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The greatest delusion
Probably the most important essay I've ever written.
In my twenties I would often dream that I was pregnant. This was my worst recurring nightmare. In the dream, I would always be shocked to discover the bulging belly and then would find a way to get rid of it: jumping off a window, throwing myself down the stairs, or attacking my body. In my desperation to annihilate the unborn baby I would often lose my own life too–and wake up panting, in a pool of sweat. Had I known that the baby represented a new consciousness demanding to be birthed into my own life, perhaps I would’ve sought help earlier. But I was too overwhelmed and far too scared of the image to see the symbolical meaning behind it.
Dreams often do this. They shock us with terrifying, awful images to wake us up–not just from our sleep, but to our own lives. It’s the unconscious’ way of saying hey, look here.
But we don’t. We put up our defences–like rationalising that dreams don’t mean anything, or dissociating from our inner life through our addictions to food, love, Netflix, work, perfectionism–and the energy of these images grows in the unconscious so much that it begins to constellate in the material world.
Unusual things begin to happen. We get into accidents, we break a limb or discover an illness, we suddenly lose our job or a significant relationship, or we feel followed by odd animals or insects. As our pain grows, we feel persecuted, victims of a god we don’t even believe in.
As we tap into the danger of the suppressed energy, we want to run even faster, but we discover that we’re breathlessly running on the spot. The gravity of the situation is pulling us down, towards our core, towards our grave. That baby will be born whether we like it or not, but first an old way of being needs to die.
Even though I don’t dream that way about pregnancy anymore, those images still shock me and fill me with grief. If I were my client today, I’d see them as diagnosis of something terrible that’s going on inside.
I’ve been at war with myself
I still remember the moment in my teenage years when I proudly declared to my parents that in my ideal world, there would be no nature–no trees, no animals, no insects. Instead, all cities would be brutalist masterpieces, clean, concrete, geometric. Small pills would replace food and the need to sit down for meals. Sex would be transactional, purely for pleasure, and no relationships or marriages would be allowed.
This chilling dystopia hides enormous pain and is a clear indicator of the time I cut off from the feminine. Looking back, it all makes sense. The archetype of the Death Mother that constellated between my mother and me since early childhood came into its full force in teenage years. Her relentless criticism, intrusions, and harmful behaviour frequently drove me to overwhelming despair–I fantasised about death and suicide from early adolescence well into adulthood. This was more than just a negative mother archetype; the Death Mother actually feels annihilating. As Daniela Sieff puts it in the paper linked above, “for most of our deep history, being born to a woman who carried the Death Mother energy was genuinely life-threatening”.
My only hope growing up was that whatever I became, it would be anything but my mother.
“The mother who rejects her own feminine consciousness cannot see the child in its becoming; she cannot allow it to live its own imperfect humanity in its own imperfect world. Betrothed to her perfectionist standards and without her own feminine identity, consciously or unconsciously she longs for the ultimate way out of her prison. As a result, her daughter lives with a strong unconscious death wish. That very death wish may be what the young woman is attempting to redeem because, if the Great Mother rejected her birth, the feminine child has yet to be born.”
Marion Woodman in Addiction to Perfection
What’s more, I blamed her for my father’s emotional absence. I saw his shortcomings and addictions as a justified escape from her rage and joined him in the misogyny typical of the time. I also picked up on how boys treated us girls at school. How the women in my family spoke about themselves and their despised bodies. How angry, depleted, and overwhelmed they were. How they worked and cooked and cleaned and spent every minute serving men that disrespected them. And how these men had this numinous glow of potential, freedom, and creativity. They were different. They seemed to have it good.
And so, in an effort to cope, I unconsciously become like them: rational, intellectual, and efficient. I became the cool chick who’s not like other girls because she’s independent and doesn’t ask for much and can take a joke. She doesn’t need men to drop her off at home after a date–in fact, she drives them herself. She’s chill. She’s cool. She’s all frozen inside.
And then, when I discovered feminism, my misogyny gave birth to rage. I realised that, even though I was “one of the boys”, my anatomy was betraying me. Men would never treat me as one of them. No matter how hard I worked, I was paid less. I was catcalled. I was treated unfairly. I was charged more for things just because I was a woman. I was asked about having children. I was judged for how I dressed, what I did with my hair, or what I ate. I was afraid to walk alone at night. I was groped, harassed, and threatened. My pain was often invalidates and I had to learn to live with that. And whatever happened to me, I knew it was nothing compared to the women whose stories haunted me in the news, across the street, or even on the other side of a phone call.
I hated men and I hated being a woman.
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What about my pain?!
