We all know the expression, ‘face up to your demons’, but what does it mean? Does it mean to throttle your demons so they skulk away, only for them to return another day to plague you? Does it mean to do so much developmental work on yourself that you become so ‘sorted’ that you just don’t have any inner conflicts now? Is this really possible, and if so, how long would it be before some more reared their ugly little heads? Or does it mean to look the demons square in the face and say, I know you, you’ll be around for a while, I accept that, but I’m not going to take any notice of you? Well, I came across a lovely, quite entertaining metaphor for this third, more realistic option, called ‘The Demons on the Boat’ which I’d like to tell you about and which can easily be applied to the creative life.
The metaphor derives from a book I was reading a few years back now, called The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris, which is based on the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a behavioural-based philosophy which uses mindfulness skills to develop psychological flexibility and help clarify and direct a value-guided life, as opposed to a goal-driven one. Where success in life is living according to your specific values, rather than attaining goals you’ve set yourself. And I love this philosophy, because trying to fulfil goals can be a risky business. For example, what do you do to yourself if you fail? And if you succeed, is ‘this place’ of achievement what you thought it would be? Does it have demands upon you that you hadn’t anticipated? So, in contrast to this, simply living and working according to your values can be more of a lifelong self-enhancing and fulfilling approach.
I came across ACT and the boat metaphor when I had a tinnitus flare up and was searching online forums for advice. It was a special find for me and the approach helped enormously in getting my tinnitus back to the volume level I’m comfortable with – as opposed to my suffering and railing against it, with the volume increasing through the extra attention I was giving it (the brain tunes in, and through an aversion response, reads it as a danger and amplifies it). So I used as much acceptance as I could to defuse the attention, while getting on with what I wanted to do. (I’m in good company with Barbara Streisand here, because I got tinnitus as a teenager and it’s been there ever since). So I feel this ACT approach has a wide range of uses: for mental health and physical health, for anyone who wants to get to where they are trying to ‘go’, and certainly for creative people in relation both to their inner life and seeing their external art projects through to completion.
Before telling you about the metaphor, I’d like to clarify that ACT doesn’t attempt to directly change or stop unwanted thoughts and feelings, the aim is to develop a new relationship with them that can free a person up to take action in line with their values. Harris argues it’s in our primal human nature for our minds to mostly address surviving dangers, so we are always on the alert for anything which may threaten our security. This means the modern mind is always busy, assessing, judging: Is this situation good or bad?; Safe or dangerous?; Harmful or helpful? And because we live in the modern world this part of us gets used in worrying, worrying, worrying. It is in our primal nature also to belong to a social group for safety purposes, so what do we do? We get scared of rejection, we may compare ourselves to others and come off worst, we may put ourselves down, we may be fearful of going our own way, of expressing ourselves. Harris says ‘Evolution has shaped our brains so that we are hard-wired to suffer psychologically: to compare, evaluate, and criticise ourselves, to focus on what we’re lacking, to rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have, and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen. No wonder humans find it so hard to be happy!’ He argues that instead of actively pursuing happiness, which can be so elusive, impermanent and frequently dependant upon external conditions, we can instead decide to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, choosing and moving in directions we find valuable and worthy to us as individuals. So, for us, as creatives, that means getting on with our creative work because that is who we are and what we do.
So moving on to the metaphor of the demons on the boat, which I’ve tweaked to make it in relation to creatives….
Imagine you’re the captain of your very own sailing ship. There is no crew. You’re sailing your ship alone on the ocean, heading in a certain direction…let’s say this is you aiming and navigating your ship to a particular shore of your own choosing, and by the time you land your creative project will be complete, you will feel good about it, and you will be ready to ‘show’ your work to others. This is your destination.
Now you may encounter external forces which hinder you. A storm, with huge waves might be getting rejected by publishers or galleries, a dense fog might be losing your way in the middle of your endeavours, and so you need to go and take some navigational reading to get yourself back on course. However, you can develop some resilience to these external forces, build up your experience and knowledge in your chosen creative field…you can weather the storms and fogs.
What may be more of a hindrance are your internal demons (and we all have them) , which right now, are mumbling quietly in the hold of your ship, tucked away down below the level of your consciousness. They may be demons common to creative people, such as self doubt, doubt about our abilities, fear of criticism, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being successful compared to other creative people, fear of not finishing our project, our very life work, or fear of downright failure etc. But there will be a few personalised ones too, which you can identify for yourself, like fear of not making enough money, a general worry about what people will think of you (that’s been a big one of mine), like who do you think you are, exactly?…It’s really worth figuring out your own personal ones, even working out where they come in your history if you can, because for this metaphor to work in action, you need to recognise your own demons – bad memories, unhelpful beliefs, certain images, feelings, and thoughts, that have the potential to undermine your well being.
So there you are, sailing along, but something is wrong. You’ve become conscious of the demons in the hold because they’ve come crawling out onto the deck. They scare you. You find yourself unable to carry on your course because if you do, they will bare their fangs and rip you to shreds. They don’t want you to get to where you’re wanting to go, they don’t want you to take risks, they don’t want you to leave your so called ‘comfort’ zone (which has become increasingly boring and miserable), and so you can only go around in circles, directionless and adrift at sea. Safe from harm, with the demons once more in the hold, but going nowhere. You may see other ships passing you by and heading to their shores. It hurts. So you decide you couldn’t feel much worse and you get a grip on that helm and begin to steer your ship towards your shore again…the demons swarm out to stop you. But you’ve been expecting them. You face up to them this time. And you notice that for all their shouting there is actually nothing they can do to you, all they can do is intimidate – that’s it! So you carry on sailing to your shore, in your valued direction, while they jump around and snarl, but this time you take no notice, you accept them for what they are.
What happens next? Well, while you’re sailing to your shore, some of the demons realise they are having no effect on you and give up and go away, maybe they dive over the side and swim off. Good riddance! Others will undoubtedly remain, but with time, you begin to get used to them, you notice they aren’t actually as scary as you thought they were and they begin to seem smaller. You find you can ‘hang out’ with them and even one or two become your friends because they’ve alerted you to your fears, they’ve aided your self knowledge which has helped you become more proactive. Then you put your face into the sea breeze, you watch the flying fish, the dolphins, you enjoy your journey, knowing you will get there, and that from now on, you’ll take similar future journeys more in your stride.
Here is an animation of a version of this metaphor by Joe Oliver, if you fancy seeing the demons on the boat in action. It’s very basic, but funny, giving amusing visuals for us to remember when we need them. I like the fact that it’s a bit ridiculous, because it shows up those demons in such as way as not to take them too seriously…
(My specific demon getting this post to you has been external, I’ve had no internet or landline for three days…so better late than never!)
(Pics courtesy of pixabay)