Last weekend I binged on 13 Reasons Why and it reminded me of how painfully difficult it was to be a teenage girl in a small town. I had to put up with most of the shit Hannah Baker went through, various sorts of abuse and suicidal plans including. I wish I could say it made me a stronger person but the truth is — it messed me up in many ways.
But this post is not about that. It’s about a book I wish I’d had in my backpack back then, a book every teenage girl and a grown-up woman should read, a bible of feminine empowerment, and an initiation to a very special club, the Club of Wild Women.
Both scientific and poetic, Women Who Run With the Wolves is not an easy read.It requires your undivided attention and a lot of commitment. But take that journey and I promise, by its end you’ll be rewarded with the greatest gift — your soul.
Here are 13 lessons you can learn from Clarissa Pinkola Estés and her insightful analysis of 20 fairy tales and myths from all over the world.
1. Overcivilization is the Death of the Soul
Maybe you were raised in the spirit of being a nice submissive girl, with sweet little braids, playing with Barbies, and never using bad words. And if you preferred to climb trees, you were labeled a “tomboy.” And if you wore ripped Nirvana tees you were “going through a phase.” Then came the adulthood and society tried to mold you into a little triangle on the bathroom door, squeeze you into a pencil skirt, perfectly-ironed shirt, and flawless smile.
Surely there’s nothing bad about being socialized but you must remember that there’s a Wild Woman inside of you and she wants to chortle out loud, run naked through the forest, and dance with the wolves. She wants to be free and brave, she wants to create with her bare hands, get dirty and sweaty while making a life of her own. She’s your strength when the world is trying to break your spirit. So dig out those old bones of your everlasting soul and let in passion and creative madness in your life.
2. Trust your Intuition, Not the Wicked Stepmother
Intuition is the compass you come with to this world. We give it up so easily for the voice of our parents, teachers, bosses, partners, psychoanalysts… Meanwhile, all you need to know is already inside of you. The Wild Woman whispers answers to your ear and if you only trust her, she will lead you through life. Clarissa illustrates the process of sharpening your instincts in the analysis of an old Russian tale Vasalisa the Wise.
Vasalisa, a young clueless girl separated from her inner knowing at an early age, goes through a terrifying process of initiation before she’s granted the light of understanding. That’s what we must do to regain our intuition — go into the unknown and face whatever’s hiding there. In moments of difficulty, we will hear clearer than ever the voice of inner wisdom. Going to the woods to fetch fire from the old hag might be something different for each of you — a solo journey, a creative project, a business of your own… Listen to your own knowing and let it lead you.
3. Don’t Trade Your Soul for Safety
Making a life of your own is damn difficult. We often chose the safety of a stable job, socially-accepted lifestyle, and financially-securing marriage over making that wild dream of ours come true. We get seduced by gilded carriages and the promise of easy life like the peasant orphan in The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen. Naive and easily impressed, the little girl exchanges her handmade red shoes for the comforts and security of having a rich patron.
But the life of the soul is in its creations and once you get a taste of it all you want is your deep life to be back. You want to be free, go and do whatever you want, sew your shoes with your own hands, or dance to the moonlight like the seal woman in the Sealskin, Soulskin tale. Just like that wild creature, deprived of her skin/soul, you will become thinner and thinner, paler and paler, just a shell of a woman. You might look for some poor replacement of the dream lost, such as the new pair of red shoes, a new lover, or far too many shots of Tequila, just to make yourself feel alive again. But nothing, nothing, will replace your soul. So quit whatever is holding you back, be it a job, a man, or social circles, and finally start doing what your heart is craving for.
4. Surrender to the Higher Power, It Knows Where to Lead You
The Handless Maiden is the last tale presented in the book, followed by the longest and most profound analysis. This story is so rich in details and wisdom that Clarissa often spends a few days, weeks, or even months to cure with it her patients. What struck me the most in the Handless Maiden’s dramatic adventures is the importance of giving in to the Higher Power.
Deprived of hands, the Maiden is unable to make a living for herself so she entrusts her faith completely into the protection of a spirit who leads her through the forest. This is the inner journey we all have to take over and over again on different stages of our lives. Despite the fears of our egos, with no guarantee of success, we need to go and trust that our Inner Being will take us exactly where we need to be.
5. Find Your Pack and Embrace Who You REALLY Are
Do you remember the story of the Ugly Duckling who was bullied and rejected due to its unfortunate appearance, just to grow up to become a gorgeous swan? The miserable hero of this heart-wrenching story was never ugly nor unable. It simply did not belong to its environment and that’s what happens to many women. They suffer from the Syndrome of Mistaken Zygote, delivered by accident to the wrong family, raised in the community that has never understood them and called them inappropriate/naughty/dumb/ugly (delete as applicable).
