Escaping the Drama Triangle

Last week’s blog focused on the frustrating dynamic of Karpman’s Drama Triangle - the dance between the victim, persecutor, and rescuer. It’s a dance we may be all too familiar with and one that can happen subtly. But once we recognize it, how do we step out of it?

Like I mentioned previously, each of the three roles needs someone to fulfill one of the other roles in order for the dance to continue. So a huge part of stepping out of the drama is to become aware of which roles you play. These roles are often learned early on in our families but can become fluid in relationships. For example, if you notice you have a tendency to rescue, intentionally work toward expanding awareness of how, when, and where you tend to rescue others.

Once you have cultivated some awareness of your role, the next step is to stick to your side of the fence. Sticking to your side of the fence means using I-statements like “I’m feeling ____” or “I’m noticing ____.” At the core, all of the roles focus on the other person rather than yourself, essentially blame shifting and giving power away in three unique manifestations. By choosing to stick to your feelings, experiences & responsibilities only, you are practicing being accountable for your feelings and actions and allowing others to do the same.

Finally, expect the drama to continue for a little while. When you step out of the drama, the other person will likely still play their role for a bit, but abstaining from your role cuts off the fuel to the fire. Relationships are like baby mobiles, changing up one role disrupts the whole system, and often the system is eager to get back to the familiar status quo. It will take practice over time to notice the role, learn to step out of it, and allow your relationships to adjust accordingly. Like practicing any new skill, this often doesn’t happen seamlessly at first. Over time, I hope you will find more peace and clarity in yourself.

The Drama Triangle

Ever reflect back on an argument with a loved one and wonder what the heck you were actually arguing about? Somewhere the conversation must have derailed. In any conversation there are two important elements at play -- the actual content of the conversation and the emotional subtext below the content of the conversation. When arguments derail, it’s often because we are getting stuck in the content without paying attention to the emotional process underneath. This leads to feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and feeling unresolved.

The Drama Triangle is a helpful way to recognize when your conversation has jumped on the crazy train. The Drama Triangle (or Karpman Triangle) was developed by Stephen Karpman as a way to understand the social dynamics and roles played out in dysfunction. He describes the following 3 roles:

The Victim is characterized by learned helplessness (“woe is me!”), feeling ashamed & powerless, difficulty making decisions, and negative view of self. Victim behaviors are often intended to prompt the other person to either affirm their helplessness or rescue them, reinforcing the victim’s neediness.

The Persecutor takes an aggressive, prosecutorial, blaming approach. This role is characterized by a superior “I’m better than you” attitude that belittles and criticizes the other person.

The Rescuer is just as it sounds, the role of taking power over another person by rescuing them, being in charge, and being morally or emotionally superior to others. This is a classic fixer or helper role that can enable helpless behavior of the victim to continue and can aid the rescuer in avoiding their own issues by focusing on helping others.

Each of these three roles needs someone to fulfill another aspect of the drama triangle to continue - i.e. the rescuer needs a victim, the victim needs a persecutor or rescuer, and the persecutor needs a victim. It’s not uncommon to shift roles within the span of a conflict, for example the rescuer being tired of fixing and becoming the persecutor, or the victim and persecutor flip flopping roles. And the drama continues.

In dysfunctional conflict we tend to favor one role over the others. What role do you resonate with? In a future blog we’ll talk about how to step out of the drama triangle and into healthy interactions.

Communicating to Connect

Ever been in a conversation with someone and walk away feeling frustrated and wondering how you could possibly view the same incident so very differently? I see this often when working with couples and families and in my own life. It is so easy to get tripped up on a word or phrase and completely miss the real message your loved one is trying to share.

Communicating to connect takes some intentional relearning of our speaking & listening skills. Rather than communicating to defend or prove your point as the end goal, imagine how powerful conversations could be if you listened with connection as the ultimate success? Connecting communication fosters healthy attachment, intimacy, trust, and builds stronger relationships. Here are a few guidelines that can move you toward connecting communication:

For the Speaker: Use I-messages. Speak from your experience, feelings, and thoughts. Share “I feel (feeling word) because (event).” rather than “you always…”. Make sure to use feeling words (sad, excited, disrespected, hurt, happy, mad, etc.) to describe your experience. Sometimes we say “I feel that you are…” which is using the I statement format but ultimately is not sharing your experience or feelings. Try to speak concisely so the listener can follow and reflect well.

