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.

Secondary Gains


Ever feel stuck and frustrated in a situation you want to change, but nothing seems to work? Sometimes this happens when we know the things we are “supposed” to do for self-care, mental health, or to find healing, but repeatedly find ourselves not doing those things. We suffer with the status quo, yet do nothing to change it. Other times this may happen in relationships, feeling the crazy making cycles repeating over and over, like a merry go round we want to get off of but can’t seem to find the exit.

When you feel stuck & frustrated, it’s a good opportunity to reflect on possible secondary gains. A secondary gain is a backdoor benefit that you receive from keeping the status quo. For example, a child that repeatedly gets in trouble may feel frustrated about constantly being punished, but not do anything to change her behavior. There may be an unconscious benefit of attention, even negative attention, that she receives from acting out. Perhaps a part of her is worried that if she stops acting out, she’ll stop getting attention. Sometimes the same happens in order to preserve relational dynamics. A child may act out in the family so the parents have to join together, unconsciously the child is preserving the marriage connection by providing a problem for the parents to solve.

As adults, we do similar things unconsciously. Perhaps someone stays just unwell enough to get the care and attention from others in their life. Some put up with behaviors in relationships that stand against values because of feeling terrified of being alone. Others fear succeeding for how that may impact relationships or change their life. Coming to terms with potential secondary gains can be difficult, but also provide the freedom to work through dormant fears that may be keeping you back from truly thriving. Identifying secondary gains may open the door to deeper self-awareness and the ability to write a new story.

If you’re feeling stuck, here are some helpful questions to think through. How may I be benefitting from keeping things the same? How would getting better impact my relationships for better or worse? Is there any part of me that is afraid of the change that could occur if I got well/this situation changed? What does that part of me need in order to move forward?

Celebrating Mini-Milestones

Life traverses various seasons, some joyous and light, others dark and difficult. Regardless of the season you’re in now, it’s human nature to zoom in on the difficulties of a day or week and filter out the positive. It can feel natural to celebrate the big milestones in joyous season, but it takes more discipline to celebrate the little, everyday milestones that go easily unnoticed.

We are often our own worst critics, quick to offer praise to others while beating ourselves up for small mistakes. Taking the time to celebrate growth, big and small, can help reorient your perspective toward gratitude, honor your growth and progress, and help you be on the lookout for good news. This shift in perspective may also reframe the way you engage with or interpret your difficult seasons.

For example, if you’re in a difficult season in your marriage, take time to celebrate the small moments that go well: conversations that felt connecting, using your tools in conflict, a fun date night, handling a parenting situation on the same team, etc. Reinforcing these positive moments helps give encouragement to both you and your partner that you are progressing and working hard and appreciate the effort being put in. If you’re struggling with depression, take time to celebrate when you choose to reach out for support rather than isolate, when you have a good week, when you choose to exercise, etc.

Celebrating these mini-milestones can be simple - a high five, an encouraging note, giving yourself a small treat, scheduling some pamper time with a friend, going out for ice cream or coffee, etc. You may even record these mini-milestones in a journal or diary, intentionally choosing to remember and honor the progress, especially on days you need the reminders or encouragements.

Take some time to reflect on your current season of life - is it one that is primarily light and joyous, or perhaps one that feels draining and hard? How do you feel about celebration? What mini-milestone can you celebrate this week? How may you encourage someone else when you see their milestones?

Co-Addiction vs. Trauma Informed Treatment for Betrayed Partners

In the early days of sex addiction treatment, clinicians took a copy + paste approach from successful substance abuse treatment protocols and applied it to sex addiction treatment. While some of this was (and remains) helpful for treating addiction, it unfortunately misunderstood and ultimately mistreated the partners in the process. This copy + paste approach left treatment addict-centric while looking to the partner and family for support for treatment rather than understanding the family needs their own support too. It also carried the co-addict or codependent label over to the betrayed partner.

The co-dependent model can make the partner feel culpable or responsible for the addiction behaviors by somehow enabling their acting out or for the very reason of choosing an addict as a mate. This model requires the partner to also be in lifelong recovery as they unpack and release their own addictive tendencies. This left many partners feeling blamed for their spouse’s addiction and further traumatized when seeking treatment.

As new research emerged over the years, however, the field is acknowledging how poorly the partners of addicts have been treated along the way. It has become clear that the most helpful approach to supporting betrayed partners is a trauma informed lens. Rather than label with codependency or other mental health diagnoses, the trauma informed model assumes first and foremost that the partner’s responses (emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationally) fit those consistent with traumatic stress. Often the betrayed partner has done the best they can to adapt to an addictive system, one that they were likely unaware of until discovery of the sexually compulsive behaviors. The discovery of the behaviors plus the secrecy and double life required to keep it hidden is doubly traumatizing.

While some betrayed partners may also identify with some codependent qualities, certainly not all will fit this list. The vast majority, however, will display symptoms of traumatic response as a result of the betrayal. The trauma model empowers the partner, normalizes their responses, and holds hope that healing and restoration are possible. If you find yourself looking for healing after discovering your spouse or partner’s betrayal, I encourage you to find trauma informed support through counseling, coaching, or support groups that will journey with you this process.

Shame Messages: Negative Core Beliefs


Shame & guilt are universal emotions that we have all experienced. The best way to distinguish between guilt & shame is this