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Taming the Gremlin Within

Taken from:
Goldstream Gazette, October, 2009

“Dear Paul

My wife and I are quarrelling over almost everything these days. I can’t seem to say a single word without one of us getting upset. It’s tiring both of us out and we’re spending less time together. What’s going on here?”


Brent, if I had a loonie for every time a client expressed this sentiment to me I’d be a very wealthy man. What’s happening, you ask? Let me suggest something.

If we look closer into ourselves, we will see that there is within our nature as human beings an “always-ready-to-spring mechanism”. This mechanism lives in a constant state of defensiveness. It becomes easily hurt or offended, feels regularly annoyed, judged, and misunderstood.

This internal system of reaction takes everything very personally and “goes off” automatically without thought.

This part of us has been called many names. The conditioned self. The self- serving ego. The reactive mind.

I call this mechanism “ The Mischief Maker” because of the enormous amount of suffering it creates in relationship. Rick Carlson calls it “The Gremlin”, in his book “Taming the Gremlin” (Harper Collins 2003 ).

The Gremlin is always in a state of defensiveness. That’s its job. To signal a threat and to protect us. That’s why it reacts as it does.

Your husband says “Honey, aren’t you dressed yet?”. And IT (the Gremlin) is activated: “ Hey, you didn’t tell me we had to leave early. Besides you’ve been in the bathroom. ”

Your wife asks “ Where are the scissors I left on the counter?.” And IT snaps “ Why ask me? I didn’t have them. I never use your scissors. ”

Reaction. Reaction. Reaction. This automatic system of reaction and protection can make being in relationship very difficult and tiring.

So why are we so sensitive? What are we protecting? What is “it” doing?

The Gremlin has one purpose – to uphold, to manage and protect our self image. It is chattering to us all the time about our self image. It does not take recess or vacations. It will “come out” suddenly if it feels its self-image is under question or attack.

How does the Gremlin do its work? Simple. By being right, making others wrong, judging, blaming or invalidating others, by justifying itself. It believes it wins that way.

The Gremlin can be right about anything. This feeling of being right feeds it. It also causes a lot of indigestion, but the Gremlin ignores that – it’s a meal.

So now Brent, let’s acknowledge something else. In a marriage, there are not one, but two, Gremlins! And they are living together sharing the same space! Can you see a little problem here?

Just notice what happens when you make your partner wrong or they feel made wrong. Their Gremlin is activated. They defend them selves, justify them selves, and make you wrong back. To which you react, making yourself right and them wrong (er). And on it goes. There you have “two mechanisms”. Gremlin v.s. Gremlin.

Now let’s not ignore that when you have two Gremlins going off – there is no one listening. No one. That’s a fact. No one is listening. It’s all “reaction”.

Yet Brent, I say being aware of this simple and very human mechanism in all of us can make a big difference in our intimate relationships. Perhaps in all our relationships.

Understanding the automatic nature of human “reactions”, we can see and understand when “it” is triggered. The “reactions” we have, and others have with us, become so much less personal. We understand what happened when we or someone else “reacts”.

We can be responsible for our own Gremlin, catch it in action, We can learn to detach from many of our “reactions”, be more responsible for our selves, and clean up the messes “it” makes.

Through our awareness of this automatic mechanism we can begin to “Tame the Gremlin” within.

Paul Beckow is a marriage therapist in the West Shore and can be reached at pbeckow@shaw.ca or Paul Beckow Counselling 250 721 2477.

For personal or couple counselling, for more information, or to register for a course - please contact Paul Beckow at The Victoria Family Institute.

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