I am in the process of writing a book which explores how an exploration of the different stages of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ stories as identified by mythologist and writer, Joseph Campbell, can link to and aid deeper understanding to the different stages an individual can go through in counselling.
Don’t worry if you are a past client reading this. Details of what we discussed will not be in the book. I might quote clients or even talk about them but I will make sure that I have your permission before seeking a publisher.
As part of the process of researching and writing the book I have written two articles for the Welldoing website, which I am listed on:
The Questing Adolescent: How Heroic Narratives Can Help Teenagers;
The Zombie Factor
The ‘Welldoing’ website have lots of articles on a wide range of subjects and is well worth having a look at https://welldoing.org/
I have also written a piece which came out of my experience of working wiith clients:
Why Affirmations Work
I have posted all three below. I would be really interested in any feedback you have. Please email me at: email@example.com
The Questing Adolescent: How Heroic Narratives Can Help Teenagers:
‘Only the most courageous, or perhaps the most foolish therapists are willing to treat adolescents, for they are the most difficult group of children with whom to work.’
So said psychologist Stanley Spiegel in his book ‘An Interpersonal Approach to Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy’.
With the greatest of respect to Dr Spiegel I disagree. I love working with young people. I find them interesting, challenging and inspiring. They can also, as can my older clients, help me to become a better counsellor.
In one session a client was telling me how much she loved the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. I reflected that Harry had a time when he was alone and had to face his fears before he could move on with his life, just as at this time she was feeling very alone and anxious.
I mentioned in passing that Harry Potter was modelled on ‘The Hero’s Journey’, the monomyth identified by the mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, and explained a little bit about what it was and some of the elements contained within the story structure. Both myself and my client did some research and in the next couple of sessions we looked in some detail at ‘The Hero’s Journey’.
At the time I was vaguely puzzled as to why ‘The Hero’s Journey’ had resonated so strongly with my client and looked into this further. As my practice has developed I am increasingly finding that drawing upon ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is very helpful when I am thinking about a client and how I can work effectively with them.
At the heart of most stories based on ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a quest by the hero - and I am using the word ‘hero’ much as ‘actor’ is used frequently these days to denote both sexes – to discover their ‘True Self’ and fulfil their life’s purpose.
Each quest has a number of stages the hero has to navigate if they are to complete their journey. Campbell identified 17 Stages which make up a ‘Hero’s Journey’ story. Some are more perilous that others. Perhaps one of the most difficult is Stage 6, the ‘Road of Trials’, which Campbell described as: "a series of tests that the person must undergo before they can succeed in their quest. Not all manage to pass all the tests."
Most of us have probably found ourselves on ‘The Road of Trials’ at one point or another. Many young people, undertaking their first quest, find it particularly difficult to navigate this road. They lack the life experience and skills a more seasoned ‘questor’ can utilise in times of hardship.
Arguably young people face particularly difficult tests. They need to find recognition and a place within their peer group, to become separate but still remain connected to their families, to discover their sexuality, to achieve independence and complete the journey into adulthood, amongst much else.
Traversing the ‘Road of Trials’ can be a hazardous time and some young people can lose themselves along the way. Many find themselves on a stage that doesn’t appear in ‘The Hero’s Journey’ but is very common in my client room. It is what I think of as the ‘False Quest’. The quest an individual goes on in order to belong or to succeed which leads them away from what perhaps should be their true quest to become their ‘True Self’.
Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, developed the concept of the ‘True’ and ‘False Self’. He believed the ‘True Self’ is the instinctive core of the personality. A true self has a sense of integrity and connected wholeness. When an individual changes who they essentially are then a ‘False Self’ is created. The primary function of the false self is defensive, to protect the true self from threat, wounding or even destruction. But as Winnicott warned:
"…. there will always be a sense of not really being alive, that happiness doesn’t or can’t really exist."
