Sigh

What was that, right there?

Hmm?

Your sigh… a sign of weariness, blasé indifference, the content of decadence, spiritual relief?

Concealed contempt, a remembrance of loss, emotional capitulation, or repressed agony?

No, it was actually me remembering your intrusive habit of analysing nonverbal cues and how in moments like these it tends to rub me the wrong way. Consider it a sign of my discontent with this dynamic.

We should look into that, I’m sure there’s a reason for it. And for building invisible barriers of psychological impenetrability and feeling resentment whenever I try to cross them. Perhaps it’s because…

Hilarious. You’re talking about trespassing, excavating, and infusing. There’s a way to enter someone’s inner world, force and a lack of subtlety are usually not the way. And seriously…The fact that you get visibly and, depending on your familiarity or affinity with the observer, often vocally irritated when the same treatment of psyche dissection is being inflicted upon you without consent…Now, what was that golden rule of Confucius?

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves?

That’s probably misattributed. And a cautionary statement more than a rule. Give it another shot.

To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it!

…Also not a rule. And I’ll be buried with my grudges.

Not an ethical rule, but a self-help rule. Look, I know, but are you truly bothered or just digging up reasons to be dissatisfied with and closed off to me?

It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them.

You don’t actually live by that. Also, preaching about trust… Your obsessive devotion to double standards is the gateway drug to narcissism. But I’ll look past this because I see a version of myself in you.

Your dogmatic devotion to projection under the disguise of spiritual awareness is a gateway drug to psychotic solipsism.

Interacting with mental constructs

Have you ever felt like someone interacts with an image or representation of you, that they’ve created and are feeding in their mind, rather than the reality of who you are? You can usually sense it while it happens, it’s often tiring, you might get uncomfortable; depending on the discrepancy between your identity and your interlocutor’s concept of you, your response might naturally be to emotionally distance yourself from them, your body may recoil in distaste, and you might feel like you wanna stay away from such situations. It takes too much energy to interact with people who are trying to define you on their own terms, to shape your reality, to induce that they know how you feel or who you are better than you do. You may perceive it as an attack on your self-concept, it feels perversely counter-intuitive- if everyone did this we’d all be trapped in illusions, interacting with our own minds and their fabrications…the distances between us would grow and grow and there would be no genuine connection; authenticity and understanding the reality of another human being completely thrown out of the window. These fabrications are often based on archetypes, on previous experiences, on patterns we have formed in our minds, and shadows bred there. To a certain extent, there is something natural about it, as, in its purer forms, this process helps us make sense of everything. Everything is mediated through the filter of our consciousness and making associations and creating our concepts of others is inevitable. Labelling. Establishing connections between subjects, to have a point of reference and know what to expect, in the process of interpreting reality and personality. Identifying differences in others, to see ourselves as separate and unique, to define ourselves in the light of this separation, to reinforce our ego’s supremacy. It’s also a survival mechanism, recognising red flags, so you know what or whom to stay away from, whom to trust, who may or may not represent a threat to your well-being. Thinking of people in patterns – the field of psychology is based on this. In the case of someone who has a personality disorder, for instance, it can be very helpful to have a name for what they are experiencing and how they see the world, it can make them feel understood, give them a sense of belonging, a sense of control over themselves and their emotions, encourage them to make a conscious effort to identify with the awareness behind their thoughts and emotions, rather than with a particular emotion (especially if it’s a negative emotion, like anger, fear) or a thought they may be experiencing, that may be intrusive, obsessive, and dictated by a disorder. Of course, on the other hand, there is also the stigma that comes with such labels, risking to be put in a negative light, being seen through that filter, being defined by a certain disorder or affliction. Unfortunately, some can internalise this, thinking of themselves and their disorder symbiotically, it can affect their self-worth. In general, it is quite limiting. Thinking of people in patterns or associating them with something you create in your mind can be limiting. It diminishes them, distorts their essence, reduces their whole identity to a tendency, an idea, a bunch of words, an echo- in the mind of ego-led individuals with narcissistic tendencies. If you interact with representations of people, with mental constructs, with objects, you don’t really allow yourself to see people for what they are. This is often because you may have internalised certain superficial ideas about the world and may be applying them to everyone, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes it happens out of fear. Of the unknown, the uncontrolled, the unpredictable. A representation is something you have control over, an image you can mould to fit your world view, your ego’s supremacy, something you can annihilate in your head; a real person is something you can’t control, they exist outside the realm of your ego, and thus can be a threat to ego.

