Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Empaths: The Hero's Journey

A lovely woman asked me recently for a story about something called "The Hero's Journey".  And this got me thinking about how this archetype applies to those who are Empaths.  So I thought it might be interesting to explore this topic in more detail.  So let's delve into it a bit, shall we?

The Archetype

Firstly, before we delve deeper into this subject, we must understand exactly what an archetype is.  Wikipedia describes it as:
An archetype is an original model of a person, ideal example, or a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated; a symbol universally recognized by all. In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, personality, or behavior. 
In philosophy, archetypes since Plato at least, refer to ideal forms of the perceived or sensible things or types. 
In the analysis of personality, the term archetype is often broadly used to refer to

  1. a stereotype—personality type observed multiple times, especially an oversimplification of such a type,
  2. an epitome—personality type exemplified, especially the "greatest" such example
  3. a literary term to express details.
Archetype refers to a generic version of a personality. In this sense "mother figure" may be considered an archetype and may be identified in various characters with otherwise distinct (non-generic) personalities. 
Archetypes are likewise supposed to have been present in folklore and literature for thousands of years, including prehistoric artwork. The use of archetypes to illuminate personality and literature was advanced by Carl Jung early in the 20th century, who suggested the existence of universal contentless forms that channel experiences and emotions, resulting in recognizable and typical patterns of behavior with certain probable outcomes.
In essence, an archetype is a prototype or model from which something is based.  As it said, an archetype is a generic form used to represent personalities.

So, now that we have a better understanding of what an archetype is, let's take a look at the archetype called The Hero.  In the book The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler, Vogler breaks down the archetype of the Hero by saying: "The Hero is the protagonist or central character, whose primary purpose is to separate from the ordinary world and sacrifice himself for the service of the Journey at hand - to answer the challenge, complete the quest and restore the Ordinary World's balance. We experience the Journey through the eyes of the Hero."

The Hero's Journey

Now that we understand what an archetype is and what the hero archetype is, it's time to explore an idea called The Hero's Journey. The hero's journey is the path by which the Hero archetype is defined. The essence of the hero is not bravery or nobility, but self-sacrifice. The mythic hero is one who will endure separation and hardship for the sake of his clan. The hero must pay a price to obtain his goal.

The hero's journey during a story is a path from the ego, the self, to a new identity which has grown to include the experiences of the story. This path often consists of a separation from family or group to a new, unfamiliar and challenging world (even if it's his own back yard), and finally a return to the ordinary, but now expanded, world.

Within the hero's journey there are stages which the hero must walk through, in order to achieve his ultimate goal.  Its stages are:

  1. THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
  2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
  3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
  4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
  5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
  6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
  7. APPROACH. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
  8. THE ORDEAL. Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
  9. THE REWARD. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
  10. THE ROAD BACK. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
  11. THE RESURRECTION. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
  12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

The Hero's Inner Journey

The Hero's Journey does not end with the outer journey, which is expressed through the progression of the plot and the gaining of experience.  There is a second level to this process called The Hero's Inner Journey.

At the first level, the outer one existing within the plot, the journey is about achievement. It’s the visible story. It is the chronological order of events experienced upon the road of the journey. Conversely, at the deeper level, the inner journey is one of internal growth  It is the story of fulfillment.  But it is not one that is readily seen, and instead must be perceived through the interpretation of the plot and empathizing with the hero's ever evolving character.

Now within this internal journey, there are three basic character arcs. Character arcs are essentially the status of the character as it unfolds throughout the story. Another way to look at it is, characters begin the story with a certain viewpoint and, through events in the story, that viewpoint changes. So, let's take a look at those three basic character arcs:
  1. To risk being who you really are. The hero learns to stand up for who he is regardless of what others think.
  2. To risk doing what is right. The hero does the honest thing in spite of the consequences.
  3. To risk connecting with others. The hero opens up to relationships even if they bring trouble and sorrow.
What does all of this literary information have to do with being an Empath?  Hmm, interesting question.  Now that we've explored what the hero's journey is, in both the external and internal levels, let's explore a bit more in order to find the answer to this question.

