Therapists come up with all sorts of terminology to name this and that – we work with the same problems and ideas repeatedly, and need images and language to describe human experience. Sometimes we come up with our own labels and concepts. The Monster-in-a- box is one of mine.
The Monster is the thing that we are carrying around with us that we are desperate to fix or change about ourselves, and everybody has one (most of us have many). Anxiety, depression, fear, anger, and shame are all Monsters, and there are countless others. The Monster is in a box that we carry around with us at all times and, when the Monster expresses itself, it attempts to escape the box. We are frequently desperate to smoosh our Monster back into its box, so as to cease whatever ruckus it might be kicking up at the moment.
I reference the Monster-in-a-box frequently in the therapy room because Monsters are usually the catalyst behind individuals deciding to seek therapy, and most new clients are desperate to rid themselves of them forever. I think we can do better by our Monsters. In fact, I think we can become quite good caretakers of our Monsters by shifting how we think about them, and acknowledging the potential they have to enrich our lives.
Changing How You Think About Your Monster
Typically, when an individual enters therapy, there is something that they wish to change about themselves, because they do not like that thing. We come by this self-loathing honestly; there’s a lot of language in our culture that supports shaming or ridding us of elements of ourselves. We are told to “beat” our depression, “distract” from our pain, and are encouraged to “get over” perceived negative qualities by ignoring them until they disappear (fake it ’til you make it, right?).
The problem I’ve noticed with these approaches is that an ignored, shamed, and beaten Monster is, at the end of the day, very much still a Monster, and a pissed-off one at that. We can’t expect to bully our Monsters into submission without consequence. When we try to squish our Monsters back into their tiny boxes, or ignore what they are saying to us, or call them names and shame them away, they react the same way any reasonable animal or human would: they fight back. They become larger and more aggressive. They make more noise. They bug us more frequently until we pay attention. For instance, if anxiety is one of your Monsters, this might look like increased panic, growing ruminations and catastrophic thoughts, more generalized anxiety, etc. The more we try to silence our Monsters, the more we hear from them.
Welcome Your Monster With Love and Acceptance
So here’s a different perspective to take on our Monsters: our Monsters became Monsters for a reason, and that reason was usually to protect us from some threat – real or perceived. Numbing behaviors, for instance, are very common Monsters, and are universally villified. They are also coping mechanisms aiming to remove the pain from our lives for a while (albeit in a sometimes unhelpful way). Whatever our Monsters are, they appeared for a reason, and they believe that they are working on our behalf. They might be doing it in ways that have become damaging or negative, but their core intentions are almost always positive.
If we operate from this lens, assuming that our Monsters have our best interest at heart, we can begin to approach them from a place of compassion and love, rather than from shame and frustration. We can reconsider the reactive notion that they need to be eradicated, and instead examine how we might go about taking care of them. Because a screaming, giant, scary Monster that is attended to, cared for, and heard, over time, begins to look less like a Monster, and much more like a pet. And pets are much easier to carry around.
Maintaining Your Monster
Of course, there’s a lot to this, but the basic idea here is to give your Monster, who developed over time because of your life experiences and circumstances, the time and attention it deserves. This means listening to your Monster, hearing its fears and concerns, and asking what you might do to take care of it in difficult moments. It means tending to your Monster according to its needs by providing it with regular self-care, like meditation or relaxation or exercise. It means taking into account what your Monster wants in the moment, and letting those wants exist and be okay without shaming or ignoring them.
It doesn’t mean doing whatever our Monsters want us to do in the moment. It also doesn’t mean relinquishing control to our Monsters – we get to make final decisions. For example, if our anxious Monster wants us to leave a party because it feels overwhelmed, we can take a moment to hear from it, perhaps give it space in a private room or outside on a brief walk, and let it know that we have everything under control. If it’s really having difficulty, perhaps we can choose to take it home early. But we are ultimately the deciders; our Monsters are just along for the ride. If we carry them around with respect, time, and care, our Monsters begin to trust us more. We might even find that they become far less bothersome and have strengths that they want share with us!
We all have Monsters, and they can be very difficult to appreciate at times. Sometimes we want to rid ourselves of them entirely. I posit that it is harmful to try to do so. Rather than getting rid of our Monsters, we can transform them into something else – like pets – by taking good care of and nurturing them, and carrying them around with appreciation, and with patience, and maybe even something like love.