Caves, Treasure, and the Hero’s Journey of Mental Health

On the path to personal well-being, learn to tame the monster lurking within you.

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” These are the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell, the “patron saint” of heroism. Campbell codified the recurrence of the hero’s journey across many mythological traditions from around the world. He called this familiar cycle the “monomyth.” In other words, it is the “one myth to rule them all,” to paraphrase the famous line from The Lord of the Rings.

Today we tend to think of heroism as being a purely external act of bravery in the service of others. We think of soldiers running onto a battlefield, or first responders running towards a crisis to help people. We may even think of average citizens we sometimes hear about in the news, those who step out of their ordinary lives just for a moment to help someone else in a dangerous situation.

But the hero’s journey is also a metaphor for the internal journey of personal heroism. Indeed, every hero’s journey starts within the hero. In mythology both ancient and modern, many protagonists start out as being very reluctant. Think of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings; he was reluctant to leave the comforts of home to take on the quest to destroy the One Ring. Frodo eventually had to make the decision in his mind and heart, despite his fears, to go on his perilous journey.

Every day, every human being must look within, to access our reserves of courage and motivate ourselves to take action. Whether you seek the courage to ask your boss for a raise, to begin a daunting project, or speak up for others to fight injustice, there are many moments in life when you must dig deep for heroic inspiration.

This internal hero’s journey is especially true for those of us who suffer from mental illness.

The Cave and the Monster

In keeping with Campbell’s metaphor, the depths of the human mind can be considered a cave. It can be a daunting place, full of self-criticism as well as thoughts and feelings that sometimes seem to come from unknown places inside of us.

For those of us with mental health conditions, our caves can be especially confusing and frightening. We may even view our illness as a mythological monster lurking within. When it comes to my own bipolar disorder, I’ve pictured it as the Minotaur of Greek mythology. It has stalked me through the twisting labyrinth of my mind on many occasions, tormenting me and making my thoughts race.

Instead of confronting the monster in my cave, I avoided dealing with it for years. I let it chase me around my mind until I couldn’t focus, and lost myself in the maze of my illness. Like many of us, it took hitting rock bottom before I sought help for my mental health. By the time I finally decided to get help for my monster, my behavior had become self-destructive in the extreme. I was in danger of losing my career, my friends, and my family.

Once I sought professional help, I discovered I didn’t have to kill my monster outright (nor could I even if I tried). Rather, the monster was really just the more negative thoughts and emotions I had repressed, instead of facing and dealing with them. Carl Jung called these negative aspects of the self “the Shadow,” a term that encompasses our darker thoughts and impulses. For those of us with mental illness, our Shadows can be particularly powerful.

The way to fight the Shadow is to not fight it at all, but to accept it as a natural part of ourselves. Everyone has a shadow, after all. This doesn’t mean giving in to our dark thoughts and emotions, however. Rather, we must accept them as part of what it means to be human. There is no reason for shame or guilt if we haven’t acted out our Shadow impulses and hurt ourselves or others in reality.

Once we accept the Shadow, we can tame that monster within. We diminish its power over us. We realize we no longer need to fear it or be ashamed of it. Everyone has a Shadow within, just as we all do in the real world when light shines on us.

The Treasure of Mental Health

If you’ve been putting off dealing with your own monster—whether you’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness or not—I urge you not to wait another second. If you’re running from the monster, you should try turning to accept it, rather than running, resisting, or repressing.

You don’t need to do this alone, however. Just like Frodo—who had help from Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring— bring along mentors and companions. These can be mental health professionals as well as friends and family. You can also use the heroic mindset as a way to add a health-focused approach to your care, while traditional therapy treats you from a pathology perspective. Approaching the mental health journey from multiple paths gives you more tools to tackle the adventure ahead of you.

Ultimately, the treasure of Campbell’s metaphor is the successful management of your mental health. It will be a journey you will most likely have to walk for life. But it is well worth the time and effort, for yourself and your loved ones.

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A version of this post appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Author: Anthony Simeone

I'm a writer, speaker, and an advocate for everyday heroism. I have over two decades of experience in the practical application of literature, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines. The culmination of my work is the Live the Hero program, a life philosophy that promotes personal development combined with service to others. Live the Hero combines the wisdom found in the arts and humanities with the latest discoveries related to research in heroism science and positive psychology. You can learn more at livethehero.com.

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