Seeker Tools: Dark Nights of the Soul
Your Friendly Guide to Surviving Your Midlife/Quarterlife/Anytime Crisis, Unraveling, or Rock Bottom
It’s a harrowing but familiar tale. Maybe you, or someone you know, has been there…
Broken-hearted, devastated, or rocked to your core by a breakup.
Navigating anxiety in unfulfilling relationships, unfulfilling work, or anxiety at a total lack of relationship or work.
A crisis of some sort: major physical or mental health issue, someone dies, you suddenly lose a job, public shaming or humiliation, addiction comes to a head, house burns down… you get the idea.
That feeling of low-grade turmoil or panic over having zero sense of what you want in life or what your purpose is, even though you're pretty sure you’re supposed to have clarity by now and everyone else likely has it figured out already.
The slow burn of dis-ease: after chasing and getting all the things you thought would make you happy (get a good job, get married, get a house, have kids, get a bunch of things), you find yourself strangely ill at ease, with a kind of gaping hole in your life still, lacking the happiness or - more important still - a sense of peace and contentment that you want but still eludes you.
[I actually wrote this piece a while back. And I hesitated to finish or publish it. As I like to say, I often don’t choose the topics I write about; they choose me. Someone in my life was going through a Dark Night of the Soul. But as fate would have it, I then ended up being served a mini one of my own. But as I’m learning, I’ve gained so much in the way of strength and grace in navigating these, so many tools. I’m in the thick of it too, and still learning so much.]
There are plenty of variations on these themes, but the truth is, most of us experience a Dark Night of the Soul at least once (more likely more than once) in life. It doesn’t make you broken; it just makes you human.
But there's good news: although these crises suck royally, they are also richly opportune moments to really do some serious growing, upleveling, and evolving.
The Universe is asking you to rise into your greatest potential.
But damn, if it doesn’t feel like you're drowning before you do.
Brené Brown, one of my favorite authors/speakers and certainly an expert in the murky waters of vulnerability and shame, put it so well in her essay, “The Midlife Unraveling.” She argues that these moments, whether they come at 25 or 35 or 55, aren’t so much the classic midlife crisis as they are an unraveling.
And here is what she says the Universe is whispering to you during this unraveling:
“I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.”
Your unraveling may be minor or major. It may happen suddenly or sneak up on you over time.
But when it knocks, you have a couple of choices:
#1 You can avoid/numb/ignore like hell the lessons you are being asked to learn or the things you are being called to heal. (Usually that results in the classic scenario of, first the Universe whispers, then it taps lightly, then it knocks louder, and then it drops a brick on your head.) You are afraid, your ego doesn’t want to die, you have a terrific case of “soaping your own mirror of self-reflection.” (“Me? There's nothing wrong with me. It’s this damn other person/situation/place/job etc. etc.”) You hide, you drown the crisis in the numbing drug of your choice (booze, video games, working too much, you name it). You refuse to acknowledge or surrender to the spiritual nature of your crisis. Or you just grit your teeth and bear it, suffering through without much real growth or change.
#2 You can take a deep breath, acknowledge that you are being Dark-Night-of-the-Souled for a reason, look fear in the eye, and then act. You get curious. You research. You read. You talk to other Dark Night of the Soul survivors. You get yourself some tools, and then you start looking in the scary, dark cabinet of yourself and what needs work. But don't worry, you don’t have to have all the work sorted out just yet. The tools and clarity will reveal themselves as you go. But you have to start. You have to begin the work. One step will reveal the next, and the next.
In most Dark Night of the Soul cases, you are actually being asked to rise from an old way of being that isn't serving you any more. You see, you are actually an infinitely worthy, amazing, deserving, uniquely magical person who deserves and is capable of all the happiness in the world. You just have a lot of muck covering that over.
I’ve been through my own Dark Night of the Soul here, more than once. I’ve watched others navigate it (or not). And for whatever reason, I have spooky-spidey sense gifts and a spiritual ability to see and intuit things and often supercharge the growth.
And so while this article is perhaps one part self-help guide and one part comedic wakeup call, I ultimately want it to be actionable. OK, so I'm in a Dark Night of the Soul. What the $#@& do I do now?
I’ve got steps for that.
#1 Don’t Run Away, Walk Towards
This is where fear wants to come in, big time. Your fear and your ego will put up a kicking and screaming fight to stop you from leaning into the pain, growth, and healing work. If you find yourself avoiding the self work you’re being called to do, this is the time to be the witness of that feeling — and then walk through it. Take a deep breath, take a step. Pick a tool. Begin.
