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You may have heard people talking about archetypes in various circles, such as work environments, mental health settings or in conversations about literature. Sometimes it may even be taken for granted that everyone knows what an archetype is.

This might be unhelpful, as the concept can be quite difficult to get one’s head around. I will try here to explain my understanding of what is generally meant by ‘archetypes’ in a deliberately broad sense.

Before learning about archetypes, I thought they were simply a way of describing personalities, for example, that a person has ‘The King’ archetype. After learning about them, particularly from reading works by the Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung, I started understanding archetypes as instincts within each person rather than personality types per se.  

In the same way as we have a physical instinct to feel hungry, we have an accompanying psychological instinct to look for food. One could say that our pursuit of a desired object, such as food, is driven by the ‘Hunter’ archetype. Similarly, one could say that a person’s leadership behaviour in an organisation is driven by his or her ‘King’ archetype.




Rather than thinking that each person has their own personal archetype, we see archetypes as universal. That is, all archetypes always exist in each person. They are innate psychological tendencies that we are born with and that we can become aware of as well as nourish and use to our benefit throughout life.

Because they are argued to be universal, we can see them appearing in artwork across history and culture. In art, archetypes are typically embodied by characters that represent them. Think of the first three classic stories that come to mind, then see if you can name a trickster, a King, and a warrior in those stories.  




How Does This Help You?


If you think about how the archetypes are acted out in your own life, you may notice that some of them are very active where others are inactive or even frustrated. For example, you may find yourself arguing a lot with people, which may mean your warrior archetype is overactive and acting in an unproductive way.

You may find that you are stuck in life and do not have anything to look forward to. This may be due to an inactive hunter archetype, which may be because you feel frustrated because you do not have something desirable to pursue in your life.

This can be adjusted by working on your awareness of what’s going on. By doing so, you may be better able to adjust and integrate more of the archetypes into your life.




 The Bottom Line


In the same way that a good story needs to be balanced by several different archetypes, integrating a variety of archetypes can help you better handle the ever-present challenges of life. Hopefully this has left you with a basic understanding of what is meant by archetypes.

If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend the book ‘Awakening the Heroes Within’ by Carol S. Pearson. If you want to dive very deeply into this and do not mind old academic texts, I also recommend ‘The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious’ by Carl Jung.

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Dr Erlend Slettevold

Dr Erlend Slettevold is a Clinical Psychologist at The Oak Tree Practice. His qualifications include Psychology BSc, Psychology MSd and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.