For the Listener: Your job is a tough one, so get centered, calm, and prepared to listen. If you start to feel anything that gets in the way of listening well, call a time-out until you can listen fully. Mirror and reflect what your loved one is saying, like “You are feeling disappointed that I haven’t listened to you. You are frustrated that I missed what you are saying and you are feeling unheard.” Use lead in phrases like “What I hear you saying is..”. Check in to make sure you are getting the message right after reflecting with a simple phrase like, “Did I get that right?” Once you know you are hearing the message correctly, offer validation and empathy. Empathy & validation looks like “It makes sense to me that you feel that way because ____.” You can offer empathy & validation whether or not you agree with their perspective. Remember connecting communication is about hearing & seeing one another, not about proving why your perspective is superior.

Communicating to connect is hard work and can yield great results. Start practicing as a listener and notice how your conversations change!

Conversation Starters from Inside Out

I love Pixar and their creative power in great story telling. So when Pixar released Inside Out, I was thrilled. Inside Out depicts the emotional world of 11 year old Riley. The film follows Riley through a cross country move and her new life in San Francisco. All the while, the viewers get an inside peak into Riley’s brain, run by Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust, and Anger, with special appearances like the Thought Train, Abstract Thought, and her old imaginary friend, Bing Bong. The film is chock-full of great insights that help us integrate our emotional world into everyday life. Here are a few ways you can use Inside Out to start a conversation about emotional well being at home:

  • What is each emotion's job?

Throughout the movie we come to see the vital role that each of the emotions play. Even Sadness, who is often neglected by the other emotions, comes to play an integral role in Riley’s adjustment to her new life. Our emotions are like a thermometer, alerting us to something important. At home, brainstorm each emotion’s job is in your life.

  • Who’s driving right now?

Each character in the film has a go-to controller of their emotional command system. For Riley, this is Joy. Because each emotion has a job, it is important to listen to them all in balance. We don’t always have to listen only to sadness or only to fear or only to joy, let each emotion have their voice. Throughout the day, check in with yourself and ask “Who is driving right now?”

  • Develop a new emotional language.

In our culture we don’t use very many feeling words. “How are you” is more of a greeting than a question expecting a response. Now that you have noted the importance of each emotion, it’s time to practice identifying & sharing feeling moments. Make this fun -- maybe use Uno or create color cards, be creative!  Each time you play a special card, share a moment when you felt the emotion correlating to that color: sad, angry, joyful, fearful or disgusted. With older kids, you may even share complex emotions where two or more emotions co-exist in one feeling.

  • What are your personality islands?

Riley has 4 main personality islands (family, friends, hockey, & goofy islands) formed from important core memories. Ask your family for a tour of their personality islands, asking “what is most important to you here? What memories come up on this island?” For extra fun, pull out some art supplies and draw each island.

Inside Out provides a non-threatening way to talk about our internal world, a place that can often feel nebulous or intangible. Use the characters and themes of the movie to start these important conversations at home!

From Fractured Communication to Whole Messages

A common reasoning for seeking counseling is to improve communication skills. Many of us grew up in families that struggled to model healthy communication, conflict resolution, and expressing emotional needs. Without the proper training we use the same faulty tools we learned, leaving our communication fractured, passive aggressive, defensive, and unclear. It is not uncommon to only partially communicate our thoughts and feelings and yet feel wholly unsatisfied with the result.

Communicating in whole messages involves four components: observation, thought, feeling, and need. Communicating via whole messages ensures you are doing your part to best represent what is going on internally for you and not put the listener in the position of mind reading (spoiler alert: they cannot read your mind, no matter how long you’ve known them). Let’s take a look at the four parts of whole communication:

  • Observation: what do you notice?

