Adam Blatner, M.D.

(Re-revised and Posted February 21, 2006.

It's useful to discern the mythic resonances within the life stories of ordinary people.  One of these is the theme of the hero's journey, many elements of which can be found in the kinds of themes of normal and problematic development. Related papers on this website may be found at the end of this paper, in the references.

Reclaiming One's Legacy

One mythic theme of the hero's journey is that of the challenge and the response. Four most people, this begins with the challenge being addressing the "hand of cards" that are "dealt" by fate, and the individual's response. This "karmic" challenge begins when a person begins life.

A child is born, and, figuratively speaking, the good fairies bless it with various abilities and gifts. Alas, there are also the bad witches who impose limitations. The child must grow and make use of all gifts while beginning a quest to compensate for the limitations and redeem any qualities that have been disowned. This quest will require a gradual growth of skills combined with the development of virtue in managing them wisely.

Part of the challenge or hero's journey is simply noticing certain qualities, talents or weaknesses, and acknowledging them as such. It's surprising how many people remain unaware of some of their strengths until mid-life, and also there are many who continue to drive themselves to overcome their weakness. To some extent and for some issues, compensation works; yet for others, they are "trying to be what they aren't." Sometimes it's a matter of trying to like and be interested in activities that in fact bore or overload them, and they need to discover and give themselves permission to re-discover their own more authentic interests. This is part of the heroic journey from the "false self"–i.e., trying to be what one thinks one "should" be according to the preferences of others– to the "real self."

Another part of the challenge is the development of making use of the gifts of allies, learning to discriminate between real and phony friends, wise and foolish advice, and learning to overcome false pride in opening to accepting help. Similarly, adversaries will appear, and learning to cope with these wisely is a further component of the journey. Later, learning to identify these elements in their life will help to realize the mythic-heroic quality of their life's eventfulness.

The gifts and challenges to each individual may involve a number of factors
   – physical and mental areas of strength and weakness
   – special types of intelligence
   – readiness or unreadiness of the environment, family, town, culture to make use of the individual's type of abilities, interests, temperament
   – the parents' strengths or weaknesses
   – strengths or weaknesses of siblings, grandparents, other relatives
   – the grace of a great teacher, inspiring elders, or the lack of such models
         And scores of others. (See

So there's a creative challenge in making the best of what one is dealt. This is an ongoing dynamic, as new challenges continue to pop up.

The Locus of "Evil"

People tend to experience the difficulties of life in a mythic over-simplification. The loss of innocence is commonly viewed as an intrusion by some source of evil. In fact, though, no maleficent being is present. It's not easy to figure out how to cope with the challenges in life. Indeed, the sense that problems are caused by an external "bad guy," played to by innumerable cartoons and simple stories is in some ways misleading.

In our present culture, the real source of evil lies not in the externalized form of dragons or witches, but rather in the internalized complexes of fixated, immature complexes built out of desiring the wrong kinds things; or not having the resources to attain these goals; also there are usually a variety of self-deceptive patterns of thinking. In other words, as the late cartoonist, Walt Kelly, expressed through the words of his character, Pogo Possum (paraphrasing the victory announcement of Captain Oliver Perry in the War of 1812), "We have met the enemy and they are us." Indeed, perhaps the most direct avenue to the development of ethics has been suggested by Erich Neumann (1949): We must endeavor to discover our own blind spots, our own denied sources of evil in our minds.

The process of clearing up these patterns of irrationality, these old complexes with their tendencies to bias and limit our thinking, represents what might be considered to be a metaphorical "journey" no less demanding or dangerous than the ancient myths of the knight on his "grail" quest or the pilgrim seeking the gift of the gods.

The Call

Many people just live from day to day. The awareness of taking up a challenge, of consciously moving up a level in responsibility to design an overall life plan, to coordinate one's behavior with one's deeper values, this itself is an important episode. For some it emerges gradually, while others are called–or more descriptively, "shoved." The occasion for setting out on this journey is often an episode of emotional disruption, marked perhaps by symptoms of depression or anxiety, or a fall into an addiction. Perhaps this journey begins within the context of a psychotherapeutic relationship.

The journey is heroic because it requires returning again and again to face the realization of one's own foolishness, vulnerability, the press of unfulfilled desires, the shame and guilt of behaviors enacted in a less aware state of mind, the uncertainty of finding better ways to be in the world. There is the danger of depression, the temptation to run away and destroy relationships or situations in which one may have invested years of care and effort.

