A Heroine's Journey is unique, yet also universal.
Join She-Quest to learn more about your Heroine's Journey unfolds...
I was lying in bed during the middle of the day with hours-old dried tears on my cheeks the first time I fully surrendered. It was 2013 and I had tail-spun into a space I had visited previously, but always managed to escape. This place was an infinitely dark, lonely hole that had a gravity so strong it kept me there no matter how hard I tried to scrape my way out.
I had not planned on surrendering, but now all of the tools that I usually used to escape this type of depression before were suddenly not working. Self-help books, calling friends and family, and “thinking positively” not only failed miserably but cynically mocked me as if to say, “Really, you think that is going to work? HA!”
I did not know it at the time, but I had reached the point on my Heroine’s Journey that Maureen Murdock calls the “Descent to the Goddess”. At that time, I was not sure how I had gotten into that dark hole, but looking back now it is fairly clear that an ancient, universal pattern of existence led me down that path without me even knowing it.
Later, I would use my doctoral research to dive into all transformation-based frameworks to better understand just how and why transformation occurs inside all of us, but until then I was stuck in the muck—viscerally feeling all parts of my descent to the dark.
But a Heroine's Journey goes through darkness... and once I stopped resisting the dark, it transformed from a scary, black void into a warm, womb-like holding space. I felt my brain stop trying to think my way out of the hole and gave my soul permission to exist there without limits.
Only then did very interesting—and somewhat unbelievable—things start happening to me (some I can explain to people, others would make me sound too crazy!). For example I had visions, gained insight and empathy, grew creativity, and added depth in ways I could not in the light. More on this in a moment…
WHAT IS A HERO/INE'S JOURNEY?
The term “Heroine’s Journey” comes primarily from the work of Joseph Campbell and Maureen Murdock. Campbell coined the term “Hero’s Journey” in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” to describe the overwhelming similarities in myths from all cultures and all eras. Simply put, nearly all myths describe the same concept: how humans experience personal transformation and tend to follow somewhat predictable phases to reach authentic wholeness. Namely, a Separation, an Initiation, and a Return.
Later, Maureen Murdock used Campbell’s work with the Hero’s Journey and focused on how women specifically explore a “Heroine’s Journey” throughout their lifetime. She too found very prominent and predictable phases in both ancient myths and modern women’s experiences.
Side-note: I often say “No myths are true, but all are Truth”. Similarly, I could say, “No frameworks are true, but all work”. Both myths and frameworks do a great job of describing human experiences, but should always be taken as one of many ways to interpret our lives. That said the Heroine’s Journey is a framework that can easily be applied to most women’s lives, and certainly my life as a whole.
Double Side-note: It is important to note that I see each phase of a Heroine's Journey as a spectrum of completion with much more room to be experienced and will never be fully completed. In other words, I think I have experienced more of my "Descent" than "Integration" but I will likely continue to have many more brushes with both as I age...
LEADING TO MY DESCENT
As I mentioned, I had visited the dark many times prior to 2013 (and will likely visit again), losing shame each time I slipped into situational depressions. It can probably go without saying there is a stigma related to depression, but ancient mystics and modern scholars agree this form of suffering is actually one of the most common human experiences. In fact, many times it is a sign from our unconscious that there is imbalance in our system.
Using this framework, interestingly I see now that many of my imbalances have arisen during the transitions between each phase of the Heroine’s Journey. The liminal spaces between phases can be quite disorienting, leading to temporary dips into depression. In this blog, I tried to capture a brief version of my personal experience with each of Maureen Murdock’s phases in the journey.
Side-note about Feminine and Masculine energy:
When reading this, keep in mind that some of the descriptors of “feminine” and “masculine” are energetic, not gender-specific. If it helps to replace feminine with yin, and masculine with yang please do. Both genders have both energies within, and the balance of the two is said to be an aspect of Jungian individuation, which Campbell and Murdock both reference.
