Some people feel compelled to save the world from disorder, irrationality, chaos, and unruliness. It feels to them as if every detail matters dramatically for our future, and as if it’s their job to exert control to make sure everything is fixed and executed perfectly. They will sacrifice health, comfort and relationships to do it. These people are compulsive heroes, or more accurately, compulsively heroic. Their efforts are not wise or skillful, but habitual and motivated by a need to prove themselves.
Other people bring the same willingness to work hard, take risks, make sure the challenging tasks get done impeccably, and sacrifice themselves if need be, but only when there is true meaning and purpose behind their actions. These people are heroically compulsive.
The Influence of Archetypes
One way to free ourselves from unhealthy compulsive behavior is to understand our motivations, what drives and actually controls us. While we’re all unique, there seem to be ancient and common patterns that underlie the roles we take on in life such as mother, father, warrior, healer, savior, priest, jester, caretaker and leader. These patterns are known as archetypes, and they’re illustrated in myths and symbols.
These patterns exert a magnetic influence that can give us intuitive guidance and energy to help us do what we need to do.
Or they can drag us into a perpetual rut of expectations and despair.
Ever had that feeling that you just can’t stop doing something?
Archetypal Energy, for better or worse
It’s helpful to identify the archetypes that drive us the most so that we can use their energy in a more conscious way. While we all have these possibilities in us, our individual predisposition favors some archetypes more than others.
So I’ve been curious for some time about which archetypes hold the most sway for people who have compulsive personalities. While there are many archetypes that convey parts of the experience, I think that the one that most completely reflects it is the archetype of the hero.
First, a caveat. I’ll be referring to the hero and not the heroine in this post. The hero may be experienced by either men or women, but is decidedly more masculine in its nature. I will not be able to explore the archetype of the heroine, which uses alliance more naturally, and increases the use of power, rather than tempering it. But there is still a fair amount of overlap between the two.
Many people with compulsive tendencies, both men and women, have an especially large quotient of the hero archetype in their disposition.
This can be a good thing, but when heroic energy gets hijacked to prove that we’re good and valuable human beings, we then become driven by the archetype in an unhealthy way.
But it’s just as possible to be inspired by it in a healthy way.
The Hero Archetype and the Compulsive Personality
If you put all the heroes in mythology and literature together and looked for the common denominators, here’s what you’d come up with. They:
- are driven, persistent, and determined to master problems.
- are self-sacrificing.
- are unflappable.
- have high moral standards and are highly conscientious.
- have superpowers.
- experience some sort of internal conflict, struggle, insecurity or weakness (like Kryptonite).
- are courageous
You might recognize some of these traits as the ideal of the compulsive personality. I’m not saying that compulsives actually achieve these ideals, but this is how they would like to think of themselves.
- Like heroes, compulsives have drive and determination, though what they do with that energy isn’t always healthy.
- Like heroes, compulsives may sacrifice their health and relationships for other goals. They’re good at delaying gratification, and may do so interminably.
- Compulsives attempt to be unflappable. While they often get caught in frustration or anger, they like to think of themselves as eminently reasonable, and may become detached from their emotions.
- Both heroes and compulsives have high moral standards, though compulsives can become rigid, judgmental and preachy about those standards.
- Compulsives do have superpowers in that they typically have lots of energy, have enhanced visual perception, and are naturally meticulous.
- Both heroes and compulsives have some sort of internal conflict, struggle or insecurity.
Heroically compulsive, or compulsively heroic?
The question is whether the compulsive has the heroic courage to overcome their insecurity and inner conflicts so that they can use their talents generously, as the hero does.
- Is their heroic nature productive or destructive?
- Are they driving consciously, or are they being driven unconsciously by insecurities?
- Can they use their compulsive energy mindfully rather than habitually?
- Do they serve a purpose larger than eradicating their own insecurity?
- Are they heroically compulsive, or compulsively heroic?
