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!

The Power of Affirmations

We are often our worst critics, judging ourselves more harshly than we would others. It is often easier to extend grace and compassion to friends and family than it is to ourselves. The messages we tell ourselves often perpetuate lies that root from shame, our negative core beliefs. Things like “I’m not good enough. No one loves me. Everyone leaves. I can’t rely on other people.”, etc. Healing these negative core beliefs takes great intentionality. One great way is to practice affirmations.

Affirmations are simply positive truths about ourselves. An affirmation concisely speaks truth about who we are, challenging the negative core beliefs that may be loud in our head. These affirmations can cross out the messy first draft left behind by shame & replace it with a more true, more helpful draft.

Sometimes affirmations can be general, like “I am loved” or can be more specific to a situation, like “I can handle this”. Write your affirmations specifically to areas of yourself and your life that need that extra support and tune-up. Find yourself beating yourself up over small mistakes you make socially? Write affirmations about your belovedness, connectedness, support from others, etc. Working toward a big test? Write affirmations toward your preparation, your ability, your strength, your confidence. Struggling to hold onto hope in a difficult season? Write your affirmations about your confidence that you will be okay, you can handle this, you will get your happy ending.

I encourage you to give it a shot - even this weekend. Think about a difficult spot in your life now, it may be self-esteem, family, relationships, infertility, grief, loss, fear, lack of hope, a trial, etc.. Now challenge yourself to write 25 positive affirmations. Here are a few to get you started:

  • I am strong.
  • I am loved.
  • I am doing the best I can with the tools I have today.
  • I can handle this.
  • I can trust myself.
  • I am resilient.
  • I choose hope.
  • I will be okay.

When you have your affirmation list, commit to reading your affirmations out loud over yourself daily. You may even record yourself speaking these affirmations slowly, then listen to the recording as you fall asleep each night. Practicing affirmations may feel strange at first. We are often not used to speaking kindly to ourselves. Negative shame messages are usually deeply ingrained and can feel much louder than the soft whisper of a positive affirmation. Keep at it consistently, with practice and discipline the affirmations will eventually start to feel more true and take up more space in your head.

Curbing Consumerism: Creative Holiday Shopping Ideas

In our affluent area, it's not uncommon to hear parents lamenting of their children's materialism but unsure of how to change it. With the constant barrage of ads, marketing, and social media, we fight an uphill battle. Adults get easily sucked into "more, more, more" and the upward comparison of keeping up with the Jones', too. The best way to give your children's perspective and a healthy relationship with money is to model it. Talk about spending, companies you believe it, budgeting, giving, and saving. Help your child learn to save, spend, and give with money they receive as well. How you structure your holiday shopping is a great way to put your money where your mouth is, pun intended! A few ideas to mix it up:

  • Adventure gifts. Give gifts of time together rather than crossing things off your list. Create family memories by going to the zoo, trying an escape room activity, go wine tasting, head up to the mountains, go for a hike, out to a show, etc. Think of what your family may enjoy together. The possibilities are endless!
  • Pick names. Lesson the load by encouraging each person to shop for one other person. This may allow for more creativity, thoughtfulness, and intentionality in gift giving.
  • Set a limit. Make a budget for each person and stick to it. This can limit overspending and shift the culture of expectation in the family.
  • Serve together. In lieu of gifts, give your time and money to organizations in need. Adopt a family to gift, serve a hot meal to those in need, spend time partnering with those who already have boots on the ground in your community.
  • Donate to non-profits. Give money to an organization in your loved one's name. Find something he or she is passionate about or provide a micro-loan to a developing entrepreneur around the globe. 
  • Buy socially minded products. There are many organizations that offer high quality goods that also contribute to the makers living with empowerment, dignity, and purpose.
  • Give homemade gifts! If you're crafty or handy, make your own gifts for family members. 
  • Balance the scales. In our family, we have created a tradition of giving a gift, donating to a charity, and gifting one adventure gift to each other. Each category has a set budget. This forces us to live within our means, not overspend, buy intentionally, and think outside ourselves.
  • Get creative! I recently heard of a family who goes downtown, gives each person a set amount of money, draws names, and then has an hour to shop for their person. There are points given for staying within budget, time limits, etc. At the end of the hour, everyone meets up for dinner to exchange gifts and stories.

Try new things that will help your family embrace a balanced relationship with money and spending this holiday season!

Home for the Holidays? Practicing New Skills in an Old Environment

Heading home for the holidays can conjure the warm fuzzies of nostalgia and anxiety of old patterns or family conflict. Whether heading home from college, returning to your childhood home with your own family in tow, or hosting family yourself, spending time with family can often pull us into old patterns. It's like running into an old family friend who eternally views you as your 18 year old self.  Change can be hard for people to accept.

It is often in these early relationships that we learn many of our relating habits, whether through modeling, family rules, parenting styles, or life circumstances. When you have been working on improving your self and relationships, going home can feel like the ultimate test. Family systems want to keep the status quo. When you start to act differently, hold boundaries, or question the family dynamics, people react to restore the balance. 

As you venture home for the holidays you will be pulled to act in the old ways of the system. Here are some reminders as you practice new skills in an old environment:

  • Remember that you can only be responsible for yourself. You cannot control what others do or say, nor can you take responsibility for them. Speak for yourself, your experience, your needs, your feelings, and your hopes. Be mindful to make healthy choices for yourself and let others make their own decisions.
  • Trust that everyone is doing the best they can. All families have disappointing moments, say hurtful things, or miss the mark. The stress of this time of year may increase these moments. Even the most unhelpful relating styles, both in ourselves and in others, usually come from a place of good intentions. The tactic may have helped early on in life, but now may be backfiring. Remind yourself to assume the best in others, it will help you be more gracious to yourself and your family.
  • You are not the family therapist. After gaining awareness of yourself or your family issues, it can be tempting to point out the dynamics or challenges others face. Be aware, speak honestly, and be gentle. Remember your own growth happens slowly and with gracious support, and so it will for others if/when they are ready to see it.
  • Self care, self care, self care! If you are anticipating a challenging day, schedule some down time before and after to take care of yourself. Excuse yourself for a walk. Drink a cup of coffee in solitude. Go to bed when you need to. Call a trustworthy friend. Schedule a massage when you get home!
  • You will fail, and that's okay. Practicing new skills is clumsy at first. Imagine a junior high girl wearing heels for the first time, it's a little awkward! Eventually you will grow into these new practices and they will become second nature. Use this time with family to increase your awareness of yourself. Be gentle with yourself when you fail. Journal about your findings and use it as an opportunity to try again next time.

Finally, find joy in these moments with family! Here's to a healthy & happy holiday season!

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?

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.