The Empath's Journey

We've explored the classic Journey of the Hero , which is defined by Joseph Campbell and others, as an individual going on a journey of initiation to awaken an inner knowing or spiritual power. The Self emerges as the Hero faces physical and internal obstacles, confronting the survival fears that would compromise his journey of empowerment and conquering the forces arrayed against him. The Hero then returns to the tribe with something of great value to all.  Now, take away the archetype of the Hero and superimpose that of the Empath on this journey.

If you will practice being fictional for a while,
you will understand that fictional characters
are sometimes more real than
people with bodies and heartbeats.
~~Richard Bach

 A newly discovered Empath is generally one who is drowning in their hypersensitivity.  They are confused, afraid, and often times isolated, out of fear of judgment and derision, not to mention the overwhelming pressure they feel when around more than a few people.

Now think of the Ordinary World, which was the first stage in the hero's journey.  And then think of the second one, The Call To Adventure.  Within the journey of the Empath, the call to adventure, which takes them out of the ordinary world, is the discovery of the term Empath.

When we reach stage 3, Refusal Of The Call, this is when an Empath begins to do research about what an Empath is and questions the validity of it.  It is a time when it all seems to be 'to good to be true' because it causes so many pieces of one's life to make sense all at once.

At stage 4, Meeting With A Mentor, what we find is that people who have started researching the term Empath and contemplating how this affects their lives, tend to seek out people of like mind.  They do this to find answers and to feel like they are not alone in this very strange journey, which seems to draw them out of the normal world.

Then at stage 5, Crossing The Threshold, what we see is the Empath beginning to fully accept and even embrace what they seem to be.  During this time we also watch as the Empath discovers all the new rules and rhythms of their new community.    They begin to learn how to center, ground and shield, as well as, how to detach from others.

We could go on in this same vein through the entire list, but that would miss the point of this discussion with to much detail.  You see, Empaths, upon discovering who and what they are, that there is a name for what is happening to them and that they are not just overly sensitive, crazy, or weird, feel as though they have found a purpose for their lives that was otherwise missing.  These can range from simply helping people along their journey to the idea of a great destiny where in they help usher in a new era of spiritual development for mankind.

The point here, isn't to focus on the specific purpose, but to understand that this one single term, Empath, is a catalyst, of sorts, towards the development of a new self awareness.  Much like the Hero's Journey, the realization and recognition of this term thrusts the person, who associates this word with themselves, into a newly discovered world.  It takes them out of their mundane existence, where in, there seemed no way to overcome something that wasn't understood, their overwhelming hypersensitivity toward others emotionally and energetically.

Within that journey, they begin to develop a new identity and a new perception of themselves, where, what once seemed like a handicap, can be utilized as a productive gift instead.  And with this new found purpose and confidence, it can allow people to attempt things they wouldn't have dreamed possible before this time; to risk being themselves, to risk speaking up and doing what is right(for themselves and for others), and to risk connecting the other people, which was often shunned before the change.

Much like the Hero's internal and external journeys, the journey of the Empath is one of broadening awareness and self discovery.  And while it may begin with a single word, Empath, it has the potential to expand itself to encompass a person's entire existence, as well as touch the lives of innumerable others.

In this, our individual journeys, despite their differences,  seems much like the literary device of the Hero Archetype.  We are all heroes in our own right.  We are all on a journey to somewhere.  So remember to stop and enjoy the ride along the way, instead of focusing only on what you think is at the end of the path.  Because the important things aren't at the end.  They are in front of you, in the here and now.  And even in your seemingly mundane world, your journey of excitement and self awareness is happening....right now.

Think about it.


  1. Interesting that I stumbled upon this blog today because I very much needed to read this. I am kind of in awe right now actually.... Thank you for the thoughtful and insightful post.

  2. Thank you for this blog. I'm on that path of self awareness and it has been painful. I have a long journey ahead, but I am hopeful.