Using the hero’s journey to navigate my life – Part 3
Approach to the Inmost Cave: Preparing for bigger tests, receiving bigger rewards
‘We’re ready to press on to the heart of the new world where the greatest treasures are guarded by our greatest fears’
With the clinic up and running (in a fashion), I was beginning to generate some income. The website was still in development but I had handed all website and google analytics work to an SEO specialist. What a relief. There was now ‘local traffic’ coming to the website and clients booking sessions but income was still an issue. My hero’s journey was looking wobbly but it was a reality.
I had decided too to finish the book I had commenced about 5 years earlier. The book was, of course, treating everyday life as a hero’s journey: A Mudmap for Living. Previously I could only work on it early morning, prior to my hospital job. Now at least I could give it more time. You could say the gift of time had been forced upon me. So my days involved working with a few clients, some yard or house work, some physical activity to keep that anxiety in check and the rest given to writing.
I had never written a book before. I did not consider myself a writer. I did not spend my days reading. In fact anything other than a textbook was uncommon to me. Sure I had written several theses, the largest being for my doctorate but in my head writing a doctorate with its set structure, rules and requirements was very different from writing a book. But I was determined to follow Campbell’s advice and ‘follow my bliss’ which was pursuing the hero’s journey. I believed then as I do now, that armed with an understanding of the hero’s journey, anyone could rewrite their life, create a life more resonant with who they really are as opposed to living the life they think they ‘should’ live or tolerating they one they got.
No money? No Relationship!
In the first year of the clinic I generated $18,000. The second, around $36,000. Not exactly rolling in it. I was in short, financially dependent on my partner. I found this terrifying. It seemed a scary way to live, to have to depend on someone else for the basics of life: cash! At first I kept quiet about it, not letting him see my fear. I avoided talking about income. I was ashamed doing my tax as my income appeared pathetic. This was the way I had lived my life. The ‘unacceptable’ bits were to be kept secret, avoided in case someone saw what a complete failure I really was.
This fear would corrupt my sleep, my appetite and send my brain into cycles of catastrophic thoughts about being vulnerable. If your partner realises how little income you generate will there be arguments? Will there be demands to work harder? To get another job? If your partner is supporting you financially do they get to say if, when or how much you spend? Will repeated arguments about finances lead to the end of the relationship? What would I do then with my paltry income? Move into a one room flat on the outskirts of the city?
As I write these thoughts down now I see them as exaggerated, silly. But more so I am taken by the level of fear they reflect. I knew fear was part of every hero’s journey but I wondered if I experienced more fear than other people? What was it about me that was so prone to fear?
My dragon was kicking in
Joseph Campbell Joseph Campbell Foundation speaks of dragons in western myths as symbols of fear and at the Approach to the Inmost Cave stage, as heroes begin to see glimpses of the life they could have, dragons attack with full force. Dragons guard the very things you desire and in western myths this was a maiden (a symbol of love and connection) or gold (a symbol of something highly prized). Interestingly Campbell points out, a dragon has no need of either. In my hero’s journey I wanted a successful relationship and successful business and my dragon was having none of it. I would lose the love and connection of my partner and I would be penniless. I was harassed by thoughts that I could never have a successful business, that I wasn’t good with money and that I should just ‘get a job’. it seems that dragon’s are incessant about convincing you about your limits: what you can’t do and what you shouldn’t do and my dragon was clear that I would fail at the business and fail in my relationship.
As the months went by, and the number of clients increased, such evidence did little to kill off my dragon. If a client cancelled or postponed, my dragon would once again pounce, telling me what a terrible therapist I must be and how it would only be a matter of time before I would be penniless and alone. My dragon had a real sense of the dramatic.
So despite the growing financial evidence and continuing support from my partner, my dragon wasn’t going away. It was time to pull out my sword and go directly into battle. I returned to therapy. Many people conceive of therapy as ‘a bit of a chat = waste of time’. Good therapists however are dragon killers and a fight to the death is initiated by learning where such fears first originate. A good therapist will simply ask the question where did you learn to think like that? What are your first memories of fear? And so the detective work begins.
We started looking in the obvious places; previous experiences. As I began to stocktake previous relationships which had failed, I made some startling revelations. I hadn’t ended relationships. People had ended me. In sifting through my history, I began to see the evidence that relationship endings had occurred when I had started using the word ‘no’. This happened in with both romantic relationships and friendships. ‘No that is not ok. No I do not agree. No!’ As we canvassed my history, I could see that I had danced to other people’s tunes for most of life and it was then bleeding obvious where I had first learned to dance. I had learned at home.
