It feels like it’s been a minute since we’ve talked about inner demons—those little buggers who live within many of us and periodically marshal their forces for a concerted attack on our productivity, confidence, and self-image.
My army of demons may look different from yours, but they tend to sort themselves into some standard regiments: Comparison. Competition. Procrastination. Perfectionism. Impostor syndrome. Fear of failure. Fear of success. You may have a few different corps in your psyche, but most of them operate from the same tactical playbook: a sudden invasion that overwhelms your equanimity and confidence.
Their frequent target is our creativity—and even when it isn’t, that’s often one of the first casualties of the skirmish.
I’m writing this from the middle of one that I hope will be over by the time this post runs. But because I’m in the thick of the battle right now, I wanted to try articulating some of my defense tactics as I’m deploying them, in the hopes that it may not only help me handle this sortie, but offer something useful for you if you happen to be facing one as well.
These are things I know intellectually, but find I have to revisit every time the demon forces engage.
Identify the attacker
Can’t engage ‘em if you can’t see ‘em or pretend they aren’t there (as is my usual wont).
And you can’t deal with them until you understand what you’re actually dealing with—identifying which particular demon (or demons, if they’re partying in a group) has popped its head into your psyche at the moment.
I’ll be fully honest here (and probably reveal way more about my own psyche than you wanted to know), but I kind of mentally talk to mine. “I see you, Perfectionism Demon (or Comparison Demon, or Fred, however you like to think of yours). You’re not so stealthy.”
For me this serves a few purposes beyond just identifying them:
- It lets me begin to separate from these thoughts—they are not “me” and they aren’t the truth…they’re these external little demon-thoughts that periodically come out of their cave.
- It starts to neuter their impact—talking to them like my dogs when they think they’re getting away with something reminds me that the demons are just id-driven creatures with impulse-control issues, and I’m the rational adult.
- It lets me start to reestablish healthy boundaries of who’s in charge, like when my dogs think I don’t see them begging at the kitchen counter until I shoot them a hairy eyeball and they slink back to where they’re supposed to be.
This is a hard one, because everything within most of us says that if you’re attacked, defend. But I’ve found—and cognitive psychology supports—that the harder I fight against these pervasive thoughts and feelings that undercut my confidence, the more ground they gain. I can deny all I want to that I’m not feeling like a fraud, say, but in the middle of a bout of impostor syndrome I’m not fooling any of the demons, and certainly not myself.
I may not want to feel that way, but I do, and accepting that is always, always an instant relief. I may be feeling inadequate or fearful or fill-in-the-blank, but at least I’m not wasting energy or denying reality by pretending I’m not.
I think we worry that if we lean into these feelings, we’re opening the door to them. And we are—but trying to shut it is useless. The demons are already in the house. Slamming the door and locking it now just traps them in there with you.
Accept them even more
But accepting them has another component too—one that’s even harder: Stop seeing them as the enemy.
Despite the fact that they come pillaging through your equilibrium and they may feel like attacking forces, they’re actually not.
They think they’re trying to help you. They’re just too immature to understand how to do that.
Our personal demons don’t spring up out of nowhere. They are born somewhere in our past (usually childhood, like everything terrifying), as responses to something that scared us, or hurt us, or shamed us, etc.
In our limited childhood understanding at the time, when we tried to make sense of the world with each new “data point” of experience, we formed a belief about that experience that may not have been based on rational thought. We put the pieces together wrong. (I mean, kids patented the “If I close my eyes I’m invisible” fallacious corollary.)
For example, if you were a star student but flunked out of the elementary school spelling bee on a relatively easy word like “analyze” (as may or may not have happened to me. But it did), you may have decided you must not be as smart as everyone thinks you are…or that a single mistake undermines every other success you might have had.
Hear that slap on the butt and two sharp cries? That’s the sound of little baby demon twins being born, Impostor Syndrome Demon and Perfectionism Demon.
But they came into the world not to torment you, but to protect you.
“This hurt us!” they say in their reedy little demon voices. (Just let me keep anthropomorphizing and infantilizing them, okay? It helps me.) “In order for us never to feel this hurt again, we must never let anyone see how stupid we must be! We must never, ever make a mistake again!” (Poor silly little demons, misinterpreting the situation completely.)
You didn’t know any better either, so it made sense to you at the time.
But the thing is, you grew up—the demons didn’t. As a rational adult you understand that of course people make mistakes, and doing so isn’t a measure of your intelligence or talent or skill or worth—duh, it’s how we learn.
But your demons stayed little hurt children inside you. So even now, when something hits on that same scary place that made you feel so bad last time—a failure, or sometimes a success that threatens to reveal what they worry is the actual truth about you (and them)—out they swarm with their childish defense mechanisms to try to save you (and them) from feeling that hurt.
Your demons are coping devices—just ones that never evolved with your adult understanding of the world.
(Sound familiar…? Like your characters’ “wound” and the misconceptions about life they form as a result that serve as obstacles in the way of their goals? Look what those demons are teaching you about writing and storytelling! Thanks, demons!)
Remembering that lets me stop treating them as hostile forces and futilely trying to beat them back. It reminds me that they are simply frightened children—the frightened-child part of me, actually—who need comforting. They need to be reassured that there’s a rational adult in the room—also me—who has everything under control and will protect them.
It lets me be kind to them—by which of course I mean kind to myself. And it lets me love them a little, even, for trying so hard, in their silly-immature-demon way, to protect me.
But it also lets me put my proverbial big-girl panties back on and take control—to corral those demons running all over my psyche like toddlers hopped up on Pixy Stix and Gummi bears and patiently, rationally, nonjudgmentally soothe them till they relax.
And while my demons want me to believe that admitting all of this to anyone will only let everyone else see the truth about us, Rational Adult Tiffany actually feels a whole lot better sharing something genuine and real with people—an implicit message to those demons (and myself) that we’re okay. We’re human. And there’s nothing wrong with us that needs hiding.
And maybe, the next time you’re experiencing a little demon skirmish of your own, it might help you too.
Okay, authors, anyone want to talk about their demons? Mine could use the company. 😊 What are yours—do you know them specifically? How do you handle it when they all swarm out of the cave?