Personality Styles: Top Dog, Underdog, Self-Protector

By Terence T. Gorski
February 11, 1992

Self-defeating personality styles are composed of habitual ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and relating to others that creates unnecessary pain and problems in our lives.

People who were raised in dysfunctional or addictive families tend to develop one of two general styles of self-defeating personality
– The Top Dog Style,
– The Under Dog Style.

These two styles can combine to create more complex styles:

Unable To Function (“I must freeze!”): Some of us have such severe trauma at the start of our recovery that we are unable to function normally or to maintain a consistent personality style. We are under so much stress that we feel like we are falling apart. With recovery, we begin to stabilize and one of the following personality styles will emerge.

Top Dog Personality Style – The Victimizer: The Victimizer is a person who exaggerates his or her strength. They want everyone to be afraid of them. They believe that they must fight every one in order to survive. The Top Dog personality style is based upon the belief “I must be strong and can never admit to or show weakness.”

Many of us develop this personality style as a result of our abuse. We have been so abused we decide “never again!” We make a commitment to ourselves that we will never let anyone abuse us ever again. Unfortunately many of us are locked into a mistaken belief system. We believe that we have only two choices – to be a victim or a victimizer: We can be a victim and get hurt, or we can defend ourselves by becoming a victimizer and hurting others. To keep from getting hurt we start hurting others and become a perpetrator and do to others exactly what was done to us.

The Under Dog Style – The Victim: Victim exaggerate weakness and by doing so set themselves up to be controlled and victimized by others. They believe that if they ever try to fight back they will be destroyed, so the only way to protect themselves in to lay down and play dead and pretend to be helpless whenever they feel threatened.

The Under Dog Style is based upon the belief that “I must be weak and can never show strength or directly assert myself or I will be attacked and victimized again!” Those of us who use this style have decided to protect ourselves from the abuse of others by convincing them that we are so weak and helpless that we won’t be a threat.

Under Dogs often attempt to find protection by aligning themselves with a strong powerful caregiver who will protect them from others. The problem is that this powerful protectors usually demands a payment for the protection they provide. This powerful protector usually demands the right to victimize the people they protect in exchange for protecting us from the victimization of others other more viscous victimizers.

Switching Styles: Some people switch between the Top Dog Style and the Under Dog style dependent upon who they are with and what they are doing. I have met many people who are vicious top dogs at work, and revert to a victimized Under Dog in their intimate relationships.

Which personality style they use depends upon who they are interacting with, the social role they are playing, and what they are doing or expected to do in the moment.

The Goal of Recovery – Becoming A Healthy Self-Protector

We become a healthy self-protector when we develop the skills to take care of ourselves and those that we love in a healthy and responsible way. We know that we can protect ourselves without hurting others! The personality of the healthy self-protector is based upon the belief that “I can take car of myself without hurting others!”.

When we use this personality style we can keep ourselves safe without victimizing someone else or setting ourselves up to be a victim. Learning to consistently use this personality style is the ultimate goal of recovery.


The model of using Top Dog – Under Dog personality styles is a starting point. As recovering people get more skilled in recognizing when the Top Dog Under Dog traits in themselves and others. Richer and more helpful ways of understanding can be brought into the process.

The next model that I often move to is The Carpman Triangle which has three roles:

The Persecutor, which is similar to the Top Dog;
The Victim, which is similar to the Under Dog; and
The Rescuer, a version of the Top Dog who protects Victims by attacking the Persecutor.

In a future blog, I will explain the Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer Triangle in more detail.


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