Book Review: Existential Kink (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Secret Unconscious Desires)
Why do bad things sometimes happen to us?
You might think they happen because of bad luck. Or because someone intentionally mistreats us for their own ends. Or because suffering is an inherent part of all existence.
But if that’s what you think, you’re wrong—or at least, you’re wrong according to Existential Kink author Carolyn Elliott, Ph.D. Actually, she says, bad things happen to us because a part of us secretly wants them to happen. But we can’t consciously acknowledge these taboo desires, so we sublimate them deep into our unconscious. Then we unwittingly manifest them into reality, where we perceive them as unaccountably happening to us, instead of seeing them for what they really are: intentional fulfillment of our hidden desires.
Sounds pretty crazy, but this book was recommended by a few different sources I trust, so I decided to put aside my suspicion and give it a shot. I even put aside my memory of that Tyler Cowen quote about not trusting authors who put “Ph.D.” on the covers of their books:
“If a book lists 'Ph.D.' after the author’s name, be wary. The author needs those letters to signal their importance. It usually means they are not used to interacting with peers, are appealing to the gullible, or are making questionable claims. Stephen Hawking does not use those three letters.”
There was one other thing I had to put aside to get through this book: my instinctual distaste for what I can only describe as “woo-woo bullshit.” Existential Kink has a lot of such nonsense, including chapter titles like “Super-Freaky Divine Alchemy,” repeated references to spirits and to a new age-y “God” whose definition is so vague as to be almost meaningless, and the consistent use of the term “performing magic” to describe psychological processes with no supernatural element. Although I find this kind of thing incredibly unappealing, I’ve learned to accept that unusual ideas often come in unusual packages. In the immortal words of Kanye West, “if you want this crazy music, these crazy stages, and this crazy way of thinking, there’s a chance it might have to come from a crazy person.”
The book opens with two examples of sublimated desire. The first is the (presumably hypothetical) story of “Alex,” a young man who wants desires to be taken care of. But he can’t acknowledge this desire, because it’s like, un-manly or whatever, so he represses it. Then he does a bad job at work, gets fired, and has to move back in with his parents. To his conscious mind, this is a calamity he didn’t want, but to his unconscious mind, it’s just the fulfillment of his desire to be cared for (since now his parents will be taking care of him again).
The second example is about a different kind of imaginary person: God! If God is real, why do bad things happen? This author posits an obvious answer: who says God only wants good things? In this borderline offensive passage from the book, all human suffering is just God engaging in some consensual self-BDSM:
We need only look around our planet to see that God’s idea of a good time includes some seriously edgy, ultra-taboo, hard-core stuff—including war and poverty and pain and ravaging and abuse and atrocities of all variety.
That’s a whole lot of sadism and masochism, dominance and submission, bondage and torture—in both extreme and subtle forms—that God enjoys playing out with Godself.
(Yes, this book really uses the term “Godself.” Like I said, you have to put up with a lot of woo-woo bullshit.)
Although I don’t necessarily believe in God, this passage still resonated with me. If I were an omnipotent being, of course I’d sometimes get bored and want to do bad stuff just for kicks. The high percentage of people I know who enjoyed torturing their sims is evidence that this tendency is fairly widespread. (This is also why I’ve always found the Old Testament God much more believable than the New Testament one—our world is obviously better explained by a capricious and wrathful God than by a loving and benevolent one.)
Well, surprise: we are all the gods of our own lives, and we are all, according to this book, “innately curious about and desirous of the full spectrum of potential experiences, both the painful and the pleasurable, the ugly and the beautiful.” We may not all want to experience kink in a sexual sense, but in one way or another we’re all into the existential kink of the title: the desire, at least in part, to experience some supposedly “bad” things.
Acknowledging these desires is the first step in the three-step process laid out in this book1. The second is remembering that, if we want, we can actually choose to experience these supposedly negative things as neutral, or even pleasurable. As the Buddhists say, suffering exists only in the mind. By (temporarily) reminding ourselves that some part of us has chosen to have these experiences, we can (temporarily) experience them as perversely enjoyable. Then, by acknowledging and fulfilling these sublimated desires, we can ease their unconscious pressure and reduce or eliminate their hold on our lives:
Desires evolves through fulfillment, not denial and repression…the longer we deny the fact that these dark, “fucked-up” desire-curiosities are a part of us, and that we enjoy their fulfillment, the more they continue to shape our lives. When we deliberately allow ourselves to gratefully feel, celebrate, and receive the fulfillment of our previously denied and disowned desires, we give those desires freedom. We give them space and light in which to evolve and change.
The book then provides a bunch of meditative exercises designed to help you move through these steps. I will confess that I have not yet tried any of them, because 1) they seemed really dumb and 2) by this point, I didn’t even feel like I needed them. Despite myself, I was totally sold. I can’t say whether or not this pattern applies to everyone, as the author claims, but I certainly feel like it applies to me.
How many times in the past have I tried and failed to change some bad habit—everything from doing too many drugs to even just biting my nails—when clearly, in retrospect, the stumbling block was that I didn’t fully want to change, that on some level I was actually enjoying my so-called “bad decisions,” even though I wouldn’t have been able to acknowledge it at the time. Looking back now that the worst of these tendencies are (mostly) in the past, it feels obvious that embracing the part of myself that wanted these things, without judgment, was a crucial step towards moving past them. As the psychologist Carl Rogers said, “Once I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
There’s a pleasure to transgressing, even if it’s just against yourself. Sometimes you need to do something self-destructive to prove you have free will2, or just to see what the destructive thing is like. And sometimes the things we assume are unintended consequences of our desires are actually the desires themselves. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say I like hangovers, but I have to acknowledge that without them drinking would be a fundamentally different—and not necessarily improved!—experience. Who among us hasn’t enjoyed the feeling of waking up after a party and luxuriating in that depleted post-party feeling with our friends from the night before?
I absolutely do not endorse the most extreme version of the claims put forward in Existential Kink. I think it’s highly unlikely that all the bad things in our lives are secretly summoned by our unconscious desires—sometimes a (bad) cigar is just a (bad) cigar. And I’m appalled by the author’s (admittedly tentative) suggestion that some “souls” might be born with a pre-existing unconscious desire to experience extreme childhood hardship.
But I do endorse the idea that certain negative patterns in our lives might recur because a part of us secretly wants them to, even if we’d consciously say otherwise. Statistically, the more times the same kind of bad thing happens to you, the less likely it is to be pure chance, and the more likely it is you’re somehow bringing it on yourself. As the saying goes, if you meet one asshole, they’re the asshole, but if everyone you meet is an asshole, you’re the asshole.
I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in weird psychology. Like most pop psychology books, it’s best thought of not as containing the actual truth, but as providing an additional lens through which to view the world. You may not want to look through that lens all the time, but it’s a helpful one to have in your toolkit.
Yours in mixing metaphors (who keeps lenses in their toolkit?),
Which is not actually presented as a three-step process—I’m just summarizing.
Disclaimer: I don’t actually believe that we have free will.