Monday, October 24, 2016

Case #192 - Topdog and underdog

Jane talked about difficulties she had with her live-in home help. The woman did not always listen to what Jane asked for, and did not always do things to the standard Jane expected.
I pointed out that this was a complex relationship. The woman was both employee, and also a kind of family member, in the sense she was residing in the house, and very much connected with what was going on, even if in the background. I also pointed out that this woman had her own feelings  and needs, which had no airspace.
The roles here were overlapping and mixed. The woman was younger, so there was an additional complication of perhaps some kind of  mother-daughter dynamics going on.
The lack of attention to these complexities, and the focus on only one role relationship can lead, as in this instance, to unstated tension and conflict, which in a work-relationship arises as resistance, often passive aggressive. The dynamics of power make relationships complex. People can to some degree put aside their personal needs in order to fulfil the requirements of a job. But these boundaries can easily get blurred, and the capacity to set aside one's own needs tends to be more limited that many people realise. The personal almost always interjects into the professional, and hence the importance of attending to 'fuzzy' issues in a work setting such as feelings. Ignoring them often leads to them going underground, and the classic 'top-dog / under-dog' dyad forms.  
An experiment then would be to play out this dyad with Jane, with her playing both roles - herself and the housekeeper. In this way, she gets an insight into what is going on beneath the surface with her home-help, and also she gets a chance to make explicit her anger, frustration, as well as other feelings such as superiority and hostility.  
The nature of the topdog/ underdog cycle is that the more resistant the underdog role gets, the heavier the topdog becomes - exerting pressure, yelling, using 'shoulds', threats, etc. But the underdog role just goes underground, passively resisting, digging their heels in, 'forgetting', or doing a half baked job, or being careless. They might say 'sorry', or 'I will try harder next time', but these are just part of the excuses that keep the cycle going. The topdog, who feels they have the power, gets increasingly frustrated.  
The only way to step out of this cycle is for the topdog to move away from shoulds, and notice feelings - personalise, rather than trying to wield their power to solve the situation. The underdog role needs to take responsibliity, and make the resistance visible.
This is what we facilitate in a Gestalt dialogue between the two sections. Jane's housekeeper may be her employee, but the same dynamic is also an internal one, within Jane.  
By bringing these two parts into dialgue internally, a resolution and integration can result, that combines power with feelings.

No comments:

Post a Comment

© Lifeworks 2012


Who is this blog for?

These case examples are for therapists, students and those working in the helping professions. The purpose is to show how the Gestalt approach works in practice, linking theory with clinical challenges.

Because this is aimed at a professional audience, the blog is available by subscription. Please enter your email address to receive free blog updates every time a new entry is added.

Gestalt therapy sessions

For personal therapy with me:

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

© Lifeworks 2012




Informed Consent & Rates


Gestalt Therapy Defined





Book:Advice for Men about Women


• English






Greek ελληνικά

Hindi हिंदी








Russian Русский

Serbian српски

Chinese 中文

Japanese 日本語

Arabic العربية

English Bahasa České Deutsch Español Filipino Français ελληνικά हिंदी Magyar Melayu Italiano 한국의 Polski Português Română Русский српски 中文 日本語 العربية

If you are interested in following my travels/adventures in the course of my teaching work around the world, feel free to follow my Facebook Page!


This Gestalt therapy blog is translated into multiple languages. You are welcome to subscribe


Interested in Gestalt Therapy training?

Contact Us


Career Decision Coaching


and here


Gestalt training and much more

For Men

Here is a dedicated site for my book Understanding the Woman in Your Life

The Unvirtues

A site dedicated to this novel approach to the dynamics of self interest in relationship

Learn Gestalt

A site with Gestalt training professional development videos, available for CE points

We help people live more authentically

Want more? See the Archives column here

Gestalt therapy demonstration sessions

Touching pain and anger: (40m)

Permission to feel: (54m)

Marriage after 50: (1h 17m)

Serafina - Angel wings: (45m)

Barb Wire Tattoo: (37m)

A natural empath; vibrating with joy: (39m)

Dealing with a metal spider: (51m)

Interactive group: (1h 57m)