Healing 'Bad Dog': Understanding Traumatic Self-Talk

You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine
— Elvis Presley, Hound Dog

Last week I wrote about understanding self-talk and practices to support more positive self-talk, and today I want to write about trauma and self talk. Trauma has its own impact on self-talk—how it affects us, and how we use it. And the antidote to it is not what you might think.

Even if you work really hard on healing, there are just some days where you fall in a hole. You think to yourself that you can’t possibly be back here again. The feeling of being lost, disconnected and unable to find your footing, again. Waking up 4 or 5 times a night, again. And when we are off balance, we don’t instinctively slow down, we thrash to right ourselves. Being off balance, like slipping on ice, puts us back in ‘survival mode’ and we tend to use whatever we once used to survive. In this state we try to regain control most often through our self-talk. My favorite version of this is something I call ‘Bad Dog.’ In ‘Bad Dog’ nothing I do is right. My inner voice is viscious and judgmental. Bad Dog isn’t just about perfectionism. It’s about living in a situation where I have to get it right or the world will end—where someone might die.

When bad dog hits I get wound up trying to do the right thing—at everything: the right way to food shop, to do the laundry, to make a PowerPoint. But nothing is ever right. I should know after all these years that Bad Dog isn’t the problem, it’s a very, very old attempt at solving a problem. It is a red flag, a signal I am in the ‘way back machine’-that I am trying to stop a storm that has long since blown over. Bad Dog and its viscious voice are an attempt at a solution—a way to not feel out of control, to not feel what I am feeling. But Bad Dog’s siren call is so seductive and powerful. The inner voice is so believable.  It looks so possible to finally be ‘good dog’ —that I might finally get the biscuit. Curl up in the warm bed.

So I often spend a long time thrashing around —and do what I always do—spending a long time fighting the process. Fighting the experience, fighting the feelings, frustrated that I am in this place of not-knowing again. I treat it like a house-guest who I don’t want to stay. I alternate between being rude and ignoring it, hoping it will take the hint and pack its bags. Spoiler alert: this never, ever works.  Almost always, instead of acknowledging where I am, I fight it believing that giving in to it, in the form of acknowledgment would mean that I am ‘lost’ and that I will spend an eternity feeling like this. That I will be stuck “here” forever.

But by some act of grace, I finally get tired of thrashing around. I let go. I surrender. I grab ahold of one of the words. And this is really the difference between managing your average every day negative self-talk, and traumatic self-talk. With traumatic self-talk, you have to slow way, way down. You don't heal traumatic self-talk one story at a time, or even one sentence at a time. You heal it one word at a time. You have to pick one word, one feeling. So, I stay with with one of the feelings. I finally let go of the idea that the answer will come as one coherent sentence and I take the lifeboat I have been offered: that one word, that one feeling. And I begin to talk about it, work with it, see if the names I give it, fits. I start somewhere, saying things out loud to see if they match the swirling experience inside me:

“Am I angry? No, that doesn’t fit. Am I sad? Well, I do feel kind of a heaviness in my chest, but the word ‘sad’ doesn’t seem to fit. Am I disappointed? No. Let me go back to the heaviness in my chest—I could feel that. What is that? I notice I am sighing. I take a deep breath. My only thought is I want to lie down and give up. I say out loud, “I am exhausted” and I burst into tears. The experience has a name.

But I don’t stop there. I keep talking. You can’t stop with the one word. Keep talking. “Exhausted. I am so tired of holding it all together. Tired of waiting. Tired of having to earn the right to be ‘good.’ And I dissolve into tears again. And for the first time in over a week, I can feel all my muscles let go and relax. I am not thrashing anymore. The storm abates, the seas calm. I know where I am.

It’s really important to understand that the words that come out of your mouth or from the end of your pen or your keyboard as you try to figure it out don’t have to be logical, or coherent, or make sense. The words you utter are like scavenger hunt clues. They often don’t make sense in and of themselves. They can be wrong. They can sound awful or silly or stupid. They might shock you or be something you never thought that you thought. But they lead you to the next word. Which leads to the next. And finally you find it, the name for what you are feeling, or the feeling for what you are thinking, or the narrative for the action you are living.

You heal traumatic self-talk by listening to yourself—your thoughts, your feelings, word by word. Traumatic self-talk served an important role. It wasn’t a Bad Dog, it was your Guard Dog. But you don’t need it any more. You can let it rest. You can listen to it. You can be brave enough to share these thoughts and feelings with someone who can help you heal. When Bad Dog comes up, you can tell yourself that this is old. That you don’t need this protection anymore. You can thank it for its loyal service. And you can listen to yourself word by word 

© 2014 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD