Empowering ourselves through loving the dark parts.
Stories create our reality; they always have. Myths shape societies and make memories. And every good story needs a villain.
The stories of some people’s lives are filled with more sinister characters than others. For many of us, the greatest nemesis is ourselves. Terence McKenna said, “If you aren’t the hero of your own story, what kind of story is it?”
I’d now answer: a very human one.
There’s lots of talk in self-help and healing circles about “empowerment,” yet the lust for power is seen by many as the root of all evil; the foundation of our repressive frameworks. It’s revered and secretly desired while decried and shamed. Just like any good shadow.
Similarly, in every psychedelic journey, I enter into a panic, screaming into the void:
I can’t be everything—then who’s in control?
As a guide once told me, “you are, and nobody is,” and that’s the wonder of it all.
It can feel terrifying, especially when you’re someone, like me, with a lifelong narrative of needing redemption. Over and over, I have ended up in situations of scarcity and helplessness, abandonment and shame, claiming I don’t want it this way.
Yet it keeps happening.
I recently read Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliott, and it altered my perceptions. Her approach fuses Jungian archetypes and shadow work with the principles of sexual kink and BDSM. It’s a deliciously queer process in the word’s broadest sense, turning everything I thought about the way I thought upside-down.
If there’s one word to describe the journey of my current injury, it’s confrontation, and that’s what Existential Kink is all about. It goes hand-in-hand with Internal Family Systems (IFS), another process I’ve been working with, because all of it is about bringing the unconscious, repressed, rejected, and despised into awareness—not only revealing but reveling in it, loving and celebrating yourself as a unity of pluralities that includes both darkness and light.
We all have those little voices in our heads that speak to us, and sometimes even seem to possess us, building us up or tearing us down. According to IFS, these are the internalized voices of our relatives and friends: the family system inside of us that is subconsciously running the show. Every voice is a distinct persona, part of our psyche that splintered off at some point to play a particular role. The roles were created to keep us safe—but just like Compassionate Inquiry teaches, these functions that protected us as a traumatized child have become maladaptive as adults.
Our internal family members fill a broad range of functions: firefighters respond to acute threats with extreme, often compulsive behavior like binging or self-harm; managers are the various masks we don for the world, helping us function in society while repressing aspects of our personalities that we perceive make us weak, or that others won’t like.
Indeed, we all have a whole cast of characters living inside of us, enacting the dramas of our little lives. The trick is when we think we’re only playing one of those roles; that we have no control over the other actors, the setting, or the storyline.
Archetypes, as popularized by psychologist C.G. Jung, are aspects of the collective unconscious; they dwell within us all and manifest themselves in everything we create as a species, from societies to stories, creative works to companies, family systems within and without. They are essentially limitless, containing and reflecting the whole range of human experience, from the ugliest expressions of murder, pillage, and greed to the most gorgeous manifestations of love, interconnection, and selfless sacrifice.
Inside each and every human soul and system, the archetypal framework says, is a massive set of selves, settings, tools, and mechanisms of transformation: the victim and conqueror; hero and villain; mother, father, and eternal child; sinner and saint; heart and mind; forest and village; narcissist and codependent; the list goes on and on and on.
All of these archetypes are not only necessary, but indivisible, unavoidable aspects of the whole human game in a Universe that always returns itself to balance. There is no greed without selflessness, no love without hate, and to resist the existence of any part, no matter how yucky, is to deny reality on its very terms.
Yet our stories, societies, and families teach us that certain parts are shameful, bad, and wrong while others are virtuous, true, and desirable. This results in us unconsciously suppressing the “shadow” aspects when they arise—creating a schism in our psyche between the way things are, the latent desires that are present, and the way we believe and are told things “should” be.
As the saying goes, that which you resist persists, and the more you relegate aspects to the shadow, the more ominous and powerful it grows. The outer world we experience is a reflection and projection of our internal landscape, and our subconscious shapes our reality. The more we protest against what lurks in the darkness, the more it will make itself known, creating situations around us and characteristics within us that we claim not to want, causing chaos in our lives.
