The term: ‘archetype’ was coined by the Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist: Carl Gustav Jung.
Jung’s work has been influential not only in psychology, but also in anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, and religious studies.
The archetypes, Jung argued, influence the unfolding of human development, are the sources of our dreams, and are enacted in the myths and rituals of almost every culture that has ever existed in human history.
Understanding the archetypal nature of the mind therefore, can increase your self awareness and make you more emotionally intelligent.
In this post, we explore the psychology of archetypes in more detail.
What are the archetypes?
Archetypes are universal motivational systems and patterns of behaviour that come ‘pre-wired’ in the human psyche.
In the same way that, without any training or knowledge, salmon have a ‘pre-wired’ ability to navigate back to their stream of birth, beavers are able to build dams, and ants can navigate using star systems, human beings have evolved pre-wired motivational systems for social relationships and existing in groups.
Dr Kevin Lu – a leading Jungian Scholar and visiting faculty member at The Weekend University, argues that it can help to think of an archetype like a ‘jug’.
The archetype itself (the jug) is a universal experience, behaviour or motive that is shared by all of humanity. What goes in the jug (the contents) is determined by a human being’s cultural context, environment and life situation.
In other words, the archetype exists in the psyche only as the pre-wired potential to have a particular experience, and the culture the human being finds oneself in, will determine the form the experience takes.
Take the example of the hero archetype as ‘the jug’.
If you lived in medieval times, the hero archetype (the contents of the jug) would have expressed itself in the form of becoming a knight. If you lived in Europe during 1939-1945, the hero archetype would been expressed by going to fight in World War 2. If you live now, the hero archetype may be expressed in the form of excelling for a sports team.
Another example is the ‘coming of age’ ritual.
In the Maasai Tribe in Kenya, the Elders sacrifice a bull and spray a combination of milk and beer onto the boys’ faces. In the Pacific Island of Vanuatu, to become a man you must jump 100 feet from a wooden tower with nothing more than a vine tied around your ankles. In Ethiopia, you partake in cow jumping and in the USA, you have a sweet 16.
So we see that the archetype itself is merely the capacity or motive to have a certain experience, and the culture and time one finds oneself in, will determine the particular form the experience takes.
Why is it Important to be Aware of the Archetypes?
It’s important to be aware of the archetypal nature of our minds for three main reasons.
Firstly, because archetypes exist only at the level of potential.
Each archetype is like a dormant motivational system that gets switched on, or off, depending on what’s going on in the relationships, culture and environment of the human being.
For example, someone who has just joined a highly competitive internship program at a major corporation will have different archetypal potentials activated than someone in a Hare Krishna Farm in the countryside. If the culture is overly competitive, then the human being can become this way too. Conversely, if the culture is egalitarian and the group values sharing, then the people in the group will have a greater motivation to express these values.
Therefore, if you want to take steps to improve your well-being, it’s critical to choose living and working environments that are supportive of this goal.
Secondly, it’s important to be aware of the archetypal nature of the human mind because each archetype also has the potential to become over-developed, and when this happens, it leads to others becoming underdeveloped.
Jung used the idea of ‘inflation’ to refer to a situation where a person becomes over identified with one archetype.
It can help to think of the archetypes like balloons existing in the human psyche – each with their own equal amount of space allocated.
The human being functions well when all balloons remain the same size. But problems start to occur if one balloon becomes over-inflated, and takes up the space of other, equally important ‘archetypal balloons’.
For example, individuals with an inflated hero archetype tend to have an under-inflated sense of empathy and compassion for others, and a tendency to be exploitative and manipulative.
Individuals with an inflated ‘persona’ archetype primary concern is their self image and winning the approval of others. We all know at least one ‘social climber’ – someone who will sacrifice their own deepest values or even an existing friendship, to advance their social position.
Thirdly, it’s important to be aware of our archetypal tendencies because the inflation of any one particular archetype can lead you to feel driven to single-mindedly pursue certain goals.
If the goals are not achieved, you’re left feeling deeply frustrated and inadequate.
Think of it like putting all of your emotional eggs in one basket.
If the basket drops, you’re left with nothing.
In a very real sense then, inflated archetypes have the potential to possess you, take over your operating system and throw other important areas of your life completely out of balance.
Therefore, it’s critical to know what these archetypes are, so that you can be aware if any of your ‘archetypal balloons’ are becoming inflated, and then take the necessary steps to restore balance.
But what are these archetypes?
Why did they evolve?
And has Jung’s concept stood the test of time, given what recent advances in neuroscience and psychology have now revealed about the human mind?
In the next post we’ll explore the evolutionary psychology of archetypes – why they evolved, the key archetypes we should be aware of, and whether this Jungian concept is still relevant in the 21st Century.