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The Puppy on the Leash: an Analogy for More Balanced Thinking (and, Therefore, Greater Happiness)

Posted Dec 17 2010 8:04am

A few months ago I noticed a woman in Manhattan training her puppy. It seemed as though her goal was to have the dog walk directly at her side without straying in any direction that she wasn’t leading him.

This woman was utilizing psychology to the fullest. When the puppy walked with her, she used copious verbal praise with a high-pitched voice only a dog could love or even tolerate. Every twenty or so feet she would even give him a treat as further reward. When the puppy went too fast, too slow, left into her calves or right into people traffic, she gently pulled on the leash and gave a forceful “No!” She then stopped, moved the puppy back into place, waited a few moments and then pressed on with the animal in its proper position.

Stalking her for multiple blocks – I will stop at nothing for this site! – I noted that significant patience was required on her part. The puppy was very young and easily distracted from the task at hand. Depending on where she lived it could have taken literally hours to get home, as she would often stop five or six times over the course of one city block. Eventually she saw me staring at her and the dog while I typed notes feverishly on my pretentious iPhone. She gave me a coy smile before ducking into her building. In retrospect, it might have been more of a “get the hell away from me, Pervert” look than a smile, but that’s not important right now.

What is important right now is how our minds often work like the puppy does. On a regular basis, far too many of us engage in negative self-talk. Whether it’s a employment prospect that didn’t pan out, a relationship gone sour, a bad day at the office or snapping at a family member after battling NYC traffic, far too many people have this mp3 file that runs through their heads: I’m a bad person, I suck, I’m inferior, why can’t I do anything right?

Part of good Cognitive Therapy is to help clients note and challenge this type of thinking. Note the title of this piece. Balanced thinking is key term here, not positive. The goal isn’t to engage in ridiculous affirmations each morning and tell yourself how wonderful and perfect you are. No one is that great. While we are all generally worthwhile people, everyone has strengths and weakness, and those weaknesses aren’t to be completely ignored (that’s just denial). Instead, the goal is to be able to say “It sucks that I didn’t get the job. Maybe I didn’t interview well enough, or maybe, just maybe, there was an applicant who happened to be a better fit for this particular job.” Or “It wasn’t cool to unload on my husband like that because I had a tough day. That doesn’t make me a bad person, however. Let me apologize and perhaps do something to make it up to him.”

When I explain this to clients, I often hear, “Yes, I get that. But I’m just so used to the way I’ve been talking to myself. I don’t know of any other way.” This is where the puppy comes in. He doesn’t know any other way, either. The master is teaching him how to change his behavior. And cognitions are just invisible behaviors that can be also be modified. But it does take time and practice. You’ve likely been telling yourself these negative thought patterns for years, so results can’t be expected too quickly.

The next time you find yourself giving your brain an ass-kicking, stop and see if you can pinpoint what the negative thoughts are. Pretend those cognitions are the puppy. Reign them back in and try to insert a balanced thought. Then move along. When the thoughts come again later, pull on the leash again and remind yourself what the new thought pattern is. When you do that, give yourself some credit and praise. Don’t expect miracles that day and plan on the puppy running too far to the side again. But every time, and I mean every time, be sure to pull the dog back to its healthy spot. Down the line a bit, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how you feel, as the new thought patterns begin to assume their rightful spot in your mind. Just like the puppy will with his master.

See how animals are just like people? Like this bulldog on a skateboard:

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