Mental Monsters (and how to fight them!)

8 May 2012. Filed under category Life.
A Mental Monster

A Mental Monster

It started with a pile of neglected online work that had been piling up during my two months holidaying around Switzerland, London and California. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I buckled down and did the work. It took a couple of weeks to clear up, and during that time, I got into a comfortable routine of staying home. That routine solidified into a mental barrier against exploring Buenos Aires. I didn’t know where to start, and I put it off. Then my lack of adventurous spirit became a source of guilt. I feel like I should be out there having fun, but I was not and it was entirely my own doing–or lack thereof. I had lost the momentum. To cover up the guilt, I invented more online busywork, but that just made things worse. Now I wasn’t just worrying about wasting my time but I also felt inadequate and weak-willed. Here I was, the self-proclaimed nomad, meant to travel the world and live an exciting life, holed up in his room, unable to enjoy Buenos Aires, one of the most easily enjoyable cities in the world!

I faced a mental monster, a twin-headed dragon of failed expectations and self-isolation.

Here be dragons

Best sign ever!

Best sign ever!

Did the previous section strike you as absurd, silly or overly dramatic? It does to me, now, reading it back. But that is the thing with mental monsters. They may look absurd from the outside, but from the twisted perspective of the individual dealing with them, they are real and serious. In my personal example above, I truly felt the pain of the disparity between my idealized nomadic lifestyle and my actual experiences, and it paralyzed me. It was all in my head, but that didn’t make it any less real or dangerous. After all, we are our minds.

Enough introduction. This article is not about my own dragon of despair; it is about mental monsters and pitfalls in general. Everyone has them, and the section on how to deal with them is of general interest. But first, I want to say why nomads should be extra vigilant of these beasts.

The edge of the map

When we live stable lives surrounded by friends and family, then our mental state is anchored to those routines and people. Imagine your mind as a ship, anchored outside an island populated by friendly people. Your mind ship doesn’t drift very far, for good and bad. It is safe, but your chances of exploring new sides of your psyche are limited.

The end of our mental world.

The end of our mental world.

When you break away from those anchors, i.e. leave the work, city and people that have been your life for many years or decades, then everything changes. You begin exploring uncharted territories of your life and push the horizon of your experiences, but such ventures are not risk free. Just like the uncharted edges of medieval maps, there are dragons, sea serpents and great whirlpools in those murky waters.

Nomads need to be aware of these risks. Consider for example how you’d react to these situations.

That last point is my personal dragon that has twice bitten me, once recently which prompted me to write this post and once in Mexico, where I underwent a crisis of purpose.

How to deal with dragons

I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from taking risks and explore themselves through travel. These mental monsters are more frequent as a nomad, but there are also wondrous islands of hidden skills, newfound confidence and resplendent self-realizations. The benefits of pushing yourself like this far outweighs the risks.

Besides, no matter how safely anchored your life is, those dragons can still come to you. No one is safe from their own mind. Nomadic or not, everyone should learn how to deal with their dragons.

Study them

Your monsters can tell you a lot about yourself, but don't get too close!

Your monsters can tell you a lot about yourself, but don't get too close!

I keep harping on about it, but the main goal of my nomadic life isn’t to explore the world but to explore myself. (The exploration of the world is a great bonus though!) So although these mental monsters aren’t pleasant, they are undeniably a part of me and therefore worth exploring. Knowing that I am prone to sadness, loneliness and self-doubt in certain situations doesn’t make me weaker; it makes me wiser.

This self-reflection is an essential prerequisite for the three tactics below. It is only once you’ve faced your dragon, looked it straight in the eye and acknowledged that it is there that you can avoid, fight or dispel it.

A word of warning though. There is a big difference between studying a monster and being eaten by it. Being depressed for a few weeks is quite different from wallowing in it for years. Don’t make a routine out of your pain! The goal is to know it so you can overcome it. Once understood, it should be dealt with.

Avoid them

If you know where the monsters are, avoid them!

If you know where the monsters are, avoid them!

Once we know that certain parts of our minds are breeding grounds for dragons, then we can stay clear of them. An alcoholic who knows that they are prone to self-destruction if they drink quite sensibly avoids alcohol. If the news or reality TV shows depress you, change the channel.

The key word here is acceptance. It is impossible to avoid a dragon whose existence you deny.

Fight them

If you can and need to, fight the monsters!

If you can and need to, fight the monsters!

Some monsters simply can’t be avoided. They can be random, cyclical or triggered by something you don’t want to avoid.

