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How to Overcome Your Demons

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How to Overcome Your Demons

When I was younger, I used to have this quiet, menacing voice inside me. I was starved for attention and affection, but every time I started to receive attention or affection from somebody, that voice would quietly urge me to get away. “You’ll be trapped,” it would say. “You’re going to lose your independence.” And suddenly, I’d begin to have irrational ideas about never being able to eat steak again because the girl I liked was vegetarian, or how moving in with some friends meant that I’d be forced to play Scrabble with them every night for the rest of my life.

As a result, I spent most of my twenties being a terribly unreliable (and often selfish) person. I was the guy who said he couldn’t wait to see you and then never showed up. I was the guy who went on three spectacular dates with a woman and then strangely found an endless litany of excuses to not go on a fourth. I was the guy who would just walk out in the middle of a concert, a movie, a party, with no explanation and go somewhere else.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like these people. Actually, it was the opposite—I did like these people—and that’s what terrified me. That’s what woke that inner voice saying, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s find something better. Don’t get stuck.”

It was like this inner demon constantly repelling me from anyone I felt intimate with or close to. But I wanted to feel intimate and close to people, so I just acted like a crazy person for about ten years, trying to get over myself.

***

We all have demons—parts of ourselves that we don’t like to acknowledge but we see lurking inside us—parts of ourselves that cause us to do irrational and selfish things not out of love for ourselves, but out of fear for ourselves.

But no matter how hard we try to ignore our demons, they’re always there, bubbling up to the surface, seeping out from the lid we try to keep on them. And the harder we try to hold that lid down, the more fucked up our lives become. We get high or drunk to forget our demons. We distract ourselves from our demons with work or competition. We treat others like shit to distort our deep-seated fear that they will eventually treat us like shit.

Anything to keep the demons at bay…

You have probably done battle with your demons at some point—you’ve fought back the feelings of anger or guilt; you’ve hated yourself for your stupid behavior. You’ve promised yourself that you’ll stop listening to that little voice inside or that you’ll finally put the vodka away.

One of the demons I still struggle with is laziness. While we’re all lazy slobs at least some of the time, my struggle with my own “usefulness” in this world often spirals to a dark and lonely place if I’m not careful.

When I procrastinate, I tend to judge myself pretty harshly, telling myself I’m a no good, lazy sack of shit. My general assumption is that everyone is productive and kicking ass every day… except me. I realize now (after many years) how irrational this belief is. But still, that little voice inside whispers that no one else has a problem staying motivated, therefore I must be some sort of loser.

Demons start out as a self-judgment: you’re lazy, you’re dirty, you’re stupid, you’re unlovable, etc.

Then we try our hardest to avoid that judgment, to prove it wrong. We clean the garage six times. We work 11 hour days. We win a blue ribbon at the local skating rink. See! I told you I’m cool and likeable! See! Look at me!

But eventually, that avoidance becomes self-destructive. You clean the garage again instead of picking your kids up from school. You work so long that you fall asleep driving home. Your obsession with skating rink blue ribbons destroys your relationship with your partner, with them leaving and screaming, “You never wanted me! You just wanted someone to watch you skate!”

And worse, no matter how much you prove your demon wrong, it doesn’t go away. The laziness demon never stops making me feel lazy. The cleaning demon (one of my wife’s demons) never lets her feel like everything is clean or organized enough. No matter how hard you work, the demon is never satisfied. So the only alternative is to distract yourself from the demon, or worse, to give in.

For me, I spent many years distracting myself with partying. Sex and alcohol, mostly. But some drugs when I was younger. These days, I have a tendency to fall into a lull of playing video games for 3-4 days straight—all the while hating the fact that I’m doing it.

In this way, our demons morph into a kind of self-loathing. You feel powerless and trapped. You can’t win. No matter how much you succeed, you can’t prove the demon wrong. Yet, when you give up and fail, you just prove the demon right.

Suddenly, that vodka sounds pretty good…

…but there’s got to be a better way.

