Have you ever noticed how strangely comforting we find it to create a story to explain why bad things are happening to us?
And have you also noticed how that story frequently involves a monster we call “It” as the bad guy responsible for that bad thing?
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Steve’s in a really bad way. As he sits in the chair opposite me in my therapy room, he pours it all out: the reason he’s come to see me.
He’s experiencing enormous anxiety to the point of fearing that soon he won’t be able to go to work, or function at home. He tells me that it’s hard to fight it (enter the monster called “it”). Hold that thought.
He spends a lot of his time fighting back tears and trying not to let anyone see. If he could, he’d hide away somewhere for a few weeks and not come out. He’d really like to hole up and not have to deal with anyone.
He’s becoming exhausted from having to always be the nice guy, of always having to produce a cheerful smile, a laugh and a joke, be helpful to everyone who comes to him for advice or a favour, to never mind.
He has two daughters, whom he calls strong characters and who he tells me he loves dearly and who he wouldn’t want to be any other way, and a partner who’s caught up fiercely in a career that’s blossoming and of whom he tells me he’s incredibly proud.
And then, we get to the “it.”
“The thing is, it is always around!” he tells me.
“It is there in the night when I wake. In fact, it wakes me up. I can feel it there, waiting for me. And then, as the day gets going, there’s nowhere I can get away from it!
As he’s telling me about “It” his eyes dart back and forth to a particular place on the carpet, as if he’s seeing it right there, right now. It’s so convincing that I find myself drawn to look there too, just to check. I don’t see an it but I know that Steve does.
Steve is really frightened. And his language betrays how totally unsafe and at the mercy of it he feels. This thing, whatever it is, is powerful indeed, and out to get him. There’s nowhere to hide, he can’t escape.
I find myself visualising a predatory creature on the prowl and looking for prey. It stalks and chases and pounces and devours. One day, Steve won’t be fast enough or strong enough and it will win. I can see it. I can see what he sees. I can see The Tiger.
It lurks in the bedroom and scratches him as he wakes, it travels with him in the car, it’s waiting in his office at work, it growls at him in the night. It’s always there, threatening, hostile, dangerous. I tell him I can see how terrifying it is.
I ask him a little about things in general, his work, family, his mum and dad, brothers and sisters. I want to try to get a picture of it.
He tells me that his parents have had it tough. His elder brother has caused them a lot of grief. He’s been in trouble with the police, drinks heavily and does drugs, can be violent and intimidating, dropped out of university and has never worked.
He tells me they’re in their seventies now and still have his brother living at home. He tells me in such a way that I’m to understand that they mustn’t be asked to cope with any more. That this is already far too much.
I ask him about his own relationship with them, and acknowledge how hard his brother’s behaviour must have been for them all, how helpless they must have felt to change the way things are.
I’m still looking for it.
Steve tells me that he doesn’t hear from them that often. They have enough on their plate. If he wants to see them, he has to take the children over there to see them (I note “has to” and get a brief sense of the presence of the monster we are now both watching out for).
Steve tells me it’s all pretty superficial and no-one really talks about anything. He says they don’t know what’s going on in his life.
I ask whether they know how ill he feels at the moment, how frightened he feels, and he looks up at me, startled, then laughs. A wry laugh. Like my question is ridiculous.
Now, finally, I am getting close to understanding it. The monster is coming out of its lair.
We think a little together about how he feels as he hears what’s coming out of his mouth. And, as we do so, I ask him to tell me what he’s feeling in his body.
He’s feeling anxious, breaking into a bit of a sweat, his mouth is feeling dry. He’s struggling to speak. Like there are no words.
I ask whether that might be because it feels like no-one’s likely to listen, or hear whatever words might come out. I say it gently, tenderly, speaking to the part of him that has had to create this “It.”
Steve swallows hard several times. He’s fighting back tears, his whole face is contorted as he tries to stem the flow of emotion that’s welling up in him.
And so, at last, we reach the it.
It’s a monster waiting to overpower him. It’s unpredictable, it’s furious and wild, a tide of raw hurt and anger and despair that must be kept hidden, denied, swallowed down. It’s the thing he wants to hide from. Hole up away from. It’s years’ worth of pretending he’s fine when he isn’t; of trying not to mind when he comes last; of trying to be the good one in the hope that one day someone will notice and it will make a difference.
It is his dreadful secret, his worst nightmare, the part no-one must ever know or see. It’s not a monster out there on the prowl; it lives inside him. And the anxiety he experiences is his body’s response to his attempts to keep it hidden.
We experience anxiety when the barricades are coming down and the walls are crumbling. When our defences can’t hold it any more. When we can’t cage it anymore.
Our very own monster. The Tiger that must be tamed. Our projection.
And finally, in the moment of seeing clearly, Steve does what we must all do. What we all need to do if we are to reach back towards wellness and authenticity.
He takes his projection back. He accepts it as his. He stops fighting. He allows the monster into his conscious awareness. And, in doing so, he immediately begins to tame it.
The feelings aren’t gone, but they can be spoken now, they’re known and nothing bad has happened. And Steve feels calmer, less scared.
Although Steve is fictional, he’s also a part of all of us.
Monsters never are what they seem. And they can always be tamed. Always.
We just have to open the cage door and allow the Tiger back in.
Author: Janny Juddly
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Zak Cannon/Flickr