Mar 03, 2021
19 mins read
Yes, I chose a video game as the cover image of this article. As a bonus, I'll explain why at the end!
The beautiful thing about humans is that, however different and unique they are, a lot of our characteristics and traits are universal. One of the fathers of psychoanalysis Carl Jung believed that we have a collective subconscious; meaning there is some kind of shared knowledge that we are born with. My professor would explain this by asking us to think of the image of a witch, and then point out that most of us probably thought of a pointy hatted, huge nosed, greenish woman flying on a broom. Jung would also call these universal ideas ‘archetypes’. He described multiple kinds of them, such as these in the image below. The idea of the ‘shadow’ as a representation of (the idea of) ‘evil’ is a great example; unlike the example of the witch, which I believe to be shaped by culture. But despite the teacher coming up with an awful example of an archetype, I do believe there is an extent of truth to this phenomena of universal ideas.
My fascination for the universal goes back to childhood. Sadly, somewhere along the road of my young life I was made to believe I was inhuman. When I visited my aunt at 12 years old and she had to quickly run some errands, she left saying: ‘’While I’m gone for a bit, I recommend you read the purple book on my bed. You’ll probably love it.’’ And love it I did! It was a book about body language. I’ll never forget how fascinated I was when I found out how much all humans were alike: ‘’You mean to tell me we all speak the same unconscious language?’’ How fascinating! Whoever tried to convince me I wasn’t human, this surely proved them wrong, because I also speak this language! I was immediately sold on the subject of psychology. Will you believe I spent the next two years reading all the books of Alan & Barbara Pease? So when I became 14 and had read about 15 books on body language, I decided it was time to move on and read more about other subjects. I subscribed to a magazine that would teach me all about psychology and went to borrow books from the library each month.
And later, as a psychologist, diving deep into the soul of those I speak with, I would see this universality all the time. We truly are alike. The same things hurt us, destroy us and the same things build us up and make us invincible. These universal characteristics in humans allow us to learn from history, from past stories, whether they are fictional or true. Stories exist to teach us lessons from others before us, to let us know we are on track or to spare us the hideous fates of those who've undergone them before us.
The extraordinary work of Joseph Campbell also pointed out the similarity in the journey we undergo towards our higher goals. In his books, he combined these psychological thoughts of universality along with mythology and history. In his work ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’, he analysed the life of thousands of people whom he considered to be heroes. He looked at the life of prophet Muhammad, dove into the stories of Jesus son of Mary, and looked at thousands of fictional stories from across hundreds of cultures. All this to take from them lessons of the journey that we go through as humans. The universal cycle in these stories, he calls ‘the mono-myth’. The thing that fascinated me most about his work when I first read them, was that he said the mono-myth can be seen both psychoanalytic (metaphorical for an inner journey) or literal (describing what you may encounter on the journey to whatever personal goal you have).
I didn’t come across his work until I was 23. By that time, my book (still unpublished; get a grip of yourself, Nora!) was already finished. And yet, to my own amazement, my story aligned point by point with his mono-myth! I could not believe it!
What I want to share with you today isn’t an inspiring lesson of transformation. Today, I skip the ‘call to adventure’ and the road filled with trials and dive immediately into the bottom of the hero’s journey: the abyss. Or, as Joseph Campbell describes it: ‘The ordeal in the abyss’. Today, we are not going to have fun. This article will hurt. Be warned. Last week, I even found myself describing this part of the human psyche to a client as ‘the closest (metaphorical) representation of hell on earth’. Then, a few days later whilst reminiscing on this, I remembered that someone wrote about this before.
In the year 1550 Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, a Spanish priest, wrote 3 books about a phenomena he called: ‘The dark night of the soul’. I must say, he made it sound quite beautiful, because I would have gone with something more terrifying, because, well… it is terrifying. No matter how often you go through it, you are NEVER prepared. So what is this ‘dark night of the soul’, you ask? According to the catholic interpretation it means a crisis in the journey towards God; an intense, purgatory pain. Other eastern philosophies describe it as the death of the ego and the birth of the higher self. I personally would describe it as a plunge into a dark abyss; you end up in a dimension that consists of existential pain. The priest wrote that, despite the first being a trial like none that you have ever witnessed before, it would still be nothing compared to the second. And this is exactly what I experienced it like to be (my story will soon be available for those who are interested).
