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Enhancing Your Therapy with Gestalt Approaches
Gestalt Therapy continuing education counselor CEUs

Section 12
Aspects of Bipolarity

CEU Question 12 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Gestalt
Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, MFT CEUs

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On the last track, we discussed three strategies for helping clients increase their awareness of their responsibility for their feelings.  These three strategies were the "I Give You the Power" technique, the "Now I Feel" technique, and creating feelings.

On this track, we will discuss two aspects of bipolarities.  These two aspects are, the topdog and underdog, and opposites.

As you know, one of the most famous bipolarities described by Perls is that of the topdog and the underdog. In this first aspect of bipolarities, the topdog is righteous, authoritarian, and bullying.  The topdog uses statements such as "You should" or "You should not", and manipulates with demands and the threat of catastrophes

Two Aspects of Bipolarities

Aspect #1 - Topdog and Underdog
Dominance by the underdog may result in insatiable perfectionism.  The underdog manipulates by being defensive, apologetic, and wheedling, and also cunning.  The underdog uses statements such as "I try my best" and "I can't help it if I fail."  Dominance by the underdog can result in inertness and constant resistance.  However, obviously each has its place in the integrated personality.  There is a necessary strength and power in the topdog, and the underdog provides an essential check for the perfectionism of the topdog.  However, disputes between topdog and underdog can be distressing and paralyzing.

Nancy, aged 36, experienced depression centering around what she perceived to be a complete inability to lose weight.  Nancy stated, "I've given up on my diet for about the tenth time.  I just can’t seem to hold to it, and it makes me mad.  My friend Shelley lost about 75 pounds last year!  I should be able to do that, too!"  I stated, "So, there seems to be a part of your that says you should be able to diet, and yet you don't do it."  Nancy stated, "Yeah.  Story of my life!"

Technique: Topdog-Underdog Dialogue
I invited Nancy to try a technique called the Topdog-Underdog Dialogue to help increase her awareness of the nature of this bipolarity in her personality.  You might review Track 9 on Dialogues to help prepare for this technique.  I stated to Nancy:

-- 1. "Feel what it is to be your topdog.  Now, imagine yourself in a dialogue with your underdog.  Make some "should" statements and some criticisms… Listen to the kinds of things you say… What feelings do you have as you do this?  What do you experience in your body?
-- 2. Now, switch over and be your underdog.  Answer the criticisms.  Listen to your reasons, excuses, and explanations… What do you feel towards the topdog?
-- 3. Continue this dialogue for a while… What differences do you experience as you switch from side to side?  What side feels more familiar to you?  Do you notice any difference in your feelings towards either side as you continue your dialogue?"

During Nancy's dialogue, her underdog stated, "I've gotten to the point where I'm reluctant to even start another diet, because if I don't lose weight fast, you jump on me. If I don't hold exactly to the letter of the diet, you let me have it! You think you're helping, but what you're really doing is making it almost impossible for me!!" 

Her topdog seemed to respond to this message. By extending the progress made in this dialogue, Nancy was able to work towards a realignment of both her underdog and topdog, so that her diet goals could be maintained. Do you have a Nancy who would benefit from a Topdog-Underdog Dialogue?  I have found that this dialogue style works well with other bipolarities in personality characteristics as well, for example active-passive, victimizer-victim, and domineering-submissive bipolarities.

Aspect #2 - Opposites
In addition to the topdog and the underdog, a second aspect of bipolarities is opposites.  As you are well aware, sometimes clients will get locked into certain identities, behaviors, and feelings. This adherence to "one side of the coin" naturally necessitates the lack of awareness of the other side. However, what is on the other side of the coin can be of value to the client. I find that asking a client to experiment with opposites can often unlock new facets of awareness, such as an unmet need, a dormant talent, or an unexpressed feeling.

Nancy stated, "I've always been the sweet little girl of my family. Not just my family, either… the school I went to, my sorority in college, my neighborhood… everywhere. And… well, sometimes I feel funny about it."  I asked Nancy to go into more detail about this funny feeling.  Nancy replied, "Well, I guess I get sick of it sometimes." 

To help Nancy increase her awareness of this opposite side of her 'sweet' behavior, I stated, "If you were the opposite of a sweet little girl, how would you be?"  Nancy stated, "I'd be mean and spiteful.  I wouldn't keep smiling when I don’t feel like it!  I'd say no when people ask me to do something that I don't want to do!  I'd put myself first instead of putting everyone else first!  And I'd say some things to a few people, believe me!" 

I responded to Nancy by stating, "Those sound pretty real.  My hunch is that there are a few things this sweet little girl would like to do."   Like many men and women who get trapped in the 'sweet' role, Nancy had herself so typecast that she felt that any behavior that was not 'sweet' or 'nice' was inappropriate. 

I explained to Nancy that too much 'sweetness' can hold check on behaviors that allow the experience and expression of strength.  I invited Nancy to participate in some dialogues and fantasy scenes that allowed her to experience the "mean and spiteful" opposite to her sweetness in a safe context. 

Think of your Nancy.  Which opposite could he or she benefit from experiencing?

On this track, we have discussed two aspects of bipolarities.  These two aspects are, the topdog and underdog, and opposites.

On the next track, we will discuss four important factors to consider in addressing avoidance in Gestalt therapy.  These four factors are, contrasting avoidance and expression, avoidance is an ongoing self-regulatory process, avoidance is not a sign of weakness, and a vast majority of clients will engage in avoidance at some time. We will also discuss the Rule Book technique.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Crego, C., Oltmanns, J. R., & Widiger, T. A. (2020). Obtaining and losing the bipolarity of the five-factor model through factor analysis. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 11(2), 119–130. 

Elliott, R. (2014). Review of Gestalt therapy in clinical practice: From psychopathology to the aesthetics of contact [Review of the book Gestalt therapy in clinical practice: From psychopathology to the aesthetics of contact, by G. Francesetti, M. Gecele & J. Roubal, Eds.]. Psychotherapy, 51(3), 462–463.

Furley, P., Kohlhaas, S., Englert, C., Nieuwenhuys, A., & Bertrams, A. (2019). The expression of ego depletion: Thin slices of nonverbal behavior as cues to momentary self-control capacity. Social Psychology, 50(5-6), 305–321.

Widiger, T. A., & Crego, C. (2019). The bipolarity of normal and abnormal personality structure: Implications for assessment. Psychological Assessment, 31(4), 420–431. 

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 12
What are two aspects of bipolarities? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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