Here’s another thing I’ve encountered for myself — you can even “hide behind the work.” Even when you’re “doing the inner work” (therapy, journaling, courses, meditation, etc.), you are still fully in charge of how much you are going there. We are all quite capable of saying that we want to work on ourselves, and even doing the things— but measuring how deep we are allowing ourselves to go. You can do some work without fully going there. Only you can be fully honest with yourself on this. What are you avoiding looking at? What are you avoiding doing, even in the midst of your doing?
#2 Get Quiet
When you’re rocked by a Dark Night of the Soul experience, be it heartbreak, anxiety, grief, loss, change, or malaise, it is even more important than usual to make the time and space to get quiet and still. This is the place from which your intuition can talk to you, and you’re going to need your intuition for what to do to navigate through this. The little voice — and it isn’t a logical mind one — will tell you that you could benefit from this, you need to do that next, here’s some clarity on this-that-or-the-other, and that little voice will only really emerge when you get quiet. That means being willing to be alone with yourself. It means silencing all the distractions of technology and all our numbing tools and busyness, for at least some precious moments in there somewhere. Whether this is being in Nature, taking walks by yourself, spending an evening alone with your own company regularly, meditation, or just turning off all your devices for a period of time, make sure you are giving yourself some silence and stillness for the wisdom, guidance, and intuition to come through.
#3 Get Busy
Yes, totally counter to the above… but especially if you are rocked to your core by a sudden loss, heartbreak, grief, etc., it’s hugely important to balance the quiet time with productive time, so you don’t fall into a depressed blob of inertia. Get out and exercise. Schedule some outings with friends. Throw yourself into a productive project. Do more of the things that make you happy. Purge the house. Doing something that productively engages you can be a real balm in dealing with the the rollercoaster of emotions that leave you reeling.
#4 Get Clarity
This one ain’t easy. But I really believe that every person and every experience in our lives is there as a teacher, has something to teach us. There is a lesson in every tough experience, and if we can muster the courage to ask what it is and walk towards that, then the real growth can happen. Sometimes you just need to pose the question and sit with it: what is this experience trying to teach me? Don’t expect that the heavens will part and the answer will come swanning in immediately. Often it takes time. Keep asking. Keep making the space to get quiet. Embrace the humility of this — yes, you will feel vulnerable. You will feel like you don’t have it together. You will feel like shit. It’s ok. It’s part of the process. The point of life isn’t to be Superman in every moment. The point is to grow.
Often we are being asked to heal old wounds and old ways of being that don’t really serve us. Notice the patterns in your life. What keeps showing up?
#5 Get Some Tools
The last three years of my own life have been a treasure hunt for tools to heal all my stuff. I was served my own massive Dark Night of the Soul in 2016, and it brought me to my knees. I’ve made a lot of changes in my life since then, I’ve done so much healing, and I’ve found so many useful resources. And I’m still working at it. But I’ll share a few of the tools that have helped me the most at the end of this article, with links. Peruse, read more, try out what resonates, and leave what doesn’t.
I will also say that sometimes part of our stuff to heal comes from fear or avoidance of the tools. You are going to have to try stuff, more than one thing, most likely. You will probably need to invest some time and money, whatever you can, in your healing and growth, whether that be free podcasts, $10 books, affordable courses, therapy, or healing sessions. A lot of people (myself included) have a certain degree of avoidance with this: “I don’t want to do the work, it’s hard and uncomfortable, it takes time, it costs money,” blah blah blah. I’m here to say to you, and myself — you’re gonna have to find a way to get over this. Yes, it will be easy to avoid. Yes, you won’t feel like doing it. Yes, it will be fucking uncomfortable. Yes, it may cost money. But the truth is, you and your growth and the person you can be on the other side of this challenging experience is worth it. All of it. Decide you are worth it, and DO SOMETHING. (Or don’t, and eventually get so sick of your own bullshit that you then do something.)
#6 Do Things Differently
Here is where you have to try on a new way of being, even though it’s scary. This is where you walk through fears, put in practice better boundaries, say no to what doesn’t serve you, eliminate things from your life that are not in line with your self-worth, your authentic self, or your purpose, pursue the steps towards your heart’s desire, or practice small ways to shift your energy and how you’re showing up for yourself and in the world.
