Probably all of them at some point or another! None of these roles can stand alone, they are dependent on a relationship dynamic. We all experience villains in various forms. It could be a co-worker, an ex-lover, a boss, or a political leader that makes life miserable for us. The “bad guy” or antagonist pushes the plot forward in our personal and collective narrative and allows the hero within us to emerge from victimhood.
Ever since we first understood words and heard our first stories, these characters were with us. We identify with them, we aspire to be like them or struggle to avoid becoming them. We usually end up playing all the roles in our own lives and in other people’s stories. The ability to witness these character roles playing out without becoming over-identified is a core teaching in many spiritual traditions. We are in the story but not of the story. We can be trapped in a role or liberated by it. The ability to witness, without attachment, may be the best tool we have to navigate consciously, as we surf the drama of life.
Knight in Shining Armor or Damsel in Distress?
For gender-liberated thinkers, this does not need to be limiting at all. There are plenty of male damsels in distress and female knights in shining armor despite the traditional faerie tale format. In time, and over different life circumstances we may experience playing each side of this dynamic. This develops our personality and character while also hopefully giving us increased empathy for self and other.
Have you ever had someone help you out in a tough situation and now they think they can control your life? Or maybe you have helped someone when they were down only to have them toss you to the curb as soon as they got back on their feet? Sometimes the knight in shining armor or damsel in distress can become a villain in the blink of an eye! We can magically transform from hero to victim, and along with the change comes all sorts of powerful lessons and emotions. That’s why a little humor and some wisdom of the trickster archetype can be both humbling and liberating!
Being a knight in shining armor is an ego trap. What it subtly implies is that somebody needs to be the damsel in distress in order for you to be the knight in shining armor. If you become attached to this role you will also become attached to the notion that your partner is helpless. There is a natural balance/tension between opposing/complementary roles that is healthy. So long as people are conscious and able to shift roles a struggle can become a dance.
The term describes itself to perfection but can go unnoticed for a lifetime unless someone points it out to you. What better way to elevate ourselves to hero-status than by creating a big mess to resolve for ourselves and others! I think we’ve all been there and probably witnessed our friends there as well. The difference between being stuck in a behavior pattern and having the flexibility to free yourself is simply awareness. To own that you are the source of many of your problems can also empower you to be the hero that liberates you.
A Personal Story
Manufactured crisis can be a good thing if you use it carefully. Once while working on a children’s fantasy story with a prolific artist named Bret Blevins, we agreed that time should have no place in our creative journey. Both of us had spent time working on projects with deadlines and decided that we didn’t want that kind of stress to be part of this project. Our project, our way, true freedom!
We dreamed without bounds creating problems for the characters and thickening the plot, then solving the problems with creative strokes of genius, then patting ourselves on the backs, then changing our minds, or getting distracted with other projects, etc. Years went by. With the project still not complete, Bret called me one day and said, “Jacob I hate to admit it but I can’t finish this project unless we create a deadline. If we don’t put the metaphorical gun to our head, we will never complete this.” I had to agree, recognizing that the stress associated with the deadlines I despised was also the motivating factor that pushed me to complete what I started.
In this case the deadline became a useful villain, and without it there was nothing to push the storyline forward. How often do we attract individuals or situations as villains in our lives? Do heroes need villains? The whole script is flipped when we become conscious of what we attract and create.
Being the Victim
This can be a very difficult subject because victims require villains even more than heroes. There are tragic crimes like rape, abuse, etc., and this is in no way to suggest ‘blaming the victim.’ As a matter of fact, understanding our roles in life situations is a way to transcend all forms of blame, including self-blame. Sometimes randomly being in the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to make any strong, confident individual become a victim. After the trauma of events like this, no matter how big or small, it is easy to get caught in the perpetuating emotional cycles of victim consciousness.
For anyone who has had to undergo the process of healing this sort of trauma, it is very difficult. Oftentimes the pain is so great that we choose escapism or numbness instead of mindful presence. In these cases good friends, a strong community, and professional help become the most valuable resources.
At some point in the healing journey, self-awareness allows us to see beyond the role we have been placed in and witness it (almost as if from an outside perspective). This is where self-compassion is born, and the hero within awakens. Consider a poor person in India — born into poverty and raised on the streets — who becomes a wise sadhu. What makes this individual different than a drunk homeless person in the ghetto? Their internal belief system and quality of self-awareness are what distinguishes them.
Though these are extreme cases, they illustrate the power of finding the ability to witness, with compassion, the roles we play as we go through life. Being in the victim role is perhaps one of the most sensitive and difficult mindsets to overcome. It requires enormous strength from within to simultaneously be present with one’s wounds while also finding the ability to distance themselves and not over-identify.
My Own Worst Enemy
We all know that we can be our own worst enemy. Oftentimes we combine manufactured crises with ego needs to be a hero or indulge wounds that keep us stuck as victims. Self-sabotage is manufactured crisis gone awry. It is always easier to notice this in others but we must have the courage to hold the mirror up to ourselves on occasion. When times are tough it is always easier to blame the external world, to find demons to project the hurt onto, to create toxic situations that make our internal pain feel less overwhelming. When distracting ourselves with delusions, or rationalizations, or compulsions, we can easily fall into the blame-shame-denial cycle.
Parable of the Weaver
Grandmother Spider is central to many Native American myths. She is a powerful character because she is known to weave a web that allows her to sit and wait for food. Folktales say that she created the whole world and wove it with stories. We live these stories and play the characters in these tales. Just like the spider’s web, we can become tangled like the fly or we can know which threads to walk without getting caught up. These threads are called story lines and each of us has our very own unique path to walk in the never ending web of life. We weave these stories from deep within our psyche, possibly rooted in our ancestry, our youth, our beliefs, or even our dreams. We must always remember that these are just stories and we have the power to change them.
Exercises for Increasing Self-Awareness of the Roles We Play
We will play many roles in our lives, and in the lives of others around us during our lifetime. Having a journal is a very powerful way to give yourself the opportunity to author your own story. Words are spells, thus we have ‘spelling’ and we can sentence ourselves to all sorts of limiting or liberating stories. A journal puts the pen in your hand and allows you to reflect on what comes out when nobody (but you) is looking. Ask these questions and consider all the times you have played these roles. What feelings were similar and different each time you played them?
- When have I been the hero in somebody else’s story?
- When have I been the hero in my own story?
- When have I been the villain in somebody else’s story?
- When have I been the villain to my own self?
- When have I been the victim?
- How did I recognize I was the victim and lift myself out of that situation?
As Above, So Below
Currently, all over the world, we have many perceived villains and heroes on the stage. From politicians to artists, activists to exploiters, and somehow each feels justified in their role. Somebody you call a villain may consider themselves a hero. All of these stories are playing out inside us and around us. Our place of great power starts within. When we change our story, we change the way we see the world. When we change the way we see people we change the way we engage with them, and this causes them to shift also. We treat people differently based on the role we have given them in our story, and only through holding up the mirror can we diffuse the polarity.
Maybe we need villains sometimes to push the plot along or to help us rise to hero-status, but we don’t need to be attached to these roles. Go ahead and be a hero, but be careful not over-identify or become dependent on victims for us to feel strong. Watch this dynamic play out in the political/partisan game. Each side thinks they are the victim and the other side is the villain! The true hero would be someone who lifts up both sides…
We are all victims in some way, some more-so than others, and for this everyone can stand to evolve their capacity for empathy and compassion. The changes that are happening in our world are a reflection of what is happening within us. Play with these roles and the ways that you feed these dynamics and you will see how easily they shift!