(Content warning: This gets kinda dark. I am decidedly not qualified to give medical or psychological advice so if you are unsure, either stop here or just ignore everything I’m saying and speak to a therapist.)
In my upbringing in Christian churches, I was taught various things about spiritual beings, specifically demons. Demons are, of course, servants of Satan, and as such their goal is to tempt you, trick you, and generally harm you. They can get inside your heart and wreck havoc if you’re not careful. The antidote is God, who has power over the demons, and so by extension, we as believers have power too. If we tell them forcefully what to do, they have to listen; those are the rules I was taught.
So growing up, it sounded to me like there was nothing to worry about. I have Jesus in my heart, Jesus has power over demons, ipso facto the demons can’t hurt me. Yet instead, the advice was to watch out! Be scared! Be vigilant! Stay away from people with demons unless you are armed and ready to fight, and oh boy, you’ll have a serious battle in store. Hide or fight, those were the options. I was confused because I thought I was protected by an all-powerful God, but the impression I was given was that my armor was faulty and my sword hard to wield. So I opted to hide.
If you’re not into all the literalism about spirits, Jordan Peterson has your back (though, he maybe kinda sorta believes literally). To him, spirits are personifications of human universals, for example of our positive or negative tendencies; these can be thought of as gods (all) or angels and demons (respectively). He would call them archetypes, following Jung. They’re just the Meta Level version of Fatherhood, Motherhood, The Trickster, The Flood, etc., metaphorical beings abstracted away from the Real World instantiations of those things.
Similarly, in Greek mythology, all the higher beings have their place and connection to human experience: Phobos represents panic and fear, Kratos represents strength and power, Athena represents wisdom, Eris represents discord and strife, Sophrosyne represents self-control and temperance, and so on. Different cultures represent them by different spirits with different names, but the substance is the same. We root for the good spirits, help them if we can, and either hide from or fight the bad ones. (If Kratos shows up on your doorstep, better to hide.)
I don’t know if the Greeks believed in literal spirits the way Christian churches do, but the Petersonian interpretation seems closer to the way modern people talk about demons. “He has his demons.” “She’s been battling her demons.” “My inner demons got the better of me.” Or, on the other side, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”
We all have demons of a kind, and across society they are legion. For some, they appear in the form of addiction; for some, it’s low self-esteem; for some, it’s depression, anxiety, anger, or jealousy, and plenty more besides. These are examples of inner demons that capture the mind without our consent, against our desire, in a way that is often out of our control. We don’t get to choose our minds. Some come with demons built-in.
Demons can appear in one’s physical situation as well, as disease, as poverty, as abuse; these are outer demons. Just as we don’t choose our minds, we don’t choose our bodies or our circumstances. Of course, there is an interplay between outer and inner demons. Outer demons can spawn inner demons, as for example poverty or abuse can lead to anxiety or depression. And inner demons spread to become outer ones: addictive behaviors harm one’s health in many ways, as in the oft-cited cases of alcohol abuse and liver disease or tobacco and lung cancer. Other times, it’s not clear if the demon is outer or inner. There’s no clear dividing line between externally-caused depression and internally-caused depression, though many discuss the distinction. Some cases are both.
Many, maybe all, outer demons have outer solutions. Diseases can be cured. Poverty can be mitigated. We can lock up or rehabilitate all the abusers and criminals whose actions give rise to outer demons of their kind. These problems are hard, but we have no reason to think they’re insoluble, and we should all do what we can to solve them. We may one day end world hunger for good, and once slain, that demon will likely stay dead. Same with cancer, or any other disease you care to mention. This is the dream, to approach a human utopia where nobody goes hungry, is abused, or dies before their time. It is part of the promise of heaven of the Bible: a safe space from outer demons trying to destroy us.
But defeat all the outer demons, and the inner demons will remain. People feel anxious even when they are safe; otherwise healthy people can become depressed; high-functioning people can have low self-esteem. Send our human minds to utopia, to heaven, and we’ll bring our inner demons along with us. There’s no situation so wonderful that a depressed person can’t feel depressed.
An analogy: It’s as though you’re locked inside the citadel of your mind, with high walls and big steel doors, but at all hours you can hear the demon snarling and stomping around outside. When it roars, the walls shake and crumble, and it’s hard to focus on anything else. I like this analogy because it makes clear the separation. You are not the demon. You are not even the citadel. You are inside, scared of the sounds the demon is making, but more terrified of what the demon might do if it ever got inside. To open the door would be to come face to face with your worst nightmares.
Some days the demon is quiet. Those are good days.
But what can you do when you hear the roar of your inner demons?
When the demon is loud and scary, you may hide deep in the citadel, praying it doesn’t break through. You try to get back to work. By this I mean, you can deny your problem. Maybe it’s your addiction, and you tell yourself it’s not harming you; I have met people who, despite their alcoholism, were high-functioning, productive, and kind. You can pretend you’re not depressed or that your self-esteem is fine, in hopes that nobody notices. If you don’t acknowledge the demon, you think, maybe it can’t hurt you. Sometimes it works, maybe not forever, but it’s effective if you need to get something done quickly, right now. So it’s ok to hide.
