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How to manage your emotional demons


Imagine you’re on a boat out at sea.sudden demon

You’re alone, except for a pack of scary demons hiding below the deck. As long as you keep floating around on the open sea, they stay below deck and you feel okay—for the most part.  Except for that nagging feeling that there are frightening creatures just out of sight.

When you decide you’ve had enough of floating around and turn the tiller to head toward shore, the demons come rushing up from below, gnashing their teeth and waving their razor-sharp claws at you.

“You have to stay out on the open sea!” they roar at you. “We’re going to slice you up with our razor-sharp claws if you don’t turn away from the shore!”

Frightened and intimidated, you turn your boat around and head back out to open sea. Slowly, the demons shuffle back under the deck.

For a while, floating aimlessly again on the open sea is okay. At least you have some peace and don’t need to worry much about the demons lurking close by.

But then you begin to notice other boats heading toward shore. You remember that you have plans to go ashore to see things you want to see and do things you want to do. As your hand moves toward the tiller to change course, you hear the muffled sounds of roaring and growling below.

Your hand trembles above the tiller. How can you reach shore with those threatening demons ready to pounce at the least movement of the rudder?


Letting the demons decide our course


This scenario is a metaphor for the struggle many of us have with the painful emotions that get in the way of the life we want to lead. When we try to take control of the helm in our lives, we can be intimidated by our emotional demons and continue instead to float aimlessly through life.

Suppose you value being in a loving relationship, but every time you begin pursuing ways to meet a potential partner, you become overwhelmed by the demons of Anxiety and Doubt. You might try arguing with your demons, telling them that they’re irrational or wrong or stupid.

But this only feeds the demons and causes them to grow.

You might decide the demons are just too powerful and give up on your path of finding a partner. Your anxiety and doubt may diminish, only to be replaced by loneliness and restlessness as you float away from your cherished value.

Or, perhaps you value creating community and helping society. You feel a strong sense of purpose and meaning when you take action to steer in that direction. Yet thoughts of volunteering or taking a leadership position in your community are met with monstrous demons of Grief and Anger over the death of your adult child several years ago.

“I can’t help anyone when I’m so mixed up myself,” you might think, turning your ship around to head back out to open sea and leaving your important values behind you on the shore. The Anger and Grief demons trundle to the stern of the ship, not even bothering to go below deck.


The truth about demons


There is something important you need to know about these demons.

They can’t hurt you.

They appear nasty and can be loud and aggressive, gesturing with their sharp claws and growling with their deep voices. But the truth is, they can’t touch you. They can get right next to you and scream threats in your ear, but they can’t harm you.

As long as you believe their threats, they are in charge of the boat and you are left floating in an open, dreary sea. But when you see them for what they are, you can take back control of the tiller and sail anywhere you like.

The demons are real. It’s important to acknowledge that fact. But once you recognize that you can steer your boat despite their unwelcome presence, you will start to see the demons for what they are.

With your hands firmly on the helm, you’ll start to notice that the demons aren’t as big and ugly as you thought. And, even though they gather around to intimidate you into changing your course, it will become apparent that all they can do is hiss and roar and growl. They can’t hurt you with their claws that once seemed huge and razor-sharp but now appear to be merely overgrown fingernails.

So with the now-normal-sized demons around you, you set sail for developing a loving relationship or creating community or being kind to others or making a difference in the world or being tolerant or practicing any of the other values you hold close. After a while, your demons realize you’re not paying much attention to them, so they grumble their way to the back of the boat as you sail on in the direction you want to go.


Making room for your emotional demons


Realizing that your painful emotions can’t tear you to shreds and keep you from going where you want to go is an important first step. Learning how to allow them to just be, rather than fighting them or letting them push you in a non-valued direction, is a productive second step. Here are some ideas about how to do that.

1. Soften, expand, allow.

Sitting in a quiet place, close your eyes or gaze softly at an area on the floor in front of you. Take a few gentle, deep breaths and allow your mind to settle. Become aware of the painful emotion(s) that you’re struggling with. Try to locate this feeling in your body. Is it in your neck? Your stomach? Your back?

When you get a sense of where the feeling is located, take a breath in, and as you breathe out, imagine softening around the feeling. You may be accustomed to resisting the feeling, so softening may be new to you. Just imagine the outer edges of the feeling relaxing and growing soft.

Now as you inhale, see the area around the feeling expanding, giving room and space to the feeling. Allow the feeling to just be.

Your mind will want to take over during this exercise. That’s natural. Just let the thoughts go by like leaves floating down a stream and return to allowing your feeling to just be within you.

Remember that this exercise isn’t about feeling better or getting the feeling to go away. It’s about learning to allow the emotion so that you can continue on your path toward a richer and more meaningful life.