In general a feminine energy is one that can be described as non-linear, spontaneous, playful, creative, embodied, nurturing, and free. Often it is referred to as “Mother Nature” as it develops freely and is easily associated with natural, living things. In general a masculine energy can be described as linear, structured, productive, rational, disembodied, competitive, and rigid. It can be referred to as “Father Culture” as many aspects of culture are “man-made” human attempts at controlling nature. Men and women have both aspects within them and the Hero and Heroine’s Journey are frameworks for how to integrate opposite energies in balanced, healthy ways.
THE HEROINE'S JOURNEY: SEPARATION FROM THE FEMININE
All journeys begin with a “Separation”. In a Heroine’s journey, young girls begin their lives strongly connected to the feminine, but begin to separate around their teenage years or early twenties…
As a young girl, I grew up comfortable with my inborn spontaneous, playful feminine energy. This manifested mostly in my comfort in nature, where I could spend hours mindlessly digging in the dirt, exploring the woods, and playing in my tree fort. I also was very close with my mother and girlfriends, deeply enjoying the cooperative, talk-based, creative time with them.
Then as a teenager I discovered boys and was literally and figuratively seduced into their exotic way of masculinity. Soon, the ways of my mother and girlfriends felt childish and spending time in nature without purpose felt wasteful. I began judging my former girlfriends for being too “girly” and my mother began driving me crazy, especially when I perceived her actions to be stereotypically subservient to my father.
I wanted to be an assertive and respectable woman, not one that would be looked down on by men. Soon I pedestaled the world of boys and men above girls and women, and the feminine world went from being a magical, welcoming comfort zone to one that was nice to visit but I didn’t want to live in.
IDENTIFICATION WITH MASCULINE AND GATHERING OF ALLIES
When young women become educated or begin their first jobs, they tend to experience masculine energies of structure, order, and hierarchy—especially as they gain mentors and allies.
Knowing how the teenage brain develops, I now know that the masculine energy I was seduced by was speaking to my newly formed rational brain. Developmentally, teenage brains can finally use critical thinking skills and logic, so like many teenage girls I was excited to play with this new toy in my thinking toy box.
I abandoned the feminine act of playing for playing’s sake (yin) and took on the masculine act of working to be productive (yang). I still spent a lot of time in nature, but now I was more concerned with the masculine acts of studying, categorizing, and analyzing it. Soon, this became more than a hobby and I devoted my career to science so I could not only understand the world of nature, but I could explain it. Days spent in the warm protection of the whole forest were replaced by days in a sterile lab trying to understand a specific part of a plant. Interestingly, feminine energy is comfortable understanding the whole, while masculine prefers the parts.
As I transitioned from student to professional, I gathered many allies and mentors—but nearly all of them were men! I am not sure if this was because of the scientific field I was in or if I was still uncomfortable with the mysterious (and sometimes unpredictable) world of women, but I may have been actively trying to win approval of men in the masculine world.
In fact, sadly at this point in my career, I felt a man’s approval gave double the weight of a woman’s, which according to Murdock is actually common, due to the fact that much of the professional world is patriarchal, so often times male support has the potential to further our career more than female support.
ROAD OF TRIALS-MEETING OGRES AND DRAGONS
A common confusion is that ogres and dragons are external, but really most are internal! These trials make us stronger and prove to us we have what it takes to be successful, but sometimes they can also get us stuck!
Along my path I faced many trials, some external, but most internal. A notable external trial was my pursuit of higher education—a master’s degree and doctorate degree. Each degree pushed the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of, with many dark nights of doubt and “I can’t do this” offset by some lighter days of “I can’t believe I did it!”
Those external challenges brought me face-to-face with some internal ogres, namely the fact some of my desire to achieve is derived from a deep insecurity within that feels the need to prove I am a worthy, intelligent individual.
Recognizing that ogre allows me to make friends with it and see how it can guide me towards a better understanding of my whole self—ogres and all. It's never easy to befriend your ogres or recognize your dragons, but when you do you see they are constant companions in your life, pushing you to become stronger, wiser, and more whole.