In my case, I don’t want to avoid arriving in new places where I am forced to make new friends, form new hobbies, find new meaning and explore new experiences. It may scare and overwhelm me, but it is also the very reason why I chose to become a nomad. Therefore, I have to stand my ground and fight the dragon.

Since everyone’s monsters are different, I can’t offer much concrete advice for how to fight them. However, I can say that it does become easier over time as you learn what weapons and tactics work.

There is a neat trick that I want to share with you though, and it works in most cases where you have a mental block against performing some action. It is heavily used in Getting Things Done, and it works wonders. The trick is to separate the decision to do something from the act of doing it.

Here is an example. I knew that to fight my recent dragon, I needed to go explore Buenos Aires, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It all seemed overwhelming and my mind kept sliding off it. So I told myself that all I needed to do today was decide what I was going to do tomorrow. I avoided the mental block because the thing my mind was blocking me from doing wasn’t happening now, but tomorrow. When tomorrow arrived, then I had two powerful weapons to bring down on my monster. The first weapon was the promise to myself that I would do it today. It acted as a momentum to help push me over the edge. The second weapon was that the task at hand was clearly defined. There was no ambiguity about what I needed to do. It was all planned out, and all I had to do was follow the plan.

Dispel them

Don't drag your monster along; cut the cord!

Don't drag your monster along; cut the cord!

Many dragons are self-made. They spawn in our minds from the deep shadow cast by the word ‘should’. We take on some expectation that we cannot live up to and use it to beat ourselves bloody. It is a corrupt bastardization of having goals. A goal inspires you to reach further while the dragon of unattainable expectations poisons your mind and twists your dreams into nightmares.

There is no hiding from these dragons as they are our own thoughts on who or what we should be and neither can they be defeated as these ‘goals’ or ‘shoulds’ are unreachable. An anorectic can’t hide from her feelings of self-loathing and neither can she attain the zero-percent body fat that she thinks she should have. (It is usually a she, but the way objectification of men’s bodies is going, we can soon enjoy equality on this point too.)

Some of these dragons are easily defeated. All we have to do is realize that we are trying to live up to some impossible ideal and drop it. Sometimes, the dragon has sunk its claws so deep in the psyche and the poison spread so far that it takes years of therapy to overcome.

In my case, I realize now that my self-portrait as an exciting guy living a wild and adventurous nomadic life where every day is filled with new wondrous discoveries is an unreachable ideal. I will have times when I just don’t feel like sightseeing or rush around making friends. A day without adventure isn’t a failure but a valuable day of rest. I don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations, including yours, dear reader. I will explore my world, both internal and external, at a pace that makes me happy.

Here be dragons

This line has become synonymous with the dangers of uncharted territories. It is a great example of how one little seed can grow into a tangled mess. The phrase was not, as many believe, frequently used on medieval maps, but appears only once, on the Hunt-Lenox Globe, and there in Latin and using the grammatically correct form of ‘Here are dragons’. But the phrase is there and we can use it to our hearts delight. Language is the way we use it, silly rationales aside.

Before Google Maps, cartographers were fine artists and their maps not just used for reference but also as status symbols. They needed to be on display, and therefore beautiful. The sea serpents and whirlpools decorating the seas of these maps were simply that, decoration.

For an example of a map where the artists went a bit overboard when it comes to his fanciful creatures, check out the Carta Marina, where monsters galore are crammed into every conceivable space.

The Facebook Fiend

Facebook is a great source of distress. Scanning your friends’ newsfeeds, you get a skewed picture of their lives. Everyone seems preoccupied with the most fascinating projects, go to amazing parties and experience the most intense joys and pleasures. In comparison, your life seems grey and dull with only short spikes of awesomeness.

Why is that? Well, the answer is of course that people choose what to put on their timeline. They exclude the dishes and the lonely times in front of the TV and include the spikes of awesomeness.

It is a positively skewed mirage of their real lives. Follow the mirage into the desert and you’ll soon be lost, easy prey for the dragon of unattainable expectations.

Travel Updates

While I was in the claws of my dragon, I only focused on what I was not doing and failed to give myself credit for what I was doing. So here is a list of what I’ve been up to.

First, I am working on getting fit. I am following the P90X workouts (Click on for my weekly P90X video diary.) and I am focusing on learning how to eat healthily.

The second thing that takes up my time in Buenos Aires is learning tango. I tango three times a week, starting with classes which ends in social dancing (called a ‘milonga’).

I’m also working on establishing myself as a website designer, practicing my Spanish and, of course, writing and pushing The Modern Nomad.


Have you ever faced a mental monster?