This feels like powerlessness, especially when so much of the unpleasant things that happen seem to rely on what seems outside our control: poverty, underemployment, systemic injustice; abusive people in our lives. Existential kink poses a reframing that at first is extremely uncomfortable, but I find to be ultimately empowering: that we subconsciously desire all the terrible things that happen to us. The gross and embarrassing behaviors we manifest, the unhealthy people and demeaning situations we attract, Elliott argues, are all expressions of our repressed, internal S&M—the denied shadow aspects that have metastasized into kinky urges to punish ourselves and others, keeping everyone in bondage by denying the dark parts; feeling we deserve all the suffering for being so dirty.
If our subconscious is creating these realities, it can seem like we’re powerless—but that’s a matter of perception, as not just Elliott and Jung but many nondual philosophies and archetypal stories argue. On the contrary, it means we have all the power. The key is to make the shadows conscious and remove the shame, celebrating every aspect as an essential part of the great big Universal consciousness we’re part of. These aren’t dark secrets that nobody else has experienced; we may have our own unique expressions, but they’re inherently human things, just like the expressions of light and joy.
As I’ve experienced in sharing circles, therapeutic settings, conversations with supportive friends and family, and individual and group psychedelic experiences, we’re never in anything alone. Anything you’ve experienced is being felt by someone else like you at this very moment. It’s even reflected in the natural world: woods and water, trees and animals and plants all infused with beauty and horror, life and death. For every fuchsia- and ochre-glowing sunset is an antelope carcass torn open and stinking on the plains, the decaying body that will sustain entire ecosystems.
Importantly, as Elliot acknowledges, loving the shadow doesn’t condone destructive behavior—it simply acknowledges it as part of the game. And the game is a lot more fun once we recognize we’re playing.
Feelings of pain are not so different from those of pleasure: quickened pulses and heightened arousal, senses heightened and flooded with stimuli. In either case, whether ecstatic or unbearable, we certainly feel alive—something that has become unfamiliar to our overworked nervous systems and exiled parts of self. We dissociate and deaden to try and avoid suffering, but our unconscious will get its kicks one way or another, and if we don’t give it a chance to speak, it will shout.
This is Existential Kink and archetypal confrontation, shadow work and integrating parts: removing the veil of deception, broadening our perception, and seeing that the pain as manifesting a denied need. By giving voice to shadow desires, aspects, and personas, we can come to see ourselves as powerful manifestors—because we always, in fact, get what we want. We just haven’t known we wanted it, because we still didn’t believe we could give or receive something better.
When all parts are welcome, transformation can occur. Little by little, we can start to feel worthy; to believe that more is possible. We give those personas that work tirelessly to “keep us in line” through negative talk and destructive behaviors a better job to do, whether it’s creating, connecting, or simply doing nothing. And maybe, slowly, it all becomes more fun.
I mean, really, I’m a master of masochism, the dark director of an elaborately self-destructive play, deliciously designed to keep me exactly where I say I don’t want to be. I created the ultimate situation of helplessness by denying that, deep down, I still just wanted someone to rescue me from myself.
If, like me, you struggle with positive affirmations, Elliot says to “dread the wonderful,” making a kinky game out of the more beautiful world you’re already creating by beginning to see yourself as an empowered creator who is part of the whole big beautiful, terrible whole. So I tried it:
I wish I could stop the financial abundance that’s coming; then I won’t be able to get everyone to save me anymore.
I wish I could resist the love and community that’s already around me, because then I’ll have to be vulnerable and share instead of hiding in solitude.
I wish I could stop the living situation I want becoming reality—because then I’ll have to stop pretending it’ll be better somewhere else.
As I sat with my hobbled legs dangling onto the sun-dappled patio, I proclaimed to the birds in the cold morning air:
IT’S TIME TO STOP PRETENDING I DON’T LOVE IT.
That means all of it, the birds and trees that bring me joy and weather I resist; my pain and broken pelvis as well as the love and opportunity that’s flooding in. It’s time to welcome the future that’s coming while watching the present performance that’s playing itself out inside and around me every day.
Oh, no. Not happiness, joy, and abundance. Not realizing that I am loved, and am love. Not being of service and finally feeling worthy.
Anything but that.
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