Even if there are helpers or therapists, progress in the heroic journey requires the efforts of the individual. There's an old spiritual with the lines,
     You've got to walk that Lonesome Valley, you've got to walk it by yourself.
     Ain't nobody can walk it for you, you've got to walk it by yourself.
Well, for the heroic journey in life, for very brief episodes, some folks can help carry you, but most of the time you have the main responsibility to do the work. However, you need not be alone in this; though no one can do it for you, others may be able to be with you. In many heroic journeys there can be and often are companions. Allow these in your life, too. There may be many occasions for support, many experiences of being with someone who cares and who is willing to listen, to encourage, to validate, to advise (sometimes wrongly), and even at times to help. This can be of immense importance, and few individuals really achieve their goal without a good deal of support from others.

Still, however much support is given, the real nature of the process is such that it deserves to be recognized as truly heroic. It requires enormous persistence. It's not something built into the general structure of our society--only a small minority of people actually undertake this journey.

A Developmental Perspective

Returning to the story of the child, and re-stating the journey: The infant is born into this world with a given set of strengths and weaknesses. Nearly everyone has some kinds of talents and some kinds of handicaps. Nearsightedness, a tendency to be overweight, shortness, a hyperactive temperament, these and other constitutional factors set the stage. Some of the qualities we are born with can be either or both strengths and/or weaknesses, depending on how we learn to use them.

Part of our heritage is also the set of parents we receive (some would say "choose"!). These people also have their good points and bad points. In part they're handicapped by the historical period and part of the world they live in, and what they've learned and never learned by their parents.

So, when we were infants, most of us were exposed to more stresses than were absolutely necessary. They just didn't know how to do it any better. Maybe the childbirth itself was conducted in a fashion that in retrospect we now realize was harsher than necessary. (Improvements in obstetric practice are due to the pioneering work of Dr. Leboyer and others.) Perhaps we as infants were left too long alone in a bassinet in a nursery. These things take their toll. Maybe our parents were under a lot of stress in that first year of our life and didn't know how to or have the time to give us the attention, play, and emotional nurturance that we needed. Perhaps our temperament was out of synch with theirs and they didn't know how to adjust it.

Whatever the combination of factors, most people get some confusing messages about what life is about. Depending on how the significant others behave, they begin to develop feelings, even before they have words, about who they are and who other people are. Now this is all complicated by the fact that babies have very immature nervous systems, and so their feelings tend to boil over, so to speak. Their earliest forms of thinking are overgeneralized and fantasy and reality get mixed up very easily.

What happens is that many people don't get sufficient opportunities to correct the early distortions of their attitudes. Indeed, these distortions are often amplified if the parents continue to be irritable, inconsistent (alcohol certainly exaggerates this), depressed or chronically dissatisfied, fighting with each other, etc.

Many others get overloaded with episodes of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse which are often never worked out: These trauma leave emotional scars which continue to exert a far more powerful and insidious influence than most people generally think can happen.

It's not just the parents who can be influential in these early years. Kids get lots of lessons from siblings and playmates, bullies and teasers; they learn confusing ideas from preachers and teachers, grandparents and uncles and aunts. Sometimes they're given age-inappropriate toys, addicted to television, loaded up with junk food, subjected to the irritations of a smoking parent. Depending on their sensitivity, these factors can play a greater or lesser role in developing their basic attitudes toward life.

As children develop, they interpret these various experiences, and based on their temperament and examples they're exposed to, among other factors, they make decisions as to how best to cope with all of this. These decisions are practiced and tend to be relatively adaptive, at least in terms of the child's not knowing or being allowed to choose an alternative behavior.

The trouble lies in the fact that those patterns of coping tend to be generalized, also. What works to get along in some kind of equilibrium in the family may not work when the child goes to school. A personality style that tends to work in childhood may not work so well in adolescence, and the adjusted personality that then gets the young person through these tumultuous years may be obsolete when faced with the challenges of adulthood.

That strategies can become obsolete should be no surprise: The history of military strategy shows that in every major war the first battles were fought with the generals thinking about the weaponry of the last war. In the last few centuries we have come through many "generations" of obsolescence and the need to develop both new weapons and new ways to work with them. The individual's learning coping skills involves similar principles.

You might think that our educational institutions would prepare children to deal with the challenges of each new role transition. They do, but only in rather limited ways. Furthermore, these institutions are in fact teaching children the kinds of skills which are more appropriate for the previous generation, and such categories as interpersonal and group communication skills, "political" problem solving skills, and self-awareness seem too much like "frills." Our culture still believes in memorization and rote practice, a content-centeredness which can more easily be tested. Well, let's not get distracted by a critique of modern education. Suffice it to say that many if not most children also suffer from significant stresses in school. If they're advanced, they may get subjected to a degree of boredom that should not be taken lightly. If they're a little behind, they may feel pressures which can be more confusing than adults like to recognize. In addition there are a number of petty tyrranies, such as being forced to compete when one does not want to, being forced to perform for audiences, etc.

