The Heroine’s Journey Home

Adam Wilson

The Heroine’s Journey Home

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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You’ve probably heard of the hero’s journey, but have you heard of the heroine’s journey?

The heroine’s journey is a kind of response or complement to the hero’s journey, designed to better reflect the experience of women in modern life.

Articulated by Joseph Campbell in his book Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey is a story arc in which a character is called to adventure, triumphs over obstacles, and returns home a hero. It’s an incredibly common story structure, forming the narrative backbone of both classic works of literature (Moby Dick, the Odyssey, Great Expectations, Alice in Wonderland) and pop culture (Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter, the Matrix).

What is the Heroine’s journey?

If the hero’s journey depicts transformation through an external quest, the heroine’s journey is about internal conflict and the reunion with one’s true self. The heroine’s journey begins with the heroine rejecting the feminine parts of herself as she pursues success in a patriarchal society. In the early stages of the journey, this embrace of masculine values leads to success and acceptance, but eventually the heroine experiences a crisis (such as a serious illness, addiction, or loss) where she cannot continue along the same path. In this “dark night of the soul,” she may find that the outward success she had achieved now feels hollow, because she had to sacrifice an essential part of herself to achieve it.

To heal, the heroine must first reconnect with the feminine part of herself that she separated from early on in life. Then she must also rediscover the masculine, extricating this part of herself from patriarchy so that she can integrate the two forces within herself. While the hero returns from his journey lavished with recognition and praise from others, the heroine emerges from her journey with a power that comes from inner wholeness.

The difference between the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey

Maureen Murdock, a Jungian psychotherapist and student of Joseph Campbell, created the heroine’s journey to use in her therapeutic work with patients because she felt that the hero’s journey didn’t accurately reflect women’s struggles. It’s telling that when Murdock shared the heroine’s journey with Campbell, he said, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” (Facepalm.)

So the role of the female character in Campbell’s conception is limited to reward or trophy, or as the fixed foot of the compass (Odysseus’s Penelope, for example) while the hero circles around and receives the glory. Which only serves to make the need for the heroine’s journey more apparent.

I learned of this idea about a year ago. And since then, I’ve been thinking of these two journeys less as “for men” and “for women,” and more as a sequence. The hero’s journey is where most of us begin, as we set off on our own and set out to conquer the world. This overlaps with the first stages of the heroine’s journey, where both women and men repress their feminine qualities to succeed in patriarchal culture.

Reclaiming Our Feminine Side

Yet at a certain point, success begins to feel unfulfilling and we wonder “What else is there?” We become aware that our life to that point has required a kind of self-betrayal, and are called to reclaim our softer, more intuitive feminine selves. Perhaps the difference for men is that it is easier to live with a repressed feminine side in a patriarchal culture. There’s no friction to prompt the realization of what has been lost, so it’s possible to only experience the hero’s journey. But for women, and some men, eventually, the center will not hold. And we will be forced to come back for the parts of ourselves that have been left in the dust.

In describing the difference between the two journeys, Murdock once said, “The feminine journey is about going down deep into soul, healing and reclaiming, while the masculine journey is up and out, to spirit.” There’s a darkness to the heroine’s journey, a deep and reflective quality that can be lonely if we’re not used to it. (The hero’s journey has lonely moments too, but the hero is out in the world and often attracts mentors and helpers. The heroine also has guides too but the interiority of the journey makes it feel more isolated.)

Searching for Wholeness

This framework helped me make sense of why so many of my peers, women in their 40s, seem to be searching for something. Maybe not all of us are in crisis, exactly, (or maybe the pandemic was our collective crisis) but our systems were breaking down and we were finding ourselves grinding through our usual ways of working (masculine) while juggling caregiving responsibilities (feminine) without a model of how to do this. We weren’t feeling very whole in any aspect of our lives. And through all our therapy, tarot, journaling, and conversations, we were grasping for something like this: some acknowledgment that we’re not crazy, there’s just a tension between how we have been raised to perform and what it means for a woman to actually thrive. (A critical voice in all of this is Elise Loehnen, whose book On Our Best Behavior delves into key tensions here.)

The Heroine’s Journey Home

In addition to my own personal growth, this framework has also helped me make sense of certain shifts in our culture. For example, the way we think of our homes.

The hero’s journey is ultimately one of recognition and status. Home design has always been about status on some level (even more so than privacy or comfort). But with the advent of social media, certain people began to take on “hero” status when it came to their decor. Designers and influencers amassed large followings, and we began to emulate them and ascribe special value to them. The renovation tale is a form of hero’s journey. A pair of scrappy homeowners is called to adventure (by purchasing a ramshackle or simply dated old house), faces trials (unexpected repairs, budget overruns), gets help from guides (Chip and Joanna to the rescue!), and ultimately triumphs, returning home transformed (to a home transformed, as it were).

