The terrors under our beds - what our anxiety creates and why

What goes bump in the night? What are we afraid of out there or ‘in here’? Lions, tigers, bears… ghouls, and ghosts, and goblins. We’re very likely familiar with these creatures in some way. We watch movies, we read books, we’ve read stories of good fairies and evil ones. I wonder what they might mean and how we experience them as adults. I wonder what our lions and tigers and bears might be, where they might have come from for us, and how we manage ourselves around them. 


How do we know what is safe and what isn’t, and in the absence of knowing this, what do we try to put in place to ensure safety in the face of the unknown? Perhaps those creatures we fear hiding in the shadows reflect or hold something of our internal shadows and what might be hiding there. If we are frightened of the dark, frightened of the shadows and frightened of the creatures there, it might be helpful to think a little bit more deeply about what the shadows hold, what messages the lions and the tigers and the bears might have for us, and how they came to be. 

I wonder if a sense of vulnerability is holding hands with our fear. Perhaps there is a way of experiencing ourselves that feels “less than,” somehow little or fragile in the face of an unknown and unknowable “what might be out there”. Do our feelings of not being capable enough, robust enough, or even just enough create the fiend, create the threat?

It might be helpful, too, to think a bit about what these creatures consist of - what they hold. What if we think about what might have happened if when we were young, vulnerability was frowned on or despised? Perhaps we were told off for crying or for simply being afraid.

If our anxieties didn’t feel held or heard when we were younger, how would we feel about those parts of ourselves as we grow? We may feel angry with them, and frustrated with our vulnerability. We might grow anxious around anything out there that would cause that sense of vulnerability to bubble up. Perhaps these lions, tigers, or bears evoke our vulnerability as they remain poised in their metaphorical readiness. The discomfort or fear we experience could be a coping mechanism we develop to coexist with aspects of ourselves that we perceive as overwhelming or catastrophic.

Challenging early relational dynamics such as punishing or distant or thoughtless parents, feeling abandoned or “dropped” in the family hierarchy, and feeling as though love had to be earned, can be sticky. Perhaps we had a parent who lived their life through us, making our achievements and setbacks their own. Wouldn’t these be potent lions, tigers or bears? Vampires could be born here if we experienced a demanding, parasitic relational dynamic. Does it leave us with a shadow of belief that this is how an attachment is formed - by the giving away or taking from others of a part of ourselves? If so, we might think about how we form important relational bonds and what can feel secure.

If we reflect on the uncontrollable rage and destructiveness - even towards loved ones - that the mythological Werewolf engenders, what happens if we consider that this might be a characterisation of our inner anger? We might fear on some level that it could be cataclysmically destructive if unleashed, just as the full moon unleashes the Werewolf. After all, if we have learned to fear our “not nice” feelings, we might just learn to give them to a frightening creature who hides under our beds. 

Emotions that are a part of us, even the “dangerous” ones, can never really be too far from us regardless of whether or not we shield our eyes from them or hide under our metaphorical duvets.

In our fear of what lurks under our beds, we could be experiencing a fear of what might be lurking within us that we just can’t or won’t quite see. We know they’re there, and that is what is so disquieting. We fear our stronger emotions - our “not nice” feelings. What happens when we feel angry? Could our anger and our feelings about our angry selves be lurking under our metaphorical beds? 

Can we look more closely at our lions, tigers and bears? Could one of them be a sense that we are just not good enough and that no matter what we do, or how hard we try, we fall short? Whatever's lurking under our beds, we might not be capable of overcoming and surviving it, this fearsome creature might also breathe for us in a larger, social, bureaucratic world. We might start seeing the world as a dark forest populated with threats - with lions, tigers and bears. We might take this message and carry it with us into that world. In this way, the challenges we encounter in our wider world might become our lions, tigers and bears; each symbolising and holding our fear. And each one we encounter reinforces the message that we internalised at some point in our pasts. The unknown shadow under the bed - our fears around not being “enough” for example - might translate to the unknown shadow in the world around us. What would this be like for us as we try to manage it?

What if we have truly experienced ghouls in our lives? What happens if we have experienced abuse, abandonment or neglect? Ghouls can be real. What then becomes of our relationship to them, our relationship to the “us” that lived through the experience, and our relationship to the world around us? These are potent lions, tigers and bears, it feels important to acknowledge this here.

These creatures are a common part of our story-telling traditions, across many cultures. I wonder if this happens for a reason; I wonder if this happens because we have found a way to explore or manage our own internal or inherited lions, tigers and bears by proxy. If we externalise them, putting them somewhere outside of ourselves, they become not part of us and it might feel easier to live alongside. Experiencing them in stories or movies doesn’t help us to put them to bed.

If we are worried by them hiding under our beds, we might perpetually be wary of and ready for a potential ambush. Perhaps it would be helpful to turn on a light in the dark and explore who and what these creatures are. Therapy could offer a safe, contained space for this, accompanied by a trusted counsellor.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Quenington, Gloucestershire, GL7 5BG
Written by Merri Mayers, MBACP
Quenington, Gloucestershire, GL7 5BG

Merri Mayers, an MBACP registered counsellor, works near Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Merri is an integrative therapist employing the most effective aspects of person centred, gestalt, psychodynamic, systemic and TA models. She works relationally, understanding that how we engage with others can illuminate how we see and feel about ourselves.

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