We were less than thirty minutes into our second meeting when Alex, a man I’m now grateful to count amongst my good friends (hi, Alex!), began to relentlessly probe me about my understanding of the patriarchy. We were about to go on a peaceful walk in nature, but the mood was already taking a strange turn. On our first meeting, I’d said that I used to be “a raging feminist”. He wanted to understand how I, like many other women, got to embrace the “fuck the patriarchy” narrative. He didn’t see things the way I did. He challenged my use of terms like “toxic masculinity”, “male privilege”, and even the term “patriarchy” itself. The discussion was heating up and despite our constant reminders that we’re not out to hurt each other, our growing separation was palpable.
We ended the walk frustrated and in disagreement. This wasn’t the first time men were rolling their eyes at my anger with the "patriarchy”, or I at their argument that “men suffer too” (please, I thought). I’d had this disagreement many times before. However, for the first time, I could sense what had always made these conversations futile.
Yes, 1 in 3 women worldwide experience domestic abuse, often at the hand of men. Yes, but men are 3 times more at risk of suicide than women. But men rape women. But women also sexually assault men, and no one takes that seriously. But women are paid less than men–but 8 out 10 homeless people are men.
We could’ve carried on for days.
But despite our factual arguments, I could finally realise that this was not an ideological conversation. Our intense emotions hinted that something precious was at risk here. Even though it seemed like it on the surface, this wasn’t a conversation about men or women. A part of us was asking: why aren’t you acknowledging my pain?
I was defending the little Maria with everything I had and I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. You see, I was unwilling to accept the other side because I feared that admitting to men’s suffering would cancel out my pain as a young girl and woman in this society. If I conceded, I would betray the younger me who had never felt safe to be who she was; I would be vulnerable again. My rage against men was protective.
But holding on to my pain and rage was only keeping me stuck in a black and white way of thinking. Men had to be bad so that I could be innocent–this was the “good breast/bad breast” situation all over again, a sign that my most primitive defence was deployed by my psyche to protect me from acute pain. When we split, we can’t see people as whole beings. It’s good vs evil, black vs white, men vs women. It’s the first defence we learn as babies and most of us rarely mature enough to let it go. Its positive intention is to preserve our sense of goodness by projecting the bad outside ourselves (or the other way around). It actually saved our lives when we were babies. But now it’s blocking us from experiencing the more complex aspects of life in their wholeness–including ourselves.
But what if men’s pain was real? What if women hurt men as much as men hurt women? What if the patriarchy wasn’t what I had assumed it was?
And just like that, the belief system that had kept me safe for most of my life began crumbling before my eyes. And it burned almost everything that I had known about life, my work, myself, and my spiritual practice to the ground. I fell into a dark, confronting process that lifted veil after veil of illusion. For months, the dreaded Tower Card was my inner life.
Marion Woodman’s writing forced me to face the awful truth that I had indiscriminately gobbled up a simplistic narrative that equated all men to a complex system that we were, in fact, all participating in. As outrageous as I find it now, I actually believed that men were the patriarchy, its creators and sole proponents. And I believed women were its innocent victims, separate from it. I believed I was a victim.
And the belief served me well. I placed sole responsibility on men and their behaviour. I believed men were aggressive, entitled, privileged, abusive, emotionally unavailable, and cruel. That they were out to harm and deceit us. That they were intentionally trying to oppress us. I gave men all the power, but never looked into how I was showing up in my relationships with them. And it wasn’t always pretty: like many other women, I had learned to use passive-aggression to get my way. I was critical. I was unavailable. I was entitled. I was not taking accountability for my actions or the unique privileges I had as a young, conventionally attractive woman. And “the patriarchy” was the dumptruck for all my feminine shadow.
It didn’t take long to realise that behind my “fuck men” self-righteousness, I was exactly what I was desperately fighting against: I was a daughter of the patriarchy, another cog in its system.
And the more I looked around, the more I started to see how often women acted in patriarchal ways. How often the lack of respect we got from men was in fact a response to the aggression with which we approached them. How coldly we responded to our male partners’ bids for connection. How often we put men down just to lift ourselves up. How we manipulated men to get our way. How we demanded to be looked after but weren’t willing to give much in return. How we told men they weren’t emotional enough, but then shamed them when their emotions didn’t fit our expectations of masculinity. And, perhaps worst of all, how we consistently punished today’s men for a history of oppression they had nothing to do with. Despite our feminine appearance, we were also patriarchs.
It broke my heart.
In the business world, I hear many women complain about the patriarchal structure they’re in, and very often it’s a woman who is the worst patriarch. A woman who is driven to perfection can be harder to work for than a man. She can be very cruel to others and just as cruel to herself. I have women working with me who call themselves feminists, trying very hard to find their femininity. […] The irony is that they are talking reverently about the feminine and yet they are killing her. They dream of being raped. Their own patriarchal principle is raping their own little girl. Then they break down with candida or some other disease where the immune system turns against them and says, in effect: You’ve got to care for your femininity.
