Taming the “Little Monsters” of Insomnia

The agony of the "cerebral loop."

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily,” one insomniac wrote. “Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of their skull well-swept, and all the little monsters closed up in a steamer truck at the foot of their bed.”

People can have trouble sleeping for lots of different reasons, and perhaps chief among them are those “little monsters” that cavort in our mind like gremlins at a hip-hop concert. “Crash the night,” the hellions shout, “time to break out, dance the wipeout, swing and freak out!” These little monsters (better known as random, unwanted thoughts, feelings, and fears) gambol to the music of worrisome speculations, dire considerations, and nightmarish scenarios.

Blake Butler, who once endured an epic 129-hour bout of insomnia, describes very well the grueling experience of insomnia in his book, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia (Harper Perennial, New York. 2011). Below is an excerpt from his book. I quote Butler here at some length because his experience of insomnia, detailed with literary moxie, is highly relevant to what I say further on in this post.

This act of ‘sleep catastrophizing’ is ten times as commonly reported as other disruption stimuli, centered in our tendency to dwell on the worst possible outcomes of a given situation . . . And so the frame shakes. And the self shakes. And in the self, so shakes the blood, the mood, the night, disturbing, in the system, further waking, further wanting, if for the smallest things, the days of junk, reinforced on both sides . . . Some nights the self seems to flood so thick it might never turn off—no clear center, overflowed—a sudden nod turning to surging—small juts of adrenaline, like a grenade of sun against the chest upon the cusp of X-ing out, eyes spinning in the black meat of the head—I am not asleep now. I am not asleep now.—looking somewhere heavy in there for some traction, a truer blank inside the blank. . . And even further out, over weeks or months or years, or into packs of years, in decades, the condition might unfurl, become quiet, massive at once, sudden, returning in the wake of its seeming disregard, a flooding flood of flux and flux of flux, unto any inch of self becoming questioned, blurry, some faceless lock without a key.

This problem of “sleep catastrophizing” (dwelling in a fixated manner on worst-case scenarios) often concerns sleep itself, as Butler points out. The insomniac becomes agonizingly focused on the consequences of not sleeping: “I’ll be exhausted tomorrow”; “I won’t get my work done and I’ll get in trouble with my boss”; “I’ll be overwhelmed by a backlog of work.”

Butler immerses us in the agony of his insomnia and writes about being caught in a cerebral loop: “Such kind of aimless mental spin—all without answer—is the kind so many nights that keeps me up long after I lay down, stuck in inevitable fixation over nothing, pointless thinking—the day again once come and gone and nothing new—each day passed the ways the days do.”

Butler describes the nature of the suffering associated with insomnia, yet his book doesn’t get to the heart of matter. What causes this “aimless mental spin” he writes about? While insomnia likely has many different causes, it’s one of the many symptoms of a psychological condition called inner passivity. When our psyche is saturated by inner passivity, we have trouble standing up for ourselves, believing in ourselves, or practicing self-regulation.

A person lying awake at night has none of the daytime distractions that keeps one busy and occupied with doing. The insomniac is stuck with the experience of being. Inner passivity can fill our sense of being with self-doubt, along with impressions of being overwhelmed, at risk, and helpless to still or quiet down the mind.

Let’s follow this thread of passivity into our psyche and examine its relationship to insomnia. Many people, of course, are quite aware of their passivity, as when they recognize their painful inability to express themselves confidently in everyday situations with family and friends. The passivity I’m talking about is more subtle and insidious. It prevents us from standing up for ourselves and representing our best interests on an inner level. At this deeper level, most of us are more passive than we realize. We can be entangled emotionally in this inner condition when experiencing the helplessness of being unable to fall asleep.

The main conflict in the human psyche is between inner aggression and inner passivity. This conflict crowds out the reassuring sense of self that produces self-regulation and induces peace of mind. The conflict can be observed through our mind’s interior dialogue. (I provide many examples of this dialogue in my books, particularly in Why We Suffer and Freedom From Self-Sabotage.)

We tend to be largely unaware of the true master of our personality, the agency or primitive intelligence in our psyche known as the inner critic or superego from where inner aggression emanates. This part in us dominates our personality and assumes to be the final authority on matters concerning right and wrong, good and bad, and whether or not we’re worthy, decent creatures. Most academic and clinical psychologists duck away from facing the reality of the superego, preferring to work at a conservative, superficial level that’s more mental than existential.

Inner passivity, meanwhile, is the part in us that allows the superego to be the master of the personality. Our inner passivity, seated in our unconscious ego, is like a codependent personality. It enables the superego by engaging with it in an ineffective, defensive, often fearful manner. The voice of the superego does the accusing, while the voice of inner passivity does the defending. These two inner agencies can engage each other like a husband and wife stuck in a bad marriage.

How does this all relate to insomnia? The “aimless mental spin” that Butler writes about is often the defensive musing or ranting of inner passivity when it answers defensively and compulsively to the superego or inner critic. But often the superego has quieted down. At such times, the person’s inner life falls back to a default position where inner passivity influences one’s experience of self. This means the individual is going to experience himself or herself through defensiveness, self-doubt, helplessness, fear, and even panic. When trying to sleep, he or she is overwhelmed with foreboding content or with random, aimless speculations and considerations.

In his book, Butler mentions that sleeplessness can be caused by abuse of substances such as psychoactive drugs and stimulants. While these drugs can certainly produce undesirable side-effects in the brain, it is also true that such drug users are lacking in self-regulation and entangled in profound experiences of passivity.

Awareness of one’s inner passivity helps to overcome insomnia. A person lying in bed unable to sleep can repeat to himself or herself the refrain, “This helplessness is what I want to feel. This helplessness is what I’m choosing to feel. I’m the one who’s tempted to feel this helplessness in this moment.” When we can hold on to this awareness for ten, fifteen minutes or more, we have a decent chance to drift into sleep. Mysteriously, our resistance doesn’t want us to be conscious at this level. It doesn’t want us to know or to expose our emotional attachment to helplessness. And so we’re free in a sense to drift off into unconsciousness (sleep).

When we hold on day-to-day to an awareness of our attachment to helplessness, we’re practicing inner strength and acquiring self-knowledge. This pulls us out of agonizing passivity, producing a pleasing sense of self and the peace of mind to fall asleep with ease.