Most of us, when we think of a hero’s journey, think of a dangerous adventure that only the strongest, most courageous of us are called to take. We think of movie characters like Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader and the Evil Empire in Star Wars or Frodo Babbit, making a journey to dispose of the ring that would give the evil forces complete power in The Lord of the Rings. And we think of the fire fighters who risked their lives in the World Trade Center to bring out survivors before the building completely collapsed. We don’t usually think about ourselves.
While it’s true that life threatening adventures take courage, the real hero’s journey is the journey inside. This journey calls us to face whatever it is that keeps us from fulfilling our life’s purpose and from being happy. Usually, this involves allowing ourselves to feel all those feelings that we would do almost anything to avoid and connecting those feelings to the stories we tell ourselves that keep us stuck.
You may, for example, struggle with your weight. You can probably focus and lose the weight you need to lose for a particular goal — a wedding or high school reunion, a medical mandate. But you may find that once you shift your focus, you gain all the weight you lost back, with interest, a few months later. If you have struggled financially, you have probably been about to get yourself out of debt or at least skate past financial disaster only to slip back into the spending patterns and work patterns that got you in trouble in the first place. Perhaps you start that novel or mapping out that business you’ve always dreamed of, only to give up put it aside. Or perhaps you begin a new relationship hoping that this time it will work out, only to find yourself in the same relationship as you had before, only with a different person.
Whatever pattern you get stuck in, you’re there because of the stories you have been telling yourself. Maybe the story is, “If I don’t drown my feelings in food (or alcohol, drugs, work, shopping, gambling or…) I will die.” Maybe the story is, “No one will ever publish my novel anyway so why bother?” or “Even though I think that this is a great idea, I know that I’ll just fail.” Or maybe your story is the classic, “If only I can find the right person, my life will be fine.”
Whatever the story is, to get unstuck, you have to go on your own hero’s journey. You have to go deep into yourself and face your fear and pain. After you sit with your feelings for a while, watching them, without judgment, you’ll notice something amazing: feelings aren’t deadly. They may hurt but they won’t kill you. Better still, you’ll realize that it takes a heck of a lot less energy to sit with your feelings than it does to stuff them down, drown them out or run from them. If you sit with them a bit longer, you’ll notice that rather than getting lost in your feelings, if you watch them rush through like a movie on a screen, they tend to dissipate.
When you’ve made peace with your feelings, you’re ready to trace your story back to its source, back to the memories and experiences that led you to create the story in the first place. If the memory or experience is a traumatic one, be gentle with yourself and remind yourself that while the experience was horrendous, it’s not happening now. Let yourself get grounded back into now. Feel your feet on the floor. Notice how it feels to breathe in and out. Clap your hands together and notice how the sound travels and then dissipates. And remind yourself of three things you have done to make yourself safe.
Once you feel safe enough to move forward, challenge the negative belief that memory left behind. For example, did you really deserve to be humilated by your grandfather when you were eight for eating a piece of pecan pie? Does the fact that your third grade teacher didn’t think your Halloween story was scary really mean that you have no potential as a writer? Does the fact that your father wrote you off because you didn’t make the varsity football team mean that you’ll fail at everything you do?
Challenging the beliefs you formed in reaction to your memories and experiences is like slaying an inner dragon. It’s not enough to kill the dragon. In order to come back whole, you have to heal the wound(s) that the happened when the memory was formed. This will allow you to change at the core of your being and come back with a more empowering story.
If this journey seems too overwhelming to make on your own, take a guide or a group of traveling companions. Heroes don’t usually travel alone. Jesus and the Buddha had disciples. Luke Skywalker had Hans Solo. Frodo Baggins had Sam. It’s OK if you make the journey with a trusted therapist. Better yet, do your work in a supportive therapy or personal growth group. Of all the modes of therapy available, I think psychodrama works best because it allows you to work through your story in action and provides a format that allows you to heal the wounds that have kept you stuck. For more information about psychodrama, check out the American Society of Group Psychotherapy & Psychodrama website. For a listing of practitioners in your area, check out the Psychodrama Board of Examiners site.