Who are these demons that we have in our heads? The ones who tell us we’re not good enough, smart enough, worthy of anything?
Demons that keep us awake at night, reminding us of embarrassing moments or ongoing work worries. Whispering how pathetic we are because we haven't yet accomplished what we hoped.
They usually turn up when we least expect, when we’re at our most vulnerable. During periods of burnout or stress. They seep into our brains like unwelcome pests and leave us feeling down and listless.
But where do they come from? And can we ever make them shut the hell up? Here are some snippets of wisdom to help you see the light.
Firstly, understand the psychology behind those negative thoughts
Inner demons are based on criticisms, self-doubt and negative patterns. They can be the things we tell ourselves that aren't necessarily real. It could be something someone said when we were a child, a negative remark from an old boss or a put down from a friend. Even a conversation we saw on Twitter.
In psychoanalysis, the inner critic is called the superego. It's a primitive evil that bullies us daily. According to Freud, the superego reflects the internalisation of social rules, which are mainly taught by our parents.
Being aware of how your brain works is the first step to deal with your inner demons. No, they won't disappear; they'll always be there. But being conscious that they don't necessarily need to control you or your reactions is where you become powerful. You don't need to act on these irrational thoughts – keep telling yourself that it's your stupid inner chimp, the limbic part of your brain. That old part of your mind that isn't rational, just emotional.
Read Steve Peters' The Chimp Paradox to learn more and feel a whole lot better about yourself.
Now you’ve faced those demons, respond to their comments with positivity
"You’re not good enough," the demons remark. "You're never going to be as good as that leading designer you admire, you're pathetic!" Respond to each negative thought with a positive one. Repeat it as much as you can.
It's like having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other: it's entirely up to you which one you pay attention to.
Also, have compassion for yourself and others. I like to remind myself of the Dalai Lama's famous quote on suffering: "Every single being, even those who are hostile to us, is just as afraid of suffering as we are, and seeks happiness in the same way we do. Every person has the same right as we do to be happy and not to suffer. So let's take care of others wholeheartedly, of both our friends and our enemies. This is the basis for true compassion."
It's about giving yourself and others a break. We're all human, and we all suffer. We're not special. Our brains all work in the same way. This one truth can quieten those inner demons a little and help you cope when they're screaming the loudest.
Get into "flow" and lose yourself in the moment
Quietening the mind is something Buddhists spend their whole lives trying to achieve. It takes years of practice, as the brain is such a complex machine. You too can learn to meditate – try Headspace to get started. Of, if you don't have the patience like me, get into the beautiful vibe of "flow".
A flow state in positive psychology is also known as "being in the zone" when you're fully immersed in an activity that you enjoy. You become so absorbed in what you're doing; you lose yourself and your sense of time and space. It's a wonderful feeling, and it can help you switch off from those inner demons.
Flow can be conquered by being creative: painting, drawing, sculpting. Or playing a musical instrument or even at work. Find time to get into the flow every day; particularly when your inner demons are proving the most troublesome.
Everyone suffers; you are not unique
Another reassuring reality is that even the brightest and best creative people in the world suffer. Often from the same negative thoughts. Your art and design heroes have inner demons too.
Whenever I interview someone famous in the creative industries who are at the top of their game – I always ask them whether they worry about work drying up or not being good enough, and you know what? They all worry. They might've had their work in The New Yorker, won hundreds of awards and changed the shape of graphic design as we know it, but they still have those negative thoughts.
I take great comfort in the Four Noble Truths of Buddha. Yes, it might be depressing to learn that humans suffer – that's just what we do. But it's liberating to understand that we are all the same.
Listen to your demons, there could be a message
Don't ignore them completely; those critical voices in your head could be trying to tell you something important. They could even be your friends. As Charles Bukowski once said: "Don’t fight your demons. Your demons are here to teach you lessons. Sit down with your demons and have a drink and a chat and learn their names and talk about the burns on their fingers and scratches on their ankles. Some of them are very nice."
Because on the positive side, the demons keep us honest, push us to improve and overcome adversity. They stop us from going all Kanye West (really? The "greatest artist of all time"? Really?). They help us figure out the next steps. They keep us grounded and humble.
Next time you find yourself spiralling, keep an open mind and listen to what your inner demons are saying. You never know, they could be revealing a truth that you've not yet faced up to.
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