What is an archetype, and, perhaps more importantly, why should we care? I like exploring the etymology of words, and Google tells us that “archetype” comes from the Greek arkhetupon, which means “something molded first as a model.” Like a prototype, essentially.
If we move to the world of Jungian psychology, we take this idea into the realm of the psyche. Jung understood archetypes–these prototypes upon which other things are based–as residing in the collective unconscious, which you can think of like a huge soup pot of information that we’re all swimming in, even though it resides outside of our conscious awareness in ordinary, waking life.
I like Wikipedia’s description of Jungian archetypes as “inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world.”
Say what, now? In other words, when these archetypes are floating around in the giant soup pot of the collective unconscious, they exist as pure potential. So, for example, we have the archetype of the Mother or the Saint or the Victim floating around in our collective soup. Each archetype represents the sum total of the potential that the Mother or the Saint or the Victim represents–all the different ways that we could express the energy of the Mother, the Saint, or the Victim in our own minds; in our interactions with others; in art, like movies, myths, and books; and so on. And these are just three examples–there are countless others. There’s an archetype for Love, Power, Justice…and the list goes on.
So, why does this matter in our lives? Well, you can think of these archetypes as the universal paint palette. We all have access to the full set of paints, but how we use them (or don’t use them, as many of us paint with a limited set of colors), dictates the ever-evolving painting that is our life. It dictates whether we experience our life as a puddle of muddy colors or a multi-dimensional masterpiece.
I love this definition of archetypes taken from a fascinating novel, The Seed Collector: Archetypes are “every possible shape an ego can inhabit.” And because our egos are typically front and center when we’re interacting with the world (and when we’re interacting with ourselves), the shapes our ego inhabits defines how we experience life.
In short, our relationship to these archetypes is mega important.
How to Work with Archetypes
All right, so now what? We know the archetypes are super important, but what are we supposed to do with this information?
I’m glad you asked. There are enough answers to this question to keep us busy for multiple lifetimes, because you can explore your relationship to the archetypes through magick, therapy/psychology, religion, ritual, meditation, bodywork, tarot, astrology, etc. But I want to leave you with a very powerful exercise given to me by my Guides. You can explore this exercise in meditation, in journaling, and while you’re going about your daily life. Combine all three approaches and you’ll be treated to rich insights that can propel your personal growth like you wouldn’t believe.
Recall the last time you fell in love or in lust with someone. Really try to put yourself in that space where you couldn’t wait to see this person, where your thoughts were consumed by them, where you felt electric and alive in their presence.
Give yourself time to really embody this experience. And if you’re in this place right now, lucky you! This exercise will be even easier for you.
Now, identify one quality that you perceive in the other person that really lights you up, a quality that you really, really love about them. If this is someone from your past and that love is now in the past tense, recall back to the honeymoon stage and identify one of the qualities that made you fall for this person.
Do you have a quality in mind? All right, now imagine yourself in a situation with this person when they are exhibiting this desirable quality. If it was their sense of humor, imagine being with them as they’re making you laugh. If it’s their ability to listen, imagine being with them as they’re listening intently to what you’re saying.
Staying in the scene, shift your focus internally and take your time as you home in on what, in you, is being activated by the other person’s amazing quality. Perhaps their sense of humor activates in you a feeling that life is fun or safe or enjoyable. Perhaps their ability to listen activates in you the feeling that you’re interesting or smart or worthy.
If you’re visual, you can imagine this quality in them traveling in the form of colored light into your body. See what happens when it enters your energy field. See how you feel. Do any images or memories come to mind? Any thoughts or sounds ? Any physical sensations?
When the experience feels complete, write down your impressions and ground and center yourself in the present.
Dancing With Archetypes
Okay, so what just happened in this exercise? One of the most common ways that we interact with these archetypes is by projecting them onto other people and events. While there are a host of reasons, depending on your views, as to why we do this, my personal experience leads me to believe that one primary reason is it feels safer and more manageable to perceive these qualities as “out there.” If they’re projected onto another person or situation then they’re not our responsibility, and we don’t really have to do anything about them.
When we’re falling in love with another person, I believe that one of the reasons this experience is so intoxicating (beyond the potent cocktail of chemicals flooding our bodies and brains, of course) is that we are able to project all of these idealized images onto the other person, and in that honeymoon stage, we selectively filter out anything that might contradict this ideal. We’re able to take this ideal we hold in our minds and believe that it really exists in the world in the form of our beloved.
These idealized images, though, have very little (and at times, absolutely nothing) to do with who the other person is; they have much more to say about who we want to be. Notice, I didn’t say who we want the other person to be but rather who we want to be.