By the time children are in the pre-adolescent years, they've set up their own little mirrors of our immature culture: Cliques and ostracisms, isolations and betrayals, the petty displacements that these kids do to each other as a result of the exercise of their own fragile defense patterns. If you can only feel good about yourself by knowing that you're better than someone else, then one-upmanship becomes a necessary adaptation.

By mid-adolescence, young people are now learning that there's an easy way out: booze and drugs. Nowadays, there are also ways to retreat into video games and television, activities which can be quasi-addictive. This is also the time when one becomes tempted to overutilize the function of pride as a way of bolstering self-esteem. The more the basis for status is ambiguous, the less opportunity for status to be based on solid achievement, the more the individual needs to cling to superficial symbolic displays of confidence. This is often expressed in a variety of forms of smugness, self-righteousness, guardedness, and other ways of internally believing in one's own set of attitudes and opinions.

Sooner or later, these basic beliefs become obsolete. There are advantages and disadvantages to the individual being forced to call the foundations of his mind into question at both a younger and an older age. If older, the person can utilize those achievements and skills which have been developed over time to compensate for the areas of weakness. There's also more of a perspective regarding the alternatives available in life. If younger, there's more energy and flexibility, because the person hasn't spent as much time in becoming fixed or habituated to maladaptive patterns of living.

Finally the time comes to begin the heroic journey. The task is to go into the mind and liberate those parts which have become locked away, to cleanse those parts which have been contaminated, to renew and relearn skills which are more relevant for the present situation. The journey requires a process of recognizing and "deprogramming" layers upon layers of habits of mind.

Some of these habits have become entrenched, and behave somewhat like servants who, on recognizing their indispensability, usurp their position and become the de facto masters. It's happened in history and it happens in the realm of mind. For example, in feeling weak the child builds up an image of a powerful, bossy part of the self which is a composite of a distorted view of the anger of the parent, some components of what has been heard about God, perhaps some elements of both superhero and supervillain seen on television. These figures function to motivate the part of the self that wants to be a baby and give up. The fierce part at least gives the illusory sense of being active and powerful.

The details of this inner fantasy becomes buried, yet its residue can be seen in the feelings of anxiety whenever a person doesn't live up to the usually unrealistically high standards this internalized boss sets for it. Freud called it the "superego," (but his term included also more benign elements); Fritz Perls called it "the top-dog" (and the other weak side was called "the underdog"); Eric Berne called it the harsh "parent." I found an amusing little book called Taming Your Gremlin which describes a similar function. The point here is that these little strategies to shape you up which you devised end up becoming entrenched and acting like a complex sub-personality which resists being relinquished as much as if the servant you hired and who then in some ways took over the business would not let himself be fired.

Other dramas go on, also. There are excuse-giving patterns which can gradually transform into becoming a self-destructive saboteur; this is is a common correlate of chronic depression. After all, the fantasy of being a poor wretch, for all its suffering, nevertheless offers a sense of relief in avoiding the responsibility for facing life in spite of one's imperfections.

These entrenched habits are as tough to get rid of as the nine-headed dragons you read about in the old legends and myths. Indeed, there are some psychologists who say that those myths grow out of these "archetypal" conflicts and represent a dramatic projection of the inner conflicts. In re-framing the process of psychotherapy and personal growth as if it were a heroic journey, we're in a sense restating that idea in reverse.

One of the challenges for "hacking through the jungles" on the way to the "golden temple" or whatever symbolizes the goal is the growing need to come to terms with those people in your life whom you still resent and whom you still need (in a deep emotional sense, not in the sense of having some delegated role functions). Perhaps it's the unfinished business of wanting to get some validation or approval from a stern father, or a sense of genuine liking from a harried or depressed mother. These become emotionally charged figures who attract both blame and needy love. Part of the heroic journey is to begin to dare to shatter those illusions, to see these and other significant people who seem to keep some hold on one's consciousness as the kind of real mixtures of strengths and weaknesses that they are.

In a sense, the heroic journey requires that we learn to both forgive and release these people, and that in turn involves a number of difficult tasks. It brings to mind the way the hero may be asked to fulfill some number of seemingly impossible chores. To release a powerful figure in the psyche, the hero must find that he is able to gain that power on his own, able to earn it from friends and lovers, or able to channel the need it represents into some worthwhile endeavor. To forgive those people, they must be understood as having been struggling with their own situation, perhaps never having the opportunity or even the idea of embarking on their own heroic journey, of creatively remaking their lives and relationships. Compassion does not mean that the errors in their child rearing (if we are talking about parents or teachers, for instance) must be overlooked. The challenge is to distance oneself from their hold over the emotions, and that requires first that the hero relinquish the illusory hope that somehow, someday, something can be done to make them change their ways, and when they do, everything will be better.

