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3-Step Process for Getting Gremlins Out of Your Way

Gremlins are negative self-talk — the inner critics, the purveyors of self-doubt, slowing your positive momentum, standing in the way of your success or sabotaging your satisfaction.

Woman looking stressed with her hand on her forehead
Image credit Claudia Barbosa

Gremlins sabotage your mind and mood with unwanted thoughts.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an optimist. I have a hard time staying mad and I tend to see the bright side of most situations. Even so, ever since I was an adolescent, there has been a nasty little voice inside me that serves up critical, negative self-talk at the most inopportune moments. In those early days that voice was usually serving up ideas like: “If you go outside with that giant, ugly pimple, everyone’s going to stare at you,” or “Why did you say that stupid thing, you looked like a total dork and now they’re not going to not like you.”

Over the years that little voice became more sophisticated and diversified, popping up at times to pull the rug out from under me when I most needed to have confidence or to keep me lying awake at night feeling worried or anxious about some future thing I have no control over. I spent far too much of my adult life ruminating because of those little jerk voices in my head. Now, thanks to my health coach training, I know a bit more about how to name them and tame them and get them out of my way.

In coaching, we call them Gremlins (and yes, word-nerd friends, I'm going to capitalize it because these things take on an identity of their own). And while there are a number of ideas, theories and practices that are focused on the subject of how Gremlins get into our heads, they are generally defined as negative inner voices that serve as critics or purveyors of self-doubt, slowing your positive momentum, standing in the way of your success or sabotaging your satisfaction.

Some of the most common Gremlins (and some of their greatest hits) include:

  • Self-doubt: “Remember that time you tried this and failed? You’re totally going to fail again.”

  • Imposter: “You don’t really know what you’re doing, what if people find out?”

  • Inadequacy: “You’re not good enough.”

  • Perfectionism: “You’re not going to do well at that, so don’t even try, you’ll just embarrass yourself.”

  • Procrastination: “This is going to be hard, let’s do something else.”

  • Fear: “Last time you were in a relationship you got hurt, so it’s safer to just be single.”

  • Low self-esteem: “You’re [...fat, ugly, old, irrelevant, stupid…]” and the beat goes on.

  • And a whole host of “Shoulda, Wouldas” and “What ifs”

I could list dozens more, but chances are you’ve been visited by at least a few of these Gremlins and didn’t like their tune.

Grappling with Gremlins

One effective strategy I’ve found for dealing with Gremlins has worked well for me for a few years now. And it only involves three simple steps you can do in a matter of seconds when a Gremlin comes at you.

Name it.

The very act of naming a Gremlin takes away some of its power. This is because naming it separates it from you, it enables you to see it for the monster it is, and to recognize that this monster isn’t based on your present reality at all. It’s an emotionally charged thought or assumption based on some past thought/idea/experience that may not be relevant now, or it’s based on the emotion of fear/anxiety/worry about a future that has not yet happened. Either way, if it’s a Gremlin, it’s not your reality, right now, in this moment. Call it what it is and say it to yourself (or even out loud, depending on your circumstances): e.g. “I recognize you, Self-doubt Gremlin.”)

Tame it.

At that point of recognition that your visiting Gremlin isn’t real, if you have the time and curiosity, you can either examine it (e.g. “Does this Gremlin actually apply to my reality right now? And if it does, is my Gremlin blowing it way out of proportion?”). Then tell it the simple truth: “Self-doubt Gremlin, you are blowing this WAY out of proportion.” And if you want to really give it a kick (my favorite way) imagine yourself physically swatting or swiping it away with a stern command like “Self-doubt Gremlin, stop undermining my confidence!” SWIPE to the next, better moment in my life.

Replace it.

With the Gremlin gone, it helps to shut the barn door to keep it from coming back. One way to fortify your defenses against the Gremlin’s return is to give yourself a moment to take one or two deep breaths and remember a time (just one time will do) where you were at your best or you were successful at overcoming whatever it was the Gremlin was bugging you about (e.g. “Remember the time I aced that job interview? I’ve got this!”). And if, in the heat of the moment, you can’t come up with a time you were successful – just say an affirmation to yourself a few times, like “I can do this” or “I am calm and confident.”

You can overcome negative self-talk Gremlins!

At their very core, Gremlins are tied to negative emotions. So finding a time in your past when you were successful activates positive emotions that help you keep that Gremlin from coming back.

Yes, there will, mostly likely, be repeat visitors. Some of these little monsters take a few swats to get the picture. But each time you recognize them and run this quick process, they lose a little bit more of their power over you until they stop coming back altogether.

And the good news is, dealing with your old Gremlins helps you become more resilient and helps keep you from developing new ones too.

There are some Gremlins, particularly those based in childhood trauma, abuse, PTSD or other severe emotional experiences, that require a bit more work to identify and heal. And that’s when it’s helpful to consult with a professional counselor, psychologist or therapist.

But if you’re just pestered by the occasional visitor zapping your self-esteem or stoking your worries about the future, try this quick strategy to get them out of the way and begin healing. And if you have trouble identifying and naming your Gremlins, a coach might be able to help.

Updated from the original post on 8 February 2020


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