People who are compulsively heroic infect the heroic journey with the worst of their insecurities and compulsive nature.
People who are heroically compulsive use the attitude of the hero to channel their compulsive disposition.
What appears to be an unhealthy, compulsive personality (OCPD), is often indiscriminate use of heroic energy.
Or, as we say in the Jungian world, they are identified with the archetype of the hero. This is the only way they can think of themselves and therefore have little control over it.
Purpose of the Hero Story
Stories about heroes are designed to inspire us and give us the courage we need to overcome challenges. They help us to:
- develop discipline.
- achieve mastery over the world and ourselves.
- learn to accept limits, including death.
- become our unique selves and find our places in the world.
- solve problems and achieve courageous acts that serve community.
Dangers of being a Compulsive Hero
But there are also dangers in being heroic. Here are just a few:
- We may become inflated, thinking we’re so special and important that we disregard the feelings and opinions of others.
- We may believe that we can and should accomplish superhuman tasks. This sets up unrealistic expectations that then lead to deflation and depression.
- We may become perfectionist to the degree that it inhibits us from trying things.
- We may become isolated, thinking we have to do it all ourselves, because no one else could do it as well as we would.
- In our determination to take on challenges we sometimes mistake inner challenges for outer challenges, using heroic energy to fight external dragons (like messy closets and slow drivers) and ignoring the ones inside (unresolved fears and resentments).
Unhealthy compulsives are perpetually slaying dragons. They can’t remember which dragon they were supposed to slay so it goes on interminably. They’ve lost the point. They are compulsively heroic.
Hercules and the Compulsive Urge
Hercules is probably the most famous of all heroes, and he demonstrates my point about the role that facing insecurities plays in becoming a healthy hero. Even though we focus on Hercules’s strength today, his most admirable characteristics were actually his virtue and generosity. He used his power to protect the oppressed.
Still, he wasn’t so secure about his goodness. No-one, including Hercules himself, would doubt his power. But he did doubt his virtue. And he felt he had to prove it.
In a fit of crazy behavior induced by his jealous step-mother, Hera, Hercules killed his family. To redeem himself, he took on ten arduous and challenging labors.
Some of you may be able to relate to this. Imagine that as a child you were furious at your parents and something happened to one of them. Maybe they cried or maybe they developed an illness. You felt guilty and you engaged in a lifelong effort to try to redeem yourself, slaying the dragons of your selfishness.
This strategy has its emotional logic, but it doesn’t really work. If you try to achieve redemption by trying to be good when it wasn’t actually your fault, you’ll never deal with the actual feelings on the inside—a profound sadness about that which is out of your control, and, at the same time, a fear of your own power.
Controlling the Controller: Limits of the Hero
The heroes of mythology came up against limitations and learned to accept them. This is a good model for people with compulsive personality. While we may want to deny the constraints of our bodies, the impossibility of perfection, the dead-end of righteousness, and the utter futility of trying to control everything, part of our heroic task is to let go of control and to accept help from others.
But a superficial take from the superheroes we’re surrounded by today may lead us to develop insecurities when we compare ourselves to the unrealistic expectations they create.
These expectations are some of the dragons that need to be challenged.
What’s Most Important to You?
Just as importantly we need to choose our battles. What’s truly important and worth fighting for? What really holds meaning and will fulfill you? If, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, we live as if everything needs to be just so or the world will fall apart, we will drive ourselves, and everyone around us, crazy.
Anxiety can make us undiscriminating about the challenges we take on if we feel we need to prove that we’re good.
But if we can use heroic ideals to channel the strengths of a compulsive personality in a mindful way, it’s a win-win situation.
If this perspective is helpful to you, you may want to consider attending one of two workshops where I will be presenting online this fall.
Saturday, October 17, Individuation Hijacked: Perils and Potentials of the Heroic and Compulsive Personality, hosted by The Oregon Friends of Jung. CEUs available.