This world is full of uncombed cats and cross-eyed hens who will laugh at your dreams. A hen will never understand why you would want to swim and a cat — what the point of flying is. Conversely, domesticated Stepford wives will raise their condescending eyebrows when hearing about your plans of moving to Cambodia or becoming a professional base jumper. Or quite the opposite — your rebellious feminist colleagues will snort with disgust at the confession that your life goal is to be a perfect mother to five plump babies. But there’s nothing wrong with you in any of those cases. You’re simply surrounded by hens and ducks and you’re a goddamn swan. Just as Clarissa said, “Anyone who does not support your art, your life, is not worth your time.” Abandon relationships with those who are not on your side. Find your True Pack.
6. Addiction to Day-Dreaming Brings Death
This is one of a few lessons that initially I felt particularly conflicted with. Based on another great story by Hans Christian Andersen — The Little Match Girl, the analysis insinuates that daydreaming without taking action is catastrophic. I absolutely love to fantasize and I consider intentional imagining as part of the creative process at the end of which awaits the physical manifestation we desire. But that does not seem to be the kind of dreaming that Clarissa finds destructive. Fantasizing becomes dangerous when it turns into escapism.
It usually happens to women who, just like the Ugly Duckling, live in an unfriendly environment where no one gives a fuck about them and their work. But on the contrary to the baby swan, the Little Match Girl is not even trying to abandon her destructive surroundings in order to find her pack. Injured, broken and oppressed, she accepts her role in life and instead she escapes mentally. In a way, she’s just a walking, talking avatar of a human being.
If that’s you, you might look for consolation in alcohol, drugs, and random sex, just to wake up dead and frozen over and over again. The only way out of this vicious circle is to find the strength of the Wild Woman inside of you and embark on a quest for warmth, love, and support for your dreams.
7. Love Is a Skeleton Woman
The story of the Skeleton Woman is a powerful allegory of falling in love and creating a relationship. Who is the Skeleton Woman? She’s Love, she’s Death, she’s the transformational power each lover must face and accept in his/her life.
Initially, we’re just looking for the trophy-lover: beautiful, educated, well-off, and fun. We just want to have a good time, without giving much in exchange, and certainly not our space. However, love is a Life/Death/Life force and we must die to our old selves in order to become anew, as a part of something bigger and that’s not necessarily the most comfortable process.
At the first sight of the Skeleton Woman’s bald skull surfacing from the sea, we want to run like hell. So your partner turned out to have imperfections, fears, and an injured heart? So this feeling is much more than you can handle? You’re losing control over yourself, you have no time, and besides, you can get better than that, can’t you?
All those are just excuses. You’re trying to run away from Love but there’s no turning back. You can run and hide or redo this process over and over again with different lovers but you will always come back to the same critical moment where you have to face the shit. This phase is essential to develop a true and lasting relationship. So are you in or are you out?
8. Your Body Is a Wonderland
“Without body there would be no sensations of crossing thresholds, there would be no sense of lifting, no sense of height, weightlessness. All that comes from the body. The body is the rocket launcher. In its nose capsule, the soul looks out of the window into the mysterious starry night and is dazzled.”
Yes, our bodies are the vehicles of our souls and just as them — they are beautiful! Every curve, every wrinkle, every mole, every tiny “imperfection” makes you YOU. Besides, all those “too much” and “too little” and “supposed to be” are just an illusion. Let’s say having a bit of fat here and there is highly inappropriate in your culture and displaying it on the beach is almost prohibited. Well, you should visit South America or Africa where bodylicious women are praised, loved, and dressed in whatever they want.
Or maybe you never smile in photos because your teeth aren’t perfectly straight. And did you know that Japanese ladies pay as much as 400$ for a tooth, just to have it crooked? Apparently, it makes one look cute and juvenile.
Don’t allow media to dictate you some ridiculous beauty standards because they change continually in time and space. So why don’t you save yourself money and frustration and start loving yourself HERE and NOW, just as you are?
9. Watch Out for Predators
There’s a predator following your every step, hiding in the dark, ready to attack whenever you let your guard down. You know very well that sneaky bastard, the saboteur who cuts your wings before you even make the first step out of the nest. But who is he? He’s the Bluebeard, the cruel destructive masculine power killing everything that’s artistic, creative, and feminine. And where is he, that asshole? Huh! Inside of yourself.
He’s the voice of your injured Animus discouraging you from going to university, starting your own business, or traveling the world. He’s the drainer of your creative juices. He’s the murderer of your unborn ideas. But is he always inside of you? Well, everything that exists is the reflection of our inner lives and just as we allow our inner tyrant plunder and pillage our spiritual world, we might as well find his very charismatic and vicious manifestation in the real world. In the end, psychologists say we fall in love with the reflection of our own Animus.