FINDING THE (ILLUSORY) BOON OF SUCCESS
The reason illusory is in parentheses is because success can be up for interpretation—namely what counts for success in this phase might not count in later phases, mostly due to a lack of balance. However, most young women will feel successful after navigating their personal road of trials.
At first glance, much of my early career could definitely be described as successful, but at second glance it was extremely imbalanced—with much more masculine energy than feminine. I was focused and determined, but I also neglected feminine qualities that valued self-care, spirituality, and socializing.
As a science teacher and academic, I had notable achievements. I had plenty of local news coverage for exciting lessons, praise from students and parents, and my scholarly work helped other educators. I was really proud of myself in my career and I often felt that my work was my calling. Yet as my professional life was flourishing, my personal and spiritual life felt arid. It is when we begin to feel our achievements are superficial or unfulfilling when we are called to a greater self.
AWAKENING TO ARIDITY, AND DEATH
This phase is usually the most visceral because it can feels disorienting, confusing, and empty. Once a woman realizes just how much her masculine energy has taken from her, she must undergo death and rebirth.
This phase was drawn out for me (as most phases can be) because in 2010 I awoke to a feeling of aridity when I realized that too much work was making me burn-out and the success of my career was not enough to sustain me. Then from 2010 to 2017 many aspects of my life had to die and reawaken. Some were forced circumstantially and others were conscious choices.
There are almost too many to list, but during these seven years I moved (5 times!), left family, lost and made many new friends, quit and started new jobs, and generally had to reestablish myself over and over again. Each death was physically daunting as I often felt somatic symptoms of stress such as tight shoulders, stomach pains, and even vertigo. Then there were weeks, sometimes months after the death when liminal space between the old version and the new version had to be explored. These visceral deaths brought me down to the Goddess.
INITIATION AND DESCENT TO THE GODDESS
Back to the descent to the Goddess… Both Campbell and Murdoch describe the descent to the Goddess as a rite-of-passage that takes the woman from the masculine-centered logic and ration into a mysterious, “extra-rational” feminine who has our best interest at heart, but will bring it through the (temporary) pains of embracing our whole self.
In “The Book of She”, Sarah Avant Stover describes this phase as an initiation as owning your inner darkness—both your shadow behaviors and demons. Similarly to meeting the ogres and dragons on the road of trials, this phase helps you compassionately acknowledge and embrace the sides of you that you normally do not show to others.
During my descent I was introduced to the shadow archetypes that I am normally ashamed of showing others. Some of which included the Narcissist, the Victim, the Child, and the Saboteur. They acted like a rowdy party in my head yelling conflicting messages, like “You are not good enough”,or “You are better than them!”,and “Just give up now”,or “If you give up, you will be a stupid quitter”. Like anyone around an arguing family would do, hearing these voices all day made me want to run, hide and deny their relation to me!
I could not think my way out of the dark. So, instead I had to stop thinking, and just start being. I stopped trying to fix things and just let the mess inside me be out in the open for myself and (selected) others to sit in. Murdock describes the descent as bringing:
"sadness, grief, a feeling of being unfocused an undirected. What usually throws a person into a descent is leaving home, separating from one’s parents, the death of a child, lover or spouse, the loss of identity with a particular role, a serious physical or mental illness, an addiction, the midlife transition, divorce, aging, or loss of community. The descent may take weeks, month, years, and cannot be rushed because the heroine is reclaiming not only parts of herself, but also the lost soul of the culture. The task here is to reclaim the discarded parts of the self that were split off in the original separation from the feminine–– parts that have been ignored, devalued, and repressed, words and feelings swallowed in her quest for success."
It was scary being so raw. Fears persisted, old patterns I thought I’d overcome returned, and I felt extremely socially awkward. It was as if the darkness threw everything it had at me to make me confront the Goddess.
Feeling too shitty to venture deeper down, it was only when I found the work of Kristen Neff and Self-Compassion project that I was able to lean into the dark mess and love myself (and all my archetypes). This compassion acted like a safety anchor to the surface and told me I could travel deeper into my darkness than I expected.