Befriending Your Demons

In her book, Feeding Your Demons, Tsultrim Allione talks about an old Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice where you literally visualize whatever “demon” is haunting you, and then sit down and feed them, the same way you’d feed a guest or a friend at a dinner party. Allione argues that this has a healing effect—that it represents accepting the worst part of ourselves and developing compassion for ourselves.

Inspired by this idea, I decided to try something I had never really tried before: I would become friends with my demon, my tireless inner-critic. So I started by giving that critic a name: I called him Carl.1

Now, Carl is a total dickface. But that’s just Carl’s thing. Dicks. And faces. But mostly just cruelly judging me for even the faintest evidence of my own failures.

But you know what? I’m not going to hold that against Carl. Not anymore.

Like everyone, Carl needs love and compassion too. So, one night in bed, I closed my eyes and imagined sitting down to dinner with Carl.

“Carl,” I said, “you really make my life hell sometimes, you know that? I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough because you never leave me alone.”

To which Carl, whose voice sounded a lot like Morgan Freeman’s, said, “Mark, you’ve made a demon out of me when I’m really just the other side of your fiery ambition. The only reason I’m here to cast doubt on everything you do is because you want to do so much. I don’t make you sit down and play video games for twelve-hour stretches. I merely remind you of what you value when you do. And, if that hurts, so be it.”

“Goddamn, Carl. You sound just like Morgan Freeman.”

Carl looked at his claws and buffed them with his craggly hand, “I know, I know. I get that a lot.”

“So, what you’re saying is, you’re just here because you reflect the sacrifices of the things I desire?” I asked.

“You could say that,” replied Carl. “Or you could go even further and say that I’m not a reflection of you. I am you.”

I don’t remember much conversation after that. I fell asleep and dreamt that circus acrobats were performing in my college dorm room. But a couple of days later, the profundity started to sink in…

I’ve long argued that the best thing about people is often also the worst thing about them—that’s because our extraordinarily positive traits often produce extraordinarily negative side effects. A gift for empathy might make you overly emotional at times. A competitive streak that earns you high achievements might also make you kind of an asshole. A spontaneous creative spirit that gives you artistic talent might make you really, really bad at doing your taxes.2

So, in my case, my constant guilt around being lazy is just the flip side of having enormous energy and ambitions. My old demon about getting too close to people is also what made me incredibly independent and allowed me to take risks most people wouldn’t (start a business, move abroad, write a book with “Fuck” on the cover—and then another one.)

In this sense, every demon has its associated angel. And our demons are just the other side of our best qualities. To give up one would be to give up both.

As such, we cannot honor the best in ourselves without also honoring what we also fear to be worst about ourselves. Because what we tend to judge as our “worst” is merely the reflection of what we desire as our best.

The shadowy parts of our fucked up souls aren’t the problem—the problem is our drive to dissociate ourselves from our fucked up souls in the first place. And the stronger our drive is to dissociate from our demons, the larger our demons become.

Put another way, whatever you choose to value in your life, you are also choosing to experience the failure of that value. Read that shit again, motherfucker. Everything valuable and important in this world has a dark underbelly, a subtle shadow, an associated demon with it. And you can’t buy one without the other. It’s a 2-for-1 deal whether you like it or not.

When we don’t face that demon and befriend it, we complicate our ability to live up to our values. This sucks, because living up to our values is what allows us to develop a sense of identity and life purpose. It’s what keeps us happy and healthy and prevents us from falling into vice and addiction.

Demons and Addiction

Addicts have come to hate the unsavory parts of themselves so much that they go to extremes to avoid them. Their addictive substance or behavior of choice becomes not just a distraction from their demons, it’s how they escape from them entirely—assuming they can find the next high.

Addiction is a double-whammy of suckage, psychologically speaking, because not only are you avoiding the demon through addiction, but then you feel guilty and hate yourself for all of the damage and destruction that addiction causes.

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, I spent much of the book talking about entitlement—the assumption that we deserve special treatment or better results than everyone else.