In the arc of the past decade or so, home has been turned inside out. It’s a space of performance, of status-seeking, a place where we seek to demonstrate our value.

Yet what has been lost as we’ve styled our shelves and fluffed our pillows for mass consumption? What has happened as we have tailored our choices for optimal resale value? What has had to be hidden away?

The darkness, the mess, the traces of human life actually being lived.

The wonky and weird. The tidy gallery wall of family photos replaced the fridge covered with snapshots and ticket stubs and permission slips held by an assortment of magnets. As Katherine Jezer-Morton wrote in The Cut last year,

The gallery wall honors that self-consciousness with a formal display of everything a family stands for. We’ve gotten the hang of posing for pictures as if we were public figures or influencers, and the gallery wall provides a place where all that effort can be recognized. The gallery wall is a domestic-branding exercise. The fridge gallery never worked the same way; it mixed snapshots with calendars, reminders, permission slips, and mementos.

Or take author Rachel Cusk’s reflection on the renovation of her London flat:

At home, everywhere I looked I now seemed to see a hidden part of myself that was publicly exposed: The numberless private decisions I had made, from the colors on the walls to the bathroom taps, were exhibited for all to see. What’s more, the very people — my family and friends — for whom this vision was realized threatened by their presence to defile it. I flinched when they sat on the new sofa, and I darted nervous glances at their shoes strolling imperviously over the unmarked floor; every scratch and scrape and stain felt as if it were being inflicted directly to my own flesh. I carped at my two adolescent daughters for leaving their possessions strewn over the furniture and berated them for the evidence they left of themselves in the kitchen. At the time I felt myself to be serving the reality of my domestic life with them — enhancing it, dignifying it — but now it almost seemed as if what I really wanted all along was to erase it.

The pinnacle of success in our modern concept of home decor is a home at odds with daily life, a home that is so perfectly described by Cusk to be “defiled” by the ordinary acts of living in it.

To get to this “success,” what had to be conquered?

Domesticity, the ultimate domain of the feminine. The mess of domesticity, the darkness and disorder, needed to be cleansed and refined.

To me, the rise of video has been a catalyst for the breakdown of this schema. It was one thing for the aesthetic-conscious mom to carefully edit and filter a photo so that the mess was out of frame. But video is less controlled. It’s orders of magnitude more work to keep the ugliness away from a moving camera. We normals are too exhausted to keep the front up all the time.

Related: What To Do When Your House Doesn’t Feel Like Home

Reclaiming Wholeness at Home

Are we at the breaking point with artifice in our homes? Are we ready to reclaim ease and joy and naturalness in our spaces?

I don’t know if we’re there collectively, but I do see cracks in the facade. Julia Fox’s tour of her very average apartment was a bellwether, as are the TikTok videos where people narrate tours of their cluttered suburban homes as if they were HGTV hosts. There’s the resurgence of eclectic and deeply personal decor styles, a greater appreciation of the weird and offbeat, and I think an overall sense of boredom with yet another image of a beautiful room filled with things no normal person can afford.

Some of us, at least, are beginning to reject the blueprint that has been laid out for us, and are looking for alternative models of happiness at home. This is where the heroine’s journey comes in. What happens when we stop looking at our homes a source of status and recognition, and instead view them as a foundation for well-being, reflection, and connection?

I think one reason many of us are reluctant to move away from the culture of overdesigned homes is the sense that by opting out, you’re “letting it all go.” It feels a little like failure. But the heroine’s journey reveals that the struggle to live in this way is not a failure, but a recognition that the life (or home) we had cultivated was incomplete. It was only possible through a kind of repression. Through this lens, we realize that what we aspired to was not what we thought it was. It was a hologram, a veneer — not a true ideal.

When we break, patriarchy sees it as a sign of weakness.

Trials in the hero’s journey are pass/fail. Success comes when the hero is able to access new strength in order to overcome them. But in the heroine’s journey, breaking is the rupture of an illusion. It reveals that we were living in an impossible way, pulled between the irreconcilable pressures of society and the needs of the self. The break creates the opportunity for healing.

The heroine’s journey home is about healing our homes. Making them spaces of restoration, where we feel safe from the stressors outside and can recharge so we can move through the world feeling grounded and whole. Spaces of communion and belonging, where we feel intimacy with our people. Spaces of creativity, where we feel inspired, surrounded by reminders of our own uniqueness. Spaces of fun and pleasure, where we deeply enjoy our lives. Spaces of alignment, where we get to live out our values. At its best, the home is a microcosm of what we want the world to be. And in that space, we get to begin the work of making a better world.