Thus, stay cautious. Snuffle around. Be aware of this Bluebeardian power inside of you and react at the first sign of its conspiracy. Don’t listen to him, don’t fall for his tricks. Smash his nasty little head with your high heel and continue your work.
10. Death is a Part of Life
Clarissa writes a lot about Life/Death/Life cycle according to which a Wild Woman lives. Everything dies but death is never the end of things but just the beginning. Our bodies are the perfect representation of this cycle of decease and renewal on a monthly basis. And just like our cells we too must resign from our old ways so new ideas, relationships and projects can come to replace them.
We die to our little-girl selves to become women and we die to our adventurous times of exploration to become mothers. There’s beauty in every stage of life, there’s wisdom in being a crone, even though the world is trying to convince us that the old age and wrinkles are the biggest shame. Fuck it. Your brain is all wrinkled and it’s the most beautiful body part you have.
11. Wear Your Scars Like a Badge of Honor
We all went through shit. We all have scars and bruises from past lovers, painful failures, and moments of humiliation. We all have secrets but no matter how dark and embarrassing they seem, we cannot let them consume our joy of life. A secret is like a black hole, it just tries to suck us in. But the Wild Woman inside of each of us is free and daring, she doesn’t allow some stupid event from the past to define her entire life. You are here to thrive and not to live in the shadow of past mistakes and shame that was imposed on you by someone’s insecurities.
Clarissa suggests that one way to kill that monster called guilt/shame/grief is to drag it out of its dark cave in our subconsciousness and put it in the daylight. You don’t necessarily have to write a book about it but you may confess it to a trusted person, best friend, or a therapist.
Another beautiful ritual suggested in the book is making a scapecoat from cloth and other materials. You should cover it with drawings, writings, stitches, whatever you want, for every insult, name-calling, trauma, betrayal you’ve been through in your life. Whenever it’s ready, you can burn it and together with it all the pain. Or just like Clarissa, you can hang it on the wall and feel pride each time you look at it. How come you’ve been through so much shit and you’re still walking, breathing, dancing, laughing? You must be a goddamn superwoman, or even better, a Wild Woman.
12. Embrace Obscenity
“Laughter is a hidden side of woman’s sexuality; it is physical, elemental, passionate, vitalizing, and therefore arousing. It is a kind of sexuality that does not have a goal, as does genital arousal. It is a sexuality of joy, just for the moment, a true sensual love that flies free and lives and dies and lives again on its own energy.”
We, women from patriarchal societies, have been preached all our lives that using bad words is inappropriate for girls and that we should close our ears if someone tells a dirty joke. And blush, we should necessarily blush. But behind the closed doors, while cleaning eggplants/potatoes/shrimps in the kitchen or stuffing ourselves with chocolate and red wine on girls’ nights in, we finally joke about that one thing (or many things) we have on our minds much more often than men would suspect it. DICKS. The eggplant-like ones and the shrimp-like ones, the skinny ones, and the curved ones. Dicks are funny-looking creatures and you gotta admit it (sorry, gentlemen!). And it’s good to laugh at them because it’s bonding, it’s joyous, and it’s healthy. Let’s find the energy of Goddess Baubo in ourselves and worship her jolly nature. She’s the one to help us in the dark times of loss.
13. A Story is a Medicine
Clarissa comes from the Mexican tradition of Curanderisma where a story is used as a medicine. “The story is meant to take the spirit into a descent to find something that is lost or missing and to bring it back to consciousness again,” she says in the interview for the Radiance Magazine. Just like a nano drone, it’s supposed to travel inside of your body, touch you on a deep level and heal your inner wounds.
The best stories are the ones that grow out of your own life, stained with your blood, tears, and laughter. That time when you completed an impossible task and was rewarded with great wisdom, just like Vasalisa. Or when you overcame an addiction after years of mad dancing in malign red shoes. Or when you got out of a toxic relationship with someone who killed your soul and hung its bones in a secret room. But the spirit of the Wild Woman never dies and even after years and years of hibernation, it shall awaken and take what’s hers — Freedom and Joy! If you share any of those stories, straight from your heart, you might as well save someone’s life. And your own, by default.
Those were some of my learnings from WWRWW, the kind of things I wish I’d known before that bitch of a journey called adolescence started. But it’s never too late. If there was no one around to help you connect with your wild nature, go on Amazon and let this amazing book change your life forever.
“Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.”
Have you read Women Who Run With the Wolves? Did you enjoy it? Is there any other female-empowering book that has changed your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
As originally posted on Medium on Apr 26, 2017: 13 Reasons Why You Should Read “Women Who Run With the Wolves” Instead