• Fear and Threshold Resistance

In this 2014 interview with Oprah Winfrey, author Elizabeth Gilbert offers interesting insights into threshold resistance and the Hero’s Journey. Especially interesting are her views on fear and the journey.

Every problem begins with fear

Recently I came across this 2014 series of short videos from an Oprah Winfrey “Supersoul Sunday” program. Winfrey is interviewing Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love” and the subject of a 2010 Julia Roberts movie of the same name.

According to The New Yorker summary of the book, “At the age of thirty-one, Gilbert moved with her husband to the suburbs of New York and began trying to get pregnant, only to realize that she wanted neither a child nor a husband. Three years later, after a protracted divorce, she embarked on a yearlong [worldwide] trip of recovery”—her own hero’s journey.

In this series of excerpts, Gilbert discusses various aspects of the hero’s journey and how they apply to modern life. While sometimes superficial, her insights are relevant and worth watching. I found one of them particularly interesting: threshold resistance.

Threshold resistance (symbolized by the Threshold Guardians) is a normal part of leaving one’s established life to embark on a journey. In The Hero’s Journey: The Path of Transformation, I described this resistance: “Psychologically, crossing the threshold involves making a decision― often in the face of great resistance― to confront our problems and to commit ourselves to growth” (p. 87). When we face the threshold we also face our innermost weaknesses, needs and fears.

Winfrey opens this subject when she asks Gilbert, “Do women write to you trying to figure out how to stay on course for the quest?” Gilbert responds by quoting Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist: “The older I get, the more I think every problem is just fear.” Gilbert elaborates, saying that the questions she gets from women always seem to derive from fear. The women are stuck, but they’re afraid to make a change. Or they are suffering from perfectionism, what Gilbert calls the “haute couture” version of fear, or fear disguised in formal clothes.

Perfectionism is a common—and daunting—threshold guardian. We think, “I’m not ready for the journey. I need to wait until conditions are perfect,” or “I’m afraid to try something new because I’m afraid to present myself to the world if I’m not perfect.” So we put off taking action.

Perfectionism is a real quest-killer. It leads us into the 3Ps vicious cycle: perfectionism, procrastination and paralysis. (Follow this link for a good article on the 3Ps. The article is aimed at students, but it offers valuable advice to all of us.) Conditions aren’t perfect or we’re not perfectly ready, so we procrastinate. We find reasons for not accepting the Call. But procrastination begins to tie us into a knot, and it isn’t long before we feel paralyzed, totally unable to act.

If we can’t break free of this cycle, threshold resistance can metastasize into the Call Refused. Refusal is not, as many people believe, just resisting the Call: it is rejecting the Call completely, turning the adventure into what I call a “shadow journey.” Again, from The Hero’s Journey: The Path of Transformation, I describe this shadow journey:

Rejecting the Call, Campbell tells us, “converts the adventure into its negative” (1949, p. 59). In this “Shadow Journey,” the Call that had offered growth and liberation becomes a threat to our ego because it represents a problem we have not resolved or a potential we have not expressed. To protect our ego, we build defenses and try to avoid responsibility for our circumstances (p. 58).

But I’m moving into another subject here. For now, I recommend these excerpts not just for Gilbert’s observations on threshold resistance, but because she talks about other challenges on the journey and about life’s challenges in general. These are short videos, but they worth the watching.

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