So for those of us who are ready, how will we heal our homes?

I realize now that this was always the question at the heart of Design a Home You Love, the online course I teach every spring that will soon begin its fifth year. As I look at the heroine’s journey, I see what a lot of our students have gone through: a sense of excitement and desire to create a home they love, followed by a sense of disillusionment that comes from bumping up against certain obstacles.

  • Feeling constrained by a limited budget, and disappointed to realize just how much money goes into a lot of the inspirational homes featured in magazines and online
  • Renting and having to deal with a landlord’s design choices, or owning and worrying about resale value
  • Being so overwhelmed by options, opinions, and ideas that you end up unable to decide, so you live with defaults: white walls, beige furniture
  • Feeling afraid to commit in case you change your mind down the road (or what you choose goes out of style)
  • Feeling ashamed of your taste, and choosing things you think others would like instead of what you really want

What I wanted to do when I created the course was offer a blueprint for anyone to create a space that feels good. My belief was (and still is) that everyone has a natural intuition for what feels good in a space, but that we lose touch with it on our “hero’s journey” to succeed in world full of loud perspectives. The course is effectively a guided process of reclaiming that intuition.

To do that, we need to learn to think differently about our homes.

I never realized it until I saw it in the context of the heroine’s journey, but really what we’re doing is breaking down masculine or logical structures around home, and introducing more feminine, emotional, and intuitive approaches. Here are some of the key shifts that you can try for yourself.

Think in Spectrums, not Rules

The home design industry loves dos and don’ts. They love rules, like “this is how high you should hang your paintings” or “this is how much space you need on either side of your coffee table.” But you could follow all the rules and end up with a home that technically looks good, yet has all the warmth of a corporate apartment. Not to mention that in many homes, there are awkward corners or tight spaces where you just can’t follow the “rules.” Instead, I teach an approach to space planning that uses spectrums. Do you like your rooms to feel denser or more spacious? Thinking in spectrums helps you tune into your internal sense for what makes a space feel good, so you’re able to make design decisions based on your own inner compass, not some arbitrary rules.

Focus on How a Home Feels, not Just How it Looks

It’s easy to get bogged down in pretty inspiration images and forget that your home is actually a living, breathing thing. More like an ecology than a construction. Think about the homes you’ve loved being in the most. Were they Architectural Digest cover-worthy? Or was it, say, your grandmother’s house with the creaky floors and the handmade quilts and the height chart drawn in the doorframe?

The heroine’s house isn’t “perfect,” but it has soul. It feels alive. And you don’t get a home like this by trying to replicate Pinterest boards. You get it from knowing how you want the space to feel, and then designing from that deep well of emotion. The aesthetics of joy is one system for translating emotion into space. But we also explore other tools for tuning a space to a desired mood or feeling.

Design for Moments, not Stuff

The current approach to home decor is so consumption-focused that it almost invariably turns into a shopping list. This is a direct consequence of the way home content gets made. Home influencers rely on sponsors to defray the costs of their renovations. Which means they then have to tout those products in their newsletters and videos. Magazines rely on ad dollars to stay afloat, so of course their job is to cultivate the desire for all those products featured in their pages. Together, all this product-focused media has given us the impression that stuff is the key to good design. If we just buy the perfect things, we’ll get the perfect home.

But lives are not lived in stuff. They’re lived in moments. One of the first things I teach in Design a Home You Love is how to identify the moments in your home life that really matter. Maybe it’s family dinner, or lazing in bed on Sunday mornings, or games of hide and seek, or painting in your attic. These moments are a clue to how you want to live, and knowing how you really want to live is the foundation of a great home. Not that you still won’t want or need stuff, but the whole design process becomes a lot more flexible. One of the things my students often tell me is how surprised they are by how much they were able to repurpose from their existing homes. And how different they were able to make the space feel without spending much money.

Combining Feminine and Masculine Traits

It’s interesting, because home decor is framed as a feminine activity. But actually, the way we currently approach it is heavily influenced by masculine values. That’s probably unavoidable in a patriarchal culture that prizes status and external approval. The heroine’s journey home is a way of rebalancing this, prioritizing the intimacy and imagination that happen behind closed doors over the styled, still image. The result is a more vibrant relationship with our homes, but also a design process that’s much more fun along the way.

I’d love to know if this idea of the heroine’s journey resonates for you, in your life and/or in your home. How are you healing your home?

Reminder: My free live home workshop is coming soon! Learn how to create a home you love without moving, renovating, or spending money you don’t have. Save your seat right here.

February 2nd, 2024


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    Discussion (12 Comments)

  1. Christine on February 3, 2024

    This article could not have come at a more perfect time for me. I recently went through dramatic event, and my first instinct was to rethink my home as a way to cope, to feel better, and to invite more magic into my life. 

