Are you going round in circles or triangles?
“If it leaves you feeling sad, shameful or disappointed, is it right for you?”
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and felt like you are going round in circles? Like the pair of you are in a spiral of blame, guilt and control, going through the same motions and getting the same negative results and feelings? Chances are you are not going round in circles but in fact, going round in triangles!!
Huh?!? Now I know that the phrase ‘going around in triangles’ doesn’t have the same ring to it but go with me, and let me explain what I’m on about using an example from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (spoiler alert if you haven’t read/seen it)
Ron: We thought you knew what you were doing! We thought Dumbledore had told you what to do, we thought you had a real plan!
Harry: Well sorry to let you down…. I’ve been straight with you from the start… I’ve told you everything Dumbledore told me Hermione: Take off the locket, Ron. Please take it off. You wouldn’t be talking like this if you hadn’t been wearing it all day.
Harry: Yeah, he would. D’you think I haven’t noticed the two of you whispering behind my back?
Hermione: Harry, we weren’t…
Ron: Don’t lie! You said it too, you said you were disappointed, you said you’d thought he had a bit more to go on than –
Hermione: I didn’t say it like that – Harry, I didn’t!
Harry: So why are you still here?
Ron: Search me… Didn’t you hear what they said about my sister?... Yeah, I get it, you don’t care!.. It’s all right for you with your parents safely out the way –
Harry: my parents are dead…Go…..Leave the Horcrux. Ron: What are you doing?...Are you staying, or what? Hermione: I – Yes – yes, I’m staying. Ron, we said we’d go with Harry, we said we’d help – Ron: I get it. You choose him. Hermione: Ron, no – please – come back, come back!
(Source: Rowling, J.K (2008) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. pg252-254)
Whether you are a Potter fan or not, you can see in this interaction that Harry, Ron and Hermione are having an argument, nobody is listening, blame and guilt is being handed out in bucket-loads and ultimately nobody is winning. Everybody is hurt, angry or sad. Let me explain what is going on…
The Drama Triangle
Stephen Karpman created a model to analyse what is happening in interactions with 2 (or more) people and why they are really difficult to escape from once you are in it. He called it the Drama Triangle. When in a relationship which is stuck in the Drama Triangle, each person shifts between three roles:
I will explain the 3 roles next, or to see a video explanation click here
The 3 roles in the drama triangle
Rescuers – Rescuers get involved in other people’s lives without being invited to by assuming other people need their help. This is often due to an unconscious need for recognition and approval and also a dislike and difficulty with conflict and saying ‘no’. By stepping in to help before being asked they create a debt of gratitude and make themselves needed. This comes from good intentions, however, in solving people’s problems for them you are removing the persons ability to solve their problem themselves. It also means that rescuers are manage to avoid their feelings of discomfort or taking action to manage their own situation as they ‘simply don’t have time as they are helping someone else’.
In short, they sacrifice themselves because they want to prove that they are good, generous and selfless people, who deserve love and recognition. But rescuing creates resentment and anger in themselves and in the Victims, not recognition, nor gratitude or respect.
Persecutors – Persecutors feel they know best and characteristically see everything either in black or in white; Grey does not exist. They criticize, find fault, persecute, blackmail and abuse their power. In particular they use shame and guilt to manipulate. They can even punish (if only with their moodiness or their silence) so that Victims feel anxious and inferior. This reflects that persecutors ignore other people’s feelings and intrinsic value.
However, persecutors respond in this way, not because they are cruel and mean, but from a place of insecurity and vulnerability. Having control over a situation or person is a way of hiding and cutting off their inferiority complexes and is often a way of reproducing behaviours they would have seen growing up.
Victims - Victims feel powerless, incompetent, stuck and sometimes desperate. They discount their skills and their resources. They don’t recognize their own ability to change things or to influence their destiny either and so do not take action to change their situation. They believe that things simply happen ‘to them’ and that if something good was to happen it would just be ‘luck’.
This sense of hopelessness and helplessness is an unpleasant place to be, however, it also means that victims can’t be blamed for anything because they are not responsible for anything and therefore, they can never be wrong. They can keep themselves in this position as they have a tendency to make assumptions without relying on reality, without having sound evidence that would justify their beliefs.