Re-defining someone, re-structuring their narrative and identity is problematic, because people don’t tend to like being told who they are, why they do the things they do, what their motivations, feelings, or thoughts are. They often dislike being told they are wrong in some way, faulty in their behaviour, life choices, thinking, identity. It will put them in a position of defence. Such interpretations can be offensive, and often deeply ingrained in the adviser’s specific belief system and incomplete perception of others and they function through projection. You can’t help but dislike or avoid someone who assumes or acts like they know you better than you know yourself, who tries to re-define you in ways you don’t identify with, it’s a natural response of self-preservation. It’s unpleasant to have someone interact with a version of you that doesn’t exist. In my case, someone giving me advice with such constructs in mind would find themselves stepping into a minefield. I know I have a resistance to accepting advice, in general, because I feel like I’m the one who knows what is best for me, but, often, if it’s reasonable advice, devoid of projections, formulated in a constructive way, and if I can feel it comes from a genuine place in someone’s heart, someone who doesn’t interact with a false mental construct, someone who believes in me and doesn’t claim to know what I want better than I do, doesn’t try to dictate how I feel, who wants to see me do well and be the best version of me, then I appreciate it. If, however, I can feel that a piece of advice is insincere, in the sense that it is centred around the adviser, it’s all about them and not me, all about their self-image/ego, their need to be in control, to reinforce their belief system, then I have resistance to it, I find it distasteful. (Unsolicited advice is distasteful in general.) There are some descriptors and emotions that I don’t associate with my self-concept, and I can’t stand it when others imply or assume it about me. Okay, this does sound like an egoic defence, we all have them. What matters is not letting ego dictate our interactions with or perceptions of others, and not defining ourselves in conscious or unconscious opposition with others.

This is particularly problematic when you think about the well-known mental process of ‘other’-ing when it comes to racial, gender, nationality, or sexuality differences, different religious or political beliefs, although it’s not restricted to these areas, for it can apply on many levels, personal and cultural. This process can have a great negative impact on human connections, because it obstructs the capacity to have empathy for fellow human beings; and it can manifest itself through passive-aggressiveness, animosity, or it can become especially toxic when it facilitates aggression. Narcissistic tendencies are prevalent in contemporary society. If you pay attention, you can see the seeds of narcissism very easily, and recognise the narcissistic way of relating to others as mental constructs, even in yourself. Depending on the degree of resistance determined by your ego, this awareness might make you more open to seeing beyond these representations. With an awareness of inner pride and prejudice, of the constant process of mediation, you may no longer be quick to reduce people to fabrications, project any misplaced thoughts and traits onto them, and interact with mental constructs. We are human, we are fallible, our perceptions particularly so. Since this often centres around the demands of the ego to see itself as superior to others, let’s have a look at narcissism. Sam Vaknin, a psychologist who specialises in narcissism, who is a diagnosed narcissist, provided an insightful description of the way narcissists relate to inner objects in their fantasy world. Additionally, he talked about the beneficial nature and use (beneficial to the narcissist, detrimental to everyone around them) of this defence mechanism and way of relating of the narcissist, refuting the common thought that (pathological) narcissists lack the capacity for emotion. They are simply no longer in touch with their emotions, and don’t have an understanding of them, because, at some point, they may have decided that emotions can be debilitating and destabilising, hence it’s better to detach and alienate themselves from them. Their emotions are experienced through a “cognitive analytical filter”. They also interact with others through these filters, rather than forming a genuine connection. The extreme cognitive distortions of others happening in the minds of pathological narcissists can be seen as an amplification of the process that even people of a more sound and reasonable mental configuration indulge in, albeit with more restraint.