The dark night of the soul, to me, is like outgrowing yourself to a point where you have to rip off your old skin in a very dark and painful process. As for the spiritual explanation, I will leave this to those who are fitted to explain this, and skip to the explanation that is within my field: trauma.
Before I get to that, I need to touch on the topic below.
The first representation of an authority figure
A lot of people say that a mother can only love her children and that her love is always unconditional. This is one of the most toxic beliefs one can have as quite the opposite is true: it is the baby, and not the mother, who has no other option but to love. A born baby has no other choice but to unconditionally love the caregivers. Did you know that there is a general consensus between historians that infanticide, meaning caregivers killing their babies actively or by abandoning them somewhere to die, has not been the exception but the norm throughout human history? This has always been considered normal, up until, what, 200 years ago?
When I read the Wikipedia articles describing how the customs differed from one country to another, and showing how culture proved this in artworks throughout history, my stomach turned. I will spare you these details and pictures here. But if anything, it only proved everything I read and noted about human psychology; people do not naturally love their children. And, obviously, babies need to be born with a set of survival sharp instincts in order not to provoke the caregivers who can abandon them in the woods for the wolves to eat or for so-called ‘gods’ to take.
Speaking of false gods… when I was 16 years old I read the great psychoanalyst Alice Miller’s work: “The drama of the gifted child”, wherein she speaks about how children are born with antennas that detect the caregivers’ moods and needs. It makes a lot of sense, knowing the history of infanticide, that a child will adjust and do anything for the caregiver’s love. If they cannot attain this love then death is imminent. Biologically, a caregiver’s disapproval equals the threat of death. So Miller wrote that caregivers are almost seen as gods by children. I almost put the book away at this point, but I found myself quite too intrigued. Then, when she explained the metaphor, it made a lot of sense. Think about it:
The caregivers seem to know everything and the child knows nothing
The child turns towards them for all of their needs
The child is left to their mercy and has no power over anything himself
The caregivers decide what the rules are and what is good/bad
The child lives for their approval and their disapproval is the greatest pain they can ever experience
Rejection and abandonment by them means something worse than death
People really underestimate how hard it is to be a baby or a child. You, as an adult with all your knowledge, all the emotional, mental and physical muscles you've built throughout your life, YOU think life is hard. Imagine a kid who has NONE of this. Their pain is a million times worse. But this is not how people look at this. Quite the opposite. ‘’What could a child be struggling with, right? It doesn’t even have to pay rent! I am the one with real problems here!’’ This is how the world thinks. But imagine being helpless, left to the mercy of others who underestimate, or completely ignore, your needs? Needs and troubles that you can do nothing about yourself.
I realized that caregivers, whether our parents, teachers or older family members, are our first representation of authority. And if they fail us, if they (emotionally) abandon us before we are even able to grasp the concept of God as the Ultimate Authority, can you even imagine how dark and absolutely, indescribably alone and helpless a child must feel? Imagine living in a world where you are simply left in the hands of your caregivers and they are able to do whatever they want, and no one can save you from them and you will never get any form of justice. How dark and traumatizing is that? To top it all off, you have to grow and learn to navigate through a big world, where you have to process big emotions that you have no idea how to deal with. Psychotherapist and complex trauma specialist Pete Walker described this in his book as, quote: ‘’When caretakers turn their backs on a child’s need for help and support, her inner world becomes an increasingly nightmarish amalgam of fear, shame and depression.’’
Renowned traumatologist, John Briere, also said that if we were to really consider the role of childhood trauma in the DSM (this is a book where all psychological diagnoses are described), it would shrink from a thick, dictionary sized book to something like a thin pamphlet. And frankly, I agree!
