There are cookies in the pantry…and the voices begin.
“Ooo, I so want this. This will taste so good. This—THIS!—this will make me feel better.”
“Do you know how bad that is for you? You’ll get fat. You get grumpy. You’ll just shove more in your face in a minute. Goddammit. You constantly do things that are bad for you. You make bad choices. Let’s be clear. YOU.CANNOT.HAVE.THAT.”
“Oh-ho-ho, really? Watch me.” *om nom nom*
I described this scene in therapy and my therapist smiled. “That’s your Topdog and Underdog.”
We had been laboring for a while to unpack my sugar issues. Because I am a mind-over-everything type of gal, it was better to back-door it, to sneak up on a feeling. Feelings that, of course, I was numbing with copious amounts of sugar. I was sure I was addicted, but there was still something else.
When I explained the experience to my therapist, he hesitated, for the first time visibly skeptical of the word addiction.
When the mind howls, snaps, and growls
I cocked my head to the side [pant pant pant], while my therapist explained the Gestalt concept of Topdog vs. Underdog. Wikipedia provides this paraphrase.
Topdog vs. underdog is a phrase coined by Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt therapy, to describe a self-torture game that people play with themselves in order to avoid the anxiety that they encounter in their environment.
Self-torture? Sounds about right.
The topdog is the part of an individual that makes demands based on the idea that I should adhere to certain societal norms and standards. “Should” and “ought to” get plenty of airplay.
“You *should not* eat those cookies, you’ll get fat/acne/angry.”
The underdog is the part of an individual that makes excuses explaining why these demands should not be met. These excuses act as internal sabotage to ensure that the demands are never met.
“But, I neeeeed a pick me up.” Or like my abused, Napoleonic little Chihuahua: “You’re not the boss of me!” With the Underdog, it’s either whining, or a toddler-tastic tantrum. Or, hey, both. That? As awesome as you imagine.
The Topdog/Underdog fit me so well, I had to share it with my husband. Therapeutic debrief is the new foreplay. A few days later, he gifted me a perfect metaphor. I was rambling on, dead-locked in one of my pick-the-best-crap-answer-that-I-supply rants. He sat back quietly and put his hands up, “those are your dogs fighting. I’m not getting in the middle of that.”
The Dictator and Wild Child
The other night, I visited with a friend who is midway thorough a 2-year sailing adventure. Last summer, Diane and her family sold their home, took a leave of absence from work and bought a sailboat. I ran into her at Whole Foods right after they had made the decision. I was stunned, impressed, and incredibly envious. She looked excited, scared and, well, relieved. You know, the way you do when you’re in the middle of letting life crack you open.
We haven’t had regular contact this past year, but we dove deep immediately, like we always do. Diane and I talked about the surprises and changed plans of her family’s adventure. Menial things like the endless dishes. Big things like claiming your own wholeness, instead of rooting around for it in your partner. At one point, she described a meditation she had tried. I listened carefully. It sounded exactly like Topdog/Underdog.
In The Four Day Win, Martha Beck describes a visualization exercise to illustrate emotional dangers specific to dieting. Honestly, it would be useful for unpacking any type of anxiety-inducing situation. Getting ready to travel, asking for a raise, being vulnerable during a difficult conversation. The meditation deals with the same kind of self-torture technique seen in Topdog/Underdog. Beck names the two parties The Dictator and the Wild Child.
Hold out your right hand, palm up. Imagine that standing there is an inch-tall version of yourself—the part that insists on losing weight. We’ll call her (or him) the Dictator. The Dictator wears a uniform, carries a whip, screams insults and orders—the things you tell yourself when you’re feeling fat: “You’d better stop eating now, you disgusting blob of &*%$!” Let these words, and the Dictator’s hostile energy, fill your consciousness.
Notice: Do you want to eat more, or less?
