Stop Self-Sabotage Using The Topdog Versus Underdog Game

Tired of the negative self-talk? Try shifting your mindset into a positive way of being.

Topdog vs. Underdog is a phrase coined by Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt therapy, to describe a self-torture game that people play with themselves in order to avoid the anxiety that they encounter in their environment.


Topdog versus Underdog is a game we play with ourselves, one we cannot win. In this article, we discover the definition of Topdog and Underdog, how humans use the defeatist self-manipulation technique, and ways to shift mindsets into a positive way of being. 

The Theory Behind Topdog Versus Underdog

To avoid or reduce anxiety, humans often develop complex manipulative behavior to satisfying personal needs, but in reality, it heightens their dependent behavior and separates them from healthy self-support. If a person is unaware of an effective way to reduce their anxiety dominating their experience, any actions that seem to alleviate stress, 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. Or individuals might over-identify with specific characteristics and create rigid, uncompromising, prejudicial attitudes toward the self.

What’s A Topdog? 

Here, the Topdog describes the part of an individual that demands the idea that the person should adhere to certain societal norms and standards. The Topdog aspect of the personality is the demander-of-perfection, the manifestation of a set of introjected “shoulds” and “shouldn’t’s.”

Topdog Examples

  • I should work harder, smarter, faster to be recognized.
  • No, I shouldn’t eat that bowl of ice cream; there is too much sugar in it.
  • I should read more books rather than staring at my computer screen.
  • Do I need this? I shouldn’t order more stuff on Amazon. 
  • I should meditate more often and spend more time on gratitude. 
  • Stop it! I shouldn’t talk to myself as much as I do. 

What’s An Underdog? 

Opposed to the Topdog is the Underdog, the manifestation of resistance to external demands. The Gestalt Center of Gainsville describes the process as:

The underdog agrees that the Topdog’s demands are appropriate; however, internal sabotage assures that the demands will never be met.

It is often the case that these internal needs twist to become self-sabotaging behaviors. 

Underdog Examples

  • I’ll never be able to accomplish as much as I want in my lifetime. 
  • I can never stop at just one spoon of ice cream and am gaining weight. 
  • I can’t stop watching YouTube videos and will never be able to read again!
  • Ordering ‘stuff’ gives me a hit of dopamine; I can’t break the habit of online shopping!
  • I can’t find the time to meditate because I’m on my laptop all day.
  • There’s no way I can stop talking to myself. I live in the country; who else am I going to talk to?

While there is no clear winner in the self-defeating game of Topdog/Underdog, however, in the encounter, the underdog takes a dominant position triggering developing depression or anxiety. 

Shift Mindset Into Positive Way Of Being

Gestalt therapists often guide their patients through an exercise where they assume both the Topdog/Underdog roles. With the therapist’s guidance, the patients can come to gain insight about themselves which can help them have a healthier relationship with their environment. 

However, if you don’t have access to a therapist to enact the role-playing game, here are three ways to shift your mindset into a positive way of being.

  1. Today, be aware of the thoughts that cycle in your mind
  2. Become attuned to the language you use when speaking with yourself. Do you use any auxiliary verbs such as “would, should, could”? 
  3. When you use “would, should, could’s,” in internal dialog, what sentence generally follows? How are you holding yourself back?
  4. Self-awareness is the ultimate key to sourcing the areas in your life where introjects are present. When you sit and self-observe your internal dialog, where do you carry the conversation in your body? 
  5. Write down your self-defeating dialog and switch the words to become positive affirmations. If need be, place the new statements somewhere in your environment where you can remind yourself of the change. For example, I taped mine to the washroom mirror. Continue to repeat the positive comments and feel the difference in your body. 

The ultimate goal is to bring self-defeating behaviors into the immediate field and begin the work of dismantling past ideas and concepts that are no longer serving you. Awareness, patience, and reorienting towards a new, positive internal dialog are crucial to overcoming the Topdog/Underdog introjections. 


Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

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Lisa Bradburn
Lisa Bradburn
Lisa is a student of Gestalt Psychotherapy in her third year of five. Spanning a twenty-year career, she has worked with Fortune 500 companies and start-ups coaching technology teams to be empowered, accountable, and purpose-driven. Lisa is naturally drawn to themes close to her heart; leadership, socialization, adoption, and conflict resolution. Today she lives at Rice Lake in the beautiful Kawartha area of Southern Ontario, Canada, with her German Jagd-Terrier dog Astor.


Medika Editorial


Lisa currently studies Gestalt psychotherapy and is entering her third year of five. She works for Fortune 500 corporations and coaches technology teams to be empowered, accountable, and purpose-driven. Lisa is naturally drawn to themes close to her heart; tech addictions, adoption, socialization, conflict resolution.

Lisa is also a part of the Medika Life family. She is an assistant editor with Medika, offering invaluable assistance with Medika's social media platforms and the editorial process for BeingWell, our Medium publication. Connect with Lisa and follow her below.


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