The Questing Adolescent: How Heroic Narratives Can Help Teenagers
‘Only the most courageous, or perhaps the most foolish therapists are willing to treat adolescents, for they are the most difficult group of children with whom to work.’ So said psychologist Stanley Spiegel in his book ‘An Interpersonal Approach to Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy’.
With the greatest of respect to Dr Spiegel I disagree. I love working with young people. I find them interesting, challenging and inspiring. They can also, as can my older clients, help me to become a better counsellor.
In one session a client was telling me how much she loved the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. I reflected that Harry had a time when he was alone and had to face his fears before he could move on with his life, just as at this time she was feeling very alone and anxious.
I mentioned in passing that Harry Potter was modelled on ‘The Hero’s Journey’, the monomyth identified by the mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, and explained a little bit about what it was and some of the elements contained within the story structure. Both myself and my client did some research and in the next couple of sessions we looked in some detail at ‘The Hero’s Journey’.
At the time I was vaguely puzzled as to why ‘The Hero’s Journey’ had resonated so strongly with my client and looked into this further. As my practice has developed I am increasingly finding that drawing upon ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is very helpful when I am thinking about a client and how I can work effectively with them.
At the heart of most stories based on ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a quest by the hero - and I am using the word ‘hero’ much as ‘actor’ is used frequently these days to denote both sexes – to discover their ‘True Self’ and fulfil their life’s purpose.
Each quest has a number of stages the hero has to navigate if they are to complete their journey. Campbell identified 17 Stages which make up a ‘Hero’s Journey’ story. Some are more perilous that others. Perhaps one of the most difficult is Stage 6, the ‘Road of Trials’, which Campbell described as: "a series of tests that the person must undergo before they can succeed in their quest. Not all manage to pass all the tests."
Most of us have probably found ourselves on ‘The Road of Trials’ at one point or another. Many young people, undertaking their first quest, find it particularly difficult to navigate this road. They lack the life experience and skills a more seasoned ‘questor’ can utilise in times of hardship.
Arguably young people face particularly difficult tests. They need to find recognition and a place within their peer group, to become separate but still remain connected to their families, to discover their sexuality, to achieve independence and complete the journey into adulthood, amongst much else.
Traversing the ‘Road of Trials’ can be a hazardous time and some young people can lose themselves along the way. Many find themselves on a stage that doesn’t appear in ‘The Hero’s Journey’ but is very common in my client room. It is what I think of as the ‘False Quest’. The quest an individual goes on in order to belong or to succeed which leads them away from what perhaps should be their true quest to become their ‘True Self’.
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott developed the concept of the ‘True’ and ‘False Self’. He believed the ‘True Self’ is the instinctive core of the personality. A true self has a sense of integrity and connected wholeness. When an individual changes who they essentially are then a ‘False Self’ is created. The primary function of the false self is defensive, to protect the true self from threat, wounding or even destruction. But as Winnicott warned "…. there will always be a sense of not really being alive, that happiness doesn’t or can’t really exist."
When working with a young person who I suspect has set off on a ‘False Quest’ I try and find out if there is anything in their ‘backpack’ that can help them. In many ‘Hero’s Journey’ stories, at points along the way, the hero is given gifts to help them on fulfil their quest: boots that will allow the wearer to walk seven leagues in a single step, a cloak of invisibility etc. The gifts are usually kept in a backpack slung over the hero’s shoulder.
For young people these gifts could be loving parents or carers, their friendship group, supportive adults, education, participation in the arts or sports. There are many possible gifts and once most young people realise they have them they are very adapt in drawing upon them and adapting them to their purpose.
I find one of the rewarding aspects of working with young people is their resilience. Once they begin to feel better they are very quickly ready, hopefully with a few new tools and gifts tucked into their backpacks, to return to and continue their ‘True Quest’ with renewed confidence, energy and sense of purpose.
If you are interested in learning more about ‘The Hero’s Journey’ a good place to start is:
Joseph Campbell’s seminal book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, is also worth a read.