When going through my midlife transition – usually called a crisis – I found great solace in Joseph Campbell’s notion of The Hero’s Journey.
It provided me with a framework to negotiate my way through the twists and turns of my early 40s and became a resource that has continued to help me ever since.
In this article we’ll explore what The Hero’s Journey is all about and how it can help you make your way through your own crisis or transition, no matter what your age.
Hero with a thousand faces
Campbell’s best selling book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, tells us that throughout history and in all cultures there have been hero-type figures.
From Homer’s Odyssey, written some 3000 years ago, right up to the present day in TV and film, heroes abound.
Think of all your favourite books and films…they all have a hero, a protagonist, a central character who somehow inspires us in our own lives.
As a child growing up in the late 70s and early 80s my heroes were Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush of Liverpool FC!
We watch such people – real or fictitious – and try to emulate them in our own lives. They inspire our actions, our beliefs, our thoughts. They give us hope and teach us that anything is possible, or, at least could be.
Standing at the threshold…
As we go through certain stages of life we are called into action. We know that we must do something and that to stand still is no longer an option.
It’s as if life itself is knocking on our door and telling us to get on with it! The question then becomes, ‘am I willing to answer this call to adventure?’
Am I willing to step out of my comfort zone and enter an unknown territory?
There will be inner doubts. Some people will thwart your intentions. Others will be more supportive.
And that’s the thing because we need the right support network around us before we step over the threshold, before we make the heroic leap into the unknown.
You need friends and to be a friend – to yourself.
The leap into uncertainty
Of course, for many of us, uncertainty is a huge stressor. We cling to the known world, safe in our comfort zones. Even though life is urging us to take action we refuse the calling. And we suffer because of it.
Illness, stress, lack of meaning or purpose in life, depression, anxiety, guilt and regrets, the list goes on. Remaining in our comfort zones becomes less comfortable with each passing year.
Something deep inside gently nudges us at first, then hollers full volume, until we take that heroic step into a new world. This is when The Hero’s Journey begins.
However, you needn’t go unaided on your journey. There is a powerful psychological method to guide you on your way and I call it…
The T.E.S.T. Model
TEST is an acronym that describes certain steps and ‘ways of being’ that, when applied, will help you become the hero of your own life.
So, let’s look at the TEST model in more detail…
T – The first T in TEST is about tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty
Like any hero who starts on an adventure – just as in all the greatest books and movies – we are required to leave our comfort zones and venture into an unknown world.
We don’t know what we will face or how we’ll deal with it. This is about having enough faith and trust in yourself in that, whatever happens, you can deal with it.
Indeed, whatever happens is necessary for your growth and evolution. We can only learn something new when we step into unfamiliar territory.
E – This is about emotional balance
For this to happen we have to unhook ourselves from the emotional patterns of our history. The emotional brain is about high arousal, mostly involving our survival instincts and other unwarranted levels of anger, anxiety, depression etc.
High emotion distorts our perception of reality and entrances us. In effect, emotions hypnotize us.
As we try to make sense of our emotions, we end up creating meanings and stories about ourselves that are far from the truth. This becomes a distorted model of reality.
These stories will serve as a template or reference point from which you then live your life. The brain continually tries to ‘pattern-match’ to this template, looking for supporting evidence for the (erroneous) belief.
This is why we keep repeating patterns in life, despite our best intentions. Promises get broken, old habits return, New Year’s Resolutions soon fall by the wayside. Very un-heroic!
But there is something to help calm that emotional brain. Zen Breathing is something I teach many of my clients as it proves to be one of the fastest ways to create emotional balance.
S – Stands for skills and competences
When the emotional brain calms down we can more easily rediscover our resources and skills which often become overlooked or buried when the survival brain kicks in.
A calmer brain allows you to connect with a higher intelligence within – or outside – of yourself and from there develop your already existing skills, as well as learn brand new ones.
This can be work-based skills, communication skills that help you feel more socially confident, or skills in family life, such as developing more competence as a parent. Or how about creative skills such as a new hobby or learning a musical instrument?
Basically, unless you’re in a real survival situation, the calmer the brain the better it works.
T – The second T in the TEST model is about thinking styles
We now know that the brain processes emotions before thinking. It’s no good just trying to think positively. You need to calm the emotional brain down first.
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Once calmer, you are more able to challenge negative thoughts that are of the black and white or all-or-nothing variety.
For instance, people who suffer from depression are likely to think that if they fail at one thing they are a failure at everything. If they have a ‘bad’ day, the whole week is a disaster.
If a relationship ends they feel as if they will never fall in love again.
This ‘global’ thinking style is governed by the emotional brain as it seeks out a reason or meaning for what we’re experiencing. It often jumps to erroneous conclusions based on our past and the meanings we made years ago, sometimes as far back as early childhood.
Indeed, most of the beliefs and ‘points of reference’ that determine how you see the world today were formed in the first 6 or 7 years of your life.
But the truth is that life isn’t black and white, at least not most of the time. We need to learn to operate in the spectrum of colours in between.
Gathering your resources
Using the TEST model along with the idea of The Hero’s Journey can help you begin the process of breaking free from old conditioning.
Combined, they serve as wonderful resources, like inner mentors, helping you answer the call to adventure and continue on your way.
You step over the threshold into the unknown. There will be tests and challenges. There may even be a ‘dark night of the soul’ or a battle with a fierce rival. But something good will come from it.
Some kind of learning takes place. Old wounds begin to heal. You become more your True-Self, more authentic, more the Real You.
And at some point on The Hero’s Journey you find the ‘boon’, the Holy Grail. You come home to yourself, you experience a moment of illumination, your soul is re-awakened. Life starts to make sense at last.
The hero’s return
But The Hero’s Journey doesn’t end there. He or she doesn’t remain in some kind of euphoric, enlightened, blissful state, unlike Homer’s Lotus Eaters.
No, the journey is not yet complete. The next stage is the return home with the ‘boon’, with the knowledge, learnings and wisdom you’ve acquired.
You return home as a new you. And then you share this knowledge.
Life is then about service to others. You’ve made the journey yourself and now it’s time to give others hope that they, too, can also take The Hero’s Journey when their time comes.
And it will!
So, I wonder what stage you’re at on the Hero’s Journey? Have you answered the ‘call to adventure’? Are you going along the ‘road of trials’?
Maybe you’re in a ‘dark night of the soul’ phase? Or perhaps you’ve found your own Holy Grail and have returned home?
In the words of T. S. Eliot…
We shall not cease from explorationT. S. Eliot – Little Gidding
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I’d love to hear what you think of this article so please leave a comment below. Where are you on your own Hero’s Journey?
There are some great books that will help you on your Hero’s Journey, just as they did me…