2. Be compassionate.

In your quiet place, visualize your feeling. Realize that, in a way, it is trying to help, perhaps to protect you or keep you safe. Create some compassion for your feeling. Imagine holding it close and soothing it, letting it know that it is okay and all will be well.

3. Remember that your feeling is normal.

Feelings—even feelings we don’t like—remind us that we are human and that we really care about something. Our painful feelings result from what author Russ Harris calls “the reality gap:” the space between what we want and what we have.

4. Healing hand.

Place your hand over the area in your body where you feel this emotion strongly. Imagine that your hand is sending warm, healing energy to the feeling. You’re not trying to get rid of the feeling. You’re just holding it gently and sending it healing warmth.


Remember that this is a practice and that the demons on your boat have been threatening and intimidating you for a long time. It may take awhile for you to accept them and create more space for them rather than trying to make them be quiet or go away. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you set your course for the shore.


So, in the past few posts, we’ve decided to go on a journey toward a richer, more meaningful life, learned to name our most cherished values, discovered how to unhook from negative thoughts, and now we’ve found that we can steer toward values-based living even with emotional demons in our lives.

Next time, we’ll put this all together into one helpful, practical package that will keep us bouncing back from just about anything!


I’m interested in stories about the demons in your life. Please share in the comments below!




Want to see a fun little video that uses a similar metaphor? Check out “Struggling With Internal Hijackers?”

“Demons On a Boat” is a metaphor created by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, The Happiness Trap, The Reality Slap, and more.

If you’re interested in learning more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and how to lead a richer, more meaningful life, I highly recommend The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT.

Therapists might be interested in Harris’ outstanding, easily readable primer on ACT, ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Photo courtesy of Brendan Adkins.



  1. Sanjay Tripathi says:

    I just love the way you put it across. These fears you are right have no substance but still manage to influence our behavior . Looking forward to more insights. God bless you. Hare Krishna .
    Sanjay Tripathi

  2. Kay says:

    I am so far out to sea that I can longer see the shore. I have given up trying to paddle back. I use to be so strong, but life just pounds on me. After a long time has past, you find yourself old, bitter, sad, disgusted at yourself, defeated. You are always supposed to look toward the future, but I see nothing. You are supposed to tell the past, just let it be. My lived my life in reverse – easy in the beginning and unbearable in the end.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Kay,

      Sorry that life is so tough for you right now. It sounds like you have a lot of demons in your life. I’m wondering if a therapist might be able to help you live a more meaningful life in spite of your demons?

  3. Sue says:

    This reminds me of that old saying that “courage is feeling the fear, but doing it anyway”.
    I have a lot of brain damage and cannot control my temper, which is the most common symptom of permanent brain damage. I am terrified I will hurt someone, and have withdrawn from all but close friends and my spouse, so I don’t blow up in a rage at people who arouse my anger.
    Any time I have to be around new people, I must put this into practice, and tell myself I can walk away as fast as I can if necessary, no matter how strange it appears to others. It is a constant challenge, because I don’t want to look like a lunatic.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hey Sue,

      That’s a pretty tough situation you have with your brain injury. My encouragement to you is to not allow the demons of Fear, Anxiety, and Shame that might arise from your injury keep you from going in the direction you want to go. My thoughts are with you, my friend!

  4. Mamie Rock says:

    Lovely, helpful article. I am reminded of the quotation “Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming, but we can choose which one to surf.” -Jonatan Martensson Emotions can be so overwhelming, and persistent, it is easy to forget that we have a choice in how to react to them and move forward toward that shore. Thank you.
    Mamie Rock recently posted…How to manage your emotional demonsMy Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Mamie,

      Yes, and we can just allow our emotions to be there without fighting them, can’t we? We need to take the action of heading toward the shore, but we don’t always have to fight to get there!

  5. Jim says:

    Hi all, a well written article. Thank you Bobbi for sharing and caring. I wish to say that with effort and time the demons that once followed me have long since passed. Many years ago now, after a failed marriage there were times when the burdens I carried were great and was of the opinion they would never leave. After looking inward and learning to love the person that I was, a great healing took place. I am saying that with a only a little effort, those demons over time were put in their place and are now… but dust in the wind. I am proof of this. My greatest progress came from looking inward. In a busy world where there is so much external distraction looking inward can be difficult but worth the effort. May serenity circle on silent wings and catch the whisper of the mind. The journey of life is amazing and beautiful. Be still. Be still and listen…

    • Bobbi says:

      Your writing is always so beautiful, Jim. Thank you.

      I like how you say the demons were “put in their place.” It’s not so much about resisting them, but getting them into the right place in our lives, right?

      Thanks again, Jim!