Now hold up your left palm. Standing on it is another tiny version of you; the animal part that isn’t verbal or logical, and doesn’t understand what the Dictator wants. I call this the Wild Child, because it’s like a kid who’s continually assaulted by the Dictator’s attacks and privations. The Wild Child is tired, afraid, and frightened. Notice: Is she planning to obey the Dictator in its effort to starve her?
Relating her own experiences with the Dictator/Wild Child visualization, Diane said something that struck me in a new way, hard. “The Dictator and Wild Child *both* have your best interests at heart.”
The fuck? I have always experienced my critic as an absolute hag, hellbent on nothing but contradiction and making me feel terrible. It’s a cage match. She paints me with shame, pokes me with judgment. I experience my critic/Dictator/Topdog as a wrong thinking, no-fun, rigid blowhard who must be fought at every turn. She messes with my sweet bohemian vibe, man. And now she needs compassion? I’m absolutely not convinced.
Now hold out both hands. See the Dictator in your right, Wild Child in your left. This next part’s tricky: Notice that both mini-yous are essentially good. The Dictator gets frantic when you gain weight just as you would if you saw a toddler wandering into traffic. It screams and yells, pushes and forces, because it’s trying to save you from a terrible, fat fate. And your Wild Child isn’t remotely malicious, just devastated, confused and afraid. Consider both perspectives until you can empathize with them. At this point, it’s time to realize that the Wild Child and the Dictator deserve compassion. Offer it to them. Say this: “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” Repeat it to both Dictator and Wild Child, until you mean it. Take your time.
A Mean Girl in epaulettes
Because my Topdog/Dictator is the dominant, more insistent voice, I usually err on the side that she’s right. She’s a terrifically talented Mean Girl, my Dictator. I so so SO want her to like me. I end up in self-loathing that I might actually BE this incredible bitch, then comes the shame of FAILING her. It’s very confusing.
Whenever she gives me the single raised eyebrow, the urge to please takes over, and I respond with twitchy, talking-a-beat-too-fast anxiety. But listen. My critic has no agenda besides chaos. Every position I take up, she takes the opposite. Without exception, when her stubbornness wins me over and I switch to her position, she flips on me. She takes up my previous position, settling again into her comfort of contradiction, dirty feet up on my kitchen table. It’s an exhausting, time-wasting endeavor that leaves my nerves shot and my irritability threshold dangerously low.
Is it better, then, to be the Underdog/Wild Child? I like to imagine that she might be the embodiment of that sweet bohemian vibe I treasure, the person I am meant to be, all free and flowing [for the record, so.not.me.]. But an untamed id—all desire and survival—with no rational thought? Free and flowing, my ass. You’ll never make it to Burning Man or go WWOOFing when you’re scared of everything. So the self-loathing gremlins come out again. “My God, am I really this weak?”
Your dogs need obedience training
Sometimes it seems like the critic has a good point. Maybe I need to just up and get my shit together, already. But as on point as she might be, it’s all just chatter. You can never please She Who Will Not Be Appeased. Why hang-wring about it? The Topdog and Dictator, the Underdog and Wild Child…they are just fighting with each other. Remember? It’s all “a self-torture game that people play with themselves in order to avoid the anxiety that they encounter in their environment.”
There will never be a truce, a resolution. Like my wise husband, who put his hands up gently and opted out of my dogfight, I would do well to avoid engaging with these voices altogether. Well-meaning or not, their prattle is distracting. And we just don’t have that kind of time.
But a serious question remains. If the voices are mere distraction, where am *I* in this picture? Beck explains the third entity in the picture, over there in the shadows.
The only reason you can ‘see’ both the Dictator and the Wild Child is that you’re not either of them. You’ve moved into a third realm of consciousness, in a different part of your brain. I call it the Watcher.
We are not in the dogfight at all. This benign observer theme is well-represented in personal growth literature. Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul, calls this quiet, sharp-eyed state the Observer. The Watcher, the Observer…that is you, the self. You are the one who can get those dogs into training. You are the one who notices when they are out of control.