My major turning point was after one night waking up in a panic—sweaty, heart-beating, and out of breath. Somehow I had the courage to defiantly say to my fears, “What?! Are you going to get me?!” And just like that, I must have proven to the dark Goddess that I was no longer afraid and shortly after I felt a major shift in my being.
URGENT YEARN TO RECONNECT TO THE FEMININE
After a woman meets the Goddess and proves she is no longer afraid, the Goddess opens up her splendor through a female’s intuition. Suddenly a woman yearns, longs, and is more attracted to feminine energies that previously were overlooked. What felt intimidating before has been unlocked through her initiation through the darkness.
In my experience, suddenly I had a natural desire to make more female friends, spend more “purposeless” time in nature, take up dancing, and create art for art’s sake. Admittedly, there were times I still had a nagging voice that asked “How is this supposed to help you?”, but by including these holistic feminine qualities back into my life, I started to feel more whole, more connected to others, and more “me”. My intuition became sharper than usual, and my empathy and ability to relate to other women became stronger than ever.
Through all of this, it was not until I was able to recognize the universal and personal split between me and the Mother that I made the biggest leap.
HEALING THE MOTHER/DAUGHTER SPLIT
The Mother/Daughter split is both metaphorical and personal. Through mothering oneself, a woman begins to recognize the powerful compassion of her own mother and the Great Mother who holds us all. By healing the split between them, one learns how to practice unconditional love for all her relationships.
As I mentioned earlier, during my teenage years my mother started to drive me crazy! Of course she had good intentions, but when a growing girl wants to express her independence, a mother can do no right! When I pushed her away, I pushed myself away from many things feminine. I didn’t want to surround myself with “girly” things, or be associated with groups of women.
Now as an adult woman who had experienced a descent into darkness, I suddenly saw the need for compassion for myself and others, and my mothers’ struggles dealing with me became more real than ever. I made it a point to call her more often to discuss past wounds I had caused her and (luckily) her openness to talk allowed the process to go much smoother. Through these conversations, I could feel a rift closing between me and my mother as well as the Great Mother.
HEALING THE WOUNDED MASCULINE AND INTEGRATION
OF FEMININE AND MASCULINE ENERGIES
After reconnecting with the feminine, it can be common for a woman to swing her pendulum from the very masculine-oriented way of being to a more feminine way of being. Sometimes during her swing, a woman can angrily reject the Patriarchy of “Father Culture” after recognizing the ways it has oppressed women for centuries. Healing this anger and resentment is vital to integrating and marrying the Great Mother and Great Father within us.
While I deeply believe the fire of injustice fuels the steam engine of revolution, I also know it stokes flames of anger and resentment. As a woman trying to succeed in a male-dominated subject (science), I often felt resentment at the lack of female representation in my studies. Later, in a claimed “gender-equal” workplace, I still noticed clear gender-differences between perceived credibility within the faculty. Also as a woman in a foreign country, I am often asked first “What does your husband do” before being asked my name. These inequalities still frustrate me, and I have noticed that for a period of several years, I have distanced myself from the “Patriarchy” and male-dominated groups as much as possible.
Yet, I am beginning to realize that this strong confirmation bias can keep me oppressed if I don’t know how to heal it. The union of masculine and feminine involves recognizing wounds, blessing them, and letting them go. By recognizing the Patriarchal tendencies within my own self, I can better understand the external Patriarchy. By understanding how the structure of a river bed allows a river to flow freely, I can make friends with masculine structure in order to let my creative feminine flourish. The most important aspect of the journey now is to integrate both energies into a healthy, robust whole. This is where I am now, and I am still growing into it as I write...
WHERE TO NOW?
In a Heroine's Journey one's successful self-work can translate into service to others. Through my own experience and years of study (including a PhD!) I have come away with the strong desire to help others along their journey. If you are interested in learning more about your Heroine's Journey, join us for the 6-week hybrid course: She-Quest starting May 17th!.