  6. Julie says:

    Hey Bobbi,
    I really like the way you presented this. Have you ever thought about writing kids books, or better yet, the bigger kids, as in early teens? With it put like that, a story around it about how the child fought the demons back would be interesting, and yet helpful to the lost and confused teenagers who have no idea what to do or think or say.. Just a thought. See, my demons are from my preteen years, anger that I held on to about the things parents and peers said or did or the loss of family members, to life not death, as you put it to me once. And with all those emotions and a lack of coping skills, support system, and/or a person to confide in, I ended up carrying those evil monsters all the way to the beginning of my 30’s until I decided to face them. I will definitely try your exercises if the emotional monsters decide to show up again. =)

    • Bobbi says:

      Sounds good, Julie! No, I haven’t thought about writing a children’s book, but I appreciate you thinking I could do such a thing! But Russ Harris, the originator of the “Demons on a Boat” metaphor, has written an illustrated version of his book, The Happiness Trap, for Kindle. It might be good for older kids. Check it out here.

  7. Priska says:

    Hi Bobbi,
    I also really like the way you presented this.
    At present I am smack bang in the middle of confronting my demons.
    I am using the process of writing a mid life review. Writing about my demons instead of running away is helping me accept my whole self.
    Revisiting past demons at a later point in life gives a me a new perspective. I’m developing empathy I was unable to give myself at the time.
    Priska recently posted…10 steps to take you toward your mid-life reinvention.My Profile

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Priska,

      I hope that you can allow your demons to just mutter in the background while you pursue the life you want to lead!

  8. jasmincrisel says:

    Thank you so much Ms.Bobbi for always inspiring us.I really love this article of yours I seriously need this so inspiring!!!Thank you for everything Ms.Bobbi.. :))

  9. Annmarie wilson says:

    Great timing!!!ths year has been very emotional fr me & I am learning more about myself every day. I have seek sheltered under the loving arms of god who has not left my side and as I continue to recognize my emotions give it a name then release it to The Lord which as helped me tremendously. I continue to weather the storm & know that I will be fine.

  10. Chris says:

    After three years of separation, my divorce was final this spring. Although developing a future relationship might be something that I will find appealing, right now I am happily ‘sailing’. The freedom of no relationship is much better than the chains of a bad relationship. To steal a line, “Sailing takes me away to where I am going”. I do not feel and hope that others realize that no one is required to be committed in a relationship. You choose your situation and submit to the consequences of that choice.

  11. […] on my other blog, I recently wrote about how to manage your emotional demons. There’s a great metaphor by […]

  12. Carmen Patriche says:

    Dear Bobbi, it came just at the right moment to me: I am really struggling with ” demons ” in my life now; I like to call them DEMONS; thank you so much!

  13. Luz says:


    I felt like you were describing my current situation. I just love how you put things and the examples that you use, it’s pretty graphic. All the things you said we “might experience” I already am experiencing. I think the two root causes for being so depressed, is 1) Acceptance. Everyone and everything I read says “learn to accept…” How am I suppose to do that?
    2) I have NOTHING to swim to towards shore. Even though I hate being out in the sea with my deamons, I don’t have dreams, desires or even motivation. I feel numbed, like a walking zombie.
    I read some of the comments in your blog, and made me cry because I don’t think I will be able to change myself.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hey Luz,

      Acceptance is hard, there’s no getting around it. But I think you should read the post about How to Unhook from Negative Thoughts and then this post again. Realize that you can still move forward even when you’re feeling depressed. I think it’s such a counter-intuitive idea that it can be hard to wrap our heads around it.

      As for having nothing on shore for you, go back to Naming Your Values and do the exercise there. Even though you don’t have desires or motivation right now, I know you still have values. That’s what waits for us on shore.

      Let me know how it goes!

  14. Love the metaphor, Bobbi! And it’s true that the more attention you give your ‘demons’, the bigger and more powerful they seem to get!

    Love that you guide us through some steps that help us move through our feelings with awareness. So helpful!

    Thank you!
    Kimberley Grabas recently posted…How To Target an Audience (And Avoid Book Launch Flop)My Profile

  15. Michael Daniel says:

    I love this article and the metaphorical value of it. For a very long time, I’ve struggled with trusting a romantic partner because I’ve seen the terrible things my father did to my mother, from hurting her physically with his fist, to hurting her emotionally and mentally with his cheating and hurtful words. As much as I desire my partner, and understand he loves and appreciates me, I can’t help but get far enough as I’d like to from my emotional demons.

    Thank you, Bobbi. Your articles and website are so helpful and insightful. I hope to continue growing with your advice.

    • Bobbi says:

      Hi Michael, thanks for your honest sharing! Remember, that we’re not so much trying to get away from our demons as we are just recognizing them, knowing they can’t hurt us, and allowing them to be without trying to avoid them.

      I wish you well in your relationship! Thanks so much for your kind words.

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.