Sober Insights: The Self-Torture Game

So continuing reading Healing the Shame that binds you by John Bradshaw and he talks about a process called the self-torture game.  He says that “it is almost always so habitual that it is unconscious”.  Felt pretty apt so I thought I’d discuss it further here.

It was identified by Fritz Perls as Top Dog-Under Dog Thinking.  Here’s a bit more definition from Wiki:

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.

The topdog describes the part of an individual which makes demands based on the idea that the individual should adhere to certain societal norms and standards. These demands are often characterized by “shoulds” and “oughts”.

The underdog describes the part of an individual which makes excuses explaining why these demands should not be met. It is often the case that these excuses act as internal sabotage to ensure that the demands are never met.

Gestalt therapists often guide their patients through an exercise where the patients takes on both of these roles. With the guidance of the therapist, the patients can come to gain insight about themselves which can help them have a healthier relationship with their environment.

I think I engaged in this a great deal when I was drinking and it definitely kept me stuck in shame.  My inner critic was my top dog ‘I shouldn’t drink in the week’ or ‘I ought to be able to have a few nights off without it being a problem’ and my drinking behaviour – the victim or underdog.

It’s been happening again recently but I’ve been noticing it.  I injured my back at work a few weeks ago and it has slowed me down and hobbled my usual activities at home, including running.  In my forced resting state I’ve been doing a huge amount of reading and learning and emotional growth which has been both insightful and overwhelming.  I can recommend three books for emotional recovery work: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker, Taming Your Outer Child by Susan Anderson and John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that binds you.  I wouldn’t recommend reading the three back to back as I’ve done as I’ve been the instigator of my own emotional overwhelm because of it.  Tread slowly and gently is what I learned!

I noticed this voice pop up around my reduced activity.  It shows up in my thoughts as anxiety related to gaining weight because I’m not running and about being lazy around the home because I’m resting my back.

Perlz argues that the internal conflict speaks to unfinished business.  What I mean by that is, in this scenario the top dog voice is my internalized early parent figure and the underdog is me as a child being chided for being lazy.  By bringing this into consciousness I get the opportunity to finish the unfinished business by acknowledging the dynamic, become more self-integrating (as this is a defensive split in the human personality) and self-accepting, process the emotions attached and thereby facilitate resolution on this specific personal representation of the ‘self-torture’ game.

Is this something that sounds familiar to you too?  Do you recognise this self-defeating thought pattern?

8 thoughts on “Sober Insights: The Self-Torture Game

  1. Oh yes! Very familiar. The strict rules on the one hand and the moaning on the other. Thank you for the reminder of the J. Bradshaw book. And ooh my, realising now that I wanted to say that I should read more but that I have reason x, y and z not to do it. Oh my…. 🙂
    Wishing you a wonderful weekend,
    xx, Feeling

    1. Thanks for chiming in Feeling and making me feel not quite so alone in this! You have a wonderful week-end too 🙂 xx

  2. Do I ever.
    I can torture myself for just about anything.
    Making decisions can make me upset.
    Thanks Lucy!
    PS – I STILL haven’t started my John Bradshaw book!!
    Time to read a little bit each night!

    1. It would seem there are quite a few of us Wendy 🙂 Thank you for sharing your experience too! xx

  3. Aaah, I see here that the resistance to the book on Shame is BIG! Thinking that must mean something. 🙂 Wonder what will happen if I continue reading it. I had planned it for this morning and then suddenly ‘deciced’ that I was going to finish another book on highly sensitive people which actually bugged me from the start because ‘she is not saying somthing’. So I am not at all sure why I invest time in it. Until I read trying to cope with sensitivity had turned her alcoholic… and that is when I thought ‘now we are talking, the cat is out of the bag’. But anyhow, you see how I diverse even in explaining why I am not reading Bradshaw. Ghegheghe…. there is some resistance. 🙂 Let’s see how this works out. 😀

    1. Just take it slowly Feeling and take plenty of breaks from it if it all gets too much is my advice xx

  4. Oh yes, it sounds waaaaay familiar! Take care of that back-it’s the only one you have. xx

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