Topdog / Underdog
To avoid or reduce anxiety, people often develop complex manipulative behavior that may seem to them to be the only way of satisfying personal needs, but which in reality heightens their dependent behavior and separates them from healthy self-support.   If an individual knows no effective way of reducing the anxiety that dominates his or her experience, any actions that seem to alleviate anxiety, even temporarily, are adopted.   Individuals may manipulate themselves as well as their environments.   They may pay attention to certain aspects of their own experience and ignore or avoid others.   They may over-identify with certain characteristics and create rigid, uncompromising, prejudicial attitudes toward the self. 

      One common way of manipulating the self to stay blocked from healthy contact with the environment is the self-torture game labeled by Perls as "topdog vs. underdog."   The topdog aspect of the personality is the demander-of-perfection, the manifestation of a set of introjected "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts":   "I should be on time, I should keep my house clean and should always do perfect work. . . ."   The topdog, speaking only to the individual from within, is an introjection of societal, familial, or authoritarian demands.   Opposed to the topdog is the underdog, the manifestation of resistance to external demands.   Essentially, the underdog agrees that the topdog's demands are appropriate;   however, internal sabotage assures that the demands will never be met:   "I'll never be able to be on time, I'll never be able to do everything right, poor me, I'll always be neurotic."   In the topdog/underdog encounter, the underdog usually wins, triggering incipient depression or anxiety.

      From this perspective, it becomes easy to imagine a community dominated by a complicated web of manipulative patterns, as person after person develops manipulative styles for dealing with self or others in order to find satisfaction that is not self-generated.   Such a scenario is, in fact, implied in the writings of Perls, who sees few authentically healthy members of society.   In Gestalt therapy, then, it is believed that, to the extent that an individual is manipulative, to that same extent an individual is neurotic. 

      Let us assume here that all persons are neurotic to some extent, that is, manipulative of environments for support or affirmation of feelings of self-worth.   Environments rarely provide all of the other persons or the experiences, the richness and possibilities, the support and challenge that are needed to satisfy individual needs.   Certainly, as Berger, Berger, and Kellner (1973) point out, Western cultural institutions have developed in the bureaucratic model in which the goal is often largely to preserve the institution, rather than care for the needs of individual members of society.   It is often necessary, then, for even healthy persons to learn how to manipulate effectively in order to survive in unsupportive environments.   The distinction we make is that neurotics are unaware of their manipulations and the effect of such manipulations on themselves.   Healthy persons may knowingly choose manipulative behavior when it serves them in the effort to achieve satisfactory closure experiences. 

Copyright© The Gestalt Center of Gainesville, Inc.

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