Ken Hegan tames his gremlins with a strange self-help book

I could get therapy. But this year I’m all about DIY.

So I went to Value Village to find a self-help book. Now, if you think people browsing for self-help books in Value Village are exciting and glamorous, you’re sadly mistaken. One guy, wearing a fanny pack and pajama bottoms, actually dozed off while reading Awaken the Giant Within.

Suddenly this book caught my eye: Taming your Gremlin: A Guide to Enjoying Yourself. The jacket says, “There is a gremlin within you. He is the narrator in your head. He tells you who you are … [and] he wants you to feel bad.”

“No, I don’t, you idiot,” said the narrator in my head.

“Yes you do,” I muttered back.

Written by psychologist Richard D. Carson, Taming Your Gremlin features cartoon drawings of slimy gremlins feeding crummy thoughts to sadsack losers. Looks like a kids book! Perfect. I brought it home and got to work on fixing my brain.

Chapter 1, Page 3: “While you were created capable of complete and constant enjoyment, there is within you a gremlin intent on squelching your very essence.”

Carson says your gremlin is a bully who constantly dogs you “when you wake up in the morning and when you go to sleep at night. … He is intent on making you feel lousy. His caution about life and living is inordinate and his methods of control are overzealous.”

Apparently, we all have a gremlin; the inner bully who says you’re fat, dumb, useless, a dangerous mom, that you take too many hostages, or kill too many hobos.

As for me, whenever I try something bold or new, my bully shuts me down by saying, “Quit trying to be special.”

“Time to imagine what your gremlin looks like,” says Carson. Then he gossips about the gremlins haunting his most messed-up patients. For instance, Jack, 32, is a lawyer with an ulcer. He says his gremlin, “The General,” is short, bald, wears a military uniform, and makes Jack follow impossibly complicated orders. So Jack has “big biceps, a black belt in karate, and an inability to get an erection.”

“Ha!” said my bully. “If you’re as bad off as that nutter, you’re worse than I thought.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” I said. This has to stop. I close my eyes, and try to imagine my gremlin as a hot gremlin babe with cute fangs and a come-hither tail. No luck, though. Deep down, I know my gremlin is a dude.

I concentrate harder and breathe deep into my groin. Then it hits me: My gremlin looks exactly like me — except he’s barrel-chested, deeply-tanned, has a greasy ponytail, and 12-pack abs. Great. My gremlin’s a pro wrestler. That’s a hard voice to slay.

But here’s the thing: Dr. Carson says you can’t beat your gremlin in a fight. You can only release your gremlin’s grip by:

1. Being in process: “Gremlin taming” is an “on-going adventure that will forever be ‘in process,’ ” says Dr. Carson. “There is no finish line.”

2. Playing with options: He phrase “until now” is “one of the most powerful tools you have for taming your gremlin,” says Dr. Carson. Use it whenever you find yourself saying, ‘I can’t.’ For example, “I can’t seem to stop killing hobos … UNTIL NOW.”

3. Simply noticing: “Thinking about” why you’re useless is the “preferred activity of your gremlin” because it wastes your time and stresses you out. Instead, Dr. Carson recommends you “simply notice how you are, not why you are how you are.” This is more productive because “when you are simply noticing, you can love and create naturally and fully.”

Chapter 4: I just ‘simply noticed’ someone has scribbled notes in this book. That’s the fun of used self-help books: They come with used thoughts. It’s as if they left a trail of clues that reveal how they healed themselves. The handwriting looks masculine.

“Wait,” said my gremlin, “if this book is so healing, why’d he get rid of it?” Hmm. Good question. I found the answer on Page 33. Dr. Carson lists nine statements about anger, and tells you to fill in the blanks. My book’s previous owner wrote his answers in red pen — and he pressed so hard into the page, it’s disturbing:

1. A time I really felt angry at another human being was … WHEN I FELT LIKE A FAILURE AND WAS REMINDED OF IT.

7. When my mother was angry, she tended to … YELL AND/ OR BREAK DOWN CRYING.

8. When my father was angry, he tended to … GET PHYSICALLY VIOLENT.

9. I automatically associate anger with … POWER BAD PAIN DARKNESS HARM INSANITY KILL.

“Jesus!” I yelled.

I quickly flipped to the final pages. I needed to make sure he was OK. I searched for a cheery testimonial … a breezy note … anything that said he escaped his gremlin and found “complete and constant enjoyment.”

But there were no more notes. No more red pen. ‘Insanity’ and ‘Kill’ were the last things he wrote before he dropped the book or had it taken away from him.

Chilled to the bone, I grabbed the book, ran outside, and flung it into the recycling bin. And as I slowly backed away, my gremlin patted my brain, and said, “Stick with me, dummy.”

— Ken Hegan