Irene Dempsey

the practical psychologist


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Rewriting the Psychology of Women

Notes on Communication

An Outline of Underdog Psychology


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An Outline of Underdog Psychology

Underpinning Irene Dempsey's work with her clients was a strong view of why people act as they do and how they can learn to act differently.  Irene began developing her model while at UC Berkeley in the early 1950s, working with clients at San Francisco's Langley Porter Institute.  By the late 1960s, the model was essentially complete.  Two key elements of the model are the concept of personal balance and the importance of learning the key life skills to manage that balance.  Irene named her approach "Underdog Psychology" because of her belief that many people, and many women in particular, live much of their lives "out of balance," without sufficient resources to meet the demands they feel.  Her work with clients was focused on helping people learn the skills that would help them get out of "underdog space" and live more of their life in balance.  An Outline of Underdog Psychology is an attempt to show how the different pieces of Underdog Psychology fit together.  An excerpt is given below.

After studying past efforts to create a “Psychology of Women” and working for years with women in her own practice, Irene Dempsey concluded that there was no need for a distinct psychology of women. Instead, the most useful psychology for women is a psychology for anyone who struggles with too many expectations and too little support, a “psychology of the underdog.” Women very often face such situations because their cultures make many demands and provide little support, but anyone can be an underdog, and everyone has the underdog experience at some time in their lives. Underdog Psychology aims to help anyone learn how to lead a happier, more satisfying life.

Underdog Psychology is based on five main beliefs about how people work:

1) Balance – The key challenge of life is managing the balance between Demands and Resources. “Demands” are expectations, from oneself, or requests, from others, that make claims upon one’s attention, energy, time, and money. “Resources” are all the tools and fuels, also called “support,” that one has available to respond to demands. In addition to attention, energy, time, and money, resources include skills, knowledge, friends, and network.
In real life, people usually face more demands than they can satisfy with their resources. As a result, they must decide which demands to respond to, and how, and which resources to use, and how. Often, people experience more demands that they feel must be addressed than they have resources available. This is the underdog experience. People in “underdog space” often feel “stuck,” seeing no way out of their predicament. They are also likely to feel depressed, angry, de-motivated, tired, and/or self-critical. Teaching people to escape from underdog space and to better manage demands and resources from day to day is the core goal of Underdog Psychology. People not only feel better, but perform better in life, when they are “in balance.”

2) Skills and learning – Balancing demands and resources is complicated and requires a complex set of skills. Few people have fully mastered these skills, but anyone can learn, and everyone can get better. Lacking these skills is not a personality trait or a character flaw. But learning them takes time and practice and a willingness to make mistakes. At a high level, the key skills are:
• Identifying what you want
• Managing your resources
• Dealing with resistance
• Choosing the next step (Identifying a ball to hit)
• Psychological self-defense

3) Individuality/independence/agency – Humans (and other animals) have a strong drive to assert their independence, i.e., to do what they want. They get a surge of positive feeling when they act on their desires. People in underdog space, in particular, often seek relief through a specific set of behaviors. The bad news is that these compensating/coping behaviors usually do not address the real problem and often have negative consequences. The good news is that taking even a small step in a positive direction can give an immediate emotional boost that can fuel more progress. Typical compensating behaviors include:
• Expression/complaining
• Procrastinating
• Topdogging
• Acting out
• Overeating
• Doing drugs/alcohol

4) Feelings, emotions, and meanings – The choices needed to balance demands and resources inherently involve comparing apples to oranges. Should you take your child to the baseball game or stay home and work on the big project that’s due in two days? When making these choices, and most others in life, there are no numbers that you could put into a spreadsheet that would tell you what to do. The values are subjective and individual.
But humans have a built-in system for evaluating such options. Feelings and emotions give instant feedback on the “meaning” to a person of an event or possibility: whether it is good or bad, how much, and in what way. (In fact, feelings and emotions are the only way to know what one values). Feelings can also give important warnings, e.g., that a course of action is not working or that danger is lurking. Using one’s feelings as a source of information – "listening to one’s emotions” – is an important elemental skill in Underdog Psychology, used in countless circumstances. Underdog Psychology emphasizes the distinction between acting (impulsively) on one’s emotions to relieve stress, which is typically unproductive, and listening to one’s emotions to make better decisions that truly reflect one’s interests.

5) Focus on own wants – It is commonplace to believe that people are better off when they focus on things they can control. Underdog Psychology believes, further, that people do best when they focus on what they want, as opposed to what (they think) someone else wants or what (they think) they ought to do. One can never know for sure what someone else wants. And even when one hopes to help someone else, that wish is an expression of one’s own desire to help rather than an accurate reflection of what the other person wants. In Underdog Psychology, focusing on what one wants oneself is called “staying on one’s own side.”

Based on these five main beliefs, Underdog Psychology aims to teach practical skills to help each person better manage the balance between demands and resources, to escape from underdog space when needed, or to avoid it entirely, and to lead a happier, more productive life.

© 1970-2003 Irene Dempsey