  • Thought: what are your interpretations about the observation?

  • Feeling: how are you feeling about the observation?

  • Need: what need would you like met/what request can you make?

Examples of whole messages:
O: I noticed you’ve been silent since I got home.
T: I realize that I may have frustrated you with what I said earlier.
F: I’m feeling hurt by your silence.
N: When you're ready can we talk about what happened so we can move forward?

O: Finals are coming up soon.
T: It’s important to study and do well.
F: I feel like you don’t trust me to budget my time.
N: Can you let me study on my own timeline?

Are there certain relationships that you are noticing feeling the most frustrated in communication - your marriage, workplace, with children, friends? Where can you start practicing whole messages this week?

Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

Last week we discussed Gottman’s Four Horsemen the Apocalypse. Hopefully you are beginning to notice which horsemen you tend to use. As you grow in your self-awareness, you can begin to catch yourself and instead choose to communicate differently. Here is what Gottman has found to be the antidote to each of the four horsemen.

Rather than criticism, complain without blame. Practice using “I-statements” that reflect your thoughts and feelings. Rather than “you are always late!” (criticism), try “I feel unimportant when you show up late without calling.” Stick to communicating your feelings and needs rather than placing blame on your spouse.

Rather than contempt, build a culture of appreciation and respect. Each one of us wants to be loved. Curb contempt by intentionally communicating your love, respect, and appreciation towards your mate. This is built in small moments each day - be specific and genuine. “I really appreciate the way you handled the discipline with our kids today.” or “I’m so proud of the way you tackled that meeting, I know you have been stressed about it.”

Rather than defensiveness, accept responsibility. Rather than deflect blame, diffuse the situation by taking responsibility for whatever is your part in the issue. It takes two to tango. For example, “I can see how I may have contributed to your hurt feelings here. I apologize for not calling you to let you know I was going to be late.”

Rather than stonewalling, practice physiological self-soothing. Stonewalling often occurs when one or both partners is feeling emotionally flooded. The only way to re-engage well is to take some time to calm down. Perhaps you can go for a walk, practice breathing exercises, listen to music, journal, or go lie down. This break is truly a break, not a time to rehearse arguments or nurse wounds. It takes at least 20 minutes to physiologically calm down, so any attempts to resume the conversation sooner will not be fruitful. As a reminder, whoever is calling for the break is responsible for setting up another time to pick up the conversation again.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Marital researcher John Gottman has spent years identifying the strengths and downfalls of marriages. With over 40 years of research under his belt, he can predict with more than 90% accuracy whether a couple will stay together or get divorced. One of the predicting factors of divorce is the presence of toxic communication styles that Gottman has coined The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The presence of these alone does not mean that your marriage is doomed. In fact everyone uses some of these horsemen sometimes, even the Gottman's use them! Working to reduce their presence, however, will have a positive impact on your marriage. Let’s take a look briefly at each horsemen:

Criticism reaches far beyond naming a complaint or disappointment and instead attacks the character of your partner. A complaint voices a feeling about a specific behavior or incident; a criticism voices disapproval of your partner. For example, a complaint would be “I was really frustrated that you did not follow through on making that call like you said you would.” Criticism says “I knew I’d have to do this. You are so lazy and selfish!”

Contempt may manifest in a number of ways -- mimicking, mocking, belittling, eye-rolling, sarcasm, etc. The acts of contempt may be subtle or overt and often stem from underlying beliefs of the partner’s flaws. Contempt communicates from a place of superiority over the other partner. Gottman has found this to be the most deadly of the horsemen and the number one predictor of divorce. 

Defensiveness occurs when a partner does not take responsibility for their actions and instead defends him or herself in light of their partner’s complaints (or criticisms) and may even blame shift. Rather than solve the issue, this tends to communicate a lack of ownership or being accountable. Defensiveness is a very common horsemen in many relationships. 

Stonewalling is the idea of shutting out your partner during conflict, imagine a thick castle wall between you and your spouse. This may be demonstrated in tuning out, seeking distractions, turning away, acting busy in other tasks, not listening, and not letting your partner in emotionally. Sometimes stonewalling can occur after negativity from the other horsemen accumulates, and sometime sit can occur as a pattern of habit from childhood or other relationships.