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  1. I can relate. I spent a lot of time living in Buenos Aires feeling overburdened by “work” (whether real or made up for myself) and going through a similar cycle.

  2. I can totally relate…. sometimes I feel like travel blogging somewhat stops me from really exploring a place properly… but i would never give it up. It’s just important to find a good balance

  3. crys says:

    Gustav, I was so struck by your comment “we are our minds.” Wow, this is tough for me to express. You know my history with Josh, and I think you have some insight into his mind, perhaps, from what I have told you. The dragons he fought for years were the really monstrous kind. He put up a valiant fight, I can’t begin to tell you how hard he fought. I too have these dragons, mine are not as fierce as Josh’s but they are evil and strong. I fight them everyday. This blog hit me at a gut level. Not in a bad way. Actually it gaave me strength. I am going to say something now which I hope you will not feel is patronizing. OK, here goes. You, Gustav, have grown by leaps and bounds in the short time I have been following you. There was never anything wrong with you, don’t get me wrong. But, in this blog, you seem to have come into a real awareness of who you are as a Nomad and given yourself permission to be even more authentic. You continue to amaze me with your self knowledge, your ability to look deep and see all the sides of yourself. Josh did this too. He saw a lot he didn’t like,a lot he wanted to forget and a lot he just accepted as part of himself. It takes a brave person to do that. You share that bravery. Bravo,Gustav. Thank you for this very, for me, personally moving blog. Peace, Crys

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thank you Crys, for reminding me why I keep this blog running. I often wonder if the time and effort I pour into The Modern Nomad couldn’t be better spent elsewhere (like earning money!), but then I make a connection with a reader, like you, and they share their stories with me, and it all seems worth while again.

      I am glad and honoured that you choose to walk with me on this journey.

  4. J. says:

    “I will explore my world, both internal and external, at a pace that makes me happy.” Perfect! No need to even deal with that future dragon again.

  5. Abby says:

    YAY P90X!!!! My savior! Ugh I hate this vicious cycle. Good to hear you’re conquering it. I’m back at work full-time and can’t fit everything in. Just trying to give myself a break, or I’ll be inside working all the time and literally not having a life.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Your saviour? Wow. My sadistic slave master. Funny how perspectives can wary. 🙂

      I recognize what you said about work + exercise -> no life. That is how I ended up not working out while working full time. I just didn’t feel I could fit it all in, and the workouts wasn’t as important as having time and energy left for friends and adventures.

      Of course, that also meant that when I became a nomad, I lost the excuse not to work out, and hence, here I am, in shackles. (I always have the time to be a drama queen.)

  6. Brother Henrik says:

    Mabey it sounds weierd but i have never faced a mental monster or atleast not that i remember.
    Crys i think you ar right about that Gustav has grown by leaps and bounds in short time.
    And i have come to real awareness that i dident know so much about my Brother as i thougt.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      It’s not easy to get to know me, particularly now, as I keep changing. 🙂

  7. Brother Henrik says:

    Sory Gustav your blogg still says that i dont have a gravatar.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thanks for pointing that out! I tracked down a bug in the plugin I used, and fixed it. Will push it to the wider community now. Thanks again!

  8. Jon says:

    All points noted.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Glad you are keeping notes. Here is your gold star.

  9. Craig Brown says:

    Indeed, having the honesty and courage to deal with one’s mental monsters is the first step in conquering them, and you seem to be quite good at this. You did it from before you were a nomad with GTD, etc..Here are some other somewhat disparate thoughts on the subject, not necessarily related to you.

    Many people think that if they were to win the lottery, all their problems would be solved. They’d quit their jobs, buy the stuff they think they want and they’d be happy! Wave some magic dollars and their problems disappear. Except it doesn’t work that way. When they find out they aren’t happier after getting the boat, they look under a new rock. How about a trip to Rio! Yet they land in Brazil and find they are the same person who left the snowy north hours ago. Damn depressing actually. What many people don’t realize is that money can’t buy something valuable for those who don’t know what to value in the first place. Values clarification is an absolutely essential life skill and it must be done ruthlessly and authentically and independently before one can ever achieve happiness under any circumstance. Using the premise “Time is Money” and a simple syllogism, the same can be said for people who suddenly find them self with an abundance of time. Now what do I do? Without a clear set of values and meaningful goals, a sudden abundance of free time can be devastating. The statistics are replete with men who commit suicide or just suddenly die upon retirement.

