Monday, May 13, 2013

The Jung and the Restless

Caroline Myss, Archetypes: Who Are You?

Most of us, at times, feel like guest stars in life’s drama. Caroline Myss suggests that’s because we don’t know the real role we were born to play. In our dreams, we envision ourselves in one position—victorious warrior, vibrant artist, rebellious firebrand. But we accept some other workaday role because we don’t grasp which is our real life. We have missed, or failed to act upon, our true archetype.

Archetypes, as they appear in this book, derive from the theories of psychologist Carl Jung, who broke with Freud over spiritualism versus materialism. Myss’ archetypes, though, don’t strictly accord with Jungian archetypal theory; her ideas have more in common with Joseph Campbell’s “heroic journey” model. Though Myss doesn’t directly cite Campbell, his Hero with a Thousand Faces casts a long shadow over this book.

Briefly, each person has a life role for which our disposition is uniquely suited. Pause a moment, here, and consider: what do you see yourself doing five years from now? Raising a family? Captaining a rising business? Signing copies of your first novel? That provides a firm clue to what role, what archetype, dominates our psychology. Our life’s mission, then, is to reconcile our actions and situations with our innate archetypal role.

But just because we know our archetypal role doesn’t mean we’ve finished the journey. We may carry an immature archetype, which needs proving through ordeal. Lingering trauma may warp or distort our archetype, requiring us to turn inward and rediscover our correct path. We may even have a false archetype; many of us were ramrodded early into the role our parents, schools, and society chose for us.

This last problem is especially prevalent for women. Though Myss states that both genders have their archetypal prerequisites, she admits she wrote this book primarily for women, who often get trained to accept submissive roles that leave them unfulfilled. Creative, adventurous, or visionary women frequently squelch their true archetype, thinking that they must play an “appropriate” role. I’ve seen such women. They move through their own lives like ghosts.

But if we shed our blinders and accept our natural roles, not only will we know individual fulfillment (Myss says), we’ll increase our ability to promote common good and benefit our society. By undertaking the task for which our dispositions best suit us, we’ll accomplish something nobody else could do for us. Only we ourselves know what that is.

Myss collates ten common archetype families, explaining not only what they mean, but also what unique challenges they face, what gifts they present to themselves and society, and what journeys these people will face as they consummate their roles. Her work rewards careful browsing. Take time to familiarize yourself with them. Some people have more than one. Even if one isn’t your own role, you know people in each category.

At times, Myss ventures into unnecessary mysticism, as Jung himself did. Her postulations on where archetypes originate (Genes? Society? God?) confuse the issue more than they clarify. A brief, separate overview of various theories might interest some readers, perhaps in an appendix or afterword. We want the practical applications, the elucidation of the stories we never realized we tell ourselves, not woowoo spirituality.

Myss also hits heavily on the concept of myth. Don’t misunderstand what this word means in context. “Myth” signifies the stories we tell which allow us to understand topics too vast to address directly. Have you ever had a friend try to sum you up, and thought, no, that’s not me at all? You and your friend have conflicting myths. Perhaps you should examine your myth to understand where your life and your archetype got out of sync.

This book has a companion website,, to help you find what archetype in Myss’ lengthy gallery explains you. I don’t care for the website. It’s all flashy design and radio buttons, forcing readers into excessively narrow categories. Standardized testing works as poorly for psychology as it does for schoolchildren. Instead, take time with the book, finding which implicit narrative best describes you.

Don’t mistake this book for a profound exegesis on Jungian psychology or the human condition. Myss writes to help individuals take control of their lives by recognizing their roles and attendant myths. As Joseph Campbell asserted, each of us has some task we were born to fulfill, and until we do that, we will shamble through life, hungry and never satisfied. Caroline Myss wants to help you find your role. Accept her help with care.

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