Remember we all use these horsemen sometimes, and we tend to have a few favorites we tend to rely on the most. Take some time this week to notice when these 4 horsemen show up in your relationships. Self-awareness is the first step toward changing any behavior.  

Building Resilience in Your Child

Watching your child endure disappointment, heartbreak, and setbacks is heart-wrenching. Perhaps watching them make mistakes, knowing disappointment is right around the corner, is even more challenging! Whether they are 5 or 25 years old, it can be tempting to step in to protect your child from pain. The extreme of this is what we call helicopter parents: hovering over their kids, intervening for them, making decisions for them, fighting their battles, and protecting them from consequences. While it can be tempting to fight those battles for your child, the best way to develop resilience in your child is to allow them to endure small hurts and disappointments. Children who rarely experience small hurts, boundaries, or consequences will struggle when bigger struggles inevitably cross their paths. As your children survive bumps along the way, they learn to tolerate distress, grow, and make better decisions in the future.

Part of your job as a parent is to equip your child to be a healthy, happy, and successful adult. One day your child will have to navigate conflict in their relationships, personal struggles, difficult coworkers, and financial choices all on their own. Moving out of the house does not magically bring about these life skills, they are learned and practiced at home throughout childhood. As parents, you can create safe boundaries within which your child can practice (and fail!) navigating those difficulties. Giving your child the freedom to make those decisions and deal with the consequences of their actions can be a huge learning opportunity and confidence builder.

Try to identify small, age-appropriate tasks that your child can learn to navigate on their own. For example, it may be appropriate to talk with your elementary aged child’s teacher about school concerns, but middle and high school aged kids can learn to talk to their teachers about homework and grade concerns by themselves. It is important that these tasks are small and the consequences are ones that your child can endure. Remember, it is also your job to protect your child from harm!

Whatever the issue, help your child brainstorm solutions, create a plan together, and help your child to execute that plan on their own. It is important that your child learn that their choices are connected to their consequences. Maybe it is the parent’s job to make their child’s lunch, but the child’s responsibility to remember to bring it with them. If they forget their lunch, they may have to skip lunch that day. Perhaps you and your middle school aged child make a plan to tackle a big project with you checking in daily -if your child chooses to procrastinate to the last minute, he or she may get a poor grade or be sleepy at school from staying up late to finish.

As your child grows they will be able to brainstorm, plan, and execute more and more on their own. Along the way, ask your child “What are you feeling? What do you need? How can I help you?” As your child learns to tolerate small setbacks, they will be better prepared to handle bigger disappointments down the road.

Taking A Healthy Time-Out

All relationships can experience gridlock when talking about a difficult topic. Relationships, whether it be a couple, friendship, parent-child, or family system, tend to have a familiar dance that plays out in communication and conflict. For example, a common dance is the pursue-retreat dynamic: a couple may start a conversation calmly, but over time one person starts to get emotionally overwhelmed and withdraws. The other partner notices the withdrawal and beings to pursue the conversation with more intensity. The withdrawn partner may now start to shut down emotionally or become passive aggressive. And so on and so forth.

We all can fall into a similar dance rhythm in conflict quite easily. It takes much more awareness and intentionality to notice the dance and choose to try something new. A really helpful way to step out of the dance is to take a time out. In the moment, it may feel risky or vulnerable to leave a conservation unresolved. In the long run, taking a time out sets both parties up for success in returning to the conversation when they have calmed down. Time outs work best when both people agree that using a time out could be helpful before a conversation gets heated. That mutual understanding in a calm moment allows for respect for the need in a difficult one.

If you are starting to feel frustrated, angry, more committed to winning than listening, triggered, may react violently from your anger, shut down, or emotionally flooded, you may need a time out. You may request a time out by saying something like, “I notice that I’m feeling really frustrated and having a hard time fully listening to you. Can we take a time out?” or simply, “I can’t talk about this anymore, I need to take a time out.” A time out can be a powerful tool to step out of the toxic dance and into a healthy one. Time outs allow both parties to calm down, notice their feelings, gather their thoughts, identify their needs, think about the other person’s perspective, and come back ready to re-engage.