“The narcissist has impaired reality testing. And the very essence or definition of pathological narcissism is a grandiose fantasy. A narcissist can’t make the difference between fantasy and reality. Also, because they interact with inner objects, they confuse inner objects with outer/external objects. You know the famous mechanism of snapshotting, where they interact with a snapshot of you. They take a snapshot of you and then they interact with it, with your representation, your avatar, your introject, not with you. What they do is they internalise external objects, especially significant objects, especially objects that can cause them pain by let’s say abandoning them, so they internalise these objects and then they continue to interact with representations within a shared fantastic space. And they can’t tell the difference. This is why they mislabel emotions. Narcissists can feel intense emotions. Many scholars speculated that perhaps narcissism and psychopathy are reactions, defensive reactions, defensive attempts to avoid very deep emotionality. Perhaps narcissists emote too much, too intensely. They are about to be overwhelmed by their emotions, so they isolate themselves from their emotions, they put up a fire wall, a fortress to avoid their emotions. The thing is they feel, they experience the emotion, but they don’t know what it is. Because they are divorced from reality, […] they experience their emotions through a cognitive analytical filter. They have to ask themselves what they are feeling. And then they compare their experiences, their reactions, their wounds, their affect, their behaviours, they compare all this to an internal database. A database where they have entries and listings for how people behave when. How people behave when they are happy, and so on.’” – Sam Vaknin

If we extrapolate this description beyond the context of pathological narcissism, and we recognise the resonance of this mechanism beyond those around us who are pathological, not only does the aforementioned process lead to an alienation from others because we don’t really see the reality of others, but also to an alienation from ourselves and our emotions. Because our culture becomes increasingly narcissistic, our relationships with reality tend to get warped, the filter between us and reality gets muddled. Since we don’t integrate certain parts of ourselves as it’s more comfortable to live in a fantasy world where we and the constructs in our minds are infallible, we also don’t properly integrate other people’s realities within our conceptual world. This happens especially when other people embody specific aspects that are reflections of parts of ourselves that we dislike or deny, that we consider to be negative.

Consciousness is a complicated terrain to navigate, even our own, let alone others’. This awareness, that everyone has an internal life we either know nothing about or only have a glimpse of, that all people identify and see themselves in particular ways, that their inner lives shouldn’t be confused with our mental constructs, and shouldn’t be reduced to the way we consciously or unconsciously restructure their existence in our minds- this awareness can only have a positive impact. Because it fosters connection and care, discourages violence, and makes us more attuned to the emotions and realities of others. Perhaps if more people had this insight, this awareness of discrepancy, there would be more understanding and kindness in the world. Perhaps in a less narcissistic society that values authenticity more than ego fortresses and self-centredness, kindness and empathy would be viewed as signs of strength, not of weakness or fakeness.

In the spirit of mental conversations with authors, I will include a more pessimistic view by the supreme lyrical nihilist, Emil Cioran, who believes we are all living embodiments of our own private dogmas, and we celebrate ourselves for it. Whilst his view doesn’t clash with what I wrote, since it reinforces the idea that each of us lives within the parameters of his or her inner universe, the pessimism lies in the fatalistic rigidity of this narrative and his conclusion that awakening from our “dogmatic sleep” would equal death.

“Life has dogmas more immutable than theology, each existence being anchored in infallibilities which exceed all the lucubrations of madness or of faith. Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par exellence, and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them.

We all believe in many more things than we think, we harbour intolerances, we cherish bloody prejudices, and, defending our ideas with extreme means, we travel the world like ambulatory and irrefragable fortresses. Each of us is a supreme dogma to himself, no theology protects its god as we protect our self. How to escape the absolute of oneself? One would have to imagine a being without instincts, without a name, and to whom his own image would be unknown. But everything in the world gives us back our own features; night itself is never dark enough to keep us from being reflected in it.