Forgiveness of the self is another important challenge in the journey. You will have made many mistakes, and it's important to learn to put them in perspective. It's too easy to use one's defeats as an excuse for giving up, but that's not necessary. It takes more courage to continue to create, knowing that one not only has been far from perfect, but that even now there is a goodly amount of ignorance, fear, and other unworthy feelings.

Frequently the journey will require a re-evaluation of one's philosophy or religious beliefs. Superficial attitudes inherited from the religious education of childhood will require some deepening. There's a resistance to the loss of illusion, here, too. For those who have left the spiritual quest behind, they will at least be faced with the challenge of thinking about the essential values. Always there's the question of why is one even pursuing this arduous quest, anyway.

This journey does have a reward, however. Indeed, and this is in contrast to many mythic fables, it's possible to suffuse the journey with pleasure. Every time you open a door you liberate a modicum of renewed energy, vitality, curiosity, caring. It's possible to so construct your journey that you can enjoy the sharing of the adventure, you can enjoy your identity as a creator and adventurer, student and artist of life. You can enjoy the sheer mystery and fascination with psychodynamics, just as a scientist can enjoy the beauty of the insides of a cell or an explorer can explore the wonder and beauty of the vistas she discovers. You can find many others who are on their own journeys, and much support and insight can come from these contacts.

In this light, you can learn increasingly the skills which make you a more competent adventurer, a more expert warrior, and a more loving and mature companion. Each time you discover some new resource in your own imagination or spirit, you learn better to gain access to these sources of psychological energy. You become more confident of your own creativity.

I want to add a word about reclaiming the inner child. There are many wonderful qualities inherent in childhood. There's a freshness, an excitement, a willingness to dream and imagine. These need not be lost as one is disillusioned in the course of maturation. Actually, the main reason most people lose touch with that childlike aspect of their souls is that they've simply repressed and inhibited the unmodulated emotions of childhood instead of cultivating them. It was like using too much weed killer on a garden, and the flowers wilted also.

Part of the hero's journey is to rediscover that part of the self that is "young at heart," free it from the chains of fear and confusion, and bring it back into the light. You'll find that you can dust off your self-imposed barriers to spontaneity and give yourself permission to sing, to dance, to play, to write poetry, and not concern yourself overmuch with whether it is "good enough" (Blatner & Blatner, 1997).

One of the beauties of this journey into the "underworld" of your soul is that what you will become increasingly aware of is that the treasure you seek is the growing abilities to love, to take responsibility, and to have the courage and faith to turn your endeavors beyond the boundaries of self-interest, to include the welfare of others and the welfare of the wholeness of things. Your perspective expands, and with it your identity. You become someone who is helping the world get better. Your treasure can be gained gradually, and every little gain is also something for posterity.

One of the interesting thing about the hero's journey is that although in one sense it is the height of individuation, in another sense, it is a gift to everyone. In a way, everyone is pushed along the path for a ways, at least. It's inevitable that some revision of our youthful follies must occur. Yet I want to invite you to choose to embark on a more explicit process of "search and repair." It isn't the meaning of your life, but it opens the door to your creating and embracing that meaning.

The Hero's Journey Serves the World

Finally, note that the individual's journey can be found to contain elements that many others share. Certainly, not all, and especially not in the specifics, but in general themes, in any group, as you share your story, you'll find others for whom your struggle is meaningful. Perhaps you may give voice to some issues or feelings that are just beneath the surface of consciousness for another person.

I view our whole species as being in a state of evolution. I find it helps to consider that, instead of nearing the end of our perfection as a species, we are actually only about half-way evolved from the apes on the way to becoming truly civilized, in the sense of living harmoniously with each other and nature. In other words, there's a lot we haven't learned yet. This concept serves as a preface, a reminder to be compassionate with parents, teachers, doctors, politicians, and other authority figures who are on the whole doing the best they can. There's simply a lot of consciousness yet to be raised.


Blatner, A. & Blatner, A.R. (1997). The Art of Play: Helping Adults Reclaim Imagination & Spontaneity. New York: Brunner/Mazel.  {Available from Author-- See Link on this website}

Blatner, A. (2002). Deepening Personal Meaning Using Dramatic Approaches. At:

Blatner, A. (2002).  The Meaning of Life: Associated Endeavors. At:

Blatner, A. (2005). Discovering and Developing Your Individuality. At:   Http://

Blatner, A. (2002). The "Hero" Process. At: Http://

Blatner, A. (2002). Restory-ing the Soul. At:  Http://

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