Days after arriving on campus for my freshman year at the University of Michigan, two new friends taught me about a prominent entity in my life, its existence thus far unbeknownst to me. They told me about the goblin.
The goblin, as they defined it, is our inner voice of anxiety. It takes gray thoughts and paints them black and white. It gathers unrelated, anxiety-generating situations and draws common threads between them: Those things both happened because people don’t like you as much as they say they do, it salaciously whispers. Its sole purpose is to make us feel shitty.
Early in the pandemic-marred fall semester of 2020, I was facing the (hardly unique) early-college challenges that come with settling into a new routine in a new place with new people. But before long, I was doing so in total isolation — quarantined with COVID-19 in a North Campus apartment, I was sicker than I’d ever been. This particular series of events set an unfortunate tone for the next 12 months, and the year was a tough one. I was debilitated by self-doubting ruminations. I felt as though each day I had to shake myself free from the grasp of anxieties, only to start over from square one the next.
Prior to 2020, I was relatively free from intrusive, anxious thoughts, which I now see as a great privilege. I wasn’t accustomed to harboring beliefs that I didn’t want to believe in. I wasn’t regularly needing to talk myself out of my own self-talk. But, life changed, and suddenly I did. Only once I could recognize destructive thoughts as the goblin’s doing could I begin to move forward. A year after my greatest darkness, on Sept. 18, 2021, I wrote a manifesto to make sense of what I’d learned in the Notes app on my computer. It goes like this:
Manifesto of the Goblin
- room for interpretation
- lack of communication
- long-term thinking, even when not enough information is known to think about the long term
- always wrong.
- good at making you think it doesn’t exist and that its concerns are your concerns (when really, they are EXCLUSIVELY goblin concerns).
- obsessed with you — thinks everything in yours and everyone’s lives are about you.
- you to overthink.
- to take something that is okay and extract any possible negative from it.
TO DEFEAT THE GOBLIN:
- you must first acknowledge the goblin.
- you must NOT try to fight the goblin; you will never be able to out-reason the goblin.
- you must turn your focus, to the greatest extent possible, toward completing tasks that will bring you joy and take your mind off the goblin. The goblin only can operate when you give it space to. If you are busy, in a rush, having fun, distracting yourself, etc., the goblin is held at bay.
Much of my irrational thinking, which precipitated the manifesto, revolved around a romantic relationship that ended when I left for college and resumed when U-M students were forced to leave the dorms before Thanksgiving of 2020. When we broke up, the goblin got busy in my mind. When we got back together, it was relentless:
When you broke up, it wasn’t just because of distance. She didn’t love you anymore.
She probably hooked up with that friend of yours you’re scared she hooked up with.
When she says she’s not free, she really is. She just doesn’t want to see you.
Things are different now. They’re worse.
These thoughts were among the first I attributed to the goblin, but doing so allowed me to recognize how it rears its ugly head in other ways, too. My goblin’s tastes are mostly related to my relationships and others’ perceptions of me. Other people’s goblins, however, may be more interested in their body image, professional life or self-worth. Goblins’ diets, it seems to me, are adaptable. They’ll feast on whatever’s lying around.
Goblin thoughts are goblin thoughts not because they’re wrong, but because of their distortion and evaluation of conditions of uncertainty. To address goblins in accordance with the manifesto’s mandate is not to deny them (nor affirm them), but to recognize their inherent ambiguity.
Some aspects of the Manifesto of the Goblin are found in psychology literature. American psychologist Albert Ellis pioneered the field of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, which asserts that when an activating event occurs, we form beliefs about it, and from those beliefs, we develop emotional responses. Problems arise, he explains, when those beliefs are irrational, meaning they 1) distort reality, 2) are illogical, 3) prevent you from reaching your goals, 4) lead to unhealthy emotions or 5) lead to self-defeating behavior.
In some ways, the manifesto is just a hastily written distillation of the ideas that Ellis, and certainly countless other academics, has articulated. However, in one crucial way, the Manifesto of the Goblin is unique: The goblin, as conceived by the manifesto, is divorced from the individual it inhabits. It is an entity other than oneself. It isn’t a part of your brain — rather, it’s just squatting within it.
There’s something to be said for the personification of the source of our irrational beliefs. Doing so establishes an entity separate from myself as the kingpin of my anxious ruminations. This separation doesn’t make the act of taking proactive steps to alleviate anxiety any less important. But it does change how I attempt to do so.
My goblin simply can’t be dissuaded. The longer I fight it, the more irrational and destructive its assertions become:
That friend of yours doesn’t want to be friends anymore.
That’s not true. I asked him. He says he does.
Then he’s lying.
No. He’s not the kind of person who would do that.
You’re the kind of person who would make him.
Rebuttals to the goblin’s claims may get stronger and stronger, but the goblin’s claims become more and more vexing with each volley. It’s a losing battle. Fighting with the goblin is an unproductive use of my time. By engaging in these back-and-forths with the goblin, I’m offering it space to operate. The only fix is to walk away — to make art, to talk to friends, to do my homework or, when the goblin strikes in the wee hours (as it so often does for me), to go to bed.
Now, two years after drafting the manifesto, it has become something of a mantra. You must first acknowledge the goblin. You must not try to outreason the goblin. You must take your mind off the goblin. I wrote the whole thing in Sharpie on the wall next to the toilet in the first-floor bathroom of my co-operative house. Some people get tattoos to symbolize overcoming an obstacle. Maybe the inscription on the bathroom wall does something similar for me.
Between the fall of 2020 and now, with the help of plenty of therapy and an SSRI prescription, I’ve managed to arrive at something of a peace treaty with the goblin. I sometimes think about how I would have navigated the anxiety (and resulting depression) I faced early in college without the goblin verbiage my two friends shared with me. There are methods aplenty to combat intrusive thoughts, and surely I’d have eventually stumbled upon one that worked well for me. Nonetheless, those friends’ framework suited me so beautifully. Their conception of a disembodied incarnation of our most twisted fears and paranoias rang true from the second they explained the concept. It still does now.
Now, I like to think the goblin is afraid of me. I like to think that I’ve remodeled the living space in my head such that the goblin no longer feels as comfortable. I desperately hope it’s true.
Statement Contributor and Photo Editor Jeremy Weine can be reached at email@example.com.