You’re alone, except for a pack of scary demons hiding below the deck. As long as you keep floating around on the open sea, they stay below deck and you feel okay—for the most part. Except for that nagging feeling that there are frightening creatures just out of sight.
When you decide you’ve had enough of floating around and turn the tiller to head toward shore, the demons come rushing up from below, gnashing their teeth and waving their razor-sharp claws at you.
“You have to stay out on the open sea!” they roar at you. “We’re going to slice you up with our razor-sharp claws if you don’t turn away from the shore!”
Frightened and intimidated, you turn your boat around and head back out to open sea. Slowly, the demons shuffle back under the deck.
For a while, floating aimlessly again on the open sea is okay. At least you have some peace and don’t need to worry much about the demons lurking close by.
But then you begin to notice other boats heading toward shore. You remember that you have plans to go ashore to see things you want to see and do things you want to do. As your hand moves toward the tiller to change course, you hear the muffled sounds of roaring and growling below.
Your hand trembles above the tiller. How can you reach shore with those threatening demons ready to pounce at the least movement of the rudder?
Letting the demons decide our course
This scenario is a metaphor for the struggle many of us have with the painful emotions that get in the way of the life we want to lead. When we try to take control of the helm in our lives, we can be intimidated by our emotional demons and continue instead to float aimlessly through life.
Suppose you value being in a loving relationship, but every time you begin pursuing ways to meet a potential partner, you become overwhelmed by the demons of Anxiety and Doubt. You might try arguing with your demons, telling them that they’re irrational or wrong or stupid.
But this only feeds the demons and causes them to grow.
You might decide the demons are just too powerful and give up on your path of finding a partner. Your anxiety and doubt may diminish, only to be replaced by loneliness and restlessness as you float away from your cherished value.
Or, perhaps you value creating community and helping society. You feel a strong sense of purpose and meaning when you take action to steer in that direction. Yet thoughts of volunteering or taking a leadership position in your community are met with monstrous demons of Grief and Anger over the death of your adult child several years ago.
“I can’t help anyone when I’m so mixed up myself,” you might think, turning your ship around to head back out to open sea and leaving your important values behind you on the shore. The Anger and Grief demons trundle to the stern of the ship, not even bothering to go below deck.
The truth about demons
There is something important you need to know about these demons.
They can’t hurt you.
They appear nasty and can be loud and aggressive, gesturing with their sharp claws and growling with their deep voices. But the truth is, they can’t touch you. They can get right next to you and scream threats in your ear, but they can’t harm you.
As long as you believe their threats, they are in charge of the boat and you are left floating in an open, dreary sea. But when you see them for what they are, you can take back control of the tiller and sail anywhere you like.
The demons are real. It’s important to acknowledge that fact. But once you recognize that you can steer your boat despite their unwelcome presence, you will start to see the demons for what they are.
With your hands firmly on the helm, you’ll start to notice that the demons aren’t as big and ugly as you thought. And, even though they gather around to intimidate you into changing your course, it will become apparent that all they can do is hiss and roar and growl. They can’t hurt you with their claws that once seemed huge and razor-sharp but now appear to be merely overgrown fingernails.
So with the now-normal-sized demons around you, you set sail for developing a loving relationship or creating community or being kind to others or making a difference in the world or being tolerant or practicing any of the other values you hold close. After a while, your demons realize you’re not paying much attention to them, so they grumble their way to the back of the boat as you sail on in the direction you want to go.
Making room for your emotional demons
Realizing that your painful emotions can’t tear you to shreds and keep you from going where you want to go is an important first step. Learning how to allow them to just be, rather than fighting them or letting them push you in a non-valued direction, is a productive second step. Here are some ideas about how to do that.
1. Soften, expand, allow.
Sitting in a quiet place, close your eyes or gaze softly at an area on the floor in front of you. Take a few gentle, deep breaths and allow your mind to settle. Become aware of the painful emotion(s) that you’re struggling with. Try to locate this feeling in your body. Is it in your neck? Your stomach? Your back?
When you get a sense of where the feeling is located, take a breath in, and as you breathe out, imagine softening around the feeling. You may be accustomed to resisting the feeling, so softening may be new to you. Just imagine the outer edges of the feeling relaxing and growing soft.
Now as you inhale, see the area around the feeling expanding, giving room and space to the feeling. Allow the feeling to just be.
Your mind will want to take over during this exercise. That’s natural. Just let the thoughts go by like leaves floating down a stream and return to allowing your feeling to just be within you.
Remember that this exercise isn’t about feeling better or getting the feeling to go away. It’s about learning to allow the emotion so that you can continue on your path toward a richer and more meaningful life.
2. Be compassionate.
In your quiet place, visualize your feeling. Realize that, in a way, it is trying to help, perhaps to protect you or keep you safe. Create some compassion for your feeling. Imagine holding it close and soothing it, letting it know that it is okay and all will be well.
3. Remember that your feeling is normal.
Feelings—even feelings we don’t like—remind us that we are human and that we really care about something. Our painful feelings result from what author Russ Harris calls “the reality gap:” the space between what we want and what we have.
4. Healing hand.
Place your hand over the area in your body where you feel this emotion strongly. Imagine that your hand is sending warm, healing energy to the feeling. You’re not trying to get rid of the feeling. You’re just holding it gently and sending it healing warmth.
Remember that this is a practice and that the demons on your boat have been threatening and intimidating you for a long time. It may take awhile for you to accept them and create more space for them rather than trying to make them be quiet or go away. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you set your course for the shore.
So, in the past few posts, we’ve decided to go on a journey toward a richer, more meaningful life, learned to name our most cherished values, discovered how to unhook from negative thoughts, and now we’ve found that we can steer toward values-based living even with emotional demons in our lives.
Next time, we’ll put this all together into one helpful, practical package that will keep us bouncing back from just about anything!
I’m interested in stories about the demons in your life. Please share in the comments below!
Want to see a fun little video that uses a similar metaphor? Check out “Struggling With Internal Hijackers?”
“Demons On a Boat” is a metaphor created by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, The Happiness Trap, The Reality Slap, and more.
If you’re interested in learning more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and how to lead a richer, more meaningful life, I highly recommend The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT.
Therapists might be interested in Harris’ outstanding, easily readable primer on ACT, ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Photo courtesy of Brendan Adkins.