The 'dogs from the cellar' is a perfect metaphor to explain how your childhood still influences your relationships today

Wolf pack_paVan_/FlickrDon’t ignore the dogs.

I’ve been reading “Radical Acceptance,” a 2003 book by psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach.

Brach shares a bunch of simple but brilliant insights into the way we handle difficult emotions — and how we can handle them better.

But there’s one sentence I’ve kept coming back to because it just makes so much sense:

“Because we are responding to an accumulation of past pain, our reactions are out of proportion to what is happening in the moment.”

In other words, if your partner tells you he’s busy and can’t talk right now and you break down sobbing, it’s probably not just your partner’s comment that set you off. Maybe you’re also reacting to all those times during your childhood when your mum locked the door to her home office and you felt alone and scared.

Those old fears about being left alone again are an example of what one of Brach’s clients calls the “dogs from the cellar.”

Even if you’ve locked the dogs up for the time being, they haven’t disappeared. Read: You might think you’ve moved on from distressing childhood experiences, but they probably affect your current relationships in ways you don’t even realise.

Brach writes: “When someone criticises us or disapproves of us, we get thrown back in time and have no access to our adult understanding. We feel as if we were a child who is powerless, alone and terrified.”

This isn’t to say, of course, that you’re doomed to relive the upsetting parts of your childhood forever. You’re not.

The problem is that most of us try to resist our difficult emotions — or, to continue the metaphor, to ignore the dogs growling in the cellar. That only makes the situation worse.

Barbara, the client who coined the term “dogs from the cellar,” was struggling with the fear that she’d upset her husband and the people she worked with. Her father had been an alcoholic and often exploded in anger at Barbara.

She didn’t tell anyone about these feelings, of course, and she told Brach that “trying to keep her fears at bay felt like locking a pack of wild dogs down in the cellar. The longer they were trapped there, the hungrier they got. Inevitably they would break down the door and invade the house.”

What we really need to do, Brach suggests, is lean into the discomfort — open the cellar door.

Brach writes:

“Our overreaction is a further humiliation. The last thing we want is for others to know how much our life is overrun by the dogs from the cellar.

“If others see we are afraid, we fear we will be unappealing in their eyes — someone they pity but don’t respect or want to befriend.

“Yet as we pretend to be ok, we sink even more deeply into feeling separate, alone and threatened.”

Brach helped Barbara tune into the physical sensations of fear she felt when she thought she was upsetting her husband. Then she asked Barbara to identify what exactly she was afraid of, and to recognise that her thoughts didn’t necessarily reflect reality.

For sure, these strategies are easier when you’ve got a trained therapist helping you — which not everyone has or wants.

But for me at least, the real takeaway here is that sometimes, you need to acknowledge that you’re afraid. The deep-seated cause of the fear might not present itself immediately, or for a long time. But the point isn’t to be a psychic detective.

Even if you just acknowledge to yourself that something is scary — that the dogs are down there — that’s a big step toward reducing the fear, and toward more fulfilling relationships.

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