The Hero or Heroine's Journey

Becoming a Complete Adult (Regardless of Your Age)

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Here we use the Hero’s Journey or alternatively, the Heroine’s Journey, as a metaphor for a journey you can take to reclaim your deep inner strengths and powers. The goal is to identify, understand, and heal the wounds of your past in order to become a complete adult.

Dealing with the Past

Most of us have known pain in the past.

We often grow up in dysfunctional homes, enduring abuse and mild neglect. Many parents are distant or anxious and, even worse, pass their shortcomings onto their offspring.

Children now reach adulthood with various degrees of stress disorders and without a solid sense of themselves. Corporate America sells them on shallow values and a life of consumerism.

Most of us come of age without having passed through initiations and rites of passage that human beings developed long ago to make us feel welcome and at home in adult society.

Psychologist Ram Dass says that just by virtue of socialization, that is, hearing messages such as, “No, you don’t do it that way,” our self-esteem is at a net negative by the time we reach adulthood.

As a result, we arrive at adulthood unprepared to deal with life’s many challenges and obstacles.

Masculinity and Femininity

Our culture debases what it means to be a man or a woman by valuing superficial styles and material possessions over connectedness, compassion, and integrity.

Before industrialization, most mothers and fathers did not go somewhere else to work. Boys worked alongside their fathers to learn a trade, hunt, or farm. In this way, they understood what it meant to be a man.

Meanwhile, women worked alongside their mothers to learn how to nurture and bind the community. In this way, they understood what it meant to be a woman.

In today’s world, parents are often at work all day. They return home stressed or distracted. Many of us lack parents, elders, mentors, and shamans to help us transition to adulthood.

Author Robert Bly says the absence of role models leads to a lack of the “male mode of feeling.” It only makes sense that for women, this leads to a lack of the “female mode of feeling.”

Reclaiming Your Deep Inner Strengths and Powers

How then do we reclaim our "deep inner strengths and powers"? By beginning to identify, acknowledge, and understand the wounds in our experiences that need to be healed. The next step is learning how to soften the scar tissue our brain has created around these wounds. It is the scar tissue, not the wounds themselves, that is responsible for undesirable behaviors, physiological maladies, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction. We can soften the scars by looking inward, not at an intellectual level, but by connecting with our deeper feelings.

An effective way to accomplish this inner work is by framing it as the hero's or heroine's journey. As described by Joseph Campbell, you will need to look at the journey as a metaphor. You are not going to slay a dragon. Instead, you are going to face your own wounds. On the other hand, the heroine's journey, as described by Maureen Murdock, does not need to be looked at metaphorically. It is about inner work, although you may want to broaden the perspective she offers to be about all wounds, not just those relating to the feminine.

Ultimately, please understand that the goal is becoming a complete adult. Complete adults acknowledge their past experiences and are connected with them. Regardless of gender, we need to recognize we all have wounds to one degree or another, and that we try to avoid them while creating a persona that can survive in a toxic culture. Avoidance behaviors and ego inflation are destructive to one's sense of well-being. On the other hand, authenticity, humility, compassion, leadership, and helping one's community will lead to a fulfilling life.

The Hero's Journey

In many tribal cultures, the boys were taken from their mothers (and fathers) when the elders deemed it was time for them to become men. The boys were subjected to a challenge, such as having to live in the jungle on their own for a year. Assuming a boy survived, the elders would welcome him back into the tribe as a man. These concepts are discussed in Iron John (Bly, 1990) and King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (Moore, Gillette, 1990).

In mythology, a boy’s challenge might be to slay a dragon. Author, professor, and comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, calls this type of challenge a “Hero’s Journey.” In his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell divides the journey into three acts:

  1. The Departure Act: the Hero leaves the Ordinary World
  2. The Initiation Act: the Hero ventures into unknown territory (the “Special World”) and is birthed into a true champion through various trials and challenges
  3. The Return Act: the Hero returns in triumph

Campbell says, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” The implication is that anyone can become a hero but it involves a painful transformation that is a prerequisite to greatness. In fact, he claims that “It’s a fundamental experience that everyone has to undergo, we are in our childhood for at least 14 years, and then to get out of that posture of psychological dependency, into one of psychological self-responsibility, requires a death and resurrection, and that is the basic motif of the hero’s journey, leaving one condition, finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition.”

