A few weeks ago I had a session with one of my clients that left me crying, I was laughing so hard. She was describing some of the things that her demon was telling her about why she was not a good contributing member of society–my favorite club of the ones listed below–and we were examining the credibility of these statements. By the end of the session she acknowledged that it had gone too far when it compared her to Hitler for not majoring in something more useful. I thought that was so hilarious, I was going to write a blog post about it. But then I decided to let her do it for me. And I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Amy Poehler said in her book Yes Please that we all have a “demon.” To paraphrase, our demon is that whiny little voice in our head whose only job is to make us feel like crap about ourselves. Amy tells us about the demons’ superpower of omnipresence; our demon seems to always be there, whether it’s there to call us ugly when we’re talking to a cute stranger, berate us for days over a minor error in a project, or constantly shout offensive, distracting profanities at us during a job interview. She then goes on to give us some tips on how to silence our demons. She suggests imagining yourself brushing your demon off your shoulder, or to think/say the words, “Not now, demon. I’ve got stuff to do.”
I think Poehler is off to a fantastic start here. However, I’d like to take this metaphor a step further: everyone has a demon, and just like we are all different, our demons are all different. And on top of that, especially for folks who struggle with mental illness, demons are exceptional at their jobs. They have literally been hand-picked, hand-crafted and molded since day one to know exactly where to aim, where to hit the hardest. No one can craft an insult, word a passive aggressive dig, or construct an anti-you argument in such a clever and deliciously cruel way that your demon can.
There is an important way that our demons distinguish themselves amongst one another, and that is their voice. Each demon’s voice is going to be totally unique—demons survive on feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and self-loathing, and just like any creature, they evolve according to their environment. So, they will develop skills and adaptations that are most likely to provoke feelings that specifically hurt their host human so they can stay strong. As such, our demons will have their own opinions, ways of speaking, mannerisms, and relationship skills.
Personally, my demon is condescending, snobby, and pretentious. She frames her insults as “corrections” or “feedback.” She wants me to think that by consistently condemning and shaming me, she’s helping me become a better person, so that I can finally join all her exclusive clubs: The Good Friend Club. The Good Student Club. The Good Daughter/Sister Club. And my personal favorite, The Good Contributing Member of Society Club. The problem here is that the standards for entry in my demon’s clubs are so impossibly high that no one could ever imagine gaining membership. However, for a long time, my demon had me tricked into thinking that I’m the only human being on Earth who has yet to crack the code for entry into her cliques. She has even found a way to rationalize why Hitler would gain membership to her clubs before I would.
So how do we combat these demons? Amy Poehler is definitely on to something. She deals with her demon not like a spirit she must exorcise or a condition she must cure, but rather an annoying, socially inept acquaintance who just won’t take a hint. This, I think, is a great tactic, because it allows you to treat your demon like a person rather than this nebulous, amorphous ghost-thing that you can’t quite pin down. These invasive, nasty thoughts become the musings of a particular type of person as well: for Amy, it’s the inane pest on her shoulder. For someone else, it might be helpful to treat their demon like an overbearing helicopter mom. For others, it might be useful to actually visualize their demon as an enemy in combat, where the insults and words really are weapons designed to seriously hurt someone. What’s important is that whatever you choose to fight your demon with, it must come from your original voice.
That’s the demon’s fatal flaw, her Achilles heel, her Kryptonite. There is nothing that terrifies your demon more than being confronted with your original, genuine tone of voice and perspective. If she feeds on feelings related to low self-esteem, she is weakened by feelings related to self-assurance and security.
I think this is why it is difficult to pinpoint how exactly to silence your demon, but also why it is so, so important. I’ve discovered that not one method works for everyone. For me, it’s affirmations that I’ve written to myself in ways that make it sound like something I’d actually say. Listed below are some of my affirmations that I like to say in my head when I find myself obsessing over my flaws or beating myself up over mistakes:
- You are obsessing because sometimes brains are weird and they like to obsess over dumb things.
- None of this is real. If you said one of these thoughts out loud to a friend, they would probably be extremely concerned.
- Your demon is a rude bitch, and she’s straight up lying to you.
- Literally anything would be more productive than this. Go drink some water or something.
- You’re not Hitler.
I’m still learning about my demon, too. I’m sure sometime fairly soon she will come up with a new strategy in her never-ending quest to make me feel sad. But it’s okay, because one thing will never change, and that’s her Achilles heel. Conveniently, her Achilles heel is also the one thing she can never take away from me: my voice.
Mansie Hough is a senior at Washington and Lee University. She is a Mass Communications major and is a good contributing member of society.