So, looking at the Harry Potter example from before. Ron starts off as the persecutor, blaming Harry (victim) for the position they are in and Hermione attempts to rescue everyone. Harry then gets defensive and due to his insecurity; he becomes the perpetrator by angrily accusing both Ron and Hermione of plotting against him and as such puts himself into the role of victim. Hermione tries to rescue again but Ron becomes perpetrator and
accuses her of lying casting her as a co-perpetrator. At that moment, with both Harry and Ron angry and aiming this at Hermione she has become the victim. Ron then moves into the victim role as he tries to draw sympathy regarding him and his family, yet his comment is interpreted from the perpetrator viewpoint by Harry who feels it as a ‘dig’ about his dead parents. Harry then takes up the victim position. The scene ends with Ron asking Hermione what she is going to do and putting her in the victim position as he pours hostility and guilt on her for her choice, despite this, Hermione reverts to her default position of rescuer, chasing after Ron and trying to smooth over the conflict that has just occurred.
So why we do we go round in triangles?
So why on earth would we stay in any of these roles as none of them feel nice to be in and all ultimately lose out? Well, in simple terms, every role satisfies a need – the need to be seen and recognised. Admittedly, it may not be the most pleasant or healthiest strategy but it works – whichever role you are in you are in a role, having interactions and getting confirmation of who you are: in control, helpful and worthy or helpless.
For some people, the short-term benefit of establishing and being in contact with someone, anyone, outweighs the long-term pay offs of conflict, anger, guilt, resentment, hopelessness and the impact of these on our well-being that being stuck in the drama triangle leave you with.
Furthermore, we often find that when we enter the drama triangle, we tend to have a default position, in other words, one of the roles is more easily adopted than the others. It may sound odd, but this can feel comfortable – yes it isn’t pleasant, but it is an unpleasantness that we are use to, we can predict, we know how to work with and that predictability feels safe and strangely comfortable. Stepping away from this predictability where there are new ways of being that we aren’t use to, where surprises could occur is scary and uncomfortable and so we find ourselves accepting the roles we are pulled into and confirming to ourselves that ‘this is who I am and always will be’.
How do I escape the Drama Triangle?
So, if you have read this far and are thinking ‘yup, I recognise that I’m often pulled into triangles and I want out’ the good news is that you can step out of the triangle! Now, I will offer a health warning here – it isn’t easy, it takes practice and determination and acceptance that occasionally you will be dragged back in, but you can then step out again and it will get easier.
Here are 5 steps to stepping out of the drama triangle:
1. Recognise when you are in a drama triangle!
2. Notice the role you fall into and what triggers you to take this default response. Notice how it feels when you are in it to help you notice early on.
3. Choose an alternative role from the empowerment triangle that fits your needs and the situation. See below for tips on how to take a different approach from each role
4. Practice this new way of responding – it will feel hard and uncomfortable at first – remember it is new and different – but the more you practice it, the easier and more natural it becomes
5. Continue to work on your boundaries and self-acceptance. For example, recognise ‘should’ messages and unhealthy beliefs (which often represent win/fail outcomes) and rewrite these with more realistic and accepting statements, for example replace “I’m not good enough” with “I am human and can make mistakes – sometimes you win and sometimes you learn”.
Victim to creator: See the persecutor as a challenger, someone who presents you with an opportunity to clarify your own needs and develop your responses rather than a persecutor. Use the rescuer as a coach who can help you solve your problems. Don’t outsource your self-esteem by looking for others to help you. Recognise your needs and be proactive in solving them yourself. Challenge your self-defeating thoughts by focusing on solutions rather than problems. Accept you are human and are infallible and that is ok – you don’t have to get everything right all the time, stuff is hard but you DO have strengths and choice.
Rescuer to coach: Show concern for others in need but don’t solve their problems for them. That might give you what you need but what they really need is for you to act as a coach or mentor who can help them find their own solutions - “I care for you and know you are capable of this”. Start looking at what you need for your own wellbeing – you can’t continue to support others if you are exhausted! Value your own uniqueness, your strengths and capabilities – see your worth and establish your boundaries.
Persecutor to challenger: Be assertive but not overpowering. Remember that putting out someone else’s light doesn’t make yours shine any brighter. Express your thoughts and feelings without exerting these onto others, ask questions instead of giving orders, set your boundaries by noticing when you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable and scared and using these to frame your ‘no zone’. This might mean that dealing with others takes more time and skill but it’s worth the return in the long run.
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