When working with a young person, who I suspect has set off on a ‘False Quest’, I try and find out if there is anything in their ‘backpack’ that can help them. In many ‘Hero’s Journey’ stories, at points along the way, the hero is given gifts to help them on fulfil their quest: boots that will allow the wearer to walk seven leagues in a single step, a cloak of invisibility etc. The gifts are usually kept in a backpack slung over the hero’s shoulder.
For young people these gifts could be loving parents or carers, their friendship group, supportive adults, education, participation in the arts or sports. There are many possible gifts and once most young people realise they have them they are very adapt in drawing upon them and adapting them to their purpose.
I find one of the rewarding aspects of working with young people is their resilience. Once they begin to feel better they are very quickly ready, hopefully with a few new tools and gifts tucked into their backpacks, to return to and continue their ‘True Quest’ with renewed confidence, energy and sense of purpose.
If you are interested in learning more about ‘The Hero’s Journey’ a good place to start is:
Joseph Campbell’s seminal book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, is also worth a read.
The Zombie Factor:
I have been reading about consciousness recently. A fascinating if brain stretching subject.
One question that is being debated by many researching or thinking about consciousness was posed by philosopher, Dave Chambers. He asked, what has come to be known as ‘The Zombie Question’ it goes something along the lines of:
‘If a zombie is physically indistinguishable from a conscious human being. It
looks like you, acts like you, talks about private experiences etc. but the
difference is it has no inner life, no conscious experiences, it is just a machine
that produces words and behaviours while all is dark inside. Could a zombie
I think he is asking if there is no consciousness can there be life. The question made me start thinking about what we mean by being ‘alive’. How much connection do we need to have with our consciousness and the workings of our inner world to be truly alive?
And then I started wondering if extended periods of distress and anxiety can turn us into a type of zombie. I am not talking about disassociation or splitting, which can occur in times of extreme trauma and needs specialist psychotherapeutic support to heal, but a gradual withdrawal or switching off that leads to a loss of feeling and sense of self. We look the same, act the same but inside all is dark.
Once we turn into zombies are we then open to projections from others? When we
are told that we are wrong or weak, that it is our fault, that we should be this or that
person etc. do we absorb these projections without question or judgement?
I suspect that sometimes a brief retreat into Zombiedom can be helpful when it is
necessary to ‘keep it together’ for the sake of children or family, hold down a job or
deal effectively with a difficult and painful situation.
But if somebody starts feeling empty or dead inside for a prolonged period of time perhaps they should consider seeking some therapeutic support to help them reconnect them with their real selves and their inner life. Coming back into feeling can be very painful at times but I believe it is an essentially process because in answer to Dave Chalmers question I don’t think without our inner lives and conscious experiences we or even a Zombie can really exist.
Why Affirmations Work:
Sometimes I suggest to my clients that they try affirmations to help them deal with the issues that are troubling them.
‘But how do they work?’ one client asked.
I had to admit I didn’t know. I just knew from feedback from clients, who had used them, that they could be very helpful.
I had tried to do some research a couple of years ago on how and why affirmations work but couldn’t get past all the New Age websites about positive thinking etc. to the hard science.
However recently two of my clients have found affirmations very useful, almost life changing in their power. I decided to do more research. A quick trawl of the internet brought me to two articles which I found very helpful:
1. Affirmations: The Why, What, How, and What If? Practical tips for writing, using, and remembering self-affirmations.
Kathryn J Lively Ph.D., Smart Relationships
Dr Lively suggests affirmations can be used to reprogram the subconscious mind, to encourage us to believe certain things about ourselves or about the world and our place within it. Because our subconscious mind plays a major role in the actualization of our lives and the manifestation of our desires. What we believe about ourselves at a subconscious level can have a significant impact on the outcome of events.
She cites some research coming out of Carnegie Mellon University which suggests that affirmations buffer stress and improve problem-solving performance in underperforming and chronically stressed individuals.
Dr Lively also gives a guide to writing affirmations which I have put at the end of this post.
2. Neuroplasticity: The Revolution in Neuroscience and Psychology, Part I
In this fascinating article Michael Formica outlines how research around neuroplasticity challenges the perception that after a certain age the brain is fixed and cannot change.