It’s quite easy (for myself for sure here) to get stuck doing the inner work but not taking the action steps. I’m good at hiding behind my “spiritual blankie,” doing the self work but not taking the scary action steps. Just keep checking in and being honest with yourself.
[I’ve found that I have two different responses to different kinds of fears: one feels like “no way” in my body. (Those are the things for me to actually avoid/eliminate.) The other feels like a “holding my breath” scary, i.e. I know something is actually good/right but I can tell I’m avoiding acting on it because it feels a little terrifying, but not “bad” terrifying. (Those are the scary things I actually need to do.) But then again, I’m a sacral authority in Human Design, and my body/gut tends to give me my answers!]
Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I can give for Dark Nights of the Soul is to not fight them. Lean in, let them toss you, let them change you and wash you clean. And don’t try and bear it all alone and in silence. Nearly every human being you’ll meet has been through one (and if they haven’t, either they will, or they did but their response was to stick their head under the rug and pretend everything was fine). Don’t forget that we’re wired for love and connection, not just during good times, but hard times too. Let yourself reach out and be seen by others, even while you’re not at your best. Even while you haven’t got it figured out — because you haven’t got it all figured out. Ask for and go in search of help and support. Or even just someone who will sit in empathy with you and say, “I know it sucks. I’ve been there too.”
When you open up and share a little bit about your own Dark Night of the Soul, it makes other people realize they aren’t alone or crazy. And we all need those little moments of connection, where we can feel seen in the midst of the messiness of life, and still feel loved.
Some stuff that’s worked for me.
Getting quiet: For me, this looks like Transcendental Meditation and alone time in Nature. TM is such a balm for me because it isn’t a concentration/contemplation meditation, so you don’t have to sit in silence in a painful wrestling match with your thoughts for 20 minutes. It’s easy, it’s deep and refreshing, and it gives you an experience and sense of the deep part of you that is deeper than the turmoil of whatever you’re going through. And my solo walks in Nature ground and soothe me in a way that is almost magical for being so simple. Being amongst the plants, sky, ocean, etc. takes me out of the small torture of whatever I’m feeling in the moment and reminds me that I am bigger, more magnificent, and more infinite than that smallness. Plus, there’s amazing science to support the healing power of being in Nature. And it’s free. Can’t recommend it enough.
I’ve been through most of the courses from ToBeMagnetic.com, and they are wonderful and affordable for getting clearer on what is blocking you in the areas of love, money, self-worth, purpose, etc. I’ve also gotten a lot out of learning more about my Human Design chart (I like JennaZoe.com), which has allowed me to become clearer and more accepting of my unique and authentic self. I’m more able to identify places where I picked up programming of “this is how I should be to be good, loved, etc.” versus what is really my true nature.
In the relationships department, I’ve gotten so much out of Esther Perel’s work (books, TED talks, podcast). More recently I’m really into Mark Groves (@createthelove). I haven’t sampled his courses, but he is spot-on for shedding light on all of our relationship patterning, hang-ups, and insecurities.
I did a bunch of therapy and EMDR to work on some old childhood things of my own that I realized I was still dealing with. EMDR is a great tool used by therapists to deal with trauma. The thing about trauma is, we think we have to have experienced physical violence or sexual abuse to have had trauma. Many of us walking around thinking we had a pretty decent childhood may still have experienced trauma is our young (or adult) lives. EMDR is great for when you can talk about a traumatic experience until you’re blue in the face, but you don’t really feel a healing. Your heart never really caught up. EMDR uses a dual brain hemisphere integration to process and release trauma in the body.
I also tried Psych-K, which is a tool I would describe as a cross between EMDR and energy work. I found it much more powerful than talk therapy in addressing some limiting beliefs I realized I still had (I used some of the above tools for clarity on that first). Here the goal is to rewrite the subconscious script playing in the background with new beliefs. It had a dramatic effect for me in feeling more peace around some blocks I was struggling with, and I'm excited to keep doing more of this.
Shadow work has been a big one for me, which is essentially dealing with the parts of ourselves that we don’t like and have squirreled away and suppressed (but that are actually still handicapping us from their hidden dungeons). ToBeMagnetic.com has a great Shadow course. I’m also a huge fan of Brené Brown’s work, whether that is her books, recorded talks (she’s an amazing speaker), or her Netflix special. She specializes in working on shame and vulnerability, so while I think her work is applicable to anyone and definitely helpful with regards to relationships, there’s a lot of gold there that relates to the shadow/shame stuff that will rule us if we don’t uncover and integrate it.