Confronting the Devil on Your Shoulder

photo by hatchibombotar


To find the way past the scars emotional abuse, Thomas Pluck goes back to the beginning. 

We are only beginning to admit the damage done by emotional abuse. We have taken a brief look at bullying, and made some appropriately vague zero tolerance laws that absolve school administrators from responsibility; we have seen the school-bus gang circle where one scapegoat is torn apart by a cadre of little Marine drill instructors who’d make R. Lee Ermey blush. What we forget is that with enough reinforcement, whether it comes from peers or parents, the recipient begins to believe what’s being said. Long after the bully is gone, the devil on their shoulder whispers self-hate, repeating the litany of abuse.

For years, the response was dismissive. Suck it up. It’s not as bad as a beating. I’ll give you something to cry about.

To quote Andrew Vachss, all that differs is the abuser’s choice of weapon. This, coming from a man who has fought child abuse on the front lines for most of his life, and fighting for victims of horrific physical torment. A life-changing moment for me was when I read his article “You Carry the Cure in Your Own Heart” for Parade Magazine. I’ve linked it there. Please, go read it before we go further.

My father always joked that I had “the grace of a dying gazelle.” A kid at school, name forgotten in teenage haze, said “why you fixing your hair in the mirror? No girl will ever love you.”

Unwittingly, I internalized those words. I quit sports and became a computer geek. An icy fist closed around my throat when I even considered approaching a woman. Then I read Vachss’s article, and the age-old insults revealed themselves like invisible ink.

The article was written just shy of twenty years ago. It took me a long time to acknowledge it and begin self-repair. For years, I would curse my every misstep, as I struggled to learn something new. I was not accustomed to struggling. Because I craved the validation of success, I followed what was easy for me in school, and soaked up praise like a sponge. It wasn’t until my thirties that I quit telling myself I was too clumsy to learn martial arts, and dove headfirst into a mixed-martial arts dojo. And boy, did I struggle. I think I trained the straight arm bar for six months, and eight years later, it’s not my A-game move. But I still go for it, fail, and transition into a better position. And that’s a lesson I can apply anywhere.

Before a man can see women as a trophies or a consumables, he is a boy taught to value himself on his success at conquering and consuming them. Each conquest is an aspirin against the cancer within. One of the toughest lessons to learn is that when you wrong someone, it is very often an act of self-destruction. Humanity has an almost limitless capacity for self-delusion. I’m doing this for their own good. This is love, not selfishness. I want this, so they must want this. I am worthless. The only way I can get what I want is to cheat. If I don’t, I’ll just fail.

It is not the Hollywood villain acting through you, doing evil for evil’s sake. It is the devil on your shoulder telling you this is the only way to get what you want, and that success justifies all means toward its achievement. I don’t care what they think. They’re jealous of my success. Such narcissism is flimsy armor against self-loathing for what you know to be true: You took the easy way out. You denied yourself the benefits of struggling for achievement. You took the elevator instead of the stairs, and you’ve got the weak chicken legs to prove it.

As with exercise, it is never too late to start. Behavior changes us. We define ourselves by our actions, each and every day. Not by your job, but by the choices you make. Like working off the middle age spare tire, emotional damage can be undone as well. Ten years ago I was a fat man who began walking uphill a half hour a day. Four years later, I was a martial artist sparring with a fighter from UFC55. After that match, I quit hiding at home, playing games on the internet, and went out on a blind date with two women from Louisiana. The one I called “Firecracker”  is now my wife.

You begin by confronting that devil on your shoulder, and taking that first step up the hill. And like any achievement, it is a struggle. You will fail before you succeed. But the hide of battle scars and hard-fought victories is the strongest armor there is.

 photo: hatchibombotar / flickr

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About Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart.
He is the author of the action thriller Blade of Dishonor, and Steel Heart: 10 Tales of Crime and Suspense. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Burnt Bridge, PANK Magazine, McSweeney's, The Morning News, Beat to a Pulp, and numerous anthologies. He is also the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.
You can find him on the web at and Twitter as @tommysalami
And all his articles for GMP can be read here.


  1. Fantastic, Thomas. Thanks for this fierce conjuring of your early life (and mine). And the path beyond it. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there but its good to know that there is power in recognizing the voices that aren’t meant to remain internal to us. However deeply entrenched they may be.

  2. Brilliant piece. I can definitely relate to the idea of internalizing negative sentiments throughout life. Thanks for being so honest and real.


  1. […] I found Vachss’s article through another post on emotional abuse which quoted Vachss. That article said: […]

  2. […] of every interaction; every conversation they have ever had or witnessed. In his remarkable post, Confronting the Devil on Your Shoulder, Thomas Pluck talks about the process of digging out of the crippling negative messages many kids […]

  3. […] of every interaction; every conversation they have ever had or witnessed. In his remarkable post, Confronting the Devil on Your Shoulder, Thomas Pluck talks about the process of digging out of the crippling negative messages many kids […]

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