Everything is stored inside
Dr. Bessel van Kolk may be considered the leading specialist when it comes to psychological trauma in the world right now. No wonder his book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’, became an international bestseller. Herein he explains how trauma changes the body, DNA and becomes ‘stored’ in the body until it is processed. Some great psychoanalysts already suspected this, so they crafted many thorough theories on how children that don’t have proper guidance in how to deal with these emotions, simply store them away to deal with them later.
The body considers these ugly, painful, and intense emotions as the scariest things that exist. So instead of jumping into them, people try not to stare into the abyss whilst walking around the edges their entire lives. As a therapist I cannot begin to emphasize how people, all of us, can build great, amazing lies of their lives in order to avoid the abyss. Some people literally develop psychosis or psychotic breakdowns because of overexerting the coping mechanisms they created in order not to deal with the pain! I swear, sometimes it feels like 90% of therapy is slowly deconstructing this facade and helping people carefully look into this hideous and terrifying abyss.
What is in the abyss, you ask? Anger. Pain. Abandonment. Hurt. Confusion. Existential crisis. Despair. Helplessness. Did I say anger already? Basically, the nightmarish inner world of an abandoned child.
So how does this all relate to the dark night of the soul?
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth constructed and proved the attachment theory. This theory stated that the way individuals look at other people is shaped by their first relationship with their caregivers. Martine Delfos explained how the style that your caregivers responded to your needs, creates a so-called ‘schema’ in your brain. If your caregivers did not consistently respond to your needs, and would for example let you cry out as a baby most of the time, the schema that will be created is: ‘’You will not be helped when you ask for help, people will abandon you and ignore your needs.’’ If your caregivers were verbally or physically aggressive, the schema would be: ‘’People are dangerous. Authority figures misuse their power. The world is unfair and unsafe.’’
Like we said before, these emotions are stored deep in the subconscious and will only come out when you are ready. Ready, in this scenario means: you are strong enough, ready to face the ugly truth and those hideous emotions, and have a solid safetynet of healthy support to land on when you fall. Many clients who become depressed when they marry ask me confused and hopeless: ‘’I married an amazing man/woman, why do I feel this way?’’ My answer always is: ‘’Because you feel safe and supported. So now it’s time to process the emotions that you couldn’t process before, and to mourn some childhood losses." This is an example of being ready. But if your strength will be REALLY tested, then this will happen, not when you're ready, but after a tragedy that breaks you to the extent of no longer being able to hold the pain in. Tragedy that destroys those walls that were supposed to keep in the hurt, until you were ready to safely process them. And so you find yourself flooded by an avalanche of unbearable pain and misery; you find yourself in the Abyss.
In the Abyss, most people feel disconnected from God. It is not for no reason that the priest I mentioned earlier described it as a crisis in the journey towards God. During the dark night of the soul, some even start doubting their faith, most of them will feel like God is angry at them, hates them, and that they are doomed to live a miserable life and end up straight in hell.
Then, afterwards, they spend years ashamed of themselves for ever feeling this way. Or, they linger in this dark cloud of suffering and darkness for years and years. So what happened to them? To put it simply, they experienced the extreme version of an emotional flashback (more on this in references). This is when old feelings resurface and cloud your judgement. You should see it as a regression towards your childhood, where you are experiencing the emotions that you had suppressed back then. Were you constantly feeling like you were treated unfairly by your parents? You may now find yourself overwhelmed by a surge of anger at your old authority figure. But with you being an adult now, not dependent on your parents anymore, your mind (prefrontal cortex to be more exact) looks for an explanation for this anger*. And what things come closest to the one and only authority figure you had during those years? Right. The Ultimate Authority figure: God. Did you remember what we said about schemas? Remember how tyrannical caregivers can create the mental schema that goes: ‘Authority figures abuse their power’? This is simply the way the human mind works.