    I’m also creating a space for myself to do Ikebana. A pastime that I love. 

    Thank you. 

  2. Wendy Lockhart on February 3, 2024

    I’ve been fascinated by the heroine’s journey for years, and last year started a podcast about it, call the (not) so perfect journey. ?

  3. Paula Pavanis on February 3, 2024

    “Reclaiming Wholeness”  The segment’s last paragraph says it all and models a way of looking at ‘homemaking’ that I have always felt.  Sadly, patriarchal structures held an outsized sway in my culture and town and magazine worthy homes were the norm. Thank you for so eloquently moving those of us interested toward a more wholistic view of home.  

  4. Shannon on February 3, 2024

    I write fiction, and there’s a different heroine’s journey I’m familiar with. The hero’s journey is essentially Jack Reacher – he begins as a lone wolf, answers the call, gathers friends and a tribe. When he’s in the group is when he’s at his greatest danger and is most exposed – every one of those connections is a possibility of harm or menace. He solves the thing, gets glory, goes back to safe, solitary existence. Heroine’s journey is more like Sam in LOTR (isn’t actually gendered, just the opposite of the heroes)- begins in community and family, answers the call to adventure, and loses companions/tribe along the way. At moment of greatest danger, is alone. Overcomes the danger, goes back to safety of family/community, changed. 

    Fascinating stuff! 

  5. Naomi Rose on February 3, 2024

    Thank you for this. It’s so very meaningful, and soulful — I can recognize this masculine having operated in my own life, though thankfully I’m not as embroiled in it as before. But never have I connected this with my home. The healing in this article is profound. And I realize that, though I have internally grumped about how our home is configured (3 adults who work from home in a smallish apartment), in fact it is a very soul-comfortable place. It’s much like the dogging sense of not being enough, only to actually make contact with your inner nature and find out that you are. I’m very grateful to find love for my home as it is (with all the piles of papers around the little office cubicle created by a screen). Thank you so much.

    P.S. If you don’t already know the book, “Healing Civilization” by the late psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, he spoke of patriarchy as what works against a true civilization, and that due to being basically marinated in patriarchy, our own minds are laced with patriarchy. He speaks of an “intrapsychic family” where the head is the Father, the heart is the Mother, and the belly center is the Child — and that we tend to be dominated from within by the internalized patriarchal Father. When we can integrate all three centers, then we will have a true civilization. The details on this book are available on this site:

  6. Ilyssa Herrington on February 3, 2024

    Damn. From start to finish, this is so on the nose. I had not heard of the heroines journey, and it made me well up in tears while reading. As for your course, I enrolled last spring and got partway through, but life got a little hectic. Now, after massive life changes, grief, loss, and a return to joy, I look forward to diving back into the course content. Thank you for the joy you bring to us all!

  7. Kristen on February 3, 2024

    I recognize this heroines journey in myself and so so many other women I know right now (I’m 41 🙂 I’m currently reading Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, written 75 years ago, and she was writing about it back then too! 

  8. Chris on February 3, 2024

    I have a friend who built a new condo for her and her husband’s eventual retirement in the next few years. She wanted all new furniture, so she went to a local furniture store and signed up with a decorator. What she got was a gray monochrome house with no personality. But she didn’t see it that way, she just sees it as a place where she is not happy, so she keeps searching for more. Then Christmas came, and she brought out all her cute, funny, lively Christmas decorations, and the house came to life. I’m going to mention this to her, as a way of seeing that what makes a home special isn’t the same as what a decorator would choose. Maybe that will help her to move past the unease and find more enjoyment in her new home.

  9. Toby Israel on February 3, 2024

    ‘Loved this post and agree with everything in it. For more on the Heroine’s Journey as it relates to home and design psychology, check out my latest book, ‘Designing-Women’s Lives: Transforming Place and Self’

  10. Nora Zepeda on February 4, 2024

    Yes, the heroine’s journey resonates with me, deeply and on so many levels! I bought a new home in August and I am taking my time decorating it. I am mindfully picking out colors for my walls, plants, furniture…it is my sanctuary and also a place to connect with those people I love most. I also have things in my home that honor special people in my life. You are so right about our emotions (and color!) being important in decorating our homes. I want to surround myself with the colors and things that make me happy. My home is my soul…

  11. Amy on February 4, 2024

    As an English Lit teacher, I taught the hero’s journey for many years. This is fascinating! I will most def be including the heroine’s journey in my curriculum now, too. And the connections to homemaking were really interesting, and moving. Thank you!

  12. Lisa on February 7, 2024

    What a great idea! And Ingrid, this is a significant piece of writing. Your work continues to intrigue, engage, and impress.


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