    I just read three books on happiness, and in “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin she makes what I think is a pretty good statement regarding values clarification (paraphrased):
    1. What makes me feel good?
    2. What makes me feel bad?
    3. What makes me feel right? (my favorite)
    4. And how do I create an atmosphere of growth to realize the above?
    Of course, all this requires that we cultivate a mindfulness about our inner life. We can’t know what makes us feel bad or good or right if we don’t know how to look inside.
    I recommend her websites: and the toolbox: She is very pragmatic like David Allen is with Getting Things Done.

    Finally, on a personal note Gustav, when I met you in London before you left, you emphasized that you wanted to make your nomadic life sustainable. This is no small feat of lifestyle design! It’s just inevitable that you would spend many many hours on your computer if this is going to be the avenue of sustainability for you. I bet it seems like an incongruous thing to do in the shadow of a great city like Buenos Aires.
    I’ve always been interested in how you are going to deal with the “nomadic relationships” aspect of your lifestyle. The loneliness, isolation, monster. Let us know how that works out! I’m sure you will and I’m not being the least bit sarcastic. You are fiercely independent, yet very social. Many of us are the same. Thanks for doing this experiment on our behalf. Someone’s gotta!
    your family’s just a click away.

    p.s. Jono, masterful work of brevity above! You got me beat!

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I’ve just started listening to ‘The Happiness Project’ and I like it so far. Much of what she says in the beginning regarding not disliking her life but wishing for more rang very true for how I felt before I begun my nomadic life. In many ways, this is my happiness project.

      As for the money, I have to say that I don’t miss it much. There are times when I feel I have to say no to a restaurant visit etc because it is money I can spend better elsewhere, but those things don’t matter that much in the big picture. It may be that there will be a delayed effect and I will miss it big time when I’m destitute (see Falling) but so far, so good!

      I’m glad you see it as me doing an experiment ‘on your behalf’ because that is how I hope this blog will be used. I hope that what I write will give pause for reflecting on how people live their lives and what makes them happy, and be brave about going after what they really want, be it a nomadic lifestyle or something completely different.

  10. Hogarth says:

    This Gusty in my opinion has been your best blog entry to date. Totally and utterly authentic. Not that you were pretending before, but by admitting to your struggles, and accepting that not every day has to be packed with adventure, demonstrates an extra level of maturity within you which i respect.You have turned a corner. Sometimes doing nothing can be very liberating!
    I’m glad that your blog is touching people, and your advice for slaying dragons is spot on, you have done very well at describing the process. Moving forward does require dragon slaying and defeating fear. Of all the challenges the biggest one is getting to know and then accept the self, when we do the reward is peace. Well done Gusty, keep up the good work, your helping others! Xx

    1. Craig Brown says:

      Hogarth, I agree completely. Gustav, maybe your next “tweek” here could be a “like” button to other people’s comments.

      1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

        I have a comment-related tweak in mind, but it’s not a like button. (People seem to like good comments by replying to them and telling them why they like it, which I like better. Like this one.)

    2. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thank you for those encouraging words. When I started The Modern Nomad, I wanted it to be a resource and help for other people wishing to live geo-independent lives. But over time, I’ve found that I really enjoy writing about life in general, things that may be inspired by something I come across in my nomadic life but is important for ‘everyone’, including non-nomads.

      It is tough sometimes, but I will keep the blog running while there are still readers benefiting from it. I’m glad and proud to have you as a subscriber.

      1. Jono says:

        Personally I find the “life in general” blogs to be more useful and thought-provoking….as I am not that interested in being a nomad myself.

        But it is your travels that often prompt the topic (e.g. Our Lady of Guacamole) so these act as a perfect segue to more philosophical realms.

        Keep it up man and you will always have readers. And afterall, it acts as a memoir anyway so nothing is wasted.

        1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

          And I love those comment-discussions that spin off in wild directions, and hope that everyone reading this blog feels encouraged to join in. The comment section isn’t just for my friends!

          I don’t know if anyone noticed, but a few days ago I removed the ‘Profile’ category and replaced it with ‘Life’, which is where I’ll place the more life-philosophical posts.

  11. Karl says:

    I second the thing about the Facebook Fiend. I get so yealous of the great lives that others lead that I can’t appreciate my own. I read somewhere that happiness is very connected to how you think you are relative to your peers. So where you were previosuly happy with your salary, finding out that a friend earns more you suddenly aren’t anymore. For example.

  12. Wow, what a great post and I can definitely relate. After going through a break-up with the person I though was going to be my nomadic partner I have found myself in kind of a self imposed limbo. I found myself living in one of the greatest small cites in the world, rudderless. My friends were still there, my favorite haunts were all still there yet somehow I wasn’t.

