Today I will talk about a book that has changed my life: “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Estes is a Jungian psychoanalyst, and her book is a collection of myths and fairy tales that symbolize the woman’s inner life. She believes that stories can provide healing by serving as a path to the inner “wild woman” that too many women have forgotten.
An especially intriguing story is that of La Llorona, which stresses the importance of creative expression.
There once was a woman named La Llorona. Although she was very poor, she was also very beautiful. One day, she fell in love with the rich man who owned the factories beside the river. His factories polluted the water so badly that it was not safe to drink, yet this did not bother La Llorona. She became his lover and gave birth to two children. Unfortunately, she drank the polluted water while she was pregnant, and as a result her children were born deformed.
Upon seeing his deformed children, the rich man left her to be with a rich woman instead. La Llorona drowned her children and died of grief. When her spirit tried to enter heaven, she was told that she could not come in unless she found her children and brought them with her. Her ghost returned to the river to find them, but the waters were so polluted that she could not see anything in it. To this day, La Llorona wanders the river, dragging her hands through the water looking for her children.
According to Estes, La Llorona symbolizes what can happen when a woman loses her creative self. Although her interpretation mainly pertains to women, she acknowledges that men can face similar problems.
What does it mean?
The rich man represents the animus, which is the masculine force of the psyche connecting a woman’s inner life to her outer life (men have a feminine force called the anima). This connection enables creativity; ideas in the mind can cross the bridge and become reality. Ideas for a story can become a book, and ideas for a song can become music.
In this story, the animus is unhealthy. He should be protecting La Llorona’s creative force and her ideas. Instead, he pollutes the river – her creative force – with his factories. The polluted river poisons her ideas – the children – and he abandons both La Llorona and the children.
Not knowing what else to do, La Lorona throws her deformed ideas into the river. This is a woman who has given up.
La Llorona’s endless search for her children represents a woman who is searching for her abandoned ideas so she can reclaim her creative self.
How do I know if I am like La Llorona?
Feeling creatively blocked can indicate an unhealthy animus.
Here are some signs to look for:
- feeling tired
- feeling held back by something
- starting things and quitting halfway
- never starting the things that you want to do
- making excuses
- cannot accept compliments
- questioning yourself frequently
- being distracted easily
- “cannot think” of any ideas
- too much planning and not enough doing
- disorganization; the project is in pieces and you can’t put it together
- dreams about injured or injuring men (may symbolize the animus)
How does the animus become damaged?
Culture contributes to animus damage by imposing certain beliefs upon it. It tells us the way we should be, what really matters in life, offers negative opinions about artists, tells us that our opinions and ideas are meaningless. Sometimes this can happen in insidious ways, for example someone might ask “are you a real artist?” The question implies that without published works, professional training, or public recognition, an artist’s work isn’t “real” and therefore isn’t relevant or important.
The truth is that if you create, then you are a creator. Artists bring ideas into the world. All artists are real. The animus that does not know this is unhealthy, and the artists will feel blocked. Sometimes the animus can start to act out the impulses of the ego. In this case, a person might try to please other people, doing what they “should” do, instead of following their own dreams.
Where does the pollution come from?
Pollution appears when the animus stops taking care of the river. It is worsened by negative inner voices, living in a culture that tells us that our ideas are worthless, or being around particular people who belittle and devalue our ideas.
It is also possible to become trapped in this polluted state, to derive enjoyment from it. An extreme example is Walter White from Breaking Bad. He was a brilliant chemist, yet he wasted his potential on a safe job that fell far below his abilities. He did not feel appreciated or respected. He could have fixed this problem in a healthy, creative way by conducting independent research and making a name for himself. Instead, he started cooking meth. He wanted to gain respect by being the best in the industry, even though it meant becoming a criminal and putting his family in danger.
Walter’s choices were not an expression of his creative self. His anima was so unhealthy that it acted out the impulses of his ego, and it did so in destructive ways. He was so addicted to the adrenaline rush that he felt each time he fed the ego that he could not change his polluted state of mind.
How do we clean the river and heal the animus?
According to Estes, the animus develops as we act out our thoughts and ideas. In order for it to be healthy it must be developed consciously. In other words, we ask ourselves if our goals match our own desires. If so, we should affirm ourselves and our choices. If not, then we should figure out what we really want to do.
We can heal the animus by:
- Accepting compliments
- Starting things no matter how afraid you are
- Making time for your personal projects
- Being persistent, especially in the face of failure
- Recite positive affirmations: “I love my creative life more than I love cooperating with my own oppression.”
- Asking yourself if you really want to do something, or is it someone else who wants you to do it
For concrete exercises, I strongly suggest reading Julia Cameron’s the Artist’s Way. Her book outlines a 12 week program that is meant to help people to express their creative selves.
To get a better idea of what it means to clean the river, check out my post Letting go of creative blocks: my attempts at clearing mental clutter.
What do you do when you feel blocked? Do you have any tips or advice that you’d like to share?