Certainty and the Meanest Gremlin Gabbing

The whole gremlin thing, it’s a way of bringing some levity and accessibility to a really challenging part of ourselves. I realized, as I stood before groups of students at the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School last week, that sometimes, I let that levity lull me into taking the gremlins less seriously, even seeing them as just as harmless as the characters they’ve become in my imagination.

Until, that is, I’m in the midst of a gremlin spiral.

Gremlin spiral: When the gremlin messages get so loud and intense and layered that I believe them.

Before I started identifying and working with gremlins, these spirals didn’t feel like challenging but ultimately fleeting periods of mental and emotional unwellness. They felt like truth arising. Like Truth arising. Horrible, painful Truths that made it almost impossible for me to value myself and that did make it impossible to consider other perspectives.

More than six years into this work with and on my gremlins, I still have gremlin spirals and they still feel like Truth arising but the work has led to some wonderful, critical changes.

My gremlin spirals happen less frequently and end more quickly. That’s pretty great.

Even better is that there is now a tiny, whispering voice inside of me that, even during the worst of a gremlin spiral, reminds me that what I’m experiencing is fleeting and involves a narrowed perspective. That voice reminds me to be as still and curious about the feelings as possible because with stillness and curiosity come useful insights about myself. With stillness and curiosity, I’m less likely to cause damage while in this gremlin-impaired state – especially damage in the form of harsh words or rash decisions that involve Theresa. Those closest to us often get the worst of our gremlin gunk.

Note: That voice doesn’t offer me that broadened perspective or even platitudes like, “It’s all going to be okay.” I’m not open to such things during gremlin spirals. It simply says, “With enough stillness and curiosity and time, you’ll see all of this differently.” And it’s always, always right.

As I looked at those students, weighted by both extraordinary schoolwork loads and transcript-enhancing extracurricular commitments, navigating impossible decisions about their futures while still in the midst of making introductions with themselves, awash with hormones that fuel first desires and loves, looking into futures certain to include dire environmental shifts and economic challenges, I remembered the gravity contained by the punishing internal voices that I playfully call gremlins.

And so I want to remind them and you and myself: Our gremlins want us to believe their punishing messages with absolute, unwavering certainty. Conversely, a feeling of absolute, unwavering certainty is a great cue to check into ourselves with stillness and a whole lot of curiosity. A feeling of absolute, unwavering certainty – particularly when that certainty falls into the category of diminishing our own value or our life’s value – is a great cue to invite a trusted other into our curiosity-driven exploration.

I recently read an article that scientists have dated a star as older than the universe. Consequently, they’re revisiting their tools and measurements because, as one scientist put it, “It was a serious discrepancy.”

I love imagining these scientists with their mismatched certainties – the certainty of the age of the universe and the certainty of the age of the star – scratching their heads and getting our their pencils and putting on another pot of coffee as they realized that all of their certainty led them to a place that only curiosity can tease out.

And so it is with each and every one of us and our gremlin-filled psyches. There are, after all, serious discrepancies between our gremlin’s Truth and our life’s reality – between their certainty and life’s inevitable, beautiful, mysterious uncertainty.

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