This drive to dissociate from our demons is a subtle form of entitlement—it’s an assumption or belief that we should be able to live without self-doubt or suffering. An off-shoot of that assumption is often the belief that our pain is special and unique to us, that no one understands what it’s like to be us or to have our problems. It doesn’t help that substance abuse generally destroys relationships, isolating the addict further, causing greater suffering and a greater sense that their suffering is somehow unique.

But here’s the hard truth that we all need to hear: there’s nothing special about your demons. Carl doesn’t just visit me. He visits millions of people around the world every day. And while this might hurt my ego a little bit (damn you, Carl, I felt so special with you), that realization that I’m not as special as I thought is damn liberating. 

If everyone faces demons at some point, then it means we don’t have to be ashamed of them. It just means we’re human.

I can’t tell you how many emails I get from readers saying something like, “Hey Mark, I got a really messed up problem. You’ve probably never heard this one before…”

They then go on to mention a problem that 26 other people emailed me about just that week.

Like a shitty partner, our demons delude us into thinking that they’re ours, that our hearts are the only ones they have infiltrated when really, they’re screwing half the people on the block.

Damn you, demons.

But despite the unsavory analogies, we must still befriend our demons. It’s the only way to prevent them from ruling over our lives.

It’s important to note though: befriending the demon isn’t necessarily agreeing with the demon. And it’s definitely not the same thing as indulging them. An alcoholic isn’t made better by drinking more; that just feeds their addiction. And if you hate yourself in some way, indulging that hate with self-destructive behaviors will only feed into your self-loathing.

No, you befriend your demon by treating them the same way you treat your crazy uncle who believes in conspiracy theories about crop circles: you respect them, even if you don’t agree with them.

“Yes, I’m being lazy today. But that’s okay. I’m allowed to have a couple of lazy days here and there. That doesn’t mean I’m a horrible person, but thanks for bringing it up.”

We all have a bundle of voices offering their perspectives in our heads all the time. A lot of our decisions are made as though they are made by committee. One part of you feels bad for your brother who got arrested for drunk driving and wants to go bail him out of jail. Another part of you is resentful and says “fuck him.” Another part wants to impress your parents. Another part says fuck your parents.

Your demons are just members of that same brain-committee. Let them have their seat. And then, when necessary, out-vote them.

The Shadow and the Light

None of this is new, of course.3 Aside from Buddhists encouraging you to be pen pals with the worst parts of your nature, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote prolifically about what he called “the shadow.” For Jung, your shadow is all of the parts of yourself that you despise or loathe and therefore hide and avoid. Much like a shadow, it’s this dark image that follows you around, always behind you, always attached to you. It is impossible to run away or lose your shadow because ultimately, your shadow is a representation of you.

It is a beautiful metaphor, because no shadow can exist without a source of light. To rid yourself of your shadow would require you to rid yourself of the light in your life and thus, live in utter darkness.

Jung saw that denying our shadows and everything they contained—the good and the bad—was a source of a great deal of human suffering, and even argued that violence and full-on wars within and between societies were often the sad result of denying our collective shadow. As a culture, we avoid and deny the worst part of ourselves. We wage war on ourselves, threatening and killing our most desperate and vulnerable. We avoid and distract ourselves from our own problems by meddling in the problems of other cultures and societies. It’s all the same shit, just played out on a much grander scale.

Jung argued that we must integrate our shadow into ourselves by “turning toward” the darkness. That means embracing the dark parts of ourselves—our worst impulses, our worst shame, our worst fears—and owning them. Accept that they are there. But with that acceptance is a respectful disagreement.

Because you can’t have light without the dark. You can’t truly value something unless you also value the lack of that something. You can’t strive to achieve great success if you aren’t also paranoid about failure. You can’t desire wonderful relationships if you aren’t also terrified of those losses. You can’t have the light without the dark, the angel without the demon.

So be nice to your demons. And in time they will be nice to you.

Footnotes

  1. I named him Carl after Carl Jung, the famous psychologist of the early- to mid-20th century who thought a lot about this sort of thing.
  2. It’s okay, as an artist you probably don’t make any money anyway.
  3. It never is.
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