A time out cannot merely be an avoidance of conflict or pushing off hard conversations indefinitely. If you call for a time out, it is your job to offer another time you can resume the conversation in a reasonable time frame, typically within a week. This allows each person to come emotionally and mentally prepared for the conservation. By following through with another time it also communicates respect and care, that the conversation and relationship is important.

In what relationship might you need to practice time outs for more fruitful conversation and connection?

How to Listen so your Kids will Open Up

Just as children navigate new developmental stages, so parents must learn to relate to their children differently in each stage. This can be extremely difficult, especially when your sweet little one who used to share everything with you is navigating the adolescent years and suddenly wants nothing to do with mom and dad. Many parents are curious about how to better relate to their child so that they are willing to open up and share about their life.

Remember, your adolescent is learning how to become more independent, and will inevitably start to push a bit further away from the family. This is normal, and good! Your relationship will change as they learn to become more independent, to develop more intimate friendships, and form their identity. As a parent, you will likely not be your teenager's go to processing buddy, and information may become more limited. With that in mind, here are a few tips in how to cultivate a space where your teen will continue to share with you.

1. Get curious (but not too curious). Casually ask about your child's day, what was great and difficult about their day, what they love right now, what they may need. Let them teach you about the teenage landscape. Remember that teenagers become suspicious and often shut down when they feel they are being interviewed or interrogated. If your teen starts to shut down, ask them "It seems like you don't want to talk right now. I may be asking too many questions, is that right? Maybe we can talk more later."

2. Create a family culture where it is safe to share deeply. If the adults are not modeling how to share about feelings, talk about difficulties, or share joys, teenagers will not magically start talking about their deepest struggles and pains. Work on creating a family culture where everyone can feel safe to share (or not share) as they need. Around the dinner table make a habit of sharing your highs and lows from the day, put a feelings word list up on your kitchen, and practice using feeling words to help give your kids the language to talk about their internal world. When appropriate, share your own struggles that are still in process, not merely ones that have already been figured out.

3. Reflect back. Rather than jumping in with a solution to a struggle, learn to reflect back what your child is saying. Aim to reflect both content and the emotion behind it. If your child shares about a tricky friend situation, you may say "Wow, this conflict with your friends is messy, and you're feeling confused as to what to do." If your child seems irritable in the midst of a big project, you may say "You seem pretty stressed about this presentation," rather than "Why did you procrastinate to the last minute?" Reflective listening communicates care about your child's day and internal world, while respecting their desire to solve their challenges on their own.

4. Ask for feedback. Children and teens are rarely given a voice to make decisions or speak up for themselves. They are often spoken for, preached at, or have decisions made for them. If your child is consistently shutting down in conversations at home, notice it with them and ask what they may need instead. For example, "Tommy I notice that when I ask about your day, you give me one word answers. I really care about you and want to know how you're doing. What could I do differently that would help?" This could be as simple as giving the child 30 minutes of down time after school before asking about their day or planning for homework. Ask when they feel heard, what kinds of things you can do to support them, how you can respect their privacy and independence while staying involved in their life. They may surprise you with their answers!

5. Get in the car. Any parent that has driven carpool can attest to the world of information that opens up when your kids share with their friends in the car. It's as if the children completely forget that an adult is present, and the parent gets a sneak peak into their child's world. If you hear something in the car that your child hasn't shared with you, don't use this against them as a secret weapon. Instead, follow up with a gentle question later when friends aren't around. Teenagers in particular may be intimidated by face to face conversations with adults. They are often more comfortable when sitting parallel, just like what happens in the car. If your child tends to open up more in the car, take them with you for an errand, put your phones away, and let them fill the silence. Car rides are great times to ask open ended questions.

If you are really struggling to maintain a positive relationship with your teen, don't be afraid to reach out for help!