When I met my husband, I wanted to feel safe and secure, not only because this is a pretty standard human desire but because my past was anything but. My internal world felt like a chaotic brew of fear and instability most days (and my external world was a mirror of this internal state), and I wanted to find my safe harbor in the storm. The calm amidst the chaos.
And so, I projected that stability and calm onto my husband. He was the rock in the relationship.
Until he wasn’t. My husband, of course, is human. He can’t always be stable and calm, nor should he have to be in order for me to feel stable and secure within myself. He’s his own person, not a projection of who I want him to be. Or, more to the point, who I want to be but am afraid to own.
By projecting the qualities of Safety and Stability onto my husband, I absolved myself of the responsibility to activate and cultivate those experiences for myself. And herein lies the trap of projection: Sooner or later, the repository of our projections reveals themselves to be a person in their own right, someone who exists far beyond the bounds of our ideals, and the illusion shatters.
Where we become stuck is when we assume that this is the fault of the other. They’re such a jerk. They aren’t who I thought they were. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, when the honeymoon period ends, we often snatch back our precious projections from our partner and go off to find someone else to project them onto.
When we begin to recognize what we are projecting onto the other person, which the above exercise helps to uncover, we can then ask ourselves, where is this quality lying dormant in me, yearning to be awakened? In my example, how can I create my own sense of Safety and Security, rather than expecting my husband to create that for me? For me, the beginning of that journey toward self-activated Safety and Security involved therapy, meditation, journaling, spending a lot of time in nature, and yoga–all done with the intention of getting to know those parts within me that felt unsafe and insecure and welcoming them back home.
When we take back our projections, we are then able to see other people as people in their own right. I’m not sure that we can ever get to a state completely free of projections (while we’re physical beings leading human lives, at least), but my experience says that the more projections we reabsorb and integrate, the more empowered we feel, because we’re owning our ability to interact with and channel these archetypes ourselves. And we are better able to love others for who they are and not merely for their ability to mirror back the qualities we want to see in ourselves.
The Button Pusher Technique
Here’s one more dimension to this practice that is truly life changing: Not only do we project desirable qualities onto other people and situations, we, of course, also project undesirable qualities, such as Selfishness, Pettiness, Hate, and Anger–all of those archetypes that feel like a hot potato we can’t wait to pass off to someone else.
In the same way that we can take back our desirable projections and reintegrate them so, too, can we own the projections that are less than desirable. A powerful way to start this process is to use what I call the Button Pusher Technique.
Imagine that you have a giant console of buttons inside your head. If you’ve seen the movie Inside Out, you have a ready-made visual. In order to feel anything, we push buttons on our internal console. Here’s the key: We are the ones doing the button pushing. No one else has the ability to climb inside our heads and wrestle the console out of our control. If a button is getting pushed, you can know, with 100% certainty, that the finger on the button…is yours.
Let’s say I’m talking to my dad and I feel like he’s uninterested in what I’m saying and, by extension, uninterested in me. For most of my life, I would feel one of two things in this situation: unworthiness, which spurred an almost manic need to figure out how to be what I thought my dad wanted me to be so I could then be the object of his interest, or rage, which felt so overwhelming that I would start to shut down emotionally and feel hollow and…adrift is the best word I can think of.
In either case, I experienced this as my dad pushing the Unworthy Button or the Rage Button, when in fact, there I was, standing at the console, pushing buttons.
There’s an important distinction I want to make, and please hear me on this: Taking back your projections does not mean that the other person is this pure, innocent saint who can do no wrong and we’re simply projecting any perceived poor qualities onto them. This line of thinking tends to lead to resisting the process of taking back our projections, because it feels so unfair that the other person isn’t “on the hook” anymore, and/or putting up with shitty behavior because we think everything the other person does must just be our own projection.
When we take back our projections, we do this in order to see ourselves and other people more clearly, and what we see with this added clarity might, in fact, be that the other person is acting like a turd and we don’t want to be around it anymore. Perhaps we see that we’re being a turd and we need to clean up our act with a huge helping of radical self-acceptance. Either way, we become clear on what is ours to deal with and what is the other person’s domain.
The archetypes are universal sources of immense power, available to each and every one of us. The more we explore our personal relationship with these powers, the more we are able to channel them in effective ways. We’re able to paint the picture of our life with more brilliant colors, and in so doing, we feel whole and integrated.
We’re no longer scattering these powers around us, projecting them here and there and hoping that other people and events will be the way we want them to be in order to maintain our relationships with these powers.
We bring the powers within.
We cultivate those archetypal relationships from the Inside Out.
And we reclaim our wholeness.