Total control: my mum
Women get a tough run in our culture. The consistent pressure is to have it all: the career, the partner, the children and do it all while looking great. I think I’ve worked with enough women to see these stresses and distresses in droves.
Some women however fall into the strategy of total control to manage the inordinate demands of this pressure (men may seek total control to avoid any sign of being weak). Control is needed however seeking total control creates a dictatorship and nobody wants to live in a dictatorships. People in dictatorships live secret lives and they try and escape. But children can’t escape their family. They can’t move out, grab their passport and credit card and simply move on. Children must learn, and quickly, how to survive what might often be fearful situations for the consequence of not surviving is to experience repeated rejection from a parent. To a child’s nervous system, parental rejection sends them into full flight-fight mode, a state of high anxiety as their very survival depends on parental love and care.
My mother wanted total control. She was probably in a continuous, living nightmare when I think back now. Following my father’s accident, in looking back, I began to see that like me, she too was repeating her history. My mum was repeating the behaviour of her father, an often authoritarian dictator. In the calamity that beset her, she simply repeated his behaviour.
Our home consisted of my mum, my dad, a victim of a head injury whilst horse racing and four children under seven years. When her partnership with my father vanished in the space of one day, she found herself in a world of grief, four children to care for and a financial ditch. In such a place, total control seems necessary, an essential survival strategy however total control leaves no place for other people, their wants, their desires, their needs and for children, total control leaves them in a constant guessing game: what is required of me now? And so my father’s behaviour was controlled from the way that he spoke to the way he sat to the way that he ate. My sisters were targeted for their behaviour failures, messy rooms and lack of housework. My brother would the replacement for my father and so the endless job of ‘being responsible’ began. My strategy was to please, in every possible manner at all possible times. Be good. Be extra good. Be obedient. Be obedient and clever. Be obedient and clever and funny. And do well at school, not just ordinary ‘well’, do exceptionally well. And of the utmost importance remember: be seen and not heard.
My strategy mostly worked and it did minimise some of the more predictable attacks that might come my way. Complete safety however would never be achieved. My mum would return home from work, probably exhausted and resentful of a job that provided little engagement, and see fault everywhere. In these moments she would rail against the guilty party until the crime had been corrected or sufficiently punished. If this was not enough she would switch to victim mode, wailing about her life, her children, her suffering. Even as a small child, I knew most of her claims were real. She had suffered. She was suffering but why I and those in my family were on the receiving end of her unhappiness and anger was a mystery to me. Mum was almost always unhappy and there was no way to predict what would set her off. That which was passed over yesterday would be a crime today. In the space of such uncertainty, keeping her happy was a constant job which of course meant constant fear.
And so there it was. The answer to my terror of losing love, connection and my business. Things beyond my control had set me up to be constantly fearful, constantly pleasing, constantly tired and almost certainly silent. A child with no voice but a definite understanding that survival depends on pleasing. And so armed with this new awareness, my dragon began to take a few blows. In moments of fear about my relationship or my business I could remind myself, the fear was from a long, long time ago. I was no longer a child without a voice but an adult with a voice, and a passport and a credit card.
The bigger tests of growing the business, of creating my own life triggered enormous fear but armed with my understanding of the hero’s journey, I continued to view my life as a constant creation, as an adventure that in this particular case, began when I got shown the door at work. I knew that I could either say ‘yes’ to the adventure and attempt to create a life more in tune with who I really was, to follow my bliss or I could continue to live in an unconscious way and repeat survival strategies I had learned long ago. In truth I had needed them back then but in my adult life they no longer served me but tortured me. I was done with being not seen and not heard.
This is the choice of every would-be hero. Will I take the risk to seek more from life or will I continue to live as I always have, in fear, in ignorance, to please, to remain silent, to blame others for the state of my life, to avoid or to numb myself through the hours of each day with alcohol or some other pleasure to deaden my pain? Will I wake up to the fact that maybe often in my life I continue to use strategies learned long ago that have very much outworn their use-by date?
There is a mudmap for life, if you choose to say yes to the adventure.
About Dr. Clive Williams
Clive Williams, PhD, is a psychologist with 35 years’ experience with a particular focus on how individual change occurs.
Clive’s private practice is in Brisbane though he works with clients around the globe.
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