The Heroine's Journey

Maureen Murdock, a student of Joseph Campbell, felt that Campbell's hero's journey characterized women as helpers or hinderers, and only in relation to the male hero's journey. Murdock further felt that the hero's journey did not lead to a state of individuation that fits a woman's life experience. In 1990, Murdock wrote her book, The Heroine's Journey "... to describe an alternative to the stereotypical ego-driven masculine hero's journey admired in mainstream culture."

In the opening of the Heroine's Journey, Murdock says, "Women's lives have a mythology that is different from men's. We deny who we are when we measure success, fulfillment, or satisfaction by the milestones of the hero's journey." She goes on to cite the great strides women have made in our society when working together, since the time of her book's first publication but is discouraged that more than 30 years later we still live in a society that sees the world from a masculine perspective. Murdock says, "Many women still internalize the patriarchal voice that tells them they are less than ... it's a narrative embedded in our patriarchal culture for at least 5000 years." Like Joseph Campbell, Murdock presents the heroine's journey with a circular diagram.

Murdock uses the following terminology:

  • A Mother/daughter split may occur when women align themselves closely with their fathers or the dominant masculine culture, resulting in devaluing their personal mothers and denigrating the values of the female culture.
  • The deep feminine wound is the pain that has been passed down through generations of women in patriarchal cultures when the woman is abused or considered less than by others.

The stages of Murdock's heroine's journey may be summarized as:

  • The heroine's search for identity. This identity may include rejection of the feminine due to cultural portrayal. Although the heroine may become successful for her efforts and be rewarded by our materialistic society, she may come to believe that anything less than "important work" in the world has no intrinsic value.
  • Achieving becomes an addiction that cannot wholly avoid a feeling of emptiness inside. According to Joseph Campbell, "woman is primarily concerned with fostering. She can foster a body, foster a soul, foster a civilization, foster a community. If she has nothing to foster, she somehow loses her sense of function." Murdock believes that many women who have embraced the masculine hero's journey have forgotten how to foster -- themselves.
  • If the heroine decides not to play by the patriarchal rules anymore it can be frightening but where there is fear there is power. It may require a seemingly endless period of darkness, silence, and learning the art of listening to one's self. The art of being and not doing. But eventually, this will lead to exploring the deep feminine wound, the healing of the mother/daughter split, and the woman will begin to reclaim her feelings, intuition, sexuality, creativity, and humor.
  • There may be little encouragement from the outer world. But now she can begin to explore her community with other like-minded women.
  • Eventually, she can begin to reintegrate the feminine and masculine parts of herself. She can now create a balance where her hard-earned skills are put to use. Not for her own personal gain, but to bring people together. To serve the needs of others while valuing and responding to her own needs as well.

Skipping the Journey

It is likely, then, that as a young (or older) man or woman in our society, you have skipped the hero’s journey and are missing at least some of that male or female mode of feeling. “What are the drawbacks?” you might ask. The answer is this: When you do not feel grounded with your deep inner strengths and powers, you will look to adolescent ideals to compensate.

In the book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover authors Robert Moore Douglas Gillette say,

The drug dealer, the ducking and diving political leader, the wife beater, the chronically “crabby” boss, the “hot shot” junior executive, the unfaithful husband, the company “yes man,” the indifferent graduate school adviser, the “holier than thou” minister, the gang member, the father who can never find the time to attend his daughter’s school programs, the coach who ridicules his star athletes—all these men have something in common. They are all boys pretending to be men. They got that way honestly, because nobody showed them what a mature man is like. Their kind of “manhood” is a pretense to manhood that goes largely undetected as such by most of us. We are continually mistaking this man's controlling, threatening, and hostile behaviors for strength. In reality, he is showing an underlying extreme vulnerability and weakness, the vulnerability of the wounded boy.

That is about the "wounded boy." Can you imagine the equivalent for the "wounded girl"?

