Personal Mythology 101
Updated: Apr 8, 2019
This post is adapted from David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner's Personal Mythology: Using Ritual, Dreams, and Imagination to Discover Your Inner Story ( Energy Psychology Press, 2009).
A personal myth is a constellation of beliefs, feelings, images, and rules—operating largely outside of conscious awareness—that interprets sensations, constructs new explanations, and directs behavior. Your personal mythology is a lens that gives meaning to every situation you meet and determines what you will do in it. Personal myths speak to the broad concerns of identity (Who am I?), direction (Where am I going?), and purpose (Why am I going there?). For an internal system of images, narratives, and emotions to be called a personal myth, it must address at least one of the core concerns of human existence, the traditional domains of cultural mythology. According to Joseph Campbell, these include:
the hunger to comprehend the natural world in a meaningful way;
the search for a marked pathway through the succeeding epochs of human life;
the need to establish secure and fulfilling relationships within community;
the yearning to know one’s part in the vast wonder and mystery of the cosmos.
Personal myths explain the external world, guide personal development, provide social direction, and address spiritual questions in a manner that is analogous to the way cultural myths carry out those functions for entire groups of people. Your myths do for you what cultural myths do for a society. Your personal mythology is the system of complementary as well as contradictory personal myths that organizes your experience and guides your actions. It is the lens through which you perceive the world. Its values and assumptions are all you see.
Another concrete image for thinking about a personal myth is to view it as a template. Like the seal that stamped a king’s insignia into wax, your personal myths imprint your unique way of organizing reality onto your experience. They result in your characteristic styles of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and acting. Myths, in the sense we are using the term, are not the stories you tell, the attitudes you hold, or the beliefs you embrace, although each of these may reflect your deeper mythology. Nor are myths properly judged as being true or false, right or wrong; rather, they are more or less functional for the development of an individual or a group—and even that evaluation is made inevitably according to the dictates of a larger myth.
Personal myths brings together specific elements of psychological life and organize them in distinctive ways. For example, a man whose personal mythology tells him he will be abandoned by anyone he loves might not only perceive rejection in situations where others would not but also unwittingly choose relationships that set the stage for abandonment. The theme of his guiding myth is captured in the country-western title “If You Won’t Leave Me, I’ll Find Somebody Who Will.” He perceived his world, organizes his perceptions, and molds events to correspond with his personal mythology.
Whether fully elaborated into a great cultural myth or still in the raw form of a motif in the inner life of a single mortal, myths operate largely outside consciousness. Once a myth could be described clearly by a tribal culture, Campbell observed, it had already lost much of its power. Just as societies live according to a mythology they often cannot name, individuals live according to a constructed reality—a personal mythology—they often cannot name. The very act of naming a dysfunctional guiding myth is a step toward changing it.
A NEW KIND OF MYTH
The ability to reflect on and modify the myths you are living is an aptitude you have that your distant ancestors did not have, and the emergence of this capacity changed the foundations of human consciousness. We are still myth-makers, but viable myths can no longer be based primarily on the prestige of authority, the habits of tradition, or the doctrines of a group.
Through myth, observed the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, “the various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the sacred” into the world are expressed most adequately. It is in mythology’s embrace of the transcendent or spiritual dimension of experience that a mythically attuned framework exhibits its most distinctive strength over approaches that are more behaviorally, cognitively, or psychodynamically oriented. To live mythologically, according to Ken Wilber, “means to begin to grasp the transcendent, to see it alive in oneself, in one’s life, in one’s work, friends, and environment.”
We use the word “myth” in a thoroughly contemporary sense that recognizes that the fundamental task of the human psyche is to construct a model of reality, a guiding mythology; that this guiding mythology embraces the spiritual foundations of your life as well as the more traditional areas of psychology, such as your feelings and thoughts; and that your success in generating a vital guiding mythology determines, in large part, your success in life.
HOW MYTHOLOGY GOT PERSONAL
A profound difference between your myths and those of your early forebears is that yours have relative autonomy from the established myths of your society. The myths and rituals guiding an individual’s maturation are no longer cultural strongholds that have for generations remained stable. Because of a convergence of developments—including the speed of social change, the breakdown of community, the ascendance of the individual in Western society, and electronic media that portray the culture’s diverse and rapidly shifting mythic imagery—myth-making has become an intimate matter, the domain and responsibility of each person.
Myth-making had to become a personal venture as social change outpaced the intrinsic capacities of cultural myths to evolve. In the past, cultural myths developed slowly and often prevailed for centuries. Societies faced with changes too radical for their myths to manage tended to flounder. Today the rate of social change is meteoric, and it is accompanied by a dizzying array of competing mythic images, values, and perceptions. The meanings of “man” and “woman,” “work” and “play,” “success” and “failure” have all been radically challenged within recent memory. The culture’s new mythology is being hammered out on the anvil of individual lives. At the same time, communications media can link you with virtually every mythic outlook ever recorded and with new mythic developments at the moment they are first expressed anywhere on the planet. Ours is to pick and choose rather than to ingest whole a unified and coherent cultural mythology. Ours is also to reflect on our guiding myths and revise them according to our experiences in the world.
Your personal myths help you find order in a universe far too immense to grasp fully (a quip from some theology circles is that for us to try to comprehend God is like an amoeba’s peering up through the microscope to study the scientist). Yet within this unfathomable cosmos, your myths establish your identity, direction, notion of progress, and sense of worth. Your mythology evolves as you mature. When life becomes unsettling, when you find yourself longing for change, when you feel empty, when self-destructive patterns cannot be ignored, your personal mythology is often begging to be transformed. A myth that has become outdated may have for many years served to protect, orient, motivate you. If you resist allowing it to evolve, you may be newly baptized in swelling tides of tumult and adversity. And the psyche does tend to conserve what has worked in the past, as when a man attempts to use the boyish charm that gained him attention as an adolescent to obtain advancement in the business world. The resulting turmoil tills the soil for mythic change. Your personal myths are being negotiated and renegotiated throughout your life.
SOME KEY CONCEPTS
It is through the spontaneous construction of reality, the creation of the myths that provide understanding and direction, that human beings, individually and collectively, come to terms with the critical challenges that determine survival, success, and well-being.
Men and women in contemporary cultures who are exposed to diverse belief systems and ways of life are more capable of carving out highly personal mythologies and of reflecting on their guiding myths than people in any previous period of history.
The need to become conscious of these lived mythologies is more urgent than ever before because the fate of the world unequivocally depends on the political, economic, technological, and spiritual decisions that grow out of them.
As you come to understand the principles that shape your guiding myths, you become less bound by the mythologies of your childhood and of your culture, and more able to influence patterns in your life that once seemed predetermined and went unquestioned.
In teaching people how to examine and recast the deep-seated myths that govern their lives, we have repeatedly observed the practical benefits of simply becoming able to articulate one’s guiding myths. We believe it is possible for you to identify outmoded or otherwise unproductive personal myths that have been operating largely outside of your awareness; to cultivate alternative, more constructive inner guidance; and to integrate this renewed mythic vision into your life. In addition, by coming to understand your own mythology, you become better equipped to adapt to the mythology of your culture and to participate more effectively in its transformation.