- Marion Woodman in Conscious Femininity
Patriarchy in pink
And most of all, I couldn’t believe I’d been so naive. How did I not see that in my “feminist” striving to prove that women are as good as (or better than!) men, I was not fighting for equality, but sameness? Worst of all, I was reinforcing masculinity as the gold standard and denying my own biology–my body, my instincts, my needs. I was constantly measuring myself against something I could never fully be, which only distanced myself from my true nature.
I was so focused on beating men at their own game, that I forgot about my own individuation–who was I, as my own woman?
In my prolonged grief, I felt cheated by my normally discerning mind. I felt cheated by my parents, for not modelling positive feminine and masculine values. But most of all, I felt cheated by society, by fellow women, and the modern feminist narrative for furthering the divide between men and women, instead of building bridges. The glittery, girlboss, woman-up, grow-out-your-leghair, you-can-have-it-all stuff wasn’t supporting my womanhood. Why wasn’t I taught about my cycle? Why was I fed hormones to suppress my period as a sign of female liberation, instead of being taught to follow the cyclical rhythms of my body? Why didn’t the women in my life talk about this?
If feminism started out as a movement to liberate women and fight for equal rights, the current movement was a parody–it was patriarchy in pink.
Modern-day feminism was killing the feminine.
It took a lot for me to notice that I was stuck in splitting. It probably took the challenge of a kind, loving man like Alex to lower my defences enough so I could hear the other side. It also took close to six years of therapy and trauma work to finally have a nervous system resilient enough to not succumb to fight/flight responses when threatened by a truth that appears to invalidate my pain. Years of getting over my childhood and the painful relationships with men I often found myself in. It took the support of therapy, a spiritual practice, the relationship with my body, psychedelic therapy, and the container of training as a psychotherapist to allow myself to descend into one of the darkest periods of my life.
I want to acknowledge that it takes a lot of earned safety and resilience to allow ourselves to face these complex issues–and, more importantly, to own our role in them. The outrage we feel is a sign of a survival response kicking in to protect us from a truth we’re not ready to face; the desire to destroy, humiliate, and “cancel” the other is often the only way we’ve learned to look after ourselves. But not feeling safe with an idea doesn’t mean the idea is wrong or threatening. Instead, it points to a lack of safety with ourselves. So if reading this has made you angry, I get it. I really do. And I hope that you can hear me out regardless of that anger.
I think the most important step in disentangling ourselves from the patriarchal structures of our society is to start seeing the masculine and the feminine as energies completely separate from gender or sex. The words seem to have lost their symbolic meaning and we’ve fallen in the trap of ascribing masculinity to men and femininity to women (leaving gender non-conforming folks floating in ambiguity because they don’t fit the mould). But we’re both. These energies course through us, regardless of who we are. We’ve known we’re both yin and yang for thousands of years. This isn’t new knowledge.
The tarot’s Major Arcana reminds us that it’s part of the soul’s journey to reconcile these opposites. Right from its inception, the androgynous Fool meets the pairs of masculine and feminine within and without: The Magician and The High Priestess within, and the Empress and Emperor without, often embodied by mother and father and those structures in society that symbolise them. The Fool’s journey is to confront the pairs of opposites over and over and make peace with them.
Indeed, how we negotiate duality in life dictates most of our happiness (or lack thereof). Can we accept that we contain both masculine and feminine? Can we nurture both those parts of ourselves, away from any societal pressure to fit a mould? Can we set ourselves free from the cultural fads that tell us what men or women should be like?
There’s no coincidence that the last card of the Major Arcana, The World, is androgynous. Our wholeness is about balancing the two energies within us. Our better half is within. One of the most important things we can do for ourselves is to stop chasing it outside and work on our sacred inner marriage: a balanced masculine and feminine that support each other.
So are we smashing the patriarchy or what?
It took a great intellectual leap to untangle the patriarchy from men and men from the patriarchy. Through Marion Woodman’s work and the study of early development, I could understand the emergence of patriarchy five (or so) thousands of years ago as a necessary evolution of consciousness–magically mirrored in the development of ego consciousness in children.
A deeper dive into the history of human consciousness reveals that for a large period of our existence we’ve actually lived in matriarchal structures: a tribal existence, deeply rooted in the cycles of the Earth and cosmos, in deep symbiosis with nature. Religions were a reflection of this, following animistic and polytheistic principles. God was the earth, The Great Mother, whose womb humans existed in. The feminine principle ruled, but it also kept us unconscious, undifferentiated from matter, and entirely dependent–like the mother-infant dyad.
Just like children need the father to facilitate the separation between them and the mother, so that the individual ego can form, so did humanity need the masculine principle to further the development of our consciousness. The masculine facilitated the emergence of our sophisticated psychology now—one that’s differentiated from the unconscious through the ego, the mediator of our consciousness. Masculine principles of power and competition furthered so much of our evolution as a species.
