‘Taming Your Gremlin’—Revisiting a Self-Help Classic

Rick Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin: A Guide to Enjoying Yourself begins by announcing its modest aim:

This book is not intended to guide you to enlightenment, to eternal bliss, or to riches. It will, however, help you enjoy yourself more and more each day.

What a refreshing sentiment in this age of books that promise quick fixes and instant nirvana! Moreover, Carson actually delivers on his promise with a little gem of a book that you can read in one sitting.

Rick Carson is a psychotherapist, executive coach, and trainer who works with mental health professionals, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. He is a former faculty member at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and an approved supervisor for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Our Baseline—Pure Enjoyment

Carson’s premise is that we enter this world as beings who are capable of constant enjoyment. Yet by the time we become adults, this innate capacity is long forgotten.

How does this happen?

Enter your gremlin.

Recognize the Gremlin

Carson defines your gremlin as “the narrator inside your head.” This is the constant stream of thinking that interprets your experience and evaluates each event in your life.

The problem is that the gremlin is 1) constantly active 2) highly critical and 3) committed to making you believe that his interpretations are absolutely true.

According to Carson, your gremlin is happiest when you worry about the future, rehash events from the past, dwell on failures, and analyze other people’s faults.

Of course, the gremlin is simply a metaphor for the systems of irrational beliefs that Albert Ellis and other cognitive psychologists have explored in such detail.

Carson’s gift is suggesting that we visualize those belief systems as pesky little demons that live inside our head. Holding this image allows us to detach from our irrational beliefs—and eventually free ourselves of them.

Get to Know a Few Gremlins

One delight of reading Carson’s book is seeing its comic illustrations of various gremlins and reading their colorful descriptions. For example:

Katherine is 40. Her gremlin looks like her grandfather only he engages her by preaching to her from the New Testament. He especially likes to make appearances when Katherine is having sex with someone. Until Katherine began to tame her gremlin, she was not only good and righteous, but lonely, emotionally isolated, and unable to have an orgasm.

While everyone’s gremlin is unique, he is not original. In fact, gremlins tend to hammer on some core messages. For example:

Your true self is unlovable.

You can only enjoy yourself for short periods of time.

Fast is good and slow is bad.

To show sadness is to be weak or childish or unreliable or overly dependent.

Nice girls don’t enjoy sex.

Nice girls certainly don’t show that they enjoy sex.

Asking for what you want is selfish.

To show anger is to be sinful, childish, unprofessional, and/or out of control.

To express uncensored joy is to be silly or unprofessional.

Not acknowledging and/or not expressing feelings will make them go away.

How Your Gremlin Wins

Our natural response to a gremlin is to argue with him—to deny, resist, and refute our irrational beliefs.

According to Carson, this attempt is doomed to failure.

Why? Because the gremlin thrives on attention and opposition. He is also a master debater. The moment that you engage with him in intellectual battle is the very moment that he wins—and you lose.

How to Tame Your Gremlin

The alternative to arguing with your gremlin is simple (though not easy). It is to simply notice the gremlin at work. Awareness of the gremlin—not thinking or arguing—is your most powerful response.

Carson reminds us that:

…as you begin to simply notice your gremlin, you will become acutely sensitive to the fact that you are not your gremlin, but rather his observer. You will see clearly that your gremlin has no real hold you. As this awareness develops, you will begin to enjoy yourself more an more. It is to you, the observer, that this book is written.

Here Carson aligns with the newer schools of cognitive behavioral therapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. With these approaches, clients learn to greet their irrational beliefs with mindful attention rather than refute those beliefs and replace them with more rational alternatives.

In brief, Carson writes: “I change not by trying to be something other than I am. I change by being fully aware of how I am.”

Playing With Options

One of the most refreshing aspects of Taming Your Gremlin is Carson’s approach to behavior change. He believes that forcing ourselves to adopt a new belief or change a habit merely creates a new gremlin.

Instead, we can choose a new behavior in any moment. We can change for today rather than worrying about changing forever. We can play with change and experiment with options.

“So long as you are willing to ground yourself and simply notice, you will never lose the vantage point of the current moment, and from this home base of operation you can always choose to tame your gremlin,” Carson writes. Every moment holds the potential for compete self-enjoyment and for complete misery. The choice is yours.”

2 thoughts on “‘Taming Your Gremlin’—Revisiting a Self-Help Classic

  1. Thank you! The concept of the gremlin helps me to call it out. My gremlin says “you lack the athletic thighs of a 13-year-old boy” and I say “you are a figment of a cultural obsession with weird unrealizable images.”

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