I have three pets. Three inner entities I have responsibility for and need to take care of. I find the image of dogs to be an efficient metaphor, but if you really are a cat person feel free to use that picture instead or perhaps see these “pets” as small children with different personalities.
They are my body, my brain and my ego.
I am neither of them, but they are part of me and I have to manage their needs. I become the inner parent – or inner manager – and it’s up to me to make sure everyone plays along nicely with each other.
What is important to remember is to not set the centre of my identity in either of these. They are not me. Me, in this case, being the thinker of my thoughts. (I’ll leave a more philosophical contemplation over this up to you, but this distinction is important.)
I am not my body, I have one. This separation have been with me for almost as long as I can remember, perhaps because of my background in dance training. I have always been told about my body being like a tool, an instrument for expressing myself through.
The body has needs. It needs intake of nourishment, removal of wastes, to move and to rest/sleep. It has ways of communicating these needs to you, and you can choose how and when to respond to its demands.
Viewing it like a dog can be a very helpful image, because they have the same needs and different ways of communicating these needs to you.
Just like if you notice your dog is becoming overweight you might respond by altering the food you give it or its exercise routine, the same goes for our body. And just like a dog I regularly need to take my body “out for a walk”, keep it clean etc.
This non-identification with the body and a dedication to its care is important. I know a big part of young women’s mental health issues are connected to how they view and identify with the body and its external appearance. But I think it’s important for everyone, also for those who don’t essentially care very much about looks.
I overheard a comment I found amusing about intellectuals in academia neglecting their body because they don’t see it as especially important. They only view it as a transportation vehicle for their brain.
Seeing your body as your pet, this thing that you have responsibility for to take care of in the most optimal manner, can be useful when you would rather focus on other things and almost see the bodily needs as a nuisance.
My body is my vessel and vehicle. It’s carrying me through this life. It is my job to take care of it in return and make sure it gets what it needs.
It was not until pretty recently that I started to view my brain as a separate entity to take care of too.
My cousin once had a dog that was of a hunting breed. During one summer I spent with them, I saw my cousin create an elaborate trail in the back yard. Dragging something along the ground, through the bushes, and ending up hiding it in a box. The dog was closed inside the house. When everything was finished, she opened the door and called the dog to go seek. And the dog loved it.
While the dog was sniffing around and chasing the trail all around the yard, my cousin explained to me that this breed of dogs needed mental stimulation. If she would only play catch with her dog or other simple games, it would go completely nuts and just get worked up even more. In order to be calm, it needed mental challenges.
My brain functions in the same way.
I realised this when I was recovering from my burnout. I was supposed to take time off and do nothing, and this was really really hard for my brain to do.
In one way, yes, long term stress makes the brain spin and finding a way to calm the whole system down is crucial. Meditation and mindfulness is supposed to help with the mental chatter, the “monkey mind”. And while to a certain extent it did help for me too, I still had a kind of impatience in my head.
One of the brain’s main missions is to solve problems. And what happened when my brain didn’t have any immediate problems to solve, was that it started to create imaginary problems for me. Going down all the rabbit trails it could find of “what if…”, drawing up all kinds of probable, less probable and extremely unlikely scenarios of things that can go wrong for my inner eye.
Giving it something to do
In short, it was creating a lot of needless anxiety and worry. I needed to “throw the dog a bone”, and the bone in this case was mental puzzles.
Weird? Perhaps. You might be very different from me and never have this kind of problem. But for me, small and big things that kept my brain occupied helped alleviate a bit of pressure so I could be left alone to focus or relax.
One example is that I used sudoku puzzles to help me wind down before bedtime. This was at a point where I had trouble sleeping and I couldn’t read any books or articles before bed because it would keep me awake all night. I tried with crosswords instead but that was also too stimulating. But the easiest level of sudoku proved to be a sweet spot in letting the brain “do something” and leaving the rest of me alone.
