The Hero’s Journey: Resilience, Renewal, Spirituality, and Neuroscience

I am pleased to introduce my new blog which will use the framework of the hero’s journey to examine topics related to mental health issues and treatment for children, teens, and their families. As a mental health professional who integrates the power of creativity into the healing process, I love the metaphor of the hero’s journey. Metaphor and creativity invite us to explore depths within ourselves that conscious thought cannot always examine in the moment.  When we tap into the power of creativity and metaphor through mindfulness, we allow ourselves to reach untapped and unconscious areas that can enhance and create joy within ourselves, our relationships, and in our lives. I plan to discuss topics related to creativity, metaphor, and neuroscience as it relates to family, parenting, child and adolescent development, the role of spirituality and resilience in healing, mindfulness, and social emotional well-being.

I love the idea that we are the heroes in our own story, our journey through life, and our relationships because it symbolizes resilience and growth- overcoming and thriving despite life’s challenges. Probably the most well-known stories of the hero that most of us grew up watching are the stories we saw in Disney movies. In these stories, the main character had to overcome challenges in life and self-doubt to realize their self-worth, uniqueness, inner strength, and wisdom. The heros in these stories always had their support people who saw their true potential and awesomeness. Heroes don’t overcome their challenges and become whole without supportive people who care about them and encourage them when life gets tough. People who care about you and want to see you succeed don’t give up on you even when you want to give up on yourself. We all need our inner circle of safe and supportive people to aid us in our life journey.

The metaphor of the hero is not a new idea created by Disney. Heroes have been depicted in ancient mythology and literature from long ago. Well-known author and professor, Joseph Campbell, explored the cultural, spiritual, and metaphor of myth in his books and lectures, most notably in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Campbell, 1969).  This book explored various heroes depicted in mythology, literature, and culture. It provides keen insights into a variety of aspects of the hero that are reflective of the human race throughout time and culture.

Fairy tales are another source of myth and the hero’s journey. Bettleheim (1977) invited mental health professionals to explore the psychological metaphor of fairy tales and its relevance to psychotherapy in his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. This book was my first introduction to play therapy in the mid-1980’s. I was a third grade special education teacher for children with emotional disturbance. The school psychologist, Mary K, invited me to join her to provide group therapy with my class using the fairy tales discussed in Bettleheim’s book. My students and I acted out the fairy tale as Mary K narrated the fairy tale. It was fabulous to watch the children engage in the story and overcome the evil adult character, which is of course the role I played. I was hooked on play and expressive arts therapy from that moment.

Another valuable source of exploring and integrating the hero metaphor into clinical work is The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By written by Carol Pearson (Pearson, 1989). She identifies six archetypes crucial to the hero’s journey and discusses the role of these archetypes within each of us  in our life journeys. The author states,

“our experience quite literally is defined by our assumptions about life. We make stories about the world and to a large degree live out their plots. What our lives are like depends to great extent on the script we consciously, or more likely, unconsciously, have adopted” (Pearson, 1989, p. xxv).

Healing and resiliency are at the core of the counseling process for mental health professionals. Our goal is to help our clients tap into their internal resources, recognize their inner wisdom, and learn healthy ways to engage fully in their lives and with the important people in their lives. This often moves people to access their spirituality- their beliefs about the unseen universe and its role in their lives. Spirituality for some people is based on their faith and beliefs about God. Other people may take a more broad view of spirituality that is not based on an organized religion. Regardless of your views of spirituality or your client’s specific spirituality preferences, it is an area in the mental health profession that creates discomfort, confusion, irritation, and uncertainty for many. If we, as mental health professionals, leave this untapped inner resource undiscovered by our clients, we may inadvertently deprive them of an opportunity to increase their internal emotional resources and develop inner strength, which are critical for thriving in life.

Spirituality in its simplest form is not one religion or philosophy.  Dowrick (2011) prefers to conceptualize spirituality as the sacred. In her book, Seeking the Sacred, she introduces us to the idea that

“our search for the sacred may be as individualized as our fingerprints. Yet it connects us effortlessly to all living beings. It lets us discover what is most treasured and transformative in human existence. It lets us see existence itself as entirely precious. What we regard as precious, we will naturally protect” (Dowrick, 2011, p. 3).

Carl Jung used the term collective unconscious to conceptualize the idea that mankind is connected through time and culture. This concept of spirituality recognized that people of all cultures and across time share a humanity that connects us and serves an important role in our self-discovery.

Expressive arts and play allow the opportunity for mental health professionals to facilitate the ability for our clients to engage in the healing process- the hero’s journey- to overcome and thrive in life.  Sandtray, music, art, poetry, drama, and play offer clients an avenue through which they can express aspects of themselves they may not have conscious awareness of and the ability to articulate this to a compassionate helper- their therapist. A skilled expressive arts therapist can help clients use the power of metaphor to engage in the hero’s journey to experience healing, build resilience and strength, and explore spirituality.

Much has been learned over the last several decades about the neuroscience of behavior, emotion regulation, and relationships, especially the role of right brain processes in these areas. As a mental health professional, it’s my belief that science keeps us grounded in the work that we do with our clients. Neuroscience and research help us recognize and understand how the brain works and resulting behaviors, including behavior within relationships. Attachment and creativity are predominantly a result of neural circuitry in the right brain. It’s an exciting time to be in the mental health field as we are learning more and more about the mysteries of the mind and how the mind and the brain influence our everyday lives and our relationships.

Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT/S

Owner of Renewing Hearts Counseling & Consulting, PLLC

www.rrhcounseling.com

References

Bettelheim, B. (1977). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces (2nd Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dowrick, S. (2011). Seeking the sacred: Transforming our view of ourselves and one another. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Pearson, C. S. (1989). The hero within: Six archetypes we live by (Expanded ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.


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