(If you’re new to Monkeytraps, Steve is a therapist who specializes in control issues, and Bert is Steve’s control-addicted inner monkey.
I’d like to introduce you to my dog.
Please look down. You’ll find him attached to my ankle.
That’s where he lives, more or less. Sometimes he draws blood. But mostly he just hangs on, drooling and chewing occasionally, slowing my progress through life from a stroll to a worried limp.
Of course this is a metaphorical dog I’m describing (the attractive photograph above notwithstanding).
It represents a part of the human personality we each carry inside us, an internal voice named variously by different psychologies. Freudians described it as the punitive superego. Others call it the Inner Critic.
Gestalt therapists call it the Top Dog.
Steve wants to add something.
I first read about this guy many years ago, in Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. “The topdog usually is righteous and authoritarian: he knows best,” Perls wrote. “He is sometimes right, but always righteous. The topdog is a bully, and works with ‘You should’ and ‘You should not.’ The topdog manipulates with demands ands threats of catastrophe, such as, ‘ If you don’t, then — you won’t be loved, you won’t get to heaven, you will die,’ and so on.”
I remember reading that and wondering how Fritz had managed to overhear my darkest thoughts.
As Steve’s inner monkey and a recovering controller, I’ve spent many hours (years, actually) listening to this voice. I’ve come to know Dog pretty well.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Dog means well. He really thinks he’s protecting me by pointing out my flaws, reminding me of my failures, and anticipating all the awful judgments others might render. Expect the worst, that’s his motto. But his warnings don’t make me feel safer. What they do is keep me scared poopless.
Dog’s scared to death. That’s why he scares me. Dog himself operates out of pure fear. (Can you imagine scarier words to live by than expect the worst?) So every word out of him comes from that defensive position. Which explains why the more I listen to him, the scareder I get.
Dog’s unpleaseable. No matter how hard I try, he’s never satisfied. In fact trying harder seems to only make him stronger. It took me years to realize that he thrives on attention. So trying to please Dog is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Dog lies. He sounds reasonable, since there’s usually some truth in what he says. But listening to Dog is like looking at myself in a fun house mirror. By focusing on weakness and failures only he presents a terribly distorted view of me. And if I mistake it for an accurate one, I’m sunk, basically.
Dog refuses to die. This is the real reason I can’t satisfy him. Dog exists to worry and warn. That’s his reason for being. Were he ever to concede, say, that I’m adequate, or loveable, or that everything will probably work out fine, he’d be putting himself out of a job.
So. What to do with a dog like this?
Well, it helps me a lot to remember what I’ve learned about him. That Dog isn’t me, just the scared worried part. That he’s unappeasable, and that he lies, and that he’ll say or do anything to survive.
All this gives me some distance from his voice. It means when he starts growling I can say “Oh, you again. Shut up,” instead of taking him too seriously.
And you? Why should you care about any of this?
Well, check out your own ankle.
Fritz Perls’ description of top dog dynamics can be found in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (Real People Press, 1969), a collection of theoretical talks and therapy demonstrations.
Susan David offers tips on “How to manage your inner critic” at the Harvard Business review web site (so nice to know that even Harvard people have topdogs)at http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/01/how_to_quiet_your_inner_critic.html
And take a look at Hal and Sidra Stone’s useful book about Dog-training, titled Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-criticism into a Creative Asset (Harper San Francisco, 1993).