There is nothing more important to true growth than realizing that you are not the voice of the mind—you are the one who hears it. If you don’t understand this, you will try to figure out which of the many things the voice says is really you. People go through so many changes in the name of ‘trying to find myself.’ They want to discover which of these voices, which of these aspects of their personality, is who they really are. The answer is simple: none of them.
Is this good news? I think so, yes. Forced to choose between a belligerent bully and a scared, helpless child, I’d have to go with, oh, I dunno, a unicorn. Turns out the nail-biting is moot. Neither of them are me. What a relief to settle back, the one watching the volley, hopefully with a benign, amused expression.
My external environment, my culture, and yes, my thoughts, are all things I can choose to engage with or ignore. Singer feels strongly about this. “Ninety-nine percent of your thoughts are a complete waste of time. They do nothing but freak you out.” And, as usual, Brené Brown sums it up beautifully.
Do I have enough data to freak out? Will freaking out help?
If both answers are not a firm yes [and when are they ever?] well, keep calm and carry on. Or carry a nebulizer, whatever will get you through. Breathing is underrated, but sometimes a slow, long exhale is the wisest thing to leave our lips. More satisfying than a perfectly phrased observation or sage advice. Do you get as tired of talking—of constantly commenting and processing—as I do?
Less searching for yourself, more being yourself
So. I love Anne of Green Gables. Somewhere in my house are both the 3-disc Canadian miniseries set, and the 8-volume paperback series. L.M. Montgomery is an ambassador of awesomeness, and her works are celebrated worldwide for her vibrant storytelling. And I would argue, spot-on one liners. Like this:
“It’s not what the world holds for you. It’s what you bring to it.”
All of us personal growth crusaders can learn from this. Not only is your True Self not ‘out there’ but we must be incredibly discerning about the voice we attribute to the self ‘in here.’ The dogfight is a perfect example of what can go wrong when we start believing all the thoughts bouncing around in our minds.
So don’t believe everything you think. After experimenting with Singer’s sit back and observe approach, I have made some interesting discoveries. My For-Real-Self is quieter, calmer and less interested in drama than the ‘normal’ self that people know. I talk less. I stop competing for airtime. I have more room to breathe. I notice sensations in my body, and have room to wonder about them. I give myself permission to sit on my ass instead of hustle around doing. I’m not gonna lie, it feels fantastic.
Compassion for the critic
There’s that f-word again. Feel. It comes down to that one thing. When the chatter of the Topdog/Underdog and Dictator/Wild Child finally moves to the background, what’s left for me to deal with is feeling. Just like my sugar addiction, that’s what the chatter is trying to turn me away from. My critic is ‘protecting’ me from feeling. This was an important job, once. But I don’t need—or want—that kind of protection now. Once conceived as shelter, it has become a prison.
So I’ve come around. My Topdog/Dictator/critic does deserve compassion. Threats first came from outside, and she was forged in the fire of that pain. Her resulting tool is crude and simple: shame, shout, softshoe-until-sufficiently-distracted. She is a hammer, pinging steadily against my temple, like in Harrison Bergeron. If I stay busy enough in my head, maybe I won’t notice my heart breaking.
But when all you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail. My critic’s tactics may have seemed to help me once, but they are no service now. Our emotional machinery is more complicated and delicate. A hammer is hardly the tool for the job.
It’s okay now, love. I’m okay now. Rest. Please rest.
Minor, ironic fallout
Still, embracing the role of Observer or Watcher can have its drawbacks. People who know me best by my mask don’t quite know what to do with me sometimes. It’s a masterful twist of irony. When I go quiet or thoughtful, others tense up. If I observe carefully enough, I can almost see their dogfight begin. “Is she mad? Is she ok? Did I do something?”I just imagine raising my palms gently and smiling.
No way I’m getting in the middle of that.