-traumatic growth, I found the word I was looking for to describe not only the process, but the person who takes on the journey to growth and recovery: Hero!

Imagine for a moment how our clients’ lives would change if they could view themselves as a hero, or someone that has gained strength and wisdom from a difficult journey that many people, unfortunately, do not survive. We, as a society, already stick numerous labels on those we work with: homeless, mentally ill, addicted, prisoner, HIV-positive, abuser, unemployed, etc. Even if people work their way out of these labels, we often put on new labels that remind them of their past: recently released incarcerated, is my current favorite (meaning I hate it most right now!).

What if, instead of seeing themselves as homeless, addicts, criminals, they see their current state as just part of the journey? I believe this does a couple of things. First, they realize that the problem is not who they are but a struggle to overcome (the old Motivational Interviewing strategy of separating the person from the problem). Second, the Hero’s Journey shows the difficult of the challenge. Our society too often assumes that if the person experiencing homelessness just got off their ass, or the person struggling with addiction just stopped using, the problems would just go away. We know it isn’t this simple, and to view the pain, suffering, and consequences of traumatic experiences as part of an epic journey can be both reassuring and empowering. Finally, viewing current struggles as part of a journey (allowing that every journey is unique) provides our clients and ourselves with a framework for recovery and growth which can help normalize the experience and spark the light of hope that is so critical to change.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will lay out a new Hero’s Journey specifically for those who have experienced trauma and suffering. As you will see next week, I believe in many ways the challenges facing our traumatized clients are even greater than Campbell’s heroes, as they had no choice of whether or not to be thrust into darkness. As a new idea that is just making it into my presentation, I would love any feedback and thoughts on what I present. This week my question to you is: If we were able to help our clients shift their perception of themselves from victim to hero, what would the result of this shift be in their lives?

Dedication. I want to dedicate this week’s post to Ruth Rihm. For 40 years of my life I was lucky enough to have a wonderful grandmother who experienced so much in the 90 years she was on earth. Facing cancer she chose to live the best life she could instead of undergoing another round of chemotherapy. Her courage in the face of death makes her a hero in my mind. I’ll miss you grandma and hope the next journey was a great as the one you just lived.

2 responses to “The Heroes Journey”

  1. Karen says:

    Matt, I absolutely love your work. Reframing makes such a huge difference in who we think we are and who we think others are. Thank you for this wonderful post.

  2. Karen says:

    Matt, I absolutely love your work. Reframing makes such a huge difference in who we think we are and who we think others are. Thank you for this wonderful post.

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