Existential Kink: Unmask Your Shadow and Embrace Your Power, by Carolyn Elliott, PhD
Weiser Books, 9781578636471, 224 pages, 2020

How much of our behavior is driven by our sub- and unconscious minds? In Existential Kink: Unmask Your Shadow and Embrace Your Power, Carolyn Elliott, PhD, explains why we are drawn to specific situations and provides clear guidance on how to harness that energy for better uses. As an author and teacher who specializes in helping people achieve dramatic positive change in their lives through shadow integration work, Elliott has been practicing what she preaches and is proof that her method works. But what exactly is Existential Kink?

Developed by Elliott through many years of teaching her courses, Existential Kink (EK) is “an amazing, rapid-shadow integration process”1 and a “specific meditative practice … that’s all about dissolving negative patterns by being willing to uncover and celebrate the previously unconscious pleasure that we actually – paradoxically – derive from those patterns.” 2 Elliott earned her PhD in Critical and Cultural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, during which time she immersed herself in psychology. The result of her deep dive into psychology led her to realizing one very important insight. She explains that “by recognizing and empowering the darkness of my shadow and in the end taking “pleasure” in my yucky stuff … I could completely integrate my “good” self with my “bad” self and become a whole person.” 3

As you might expect, Elliott’s method for shadow integration is not for the faint of heart. While most self-help books focus on the visualization aspect of manifestation, Elliott realized that what’s actually needed in order to break free of specific unhelpful patterns is an excavation of the psyche. To walk the reader through the process, she has separated the book into three parts that deal with existential basics, getting kinky (more on that later), and questions and answers. Interspersed throughout the sections are specific lessons that help define the practice, provide valuable information in relation to EK, exercises for the reader to engage in the material, and interludes that detail personal stories of transformative experiences had by both the author and those who have taken her courses or been coached by her.

A big chunk of the book lays out the basics, including an interesting take on the legend of Persephone. I won’t ruin it for you because I feel everyone who feels stuck in some sort of recurring negative patterns needs to read this book, but suffice to say, Elliott’s spin resonates deeply. She states that the Persephone/Hades myth is not of two separate people, but of one all powerful being who chooses to experience both positive (Persephone) and negative (Hades) aspects of the human experience. This idea of bringing together both halves of ourselves (positive/light and negative/dark) is the very essence of the work Elliott describes in this book.

Elliott doesn’t try to smooth anything over; she is quite emphatic about how hard this work is and states clearly that most people are not able to do this kind of deep shadow work because of the trauma is brings up. In addressing that, Elliott goes out of her way to mention her own mental health journey to illustrate how deep the work is and also how rewarding. There’s a level of comfort in knowing that others have successfully travelled this path and reading their experiences is helpful in setting personal expectations. Similar to physical exercise, you will get out of this book exactly what you out in terms of steadfast work and deep introspection.

So how exactly does one conduct this type of work? This is where the kink part comes in: Elliott maintains that by “getting off” on our dark desires (things like scarcity, feelings of not being good enough, seeking out those who keep us small, etc), we give ourselves permission to enjoy the sensation of being bad. We often forget that we can choose how to experience sensation, be it a gentle stroke of a lover’s hand or a rap on the knuckles for taking too many cookies. Elliott states that choosing each sensation to be pleasurable, no matter what it is, primes the consciousness for accepting its darker sibling nestled in the subconscious. And that is precisely what we need if we are to fully integrate our shadow selves into our conscious selves.

Shadow integration sounds like a lengthy process, but Elliott’s book is full of testimonials of those who have done the work and seen results within a short amount of time. Elliott refers to this specific work as solve et coagula: “to first utterly dissolve (solve) an existing form and then to carefully bring the dissolved and purified elements together again (coagula) in a whole new … permutation.”4 In terms of timing and success, I think it depends on how willing you are to burn it all down: this is serious psychological work and whenever you muck about in the mud you will get dirty. Is it worth it? I think so, but if you are experiencing some mental health issues around trauma or depression, you might want to think twice before starting this type of exercise.

Full disclosure time: I have taken a couple of Elliott’s courses and this book is a wonderful accessory to the information already provided through the lessons. Personally, I think everyone can benefit from a little soul searching, especially when it means that you can potentially dump some of the unhelpful patterns that you’ve been stuck with through adulthood. By choosing to break down our inner psyche and fully examine our desires, and then completely accepting them as a vital part of ourselves, we can reconnect our divided wills and reunite ourselves in a way that helps us move forward with less baggage and more happiness. Honestly, the sheer delight of being able to accept personal darkness as an integral part of the whole is what pushed me forward into pursuing this type of integrative work.

While Existential Kink is geared towards those who might lean towards the left-handed path in magical terms, the concepts presented are easy to digest and relatable. I personally would not recommend this book to anyone who has strong religious views as it might be potentially upsetting to them to see their doctrines disassembled and reformed into a new version of reality. Although, come to think of it, leaning into discomfort is kind of what this book is about so perhaps Great-aunt Martha should get a copy.