What Can We Do?

Try the following steps:

  • Understand and acknowledge where you are on the journey from youth to complete adult.
  • Undertake a hero’s or heroine's journey (see below).
  • Discover your purpose in life. Make it outward-focused. More on this on the Purpose page.
  • Create a vision.
  • Move forward into your complete adult life, harnessing your deepest energy. Enjoy knowing who you are, what you care about, and what you want to do for yourself and those around you.
  • Continue growing indefinitely. Becoming a complete adult is a lifelong journey, not a destination.

The hero's journey concept can be found in many cultures, even in cultures that were geographically isolated from each other. Many scholars believe that "shared mythological themes" arose because the myths evolved from common human experiences. In today's world, the journey could be an experience such as joining the military or joining the Peace Corps, where you enter with a commitment to serving others and come out the other side as a solid adult. But that only works sometimes.

Instead, for men, think of "slaying a dragon" as a metaphor for facing your own demons and the pain of growing into an adult.

For women, think of Murdock's initiation and descent to the goddess as a metaphor for facing your own demons and the pain of growing into a complete adult.

That is, giving up the mother's care and the immaturities of childhood -- and then taking on the responsibilities of a complete adult. The more pain you live with the more difficult the journey can be. The journey may be more difficult, but also more rewarding and transformational.

Your specific challenge, then, is to fully connect with your deepest joy, love, and pain. Focus on what you have and what you like to do. Acknowledge the love you have received and the strength that it brings you. Face your own pain and create a frank, honest, and cooperative relationship with it. Realize your past painful experiences can drive you toward growth and a deep understanding of the suffering we all endure. Process these feelings (see Reframing Your Past: Healing). Develop compassion for the people in your world. Understand that dysfunction and pain are passed down from generation to generation and that it is in all of our lineages.

Especially important for sons who have had an absent, distracted, or otherwise limited father relationship is to realize that each son has a hole in his heart in the shape of his father. Bishop T.D. Jakes comments that you can fill this hole by

  1. acknowledging what you didn’t get but embracing what you have right now and allowing it to fill the vacancies of what you didn't get yesterday
  2. connecting with surrogates -- that is, find mentors such as relatives, teachers, or even friends
  3. giving what you didn’t get -- by giving what you want it will come back to you

Understand these words of advice apply to men and women who have a hole in their hearts in the shape of their mother or father.

Elaborating on the third point, what you give is love and compassion. Having a hole in your heart suggests you are somehow inadequate, but giving love and then receiving it will help to fill the hole.

What Will I get?

Your journey will result in mental clarity and compassion for your family and friends. It will result in self-compassion because your family and friends live in your emotional body. It is part of the transition from childhood to adulthood. It will result in more energy, a feeling of fulfillment, resilience, optimism, and higher levels of dopamine and oxytocin in your brain. You will have an overall improved sense of well-being (see Brain Chemistry).

Beyond that, knowing you are living your life the best possible way will give you confidence and inspire others. You will likely receive more praise when you present yourself as a positive-thinking individual who likes to support his/her friends and community. This is not to be confused with dependence on external validation. Receiving praise for following an admirable path will contribute to your feelings of acceptance, and in turn, support your mental health.


Child Qualities Adult Qualities
Playful Risk-taking Strong (mentally and physically) Committed
Pleasure-seeking Philandering Leading Loving
Fun Aggressive Community-focused Persevering
Energetic Sadistic (bullying) Kind Assertive
Adventurous Cowardly Compassionate Decisive
Curious Condescending Wise Honorable
Confident Entitled Authentic Supportive

The overall idea in moving from childhood to adulthood is that the longer you wait, the more you have to lose.

Notice in the image there are four columns. In column one are the qualities you should build upon.

Authors Moore and Gillette tell us “the boy is father to the man ... the adult man does not lose his boyishness ... the mature man transcends the masculine powers of boyhood, building upon them rather than demolishing them.”

In column two are the qualities you'll want to lose if you really want to be the best you can be.

Columns three and four are qualities to strive for.

Once you are on this path, you can take pride in the fact that you are moving toward living your life in the best possible way.