The man who does not adore himself is yet to be born. Everything that lives loves itself; if not, what would be the source of the dread which breaks out in the depths and on the surfaces of life? Each of us is, for himself, the one fixed point in the universe. And if someone dies for an idea, it is because it is his idea, and his idea is his life.

No critique of any kind of reason will waken man from his “dogmatic sleep.” It may shake the unconscious certitudes which abound in his philosophy and substitute more flexible propositions for his rigid affirmations, but how, by a rational procedure, will it manage to shake the creature, huddled over its own dogmas, without bringing about its very death?” – Emil Cioran on Unconscious Dogmas

Midsommar (2019) – the representation of mental illness through horror, the psychological susceptibility to cult narratives, & the power of empathy

Midsommar (2019) is a dark-themed cinematic fairytale described by its director and writer Ari Aster as a “horror movie about codependency”. The film encompasses a portrayal of mental illness- bipolar disorder, anxiety, and mood disorders, the pattern and dynamics of a dysfunctional codependent relationship, the exploitation of trauma and vulnerability that is part of the cult indoctrination process, the disillusionment with reality, cognitive dissonance, the uplifting power and importance of empathy and reciprocity, and the psychological susceptibility of a fragmented psyche.

The overall atmosphere created and the feelings evoked in Midsommar are quite different compared to other horror films. Everything happens during daytime, which facilitates the beautiful contrast between the macabre aspect and the idyllic, nostalgic setting filled with enchanted fun, laughter, and dance- all wrapped in a shroud of dreamlike ambiguity (and tinged with a perpetual sense of ominousness). The bizarre light-heartedness of the inhabitants in the face of sinister macabre events adds another layer of ominousness as the spectator is held spellbound by the diaphanous fabric of reality within this strange peaceful community, whilst perpetually feeling like something horrifying could take place at any moment.

Initially shocked by the horrific, gruesome ritualistic events she witnesses within the cult, Dani is gradually lured into the peculiar, nightmarish world because of all its promises of bliss and belonging. The place she finds herself in is like a strange crystal ball, an escapist fantasy gone wrong, sheltering her from a reality that failed her expectations. The process of recruitment within cults often involves an exploitation of trauma, as they prey upon the vulnerable aspects of the human psyche, on powerlessness and feelings of isolation, of being misunderstood, disappointed or mistreated by fate or the external world, in order to sell an alternative, superior, rescuing narrative. For cult members, reality is either too much or not enough. Dani is the archetypal vulnerable person with a psychological susceptibility to being brainwashed and sucked into the ghastly, yet rewarding cult because of the suffering she has experienced in the “real world”. After the tragic demise of her family, she feels alienated from the world and can’t find comfort in her unsatisfying relationship with her boyfriend, Christian, who has emotionally checked out and is unable to fulfil or share her emotional needs.

Taking into account Dani’s backstory is essential in order to understand her gradual conversion to the religion and strange ways of the cult. The relationship dynamic between Christian and Dani is a typical codependent-avoidant dynamic. There is a particular scene in which this dynamic is emphasised very clearly: the more she pushes, both physically and emotionally, the more he withdraws and feels suffocated, and she feels even more rejected and pushes further- this type of dynamic is a vicious cycle. Early on, we find out Dani’s sister is bipolar, and Dani takes anxiety medication, whilst Christian and his friends see her mental struggles as a burden. Although his male friends encourage him to part ways with her in an insensitive conversation at the bar, he feels guilty for his thoughts after the tragedy that has struck, hence inviting her to the Swedish summer solstice festival. Throughout the film, Dani constantly condemns his attitude and perceived uncaring nature, sometimes in a controlling way, other times in a passive-aggressive way. Christian’s friends display no empathy towards her and, whilst he does not have enough energy to deal with her emotionally demanding nature and to reciprocate her emotional investment in the way she wants, he is also not inconsiderate. His friends put up a flimsy facade of niceness around her, which collapses whenever she walks out of the picture. The tension can be felt, and her instinct can tell something is wrong. Her good instinct is constantly denied by those around her, hence the dangerous gaslighting effect leading to a mistrust of her own instinct.

