The Sage, the Trickster and You — the Power of Jungian Archetypes
The human mind loves finding patterns.
We look for them in nature, history, economics, pictures, architecture, society, human behaviour, T-shirts. The brain is constantly making sense of the seemingly senseless. It is one of the ways that we find comfort and safety in the world — by understanding it better.
This is usually a three-step process:
- Identify a pattern — eg ‘Whenever I let go of something it falls to the ground’
- As a question — eg ‘Why does that happen?’
- Find an explanation — eg Gravity
As this ridiculously simplified example illustrates, the quest for understanding underpins the disciplines of physical science.
However, the search for meaning is also the central drive of religion, philosophy, psychology and the social sciences. Gods and goddesses, myths and fairy tales, holy books, cave paintings and Disney movies — these are all products of our need to know.
But they may also reflect much more than that.
Almost every person who looks for a coach does so because they have a question they cannot answer themselves. ‘How do I advance in my career?’ ‘Why do my relationships always seem to fail?’ ‘What do I need to do to get healthy?’
The coach will then employ tools, training, experience and technique in helping the client achieve the change they desire. This may include changing behaviour and habits, but by necessity it will require some degree of new insight. In order to shift, the client has to be able to see and acknowledge the existing habits or patterns that are holding them back.
In order to help the client reach such realizations, on some level the coach needs to be asking ‘Why?’ ‘What unique matrix of influences has guided this person into the situation they find themselves in today?’
How the coach and client answer that question will depend significantly on the coach’s methodology and personal perspective.
The focus might be on external factors — the things the client can see — such as personal behaviour, physical health or the environment in which the client lives and works. Or the focus may be on internal factors — the things that can’t be seen — such as relationships with others, culture in the workplace, or personal thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Or there may be a focus on both the external and internal.
The internal world is where psychotherapy aims its energies. Though coaching is NOT the same as therapy, coaches also work in this realm in order to help clients appreciate why they may be behaving in a certain way.
A popular way of helping clients gain more self-understanding is by working with typing tools. Generally, these are used to help explain certain proclivities of personality. An old and common example of a typing tool is found in astrology, in which a person’s likes, dislikes, moods and behaviour are explained by the map of the heavens at the moment of their birth.
Myers-Briggs has been used in coaching, consulting and organizational development for decades. It is based on the types posited by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung: 16 possible personalities with different ways of orientation (introverted/extraverted), perception (sensing/intuitive), judgement (thinking/feeling) and attitude towards the world (judging/perceiving).
Critics of this particular tool say it is too rigid and doesn’t account enough for vertical human development. Others, especially psychoanalysis professionals, argue that it gives an incomplete picture. Personality types are valid, they say, but they need to be viewed in relationship with more universal and ‘deeper’ themes: the archetypes.
Archetypes form part of Jung’s model of the human psyche, which is made up of three parts: the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious.
The ego represents the conscious mind and includes thoughts, feelings and impulses we can be aware of in the moment. This is where a lot of personality programming can be witnessed. The personal unconscious, the Shadow, includes those parts we can’t witness, such as repressed memories or drives. Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious is non-personal and contains all the knowledge and experiences we share as a species.
Yes, the collective unconscious is a far-out idea, far-out enough that it contributed to the break down in relationship between Jung and his mentor, Sigmund Freud. But it mirrors the teachings found in many of the mystical wisdom traditions.
In Jungian psychology, the archetypes are universal patterns or images that form part of the collective unconscious. Archetypal images and motifs show up in myths of all cultures, though in different guises. They are symbolic images we unconsciously understand.
The archetype of the Sage, for example, can be found in popular western mythology as Wizard Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Yoda in Star Wars, or Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter. But the same character is found in Baba Yaga of Russian folklore and the wise Old Woman of Japanese fairytales. The Fairy Godmother may also fulfil this role of the wise old guide who offers the hero advice and foresight at a crucial stage in her journey.
The Trickster archetype can be seen in the Norse god Loki, Puss in Boots, Pan, Māui, Sisyphus, and Bugs Bunny.
We cannot see them directly, but archetypes repeatedly show up in human myths and stories because they hold a timeless resonance. We can all relate to them because they are a part of our deep collective psyches.
The archetypes also shape our individual personalities and behaviour. Though Jung believed we all have an archetype that carries more influence over our personal nature, different archetypes have different importance at different stage in our lives. I remember a shift that happened when I became a father — a different type of grounded presence that became available to me that was not there before. In Jungian terms, this was the King archetype coming online in a more developed way.
Though Jung said there may be countless archetypes, and variance in nature between the masculine and feminine, he identified 12 primary patterns:
Exploring these fundamental structures of psyche gives insight into unconscious forces that may be guiding your behaviour, especially at important stages of your life. Engagement with the archetypes also raises your awareness of their manifestation in behaviour you see all around you, highlighting the common nature of the human condition. They are simply another lens to help understand and integrate your experience, allowing you to develop into a more whole, more complete version of yourself.For more detail on the individual archetypes see here, and here.