‘It even means that all that New Age gobble-dee-gook about positive affirmations and positive thinking changing how you feel about yourself and your world might actually have some basis in hard science.’
There is huge amounts more on the internet and I will continue my research and will update this page over the summer.
What I find so hopeful about this research, especially the work around neuroplasticity, is that we can heal from trauma or adverse life experiences. We are not necessarily trapped by the past.
Guide on writing affirmations taken from Dr Lively’s article: ‘Affirmations: The Why, What, How, and What If? Practical tips for writing, using, and remembering self-affirmations.
What are affirmations?:
Affirmations are simply statements that are designed to create self-change in the individual using them. They can serve as inspiration, as well as simple reminders. They also can serve to focus attention on goals throughout the day, which, in and of itself, has the potential to promote positive and sustained self-change.
The formula for writing effective affirmations is actually quite simple.
Effective Affirmations are written in First Person.
Begin your affirmations with the “I” or “I am....” These types of statements turn affirmations into statements of identity. Identity statements are powerful motivators for self-change. Examples of I statements would be, “I am secure and confident speaking in public,” “I enjoy eating healthy food,” “I love exercise,” “I am a loving and compassionate person.”
Affirmations Are Written in the Positive (as Opposed to the Negative).
Always state your affirmations in the positive. So, for example, instead saying, “I no longer enjoy the taste of cigarettes,” you might say, “I am completely free from cigarettes,” or “I am a healthy person and I love the way my body feels when I make healthy choices.”
Affirmations Have an Emotional Charge.
Embue your affirmations with feeling. Using emotional words in affirmations is important, because of the deep association we have between emotion words and somatic experiences. So instead of saying, “I spend time with my aging parents,” try: “I feel such love and gratitude spending time with my mother and father.” Or instead of “I only eat healthy food,” which sounds suspiciously chore-like, try: “I feel vibrant and alive when I make healthy choices for me.”
Affirmations are Written in the Present State.
Write your affirmations as if they are already happening. This means affirming, “I am happy and confident,” instead of “Two months from now, I will be happy and confident.” Or “I am sexy and attractive,” as opposed to, “When I lose these last ten pounds, I will be sexy and attractive.”
This is the step that causes most people to falter, because in some cases they feel silly writing or saying something that they actually don’t yet believe—at least at a conscious level—is true. But remember, the purpose behind affirmations is to rewrite your subconscious mind.
Many holistic traditions suggest that if you act as if something is true, if you experience the feelings associated with the outcome that you want, the more likely it is for the outcome to materialize. That is, if you believe that you are attractive and sexy, you will automatically engage in the behaviours associated with that (heightened self-care etc.), which will help you to attain your goals.
Additional tips for writing affirmations that work:
A review of websites on writing effective affirmations also caution against getting caught up in the how. Because if you believe that you are a certain way, you will—subconsciously—figure out a way to make it work.
They also point out that affirming your current successes (that is, the things that you consciously know to be true already) in addition to affirming those things you want to create may undercut any dissonance you have for making future-paced statements.
Further, many sources stress the important of writing your own affirmations—ones that speak to your deepest desires and using specific words or phrases that resonate with you personally.
They also suggest that you update your affirmations regularly, in order to preserve their emotional potency.
How Do You Use Affirmations?
Once you’ve come up with a set of affirmations, you must use them. In order to be effective, affirmations must be used daily—at a minimum.
Some recommendations suggest that you do affirmations first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Others recommend putting your affirmations on note cards and leaving them in plain sight: such as on your bathroom mirror, the steering wheel on your car, your computer monitor, or in your purse or wallet.
Different people also have different modes of using affirmations.
Some suggest that writing affirmations down on a daily basis is useful, because the act of writing something out is another mechanism through which the affirmation becomes part of the unconscious mind.
Others simply read or repeat affirmations from a list, a stack of cards, or most recently, from smart phone apps.