It is generally impossible to pinpoint the one to blame in such relational settings, as both the codependent and the avoidant contribute to a toxic relational pattern, sometimes as a result of emotional trauma or mental disorders, even if they have no bad intentions. It fluctuates. In his discussions with his friends, they sound selfish and unfair towards her and we pity or empathise with her and condemn him, especially after the lack of respect shown towards her in absentia. However, there are moments when Dani is the one seemingly unreasonable and overly pushy and controlling, with a needy attitude, and we almost empathise with his response of feeling cornered. The film manages to make the spectator understand both points of view, but ultimately condemns Christian. Their attachment styles render the relationship doomed to unhappiness due to incompatibilities on the levels of emotional needs and support.

Dani is not seen, her feelings are not acknowledged or validated, and there is an element of gaslighting. This is important because it is why she is attracted to and ensnared by the sinister world of the cult. It feels like the cult community fully accepts her, with her intense emotional makeup. In a bizarre and particularly powerful and cathartic key scene, her emotional reactions are validated and encouraged by the community- it is like she transfers her emotions onto them, and they directly empathise with her by sharing her energy and screaming with her. Crowned as the May Queen, Dani feels embraced, understood, more than seen: she feels celebrated as she is held up in the air and worshipped, she escapes from being sucked into a vortex of mental despair and unhappiness following the tragic events. The May Queen is the personification of spring, and spring is a time of rebirth, symbolically marking Dani’s personal spiritual rebirth and new, happier life. After the shocking imagery and events at the end, at first she is sad and distressed, but then, we can see how her sadness and despair are loudly echoed by the community, whilst Dani’s sorrow is superseded by a strong, gratifying feeling of belonging, of being part of a whole. Remember when her boyfriend’s friend, Pelle, significantly asks her “Does he feel like home to you?”. Her boyfriend never felt like home, nothing felt like home to her in the external world post-tragedy, since her actual family situation was so abnormal. A healthy approach would have been finding home within herself through self-love. However, after the surreal events, Dani’s mind is too unstable to represent the safe concept of home for herself and she needs external support, so the cult-like community becomes her home. After that realisation of unity, gradually, her facial expression transitions and she starts smiling. Her smile suggests a new beginning. The ending is quite powerful and touching: As she smiles, we smile with her and we feel happy for her because she has found happiness, even if her solace was found within such a grim environment and despite the human sacrifices and prior grotesque events unfolding on screen. 

Florence Pugh manages to convey the fragmentation and transition of her character’s psyche admirably. Dani experiences a state of cognitive dissonance when her emotional cravings for being loved and understood override her ability to reason and to process the gravity of the horror and the evil side of the cult. Her profound disillusionment with reality makes her idealise the cult community because it offers her what she lacks and craves the most. The disappointing, misery-inducing events in her life contribute to her future shift towards what feels good- namely empathy, regardless of the the fact that it is provided in an unpredictable, deadly environment. The director, Ari Aster, mentions that she transitions from one codependent relationship to another, so, from her unsatisfying codependent relationship with her boyfriend to a more satisfying one with the loving, empathetic, murderously dark community.

As a spectator, you might find Midsommar to be a strange dream you are deeply immersed in and captivated by, leaving you in a state of blissful confusion even after you walk out of the cinema. The celestial beauty and holy aura of the film setting masking the disturbingly dark characteristics of the cult contribute to a state of confusion, which is amplified by hallucinogenic moments. Aside from Dani’s inner turmoil and emotional metamorphosis compellingly conveyed externally, another ingredient to this cocktail of emotions is a general tinge of existential dread. Ultimately, though, you might empathise with Dani and feel happy and confused by your own happiness in such a gruesome context.