Or is it?
“There are two sides to the messiness of life: life itself is messy, but so are we humans. No matter how much we try to control our lives, no matter how much we plan and safeguard or seek stability, unpredictable and difficult things happen.”
Darkness is Golden (2021) is the debut non-fiction self-help book from Mary Hoang. Hoang is an entrepreneur, artist and the head psychologist and founder of The Indigo Project - a Sydney based psychology practice.
Since 2009, she has been 'pioneering' a creative approach to psychological therapeutic interventions. I think pioneering may be a little tongue-in-cheek here. Many of the methods utilised in her practice have been around for decades in various formats, but Hoang has been instrumental in Australia in bringing them closer to the mainstream. Riding on the rising popularity of creative and spiritually driven mental health interventions, Hoang has found the sweet spot between psychological science and a growing collective consciousness around emotional vulnerability and spirituality.
I don’t say this to downplay the vitalness of her work, only to clarify that psychologists and therapists have been pursuing similar methods to those she utilises for many years. It’s only in recent years there’s been a platform for them (social media has undoubtedly helped). While they might not be accepted across the higher-end, academia driven remits of psychological science - they’re popular and valuable with certain audiences, and there’s definitely a demand and need for them.
After following both Hoang and her clinic on social media for a while, I found I loved the gentler and accessible way of connecting audiences with foundational psychological concepts. The Indigo Project Instagram account delivers valuable soundbites on core and common emotional and mental health challenges many of us come up against.
When Hoang released her book earlier this year, I felt drawn to reading it and learning more about her practice, approach and journey in general. I’m always looking for more nuanced and thought-provoking books in this genre, and Darkness is Golden sounded like something that would offer something new.
I’ve put together a few of my thoughts on the book, what I liked and what didn’t quite come together for me. It’s important to know that I work as a psychology writer and researcher, am currently studying to gain accreditation as a psychologist, and have been reading, learning and educating myself on all kinds of psychology-related ideas for many years. My level of exposure and experience is above ‘the average’, and that, of course, directly impacts my reading experience of these types of books.
The Golden Bits
The ‘sonic embodiment’ soundscape meditation playlists that accompany this book are, quite simply put, absolutely divine.
I’ve never experienced such a deep and comforting meditation experience, and I listen to them daily even now. You can find them on Spotify, along with additional playlists Hoang has put together, and I can’t recommend them enough. I wake up eager to do my practice with this sumptuous piece of music washing through me.
Early in the book, Hoang ascertains we can all have trauma in our lives - we don’t have to have come from broken homes or be drug addicts to experience trauma. Which is something I felt very close to. Growing up, and during many formative intimate relationships, my experiences of traumatic events were often denied. My emotional responses and needs were stripped away from me as I was made to feel I had no right to feel hurt or in pain, given that the trauma ‘wasn’t that bad’ or ‘others had it worse’.
In recent years, I’ve grappled to understand better the things that hurt me and why, and become more authentic and responsible over vocalising my hurts and seeking support when I need it. Hearing those words was a balm and a much-needed reminder that if something causes you pain, it causes you pain. It doesn’t need to be weighed, justified, judged or compared.
“Like a pieced-together pot, we are not broken pieces to be discarded.”
And there are many such sentences throughout the book. Little lines that make you go, “Oh gosh, I didn’t know I needed to hear that until I just read it.”
The book, overall, is well structured, and it certainly has a ‘journey’ feel to it. Hoang gently coaxes us through some staple psychology research, but I would have loved to see more of this (a personal preference, I know not everyone is interested in the research per se).
Her writing is warm and accessible. There’s a lot in here for anyone who is just starting on a pathway to self-discovery, interested in what the starting points of emotional recovery might look like for them.
The 'Messy' Bits
The book is subtitled “A Guide to Personal Transformation and Dealing with Life’s Messiness”, and while there is guidance, there’s a lot of getting side-tracked.
Hoang offers us lots of insights into her inner-workings and offers examples from her own life to highlight how the guidance she offers has helped her. Sometimes this worked, and at times it didn’t.
It’s worth noting - and Hoang explains this early on in the book - that while writing it, Hoang experienced a “severe emotional breakdown”. Here we have a psychologist, learning she has lots to work through, returning to therapy herself, while also writing a therapy book to help others who are looking for guidance. Hoang is open about this.
At a few points, I found myself reading through guidance to then be met with Hoang’s personal experiences of working through challenges and there seemed to be a disconnect between what she was advising me and what she voiced she was experiencing and how she was approaching it. Hoang says “I mean it when I say, I am with you” and it’s true - she’s using the writing of her book to process many revelations in her own life.
But what does this mean for the reader? Picking up a book by a trusted and popular psychologist, seeking the guidance the cover promises, to be told the writer herself is living in the dark and working through it as she writes?
There is connection to be found here but it didn’t quite work for me. This is purely a personal opinion, but when seeking guidance from a professional, I like to know they’re ready to solely focus on their role of guiding me.
Darkness is Golden could easily have become two books, one a work of guidance (as this one claims to be) and one a memoir narrative of Hoang’s own lived experiences and vulnerability. Hoang advises:
“In no small words, writing this book has seen my ‘rebirth’ and the death of my old identity.”
That’s a lot of weight on a book that others are seeking to learn from.
At times I felt like I was just settling in to applying some of what she details to myself, only to be pulled out by reading on her own experiences. It felt a little akin to when someone asks you how you are/what's troubling you only to interrupt mid-conversation to tell you all about how they feel just the same, and how they're going through this very similar thing, and turns the conversation back around to them. More often than not, the 'same thing' they're going through isn't all that similar and I just want space to think about and feel my own things.
This is not a criticism of Hoang’s openness in any way and dotting personal experiences in has value undoubtedly, but it felt a little overbearing at times.
Hoang calls for the messiness of our lives to be embraced, perhaps that is what she has aimed to do here. The parts of the book focused on the ‘guidance’ components have been meticulously structured, researched and it’s clear it has been intensely edited and revised.
The parts where Hoang reveals her own experiences feel also, at times, a little plonked in. I can’t remember if Hoang shares that she went back and added them or not - either way, this is how it often feels.
Final Verdict? A Contemplative Read
If you’re a newbie to psychology and emotional vulnerability, or at the early beginnings of your mental health journey, there is lots to be found in Hoang’s accessible writing and creative approach to clarifying our mental health needs. If you need to feel less alone in your experiences, this book is an ideal tome.
Across her social media and throughout the book, Hoang clarifies that she is a perfectionist, driven to always be seeking out achievement, always searching for the ‘next’ thing on the ambitions checklist of life. She gives me the impression of someone grappling, reaching for the ease that imbues her practice and approaches that she’s yet to fully be able to (or allowed herself to) embrace in its entirety on her own terms. Meditation on the yoga mat is not the same as meditation on the battlefield. Knowing and doing are not the same two things.
And to be honest, this might be the most connecting factor I feel with Hoang - the struggle between knowing and doing, learning and applying.
You can read an extract of Darkness is Golden via Kill Your Darlings here.