    It is just now that I am beginning to get motivated again. I know the journey will now be different but that is OK. Almost time to change locales. Anyone else had to deal with this and how did you handle it?

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thank you for sharing that. May I ask how you escaped your mental monster and became motivated again?

  13. Just stumbled across your site. It’s beautiful!
    Now with the post – can totally relate and something that I’ve been personally experiencing as well lately.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I had a look at your own blog, and WOW! Love it! Such a fantastic personal touch!

      Now to your comment. Is this a sensitive personal experience? If not, I’d love for you to share it. It might help someone in a similar situation.

  14. Alexis says:

    The monster you stumbled upon might arise even for non-nomadic people. It lurks around the corner each time I travel for a few weeks in a row, the simple exhaustion of having to find a place where to sleep, to eat, what to visit… and let me zombying out in a hotel room watching TV for a day or two. Then I overtake it by grabbing a touristic guide and selecting any other place around, and I let serendipity or mere chance do the rest.

    Actually, that monster is also living in my own city when I spend too many hours in front of the computer, pretending things have to be done as if my life was depending on them.
    I have started different series of photographs for my web site, and there’s always a new one to be done. This way I’ve created a counter monster that will take me out of the apartment to take pictures and visit the city. What better than a monster to fight another one?

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      I like the line about ‘pretending things have to be done’. I just read ‘Don’t mind the small stuff’, an overall terrible book but it did have one little good piece of advice which said, “Remember that when you die, your inbox will not be empty.” Also, in the much much much better Getting Things Done system (honestly, if you haven’t done so already, check out this article of mine on GTD; it will change your life!) the idea of a ‘list of things to do’ is a health sign. We are not meant to ‘clear’ the list. It is there as an offering up of things you can do, not what you must plow through ASAP.

  15. Turtle says:

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. But I think it’s part of the rejuvenation process. Your brain needs to ‘sleep’ sometimes and having a couple of weeks away from the stimulation of new experiences helps it do that.

  16. Crys Klier-Hoffman says:

    Gustav, Brittany and I are just back from our 14 day trek to San Francisco to walk the Overnight, 18 miles dusk to dawn. We did it in 8 hours. Not too bad for a 66 year old and a young un with fibromyalgia. What does that have to do with mental monsters? Plenty. We saw ours, we said, screw you, and we did the walk. We weren’t pretty, or athletic, or brave or any other word. We were just there, we did bend but we didn’t break. We looked deep inside and saw ourselves, and you, and Craig and all the people who have supported us to get to S.F. and it was good. It is because of you and Craig and others who gave us courage to tackle something 3 years ago we would never have given a second thought to. Mental monsters be damned. We are ALIVE!!!!!

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Crys and Brittany, well done! Well done indeed! I am certain that the walk must have been difficult, not just physically but emotionally too.

      Mental illness and suicide are terrible things in themselves, but they are made even worse by all the social shame and stigma attached to them. Brave people as yourselves and the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk event do so much good to bring these topics out of the dark dens and into the light. It doesn’t bring anyone back, but it may help others from succumbing to their mental monsters, be it the person contemplating suicide or the people left behind.

      So again, well done for having the strength and the courage to share your experience and walk that walk.

      If you don’t know what the Overnight Walk is then watch this heartfelt video from the 2012 Overnight Walk. And if you can, support this organization with time, money or a simple prayer.

  17. yuly says:

    its really nice to hear someone experiencing the same thing as me. I am in Chile and have found myself wanting to stay home and watch movies and play on my computer to avoid having to speak spanish with people. It is also hard as a woman in chile because i am constantly being whistled and shouted at, when i speak my “simple” spanish I probably sound even more like a bimbo and create more unwanted attention to myself. When i go home or talk to people at home they dont understand. everyone thinks i am “living the dream” but the reality is that its not easy. gaining that mind control is so key. I think it is important for everyone to face the dragons and slay those dragons at some point in life and maybe the only way to do it is to be in a situation like this. thanks for the article!

    1. It sounds like you know what I wrote about when creating this article. the good news is that it isn’t always like this. It comes and goes, and when it is good, it really is good. And over time, it becomes easier and easier to identify and slay those dragons. Hang in there!

  18. Dave says:

    Your perspective on mental monsters is enlightened. I have been facing some monsters recently and reading your post at least helped me realize that they are monsters, not just ordinary life. Thanks for the inspiration.

  19. Brian B says:

    I call them demons, everyone has them. Some people admit it and deal with them. Others pretend they don’t exist and live in peril.

Have you ever faced a mental monster?

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