However, as with any energy that becomes too one-sided, the masculine principle started to oppress the feminine. Both men and women started to lose touch with the earth, the emotions, the introspective, instinctive, and loving qualities of life. Our religions shifted from being deeply embedded in the nature around us to a fatherly spirit in the sky, separate from us and accessible only through a religious system. We shifted from a cyclical moon consciousness to a solar consciousness. We revered the intellect and devalued the instincts and emotions, which we saw as primitive. We lost our connection to our sexuality. We became focused on ascending and transcending, seeing the body as an inconvenience rather than our direct connection to the divine.
“The opposites are complementary, not contradictory.”
Marion Woodman in Dancing in the Flames
And when I say we, I mean all of us. We’ve all been part of this.
And while I don’t deny that some men have and continue to actively harm and oppresses women and feminine beings, I can finally acknowledge that some women also do this. It’s not just men who aren’t in touch with the feminine. Most of us have lost that connection and it’s harming everyone.
When we repress our feminine, both our feminine and masculine suffer. We act from power, not love. We’re victims as much as we are perpetrators, perpetually shifting roles in the drama triangle. And we really have a choice: we can remain unconscious and project our problems on the patriarchy, remaining its victims; or we can take responsibility for how we’re perpetuating an outdated system of power and “smash the patriarchy” not outside, but within–not through violence, but by allowing our conscious feminine natures to flourish.
The future, as Woodman writes, is about making both energies conscious in ourselves. We’ve had enough of the god in the sky. We need to resurrect the goddess. It’s up to all of us.
*From Dancing in the Flames, The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness by Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson
Birth of the conscious feminine
It feels natural that I close this essay the way it began: with dreams.
As my journey with the feminine over the last few months deepened, my dreams have been my most powerful companions, pointing to the renegotiation of masculine and feminine archetypes going on within. Years after my awful nightmares about pregnancies, two incredible dreams came:
I had a little girl, who I was raising alone, with the support of four helpers: my mother and a female nanny, and two simple, earthy men. I told one of the men to wear sunscreen because one in two people get cancer these days–in fact, I’d had it, and the doctors had to take the pink cancer out along with the baby, which is why I couldn’t have a natural birth.
I had a baby girl, an infant. She was a doll, and as I picked her up, her head fell off, rolling on the floor. I swiftly decided to have another baby, this time real, who I was now breastfeeding. The dream images had a profound physical impact. I was struck by the embodied sensations of the milk coursing through me and the intense pleasure the feeding created, which was travelling up my spine–was this okay?, the dream ego hesitated, slightly ashamed.
Writing these down, I feel a shiver of vulnerability for exposing myself so deeply. But I also feel grateful to be witnessed in this transformation. Perhaps, as my first dream suggests, it’s never too late to let go of the pink cancer of the distorted masculine and feminine masking themselves as feminism and rotting inside us. Even though we were born into a patriarchal paradigm, we can make up for lost time–we can begin again.
By awakening the conscious feminine, we can become the pregnant virgin who gives birth to herself, on her own terms. This requires that we loosen our reliance on our heady, masculine adaptation, so that we can learn how to relate from our heart, our guts, our instincts. And even though we might lose our heads for a while, the journey is well worth it, for we will recover our sense of embodiment, our pleasure, our life force. Disillusionment may just be what we need to expand our consciousness.
For the first time, I’m holding my own pain from not having had a strong male figure to separate me from the throes of the Death Mother in childhood. I’m mourning the ways men had made me suffer and the ways I hurt them in return. I’m letting my heart break at the suffering of men around the world, alongside women’s and everyone else’s. For the first time, I feel like I’m making room for my feminine nature to surface–and gosh, I can tell you, it’s the most tender thing in the world.
“But the fact remains that if we are to find our own inner truth, we have to go into our darkness alone and stay with our inner process until we find our own healing archetypal pattern. Once that relationship is established, we are on our individual path whether we are with a group or not. It takes great courage to break with one's past history and stand alone.”
- Marion Woodman
Thank you for taking the time to read this essay. I’ve done my best to summarise some of the darkest and most enlightening months of my life and weave in some of the literature that facilitated this profound experience. There’s so much more I wanted to share, and so much more to learn–if you’re interested to delve deeper into this, I’ll keep writing about it and I plan to offer a workshop in December, so stay tuned. In the meantime, please share this essay if it resonated with you or leave a comment below–I’d really appreciate it.
Thank you to my dear friends who pushed me to keep writing this when I felt like I wasn’t capable of putting into words. And a big thank you to Alex, whose curiosity, kindness, and challenge have been so valuable during the last few months. Thank you for always being there and for the 20 minute voice note responding to my draft. This essay wouldn’t have been the same without you.