Personality and the Interaction of Archetypes

By Julian Burke in Mystery on September 18th, 2009 / No Comments

Sometimes it seems our personalities are fixed and predetermined. We were born with them. They were programmed into us by our environment. Any attempt to change them will be superficial or temporary. We are who we are.

In truth, our personalities are extremely fluid and dynamic, composed of elements that can be individuated, classified and put in right relationship. We refer to these elements as archetypes. At the broadest level, archetypes can be placed in five categories: the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, the Ego, the Persona and the Self.

Mythological characters, dream figures – even our idealization of people out there in the “real world” – are manifestations of archetypes. Within the psyche of each individual, they take unique forms. They interact in complex, often paradoxical, sometimes destructive ways. Left unchecked and unexamined, they may wage progressively more ferocious battles within us – battles that disintegrate the personality and lead to misery.

But when the archetypes are aligned in right relationship, working together in harmony, we discover that we have unlimited access to the joyous realms of Spirit.

Here are general descriptions of the five major archetypes.

The Shadow
If the archetypes were movie or literary genres, the Shadow would be Horror. This is where our demons chatter – where our most destructive, demented, anti-social instincts lie. More than any of the other archetypes, our relationship with the Shadow defines our personalities.

At one personality extreme, there are people who deny their Shadow exists. They refuse to acknowledge, even to themselves, that they have a “dark side.” The denial is futile, however, because the archetypes find expression whether we acknowledge them or not.

Those who disavow their Shadow develop neurotic relationships with projections of it in the outside world. They see evil in people everywhere and constantly put themselves in situations where they are either its victims or its shrill, hysterical – and ultimately ineffectual – combatants.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who give in to their Shadows’ morbid imperatives – who become the rapists, thieves and killers others fear.

Obviously, most people fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

As we grow spiritually and develop a better understanding of our Shadows, we find that although this archetype contains hideous and frightening depths, it is also a profound source of creativity. We learn to navigate our way through its darkness, often uncovering sources of brilliant, life-affirming light.

Developing a useful relationship with the Shadow – scary as it may be at first – is the first step to personality integration and spiritual growth. The Shadow is the doorway to the other archetypes.

The Anima and Animus
This one is tricky to conceptualize. It is defined as the “soul.” But what is the soul?

Souls can be seen as individual expressions of the Universal Spirit. Imagine the Spirit as an enormous lake. Our souls are its rivers – drawing from it, feeding into it.

To make things even trickier, the soul of the male is feminine (anima), while the soul of the female is masculine (animus).

Essentially, the soul provides a spiritual balance to the biological imperatives of gender. Men and women are physiologically and culturally programmed to think and behave in certain ways. The soul – manifesting itself in the opposite gender – provides an opportunity for balance which, when achieved, allows us to transcend the physical and access the spiritual.

The Ego
Many refer to this archetype as the ‘I.’

It could also be called the ‘Eye.’ It is the objective observer at the core of the Self: that which sees and processes the world outside and the world within. It is consciousness. It is awareness.

As we integrate the other archetypes, this Eye – no longer distracted by all those chaotic inner battles – is able to see things more clearly. It peers deeper within our Selves. It studies the outside world with greater understanding.

A healthy Ego moves its attention fluidly between the realm of the physical and that of the Spirit, becoming ever more aware of their interconnectedness.

The Persona
T.S. Eliot referred to it as the “face to meet the faces that we meet.” Some think of it as the mask we put on to relate with the outside world.

The mask analogy can be misleading because it implies a superficial way to hide reality. There is nothing superficial about the Persona.

If you think of it as a mask, don’t visualize a cheap, store-bought mask. This mask is made from blood and sweat and tissue. It is designed with creative input from all the other archetypes. And our archetypes are constantly tweaking and refining the mask’s design according to what they perceive the “outside” world wants to see.

Understanding the archetypes allows us to take conscious control of the mask’s construction so that it improves, rather than hinders, our relationships with all those ‘faces that we meet.’

The Self

It is through the Self that we are eternally connected to the Universal Spirit.The Self is the God within. As such, it is a paradox. It contains all the other archetypes – yet is distinct from them. It is also through the Self that we maintain the illusion of separateness.


As we gain an understanding of the archetypes, we see how they are personified in movies, novels, mythological stories and fairy tales. We realize we have unconsciously projected these archetypes into the narratives of our lives. We hear our archetypes talking to us in dreams. We learn to talk back.

Our personalities are shaped by this ongoing dialog. The conversation goes on whether we consciously participate or not. But conscious participation is the only way to expand the personality, to bring ourselves in right relationship with the world and grow in Spirit.

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