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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

The Top Dog – Under Dog Exercise

For some of us, one of the great inner tussles lies in knowing how much to push against people who hurt, frustrate or offend us – and how much simply to go along with what they are doing in the name of keeping the peace. In other words, one of the great debates is between being authoritative on the one hand and submissive on the other.

The tussle might go on pretty much every day beneath the surface. There’s someone who keeps doing something maddening with the invoices at work. Should we try to say something? Or do we let this one go (again)? A friend of ours has an offensive way of never inviting us to the more glamorous end of their social life. Do we have the right to mention this? There’s someone in our group who often makes slightly mean-minded remarks about us. Do we pretend we haven’t noticed? And our partner has, once more, failed to uphold their side of the rota and not filled the fridge for the weekend; do we have the heart to bring this up this evening?

Part of why all this might be so hard is that we don’t have any solid sense that we could mount a rational adult-sounding complaint. We fear exploding into a rage that has built up over far too long and now feels volatile and overpowering. Or else we picture ourselves, half-way through a speech, losing our nerve and starting to cry, folding like a meek deer and apologising for ever having spoken or existed. We’re strung between a terror of growing volcanic – or pathetic.

Our anxieties have a history. Those with trouble being authoritative are almost always the offspring of highly authoritarian people. There is no way to build up an idea of how to complain in a boundaried and confident way when those around us had no interest in anything we might have had to say – and whose bad moods we had to appease in the name of survival. How to picture an effective push-back when all we knew was intimidation?

In order to loosen ourselves from this legacy, psychologists have suggested an experiment known as the Top Dog Underdog Exercise. This invites us to consider any situation requiring push-back – it might be in love, at the office or with a friend – and asks that we make two little speeches, the first in the voice of a Top Dog, the second in the voice of an Underdog. 

Clothed or armored German Great Dane, 17th Century, Ludwig Beckmann, Wikimedia Commons

Inhabiting the first, we can sketch out what we might, for example, express to the friend who leaves us off the invitation list to their better parties: ‘X, I’m so sorry to bring this up and it’s a small thing in a way but it’s an important one too: I’ve noticed that I’m very much the person you go to whenever you’re down, but when you’re up and you’re celebrating with your friends from the bank, I get pushed aside. How can we best fix this – as this isn’t working for me?’ Or, what would the Top Dog say to the partner who has other things on their mind beside the shopping rota: ‘I love you as you know, but I need to tell you that we have some changes to make when it comes to managing our household…’

Following this run of being the Top Dog, we should then explore the very same scenes in the voice of an Underdog, a rather more painful and familiar affair: ‘I got the shopping, it wasn’t strictly my turn but oh well, the pie is nice isn’t it…’ Or: ‘It’s fine about the invoices, let me do them.’ Or: ‘No, no, I don’t mind at all, I wanted an early night anyway’ – and so on, all the way to old age and the final diagnosis.

The crucial point is that we don’t need to learn to become a Top Dog. As the exercise plainly reveals, we are the Top Dog already – which is why it’s so easy for us make our speeches. The problem isn’t – as we feared – that we don’t understand how to be the Top Dog, it’s that we’re terrified of being one. But only for a set of historical reasons that we can now move on from: because the people who awed us into meekness are either dead or unable to wield authority over us in the way they once did. 

Being a Top Dog doesn’t have to involve biting people, foaming at the mouth or tearing at our leash. It can mean being supremely elegant, decisive and – most importantly – gentle towards the very vulnerable person inside us who has had enough of being trampled on. There have for a long time been two dogs within us: let’s do ourselves the kindness of allowing the correct one to speak for us when we need them going forward.

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