There are so many words that are special to Birthing From Within, words that we use in very specific ways that are important and meaningful — but not always entirely self-explanatory. The purpose of the BFW Dictionary posts is to shine a clarifying light on the language used by BFW and its practitioners and to explain how some of these words are so central to our unique approach to the childbearing years.
noun. A very typical example of a certain person or thing; a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology; (in Jungian psychology) a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.
— Oxford Dictionaries online
We tend to use the word “archetype” in casual conversation when we are referring to a stereotype, or just a plain old type: a collection of behaviors, energies, ideas, and feelings that form a recognizable, nameable pattern. “She’s an archetypal hippie!” we might say, or “They definitely fit that ‘Type A’ archetype!”
Happily, this is not far from the “academic” or “technical” meaning of the word. In the early 1900s, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung put forward the idea of psychological archetypes – innate, universal prototypes, each with its own group of associated memories, ideas, and interpretations. Jung taught that these archetypes, these primordial images, are built-in parts of our psyches, just like a liver or a heart are built-in parts of our bodies.
There have been many criticisms and reevaluations of Jung’s work over the years, but this core idea remains useful: we all carry within us certain sets of energies or tendencies that seem to work in patterns. For example, a caretaker archetype has to do with a desire to help others, to behave in ways that might be described as parental, compassionate, self-sacrificing, even saintly. On the other hand, a rebel archetype might be described as rejecting normalcy, breaking rules, and always pushing for the new or the less-popular.
Some people teach that there is a permanent, set number of natural archetypes that are grouped in set ways – Carol Pearson, for example, in Awakening the Heroes Within, teaches that there are 12 archetypes organized in three categories. In Birthing From Within, we tend to work with the system that Pam England sets out in Ancient Map for Modern Birth, in which some of the central archetypes are: Innocent, Victim, Rule Keeper/Judge, Orphan, Gatherer, Hunter/Huntress, and Love Warrior.
The truth is that there’s no “official” or “right answer” in terms of how many, or which, archetypes “actually” exist. Ultimately, it’s probably not that important to “take a side” in terms of exactly how many archetypes there are, or to memorize exactly what they should all be named. What’s more important to us as Birthing From Within mentors is that we grasp these crucial concepts:
- Archetypes are recognizable, nameable patterns of behaviors, energies, ideas, and feelings that live inside the human psyche.
- You can see people’s behaviors as emanating from various archetypes. The more unconscious/unexamined the behavior is – knee-jerk reactions, gut responses, strong drives to do a certain thing – the more likely that it is emanating directly from an archetype, following the rules of that archetype rather than responding to the full complexity of an actual situation.
- This is not a personality test – a person is not an archetype. Rather, all people contain all archetypes. A person might tend to mostly move from within one or two archetypes in a certain situation, or in their life in general, but they are innately capable of moving into or out of any archetype, and will naturally switch between archetypes, consciously or unconsciously.
Having understood those concepts, we come to the real question: WHY is the study of archetypes so important for those of us who work with pregnant, birthing, and postpartum parents?
Well, there are two main reasons. The first is pretty straightforward: if we can recognize the archetypes from which people are moving, we can communicate more effectively! Thinking in terms of archetypes allows us to move out of judgmental reactions (“this person is saying such foolish things and making such ridiculous decisions!”) and into deep listening instead. Listening for archetypes informs how we work with parents, how we truly personalize our mentoring to precisely what each parent is bringing to each moment. As we listen deeply, we can begin to identify who within them is speaking, and thus become able to speak directly to that archetype, beginning by validating its needs and desires, rather than contradicting or agreeing with it.
This brings us to the second reason that archetypes are important to us as birth workers. Once we have validated the archetype(s) from which a parent is speaking, we can begin to engage in processes and dialogues that invite parents to explore other archetypes and therefore, expanded possibilities for new beliefs and/or actions.
To understand this, let’s go back, for a moment, to how Pam England conceptualizes archetypes. She teaches that certain archetypes – Orphan, Innocent, and Victim, for example – are “child archetypes,” whereas others – Hunter/Huntress and Love Warrior – are “adult archetypes.” The child archetypes tend to think/behave in very simple ways, using defensive self-reliance, Pollyanna-style blinders, and so on, in order to manifest in ways that they believe will gain them love and acceptance, in ways that feel safe, and will not require them to challenge their self-identity or internalized rules. Adult archetypes, on the other hand, tend to approach situations with a sense of trying to figure out what’s actually needed – in other words, with discernment – and are willing to step outside of their habitual behavioral patterns or belief systems if need be. This is not a value judgement per se – adult archetypes are not “better” than child archetypes in any absolute sense. They can be, however, a better fit for complicated, multifaceted, emotionally intense experiences, such as birth. Such experiences often simply break the rigid coping strategies of child archetypes, which, if the adult archetypes haven’t been activated, can leave a person with no coping strategies at all.
As birth professionals, we have the chance to offer the potential for parents to move towards adult archetypes before the birth experience.
Parents who enter the birth experience in child archetypes – with magical thinking, defeatist attitudes, a strict reliance on factual information, and/or strictly defined rules for their own behavior – may be at a higher risk for emotional trauma. This is because they haven’t awakened the parts of themselves that feel self-compassion and think in terms of being resourceful and making in-the-moment decisions in response to in-the-moment realities. It’s not that parents who are inhabiting adult archetypes are always happy with everything that happens; the birth initiation inevitably cracks us open in one way or another. But adult archetypes allow for more expansive understandings and possibilities, giving us the opportunity to move through those cracks and out of them, rather than being stuck there with nothing to say except, “This wasn’t supposed to happen!”, or “I should have done better!”
Some approaches to childbirth education, intentionally or not, either invalidate or feed child archetypes. For example, with the positive intention of helping them to “be realistic,” a childbirth educator may invalidate an Innocent, hopeful, magically-thinking archetype: “I hate to break it to you, but birth is gonna be painful!” Or, on the other hand, a childbirth educator may feed that archetype: “You can avoid painful birth by learning these techniques!” The first approach may simply break our relationship with the parent, hardening their determination to stick to their own ideas; the second approach may make the parent feel happy in the moment by effectively promising to give them what they want. But neither approach actually moves towards preparing the parent for what birth really asks: the ability to look within and actively cope with resilience and compassion, regardless of what experience is handed to us.
Knowing this, Birthing From Within training programs fill mentors’ and doulas’ repertoires with processes and tools designed to validate the emotional energy of clients’ child archetypes while simultaneously stretching to awaken the adult archetypes within them. With this training, BFW professionals learn how to invite parents to develop the ability to move through their initiations with resourcefulness, and with compassion and forgiveness for themselves.
The move into adult archetypes is key for another group of people besides parents…US, the birth workers! Working from our child archetypes can increase the likelihood and severity of the burnout and demoralization that so famously plagues this profession.
When we are inhabiting our adult archetypes, we can make accurate assessments of the situations in which we find ourselves, and we can identify the necessary strategies for moving through those situations – again, with resilience and self-forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that we won’t sometimes feel sad, or frustrated, or angry – of course we will! It means that, rather than banging our heads against these feelings, or drowning in them, we will be able to move through them, integrate them into ourselves, and move forward once again in wisdom and compassion.