Just like the hunting breeds of dogs, my brain needs stimulation or I will not be able to be calm. If I am aware of it, I can make sure it’s occupied with something constructive – or at least not destructive or interfering.
So now I am treating it as another one of my inner pets. It is not me who needs stimulation, it’s my brain. If I give it what it needs to thrive, it’ll let me thrive too in return.
I use the term ego here, but it’s not the ego in the Freudian sense. I’m talking about the part of me that has a sense of “me”, separate from “others”. I also like the term “inner child” but since the most intelligent dogs have an understanding comparable to a toddler the dog metaphor works well here too.
The job of the ego is to take care of my interests. To keep me safe and protected, with complete disregard of other interests or other people. If you like you can see this concept of the ego to be equivalent to the lizard brain or reptilian brain, but I prefer talking about it in metaphorical and/or metaphysical terms.
It’s easy to think of the ego as the “evil” part in us. The little devil on your shoulder, who acts immaturely and impulsively, and something you should train yourself to disregard and keep in check. But I don’t see it as evil, it is just doing its job.
The ego is my watchdog. It will bark when it senses anything dangerous, and it will defend me aggressively if it thinks it needs to. It is comfortable and lazy and, well, egotistic.
What the ego desires and wants is often based in fear. A common advice when it comes to fear and courage is to “face the fears”, or “feel the fear and do it anyway”.
The problem here is that the ego have access to a literal internal panic button. If it flags something as dangerous – usually through feelings of different shades of unease – and you decide to just push through and disregard those warnings, well don’t be surprised if the ego decides to crank up the volume.
I’ve had panic attacks. They are Not Fun. Sometimes I think those who give the “push through” advice have never experienced being mentally unwell.
Again I find the image of your inner watchdog or inner child to be of help. When the inner child is freaking out, its time to stop and listen. Why is it acting like this? What is the underlying fear or concern? Is it really true?
The ego is generally short-sighted and seldom has the whole picture. What it thinks is best for me right now might not at all be aligned with my higher values or aspirations. But that doesn’t mean I can shove it aside and ignore it.
Listening and reassuring
Jess Lively had a dog once who always barked at the window when somebody was passing by on a skateboard. It was clearly triggered as if there was some kind of threat or danger, barking for a long time even after they had vanished out of view. But it happened often, since they lived in a neighbourhood with skaters, and it was very annoying.
Jess explained how she finally got the dog to stop. When she had yelled at the dog to stop barking, it had sensed the strong voice as a confirmation that there was something dangerous here and just continued. But when Jess responded with a neutral or calm voice saying “Yeah yeah, that’s a skateboarder there. Thanks for letting me know”, the dog calmed down. It had now been seen, recognised for its efforts, and reassured that there was nothing to worry about.
Just like with Jess’ dog, sometimes all the inner child wants and needs is to be seen, heard, and reassured. I then need to assume the role of the inner parent, who listens to the concerns of the ego just as you would listen to a child. I’ve found journaling to be helpful with this.
Listening is not the same thing as doing what it says though. But I’ve found a listening strategy to be more effective than a pushing through strategy.
It’s an awareness thing. If I push through, I am less aware of what the ego wants because I’m inattentive to it. By listening, I become aware and can make a more conscious choice.
Again, I am not putting my identity in my ego. Instead of me freaking out, it’s a part of me that’s freaking out and that also means there’s a part of me that is not freaking out and who can act as the inner parent. There’s a part of me that is egotistic but it is not me, and I can choose my actions freely.
Neither is me, but they’re a part of me
So there you have my three inner dogs. My inner lapdog, the body, that needs to be fed, clothed, exercised and cleaned. My hunters breed, the brain, that needs the appropriate amount of stimulation. And my inner watchdog, the ego, that needs to be listened to and calmed down sometimes.
They are not me, but they are a part of me and my current experience here in this existence. I hope this image is as useful to you as it has been to me.