Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Who let the dogs out? Top Dog, Bottom Dog and your New Year resolutions

(This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 30th December 2008)

Are you working on your New Year resolutions in the hope of creating a bright and shiny new you for 2009?

Heed my advice and take the whole idea with a pinch of salt.

We can all do with making some improvements in how we treat ourselves and other people. But all too  often we think the old self has to be shoved into the black bin and left outside to be taken away to the nearest landfill. In its place we look for a completely new self which will win the admiration and even the applause of all.

But this doesn't work, and here's  a doggish explanation as to why not:

In Gestalt Therapy there is a concept called 'Top Dog/Bottom Dog'. Top Dog is that part of your mind that knows what you ought to be doing with your life, how much you should weigh, how much exercise you should take, what you ought to eat, what time you should get up in the morning, how efficient you should be at work, how much you should be earning and so on.

Bottom Dog doesn't really want all this and resists the demands of Top Dog. Bottom Dog will have sausages and rashers for breakfast rather than a healthy bowl of porridge; prefers wine to water;  snuggles in bed on a Saturday morning instead of getting up for a jog around the park; and has a to-do list with uncompleted items stretching back to the time of Tutankhamen.

Bottom Dog is very good at what he does. In fact Bottom Dog usually wins.

So what you want to watch out for is that it isn't just Top Dog who is sitting there writing out the New Year's list of resolutions.  Leave the job to Top Dog and you can be pretty sure Bottom Dog will get busy sabotaging the whole thing.

I said above that we can all make improvements in how we treat ourselves and other people. Top Dog won't settle for improvements – he demands perfection. Bottom Dog knows better.

Top Dog would have you join the gym for a year.  But you would do better to try it out for a month because that's about all the time Bottom Dog is going to give you on the treadmill.

Top Dog would urge you to cycle to work regardless of the weather. Bottom Dog would encourage you to leave the bicycle at home when it's cold and wet, and maybe even when it's warm and dry so don't go spending €500 on a new bike until you've tried out a second-hand banger for a while.

Top Dog would have you eating a grapefruit for breakfast, a few leaves of lettuce and a tomato for lunch and a sliver of chicken for dinner.  Bottom Dog will tempt you with a Full Irish, a hot beef sandwich with chips and a half roast chicken with loads of gravy, so devise a human diet rather than a Top or Bottom Dog one.

 Top Dog wants you to get to work an hour early and leave an hour late in Bill Cullen style.  Bottom Dog thinks getting to work an hour late and leaving an hour early is the way to go. Actually, I'm with Bottom Dog on this one as all my former employers know.

You might be getting the impression that I like Bottom Dog more than I like Top Dog. Well, Bottom Dog has more fun than Top Dog in the same way that Catholics have more fun than Presbyterians (as I was born a Catholic I am entitled to make remarks that are mildly insulting to the old religion).  But Bottom Dog suffers from a bit of Catholic guilt over his behaviour. He is motivated partly by anxiety at Top Dog's demands and he's not quite as laid back as you might imagine.

So when making your resolutions, don't let Bottom Dog dictate them or you'll go to hell in a handcart. But don't let Top Dog dictate them either because Top Dog's plans inevitably collapse.

Go for something that might work for a human being with human faults.  Go for a middle way, in other words, and let sleeping dogs lie.

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