Face your demons

I have many years’ experience of working with people struggling with anxiety, depression, self-doubt and related emotional challenges. In general, most of them would be thinking that there was something wrong with them, that they were deficient in some way, or even ill. They would be surprised, and generally relieved, to learn that having demons – that is, emotional challenges – is quite a normal part of being human.

We all have them, but what distinguishes those people who don’t appear to have any such demons from those who appear to be struggling with them is mainly how well we are managing them – not whether or not we have them.

At root, life is fragile, vulnerable and insecure, but for the most part we tend to be very skilled at managing the challenges all this brings and very good at supporting one another through the difficulties. At times, life will be more challenging than is generally the case – for example, when we experience a major loss and we are flooded with feelings of grief. The next major loss may be a long way off or it may be just round the corner.

Some of us have us face emotional challenges more often than others; some of us struggle more with dealing with them when they do arise (often due to their severity and their frequency); and some of us have less support and understanding from the people around us than others do. So, it is certainly not simply a case of there being people who have demons to face and others who don’t. Demons, in the sense I am using them here, come with the territory – the territory of being human.

Where problems can become quite serious is where there are significant challenges to address, but our response is to bury our heads in the sand and just hope they will go away – the grieving person who tries to live as if their life has just gone through a major change; the person in an abusive relationship who hopes against hope that the violence will stop; the person who is struggling to find any sort of happiness who ‘just presses on’, as if there cannot be an alternative.

So, the first step is to recognise that we all have our emotional challenges, we all have demons that can haunt us, short or long term. That we have demons is therefore not necessarily a problem or anything to worry about. The second step is to recognise that we need to face them. The more we try to run away from them (or just ignore them), the larger they can loom and the more frightening they can become. By contrast, facing up to them can help us get them in perspective (especially if we don’t face them alone, if we have the support of trusted others, or at least a trusted other).

We can avoid the vicious circle of the demons getting bigger the more we turn our backs on them, and, instead, create a virtuous circle where facing them takes away a lot of their power, makes us feel more confident in dealing with them and sets us on a more positive route.

Demons flourish in the darkness. Turn the lights on, focus clearly on what you need to do, and those demons don’t seem to be anywhere near as threatening as they did before, especially if you are tackling them with support (and perhaps giving support to others who have their own demons to face).

Believe in yourself

Something I was taught at an early age that has stood me in good stead is the idea that, if you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t expect other people to believe in you. But, there’s more to it than just believing in yourself, you also have to demonstrate your self-belief. And you also have to be prepared to question that belief from time to time. Let’s look at each of these issues.

Having self-belief means that your ‘default’ setting (that is, the stance you will automatically adopt unless something happens to change it) is one where you do not doubt yourself. You do not put yourself down; you do not tell yourself ‘I can’t do this’ (negative self-talk, to use the technical term); you do not place obstacles in the way of your own progress; and nor do you invite other people to adopt a low opinion of you (believe it or not, these are all very common behaviours, so we really do need to be tuned into them and steer well clear of them).

This is not the same as arrogance or where you see yourself as infallible and invulnerable. It is about having a positive attitude towards your own capabilities and a willingness to learn from failure. This is vitally important, as fear of failure is a major barrier to self-belief. If we see failure as something shameful, we will be discouraged from trying new things and testing out the limits of our abilities (thereby limiting our learning opportunities, as these arise precisely at the limits of our current capabilities). By contrast, if we see failure as a stepping stone to success and therefore nothing to be ashamed of, we are going to be more open to trying new things (and therefore open to new learning and new successes).

Having self-belief, though, does not mean that you will show that you do. Many competent and confident people will come across misleadingly as lacking in self-belief. This is partly a cultural matter, as many cultures involve unwritten rules about how we come across to other people. For example, it is quite common in the culture I was brought up in for people, on receiving praise or a compliment, to respond with comments like: ‘It was nothing’ or ‘No, not at all’. Such comments can give the impression that we lack confidence and thereby deny us the credibility we need to influence people and make a positive difference. A response like: ‘Thank you, that is good of you to say so’ is likely to be a wiser one to give. So, what we need to do, then is strike a balance between coming across as arrogant and hiding our light under a bushel, as the saying goes.

But, we also have to make sure that we are allowing our self-belief to get the better of us. However capable, competent and confident we may be, we all have our limitations. Consequently, we need to be careful not to overstretch ourselves, to put ourselves in situations where, in effect, we are setting ourselves up to fail. We still need to be cautious, but there is a major difference between being prudently cautious and writing yourself off before you have even tried to do something. In other words, we need to have confidence in ourselves, but we must not allow that confidence to cross the line and become complacency.

Self-belief is not about thinking you are better than other people – it is not about a sense of superiority; it is about a sense of what the textbooks tend to call ‘personal efficacy’, and much of that is about gaining other people’s trust by starting off by trusting yourself.

Something I was taught at an early age that has stood me in good stead is the idea that, if you don’t believe in yourself, you can’t expect other people to believe in you. But, there’s more to it than just believing in yourself, you also have to demonstrate your self-belief. And you also have to be prepared to question that belief from time to time. Let’s look at each of these issues.

Having self-belief means that your ‘default’ setting (that is, the stance you will automatically adopt unless something happens to change it) is one where you do not doubt yourself. You do not put yourself down; you do not tell yourself ‘I can’t do this’ (negative self-talk, to use the technical term); you do not place obstacles in the way of your own progress; and nor do you invite other people to adopt a low opinion of you (believe it or not, these are all very common behaviours, so we really do need to be tuned into them and steer well clear of them).

This is not the same as arrogance or where you see yourself as infallible and invulnerable. It is about having a positive attitude towards your own capabilities and a willingness to learn from failure. This is vitally important, as fear of failure is a major barrier to self-belief. If we see failure as something shameful, we will be discouraged from trying new things and testing out the limits of our abilities (thereby limiting our learning opportunities, as these arise precisely at the limits of our current capabilities). By contrast, if we see failure as a stepping stone to success and therefore nothing to be ashamed of, we are going to be more open to trying new things (and therefore open to new learning and new successes).

Having self-belief, though, does not mean that you will show that you do. Many competent and confident people will come across misleadingly as lacking in self-belief. This is partly a cultural matter, as many cultures involve unwritten rules about how we come across to other people. For example, it is quite common in the culture I was brought up in for people, on receiving praise or a compliment, to respond with comments like: ‘It was nothing’ or ‘No, not at all’. Such comments can give the impression that we lack confidence and thereby deny us the credibility we need to influence people and make a positive difference. A response like: ‘Thank you, that is good of you to say so’ is likely to be a wiser one to give. So, what we need to do, then is strike a balance between coming across as arrogant and hiding our light under a bushel, as the saying goes.

But, we also have to make sure that we are allowing our self-belief to get the better of us. However capable, competent and confident we may be, we all have our limitations. Consequently, we need to be careful not to overstretch ourselves, to put ourselves in situations where, in effect, we are setting ourselves up to fail. We still need to be cautious, but there is a major difference between being prudently cautious and writing yourself off before you have even tried to do something. In other words, we need to have confidence in ourselves, but we must not allow that confidence to cross the line and become complacency.

Self-belief is not about thinking you are better than other people – it is not about a sense of superiority; it is about a sense of what the textbooks tend to call ‘personal efficacy’, and much of that is about gaining other people’s trust by starting off by trusting yourself.