Yesterday, I wrote about an argument I overheard over wasabi peas. Oddly, it was very much like arguments that I have in my own head all the time. Turns out that most people have one part of them which is about discipline and toeing the line and another that is about creativity and spontaneity. Not surprisingly, these two are almost always fiercely at loggerheads.
Think Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers. Fierce. Grim. Intense. No compromise. No middle ground. No way. Grrrrrrr.
In Gestalt Therapy, these two sides of the personality are called Top Dog and Underdog (for more information, click here and here) which invites looking clearly at the needs underneath the seemingly contradictory positions both sides tend to hold.
James Yates, a Charlottesville Gestalt Therapist, offers the best description I’ve found of these two sides of ourselves in his book, A Career with Heart: A Step-By-Step Guide to Discovering Your Life Path:
The Top Dog, similar to Freud’s Superego, is made up of beliefs and behaviors that are attempts to adapt the self to social reality, i.e., to get love and acceptance and to avoid punishment, abuse, rejection, abandonment, and criticism. This includes controlling the Underdog’s behavior with ‘shoulds,’ ‘have to’s’ and self-defeating beliefs such as ‘You don’t deserve it,’ ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ and ‘You’re bad.’ A common Top Dog strategy is to suppress emotions including anger, grief, and fear, as well as joy and excitement.
The Underdog represents the spontaneous, expressive self who is focused on self-fulfillment, self-expression, and expressing and satisfying wants. In the face of the Top Dog’s domination and continual demands, the Underdog may withdraw, drag its feet, rebel, or do whatever it can to maintain some dignity and get its needs met.
Much like those Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers, when I look at the root of their arguments, usually they are not contradictory at all (both CLAW competitors really just want to have fun, put on a great show and raise money for worthy causes). Both sides want the best for me, want me to be happy, want me to be safe and loved, but their approaches to get this is wildly different.
Instead of passively sitting aside and letting these two attack each other, I’m finding that when a Wasabi Pea incident comes up (oh yes, many times a day), what works is to listen to both sides. By paying attention to both parts, I can help them see that they want the same things and how they can both get their needs met. By letting Structure (Top Dog) and Expression (Underdog) talk to each other and integrate their needs, then I tend to make better decisions that really address all sides of me.
In my meditation example, I might listen to both sides of the argument and say to Expression, “Okay, how about if we just sit for 5 minutes? If you still want to get up and do something else then, we can.” Or, I might suggest sitting for the full 20 minutes and ask Structure to schedule 40 minutes of expressive, creative play later. Funny as it sounds, it really is like having arguing kids or a fighting young couple in my head and it’s my job to help them understand each other and get along.
Play with this for yourself. Notice when you start having your own internal Wasabi Pea fight. Maybe you are resisting getting up early to go for a run, or you want to cut back on sugar but find that you consistently overeat chocolate, or Ben & Jerry’s keeps winning out over kale. Whatever it is for you, see if you can recognize the two sides of yourself and instead of allowing them to have a knock-down, drag-out, listen to them both compassionately and see what you learn and how everybody can get their needs met.
With a little attention and care, the international aisles of our minds and of Harris Teeters everywhere might be more integrated and peaceful. As always, I’d love to hear how this goes for you!