An example I would like to share with you is a conversation I had with a deeply religious client who finally opened up to me about what she thought were acts of rebellion towards God. I explained to her how I thought it was a subconscious act of rebellion towards her mother, who harshly forced her to become and act religious at a young age. She gasped at how much sense it made. ‘’Yes!’’ she said, ‘’I felt like: you are no longer controlling me! I am free now. But then when I went home and realized what I did, I felt so ashamed and guilty towards God. I don’t want to be that person. I am not that person!’’
So what are you purging? Look at it like this: all of those traumatic emotions were stored in your stomach and now you are deadly sick and vomiting them all over the place. Your inner child is finally forcing you to acknowledge and process the trauma it has been carrying. And once you do, you can finally be free. Alice Miller described in her book that suppressed emotions will be stored in the subconscious (or body according to dr. van Kolk) until they are finally processed.
What dies during this period is a part of you that sought connection with people that in turn hurt you, the part of you that was hopeful of people, only to be let down, and the part of you that sought love, acceptance and care and instead found rejection, critique and blame. But this is where you learn to break off from relying on people. This is where you learn that people, no matter how little choice you had as a child, were not supposed to be ‘gods’. This is where you were supposed to learn to truly rely on God alone. This is why the priest who wrote about the dark night of the soul, described it as something that, once gone through, will strengthen your faith in God like you would have never known was possible before.
Pete Walker described how many of his clients, during an emotional flashback, were feeling like they were going to be homeless soon. He wrote: "what a symbol of abandonment!" By this he meant that the clients were flash-backing to feelings of abandonment in their childhood, and thus projected those feelings onto their current reality. So how undeniably clear is it now that those who flashback to the tyranny of their caregivers, end up feeling like God hates them and they will go to hell no matter what they try? What a symbol of abuse of authority!
Some call it “The dark night of soul,” I would call it Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). You lose your connection with God because, well, you are quite literally going insane. You are turning into a child that could not grasp the existence of God.
When it happens, you literally cannot do anything but endure it. As soon as a small ray of light enters the abyss, cling to it. Then you can seek help. If you’ve experienced a dark night of the soul, you probably have some form of Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) and trauma therapy will be of great benefit. This article has been mainly explaining what this phenomena is, and has very little tools to deal with it. This is because, firstly I wanted to let you digest this, and secondly, knowing it is the first step. Hopefully you’ll be able to find tools in the upcoming posts, and hopefully they’ll be more uplifting. But remember: not everyone will experience this. I personally believe that it only happens to people who have some kind of trauma. Just know that, whenever you go through it, you come out stronger, better, and more healed in the end. That is the whole point. You process and digest old hurt that has been haunting you forever.
For those who wondered about the image. It’s a game called Bloodborne, one of my favorite games of all time. The spider-ish, scary creature is called ‘Amygdala’. This game is a genius metaphor for the tiny, almond shaped structure in our brain called ‘Amygdala’. The Amygdala is the emotional center of the brain, where mostly anger and fear are stored. In traumatized people, or, people with post traumatic stress disorders, this tiny structure can ‘hijack’ the brain. I’d love to write another piece about this phenomena. But to explain in it in short: when the amygdala hijacks the brain, life becomes, you guessed it: a nightmarish amalgam of fear and despair.
It is not for no reason they chose this almond shape with spider legs to haunt you in the game. At first you cannot see this creature. That doesn’t keep it from grabbing you when you come too close and crushing you or throwing you around, while you have no idea what just happened. When you’ve gathered enough ‘insights’ (which you also do during therapy) the beast called Amygdala suddenly becomes visible. You see it following you everywhere, but now at least you can avoid coming too close and triggering it.
The game Bloodborne to me is a representation of childhood trauma. You’re a hunter who haunts (inner) demons and beasts, while you try to avoid being turned into one by the Bloodborne (carried by blood) virus (generational trauma, continuing the cycle of abuse). Playing this game is almost like exploring the nightmarish inner world of an abandoned child, but through the device of an adult human and in a safe place. Well done, Miyazaki!
P.S: I've had some interesting questions about this article that I hope to publish in a part 2!