Other days, you gather your armies and fire your cannons; you fight. If you have the strength and the time to do battle, this can be a more productive option; you say to yourself, “Starting now, I will conquer my demons,” and you set out to do it. For an alcoholic, this means no more drinking, and maybe a trip to AA. For someone who’s anxious or depressed, this might mean medication or therapy. In the day-to-day, when negative thoughts arise, and that inner voice is telling you that you’re not good enough and the world is against you, you don’t have to hide: you can counter it actively with positive thinking. The am good enough! The world is worth living in! You battle as best you can until the demon in your head quiets down. It takes effort, but the demon can be slain. So it’s ok to fight.
At the intersection of fighting and hiding, you can strengthen the walls of the citadel, reinforce them with new and stronger materials to keep the demons out. In this improved position, you both hide more effectively and fight with greater confidence than before. This means building a support system of family and close friends, or cultivating habits which support mental health and stability. It is very possible to live a good life through continued spurts of fighting and hiding, while strengthening the supports as you go. This is sometimes enough to keep the demons at bay.
But the problem with hiding and fighting is that inner demons, unlike outer ones, don’t disappear forever, especially if your mind came with them built-in. You hide, but they’re still out there, and when they decide to roar, they do their damage all the same. And if you slay them today, they just rise again tomorrow. After many days at war, when you run low on rations and ammunition… it can be exhausting. The demons don’t get tired, but you may.
However–and this is where, if I’m not careful, I run the risk of giving you damaging advice–there’s a third tactic. I don’t hear much about it, maybe because it’s the scariest one of all: you can let the demons in. By this I mean, let them have your mind, if only for a time. I decidedly do not mean to let them have your body: do not hurt yourself; do not lash out against the person you’re mad at; do not give in to your addiction. To do what the demon tells you to is to give up the battle entirely; do not do that! But if you’re able, you can open the gates and say, “Do your worst”, and just see how scary it really is. Close your eyes, open your mind, and notice what it tries to do to you.
To make something else very clear here, let me use an example. Recall, for a second, a time when you were extremely angry, just livid, at someone for something they did. In my experiences of the same, my mind became hot, with loosely-connected thoughts whizzing back and forth without making much sense. My mind raced:
How could she do that?? She always does that. People always treat me like this! My life is a mess. I wish I never met her. I need to get out of this town, I never want to see her again! How could she do that to me?Me, once upon a time
What I did not do, this time or many other times in my youth, is take any of the above extravagant claims and sit with it for any meaningful duration. “She always does that.” Does she? When else has she done this? Has she also done many other nice things to compensate? Maybe I’m overreacting? This kind of self back-talk is something you can learn through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a great thing and it truly helps. CBT provides numerous cannonballs you can launch to fight back against your own raging demon, of rage or sadness or anxiety. (For more information, start here or here or, much better, speak to a therapist.)
But this is not what I mean by letting them in. Instead, I mean more like what is advocated by Sam Harris: take your feeling (in my example, anger) and really feel it. Not the thoughts rushing into your head. Not the past offences or the threatening future. Notice the feeling right in that moment. When you are angry, or sad, or jealous, what precisely do you feel?
Your heart races? Notice that. Ba-BUM. Ba-BUM. Ba-BUM.
Your face flushes? Right or left side, which one more so? Feel the warmth of the blood in your face.
You have butterflies in your stomach? Does it tickle, does it hurt? Feel every tingle fully. Feel each one as closely as possible.
You feel a craving? Do you feel it in your stomach, your lungs, or what? Are your hands trembling? Feel that stomach rumble, and notice every little quake in your extremities. Don’t think about why you feel it; just feel it.
The point is to feel whatever you feel, all the way. Not the thoughts, not your ideas of the causes; these are the angry growls of the demon. Pay attention to the actual sensations; look the demon in the eye. What is anger like? What is sadness like? If he growls, don’t respond; let it pass, and feel what you feel again.
When the citadel gate is closed, and you hear the demon snarling outside, the scariest part is not knowing what would happen if it came for you in full force. The demon wants to scare you so that you’ll do what it says. But there’s a place to stand in relation to the demon such that you can see it for what it is: a bully. The demon is not you. And the demon can’t control you.
What’s more, the demon has very little power, even given full access to the citadel. What, it made your face flush? Made your blood pump a little harder? A demon capable of no more than that is not a demon worth fearing. If you actually sit with the demon, have a staring contest with it, in my experience, it may just decide to leave. Gone, without once having to pick up a sword. Once it’s gone, you can get back to work fixing the real problems of life with a clear head.
I’ll add, again, that if you have a serious issue you may need to consult a therapist; some demons don’t scare as easily as others. But for anger, jealousy, anxiety, or simple sadness, looking the demon in the face may be enough.
Finally, I’m not saying this third tactic is always superior; I’ve previously argued that hiding is ok, and sometimes you do have to fight with every weapon available to you. But for some issues, it’s worth considering the third option: Let them in.
I’ve used this in my own life recently and met with great success. Maybe the demons eventually give up, I don’t know. But even if not, when they come back, I’m no longer scared of them. In a way, I’ve fallen back to my child-like point of view: The demons are weak, and I don’t have to fear them. Let them try; let them do their worst. The strength within me is sufficient to withstand anything they can do.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.Psalm 23:4