Using soap operas (or movies or books) to learn about the contents of your unconscious mind is not as bizarre an idea as it first may sound. We all probably can appreciate the fact that certain characters or themes are timeless and ageless, like the seemingly eternal appeal of Superman, Tarzan stories, Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
If we stop to ask why the appeal, I think we may quickly arrive at the psychological theory of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his work on “archetypes.” An archetype can be thought of as a pervasive and enduring idea, character, pattern or theme, which appears universally across many cultures. It is often revealed in art, literature, stories, and myths … and in the popular culture in movies and soaps. Admittedly characters in soaps and movies may be a diluted version of an archetype — perhaps more like a stereotype than an archetype, but the underlying archetype is usually discernible. Some easily recognized archetypes are:
The witch or wizard
The monk (or nun)
Perhaps you can think of popular characters that capture the energy of these archetypes. One reason movies and books are so compelling is that they portray these archetypes in their various incarnations. Another reason is that archetypal energies live in each of us.
Jung believed that archetypes reside in our unconscious, and that events in our lives pull up or ‘activate’ archetypal energy. Archetypes help us know what to do – how to fight when being a warrior is called for, how to be a free spirit and indulge our wanderlust when that’s what’s calling us, how to put our own needs aside and help others when that’s what’s needed, how to be soft and caring, how to strike out on our own, how to get up and try again when we suffer defeat. Archetypes are also part of why most everyone tends to go through some predictable patterns in their lives, e.g., separation from parents, developing an individual identity, making our own way in the world, learning to meet and deal with challenges, forming relationships, parenting, going through losses, etc. In her book The Hero Within, Carol Pearson suggested that we need to progress through the energy of six different archetypes during our lives in order to be able to come into the “magician” archetype, usually thought of as being the most evolved and well-integrated of the archetypes. The six she explores in her book are the innocent, the orphan, the wanderer, the warrior, the martyr and the magician.
Here are some questions I came up with to help you explore a bit about your archetypal energies.
1. Who is your favorite soap or movie or book character? Describe what you like about him or her.
(If your first answer contains references to a body part, try again and dig a little deeper.)
Your answer to this question might be representative of where you are on your life’s journey and what is important to you at this stage – either in yourself or in others. For example, if your favorite character was chosen from a “romantic interest” perspective (someone you’re attracted to), you might have chosen that person because you would like to form a relationship right now. You might also ask yourself what partnering with a person like that would mean to you. Would you then be complete, cool, important, cherished, safe? The answer to that question might speak to what’s missing in your life, or in you – what your unmet needs are or what you’d like to grow in yourself.
If, to give another example, the character is just entertaining or different, perhaps you need more fun in your life, or perhaps your life feels boring or lackluster to you. Could you need to develop the part of yourself that is able to play and enjoy life? Ask yourself what it is about that energy that appeals to you.
2. What character would you most like to be like? Why?
This question is particularly important because it speaks to what Jung called one’s ‘bright shadow.’ The person you chose is likely to be a manifestation of potential in yourself that you may not have recognized yet. If the characteristics were not in you in some form, you could not appreciate them in the character. The attributes you admire could represent some undeveloped aspect of yourself which you could develop over time.
3. Answering as honestly as you can, what character do you think you are the most like? How are you similar to, and different from, that character?
If your answers to 2 and 3 are the same, then you are ahead of the game. You are as you would like to be right now in your life. If your answers are different, then take a good look at this one. Is it okay with you to be like you are for now? Do you think you are in an understandable place for your age and stage of life? What do you like about being as you are? What would you like to change? Perhaps the #2 character is what you are hoping to grow into. Remember that life is a journey. You won’t always be as you are now. You can and will change.
4. Which character do you like least? Why?
There are two possible ways to interpret your answer to this question. One is from a values perspective, and the other is from a ‘dark shadow’ perspective.
The values perspective goes like this: This character may have offended some deeply held value of yours. For example, if you chose someone who is dishonest and deceitful, your dislike may be simply because those qualities are so abhorrent to you. If this is the case, you can use your reaction to gain insight into what your values are. It may also be worthwhile to examine the ‘dark shadow’ perspective. It could shed additional light on the matter.
The ‘dark shadow’ perspective goes like this: this character may strike a dissonant chord because it is similar to an unattractive part of you that you are not able to see in yourself. You may recall my mentioning the ‘bright shadow’ as our undeveloped potential. The ‘dark shadow’ is our unknown, unowned, and unacknowledged negative side. When we are not aware of our shadow side, bright or dark, we are likely to project it onto others and see the characteristics in them but not in ourselves. In dealing with our dark shadow projection, it takes courage and introspection to realize we actually may be somewhat like the character or person we dislike. You probably have noticed this ability to not see oneself clearly in other people. You may have heard someone complain about another person, and you think to yourself, you’re the one that’s like that, not them.
A clue that a dark shadow projection may be going on is the intensity with which you dislike the character. The more intense your reaction, the more likely you are dealing with your own unconscious material. A caution: this information is not meant to induce shame. It is meant as information to help you take a deeper look at yourself. Remember, that which is unconscious has more power over us. The more we can bring the unconscious to consciousness, the more power we can exert over it.
Interest in archetypes has been around for a long time, but it seems to have come into popular vogue again with Caroline Myss’s book Sacred Contracts, published in 2001. She devoted an entire book to discovering the archetypes active within you, and gives some excellent strategies for exploring how those archetypes work for, and sometimes against, you. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend that book. Be prepared to spend some serious and intense time journaling and talking to yourself.
Another useful book for therapists and clients alike is Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning by Jan and John Hesley. It was published in 1998 so some films are a bit dated, but others, like It’s A Wonderful Life, have become classics. In addition to archetypal characters, films can be useful in depicting modern versions of archetypal themes or journeys. Castaway, for example, is a wonderful ‘rite of passage’ film. For an excellent exploration of that film, see Saying Yes to Change: Essential Wisdom for your Journey by Joan Borysenko and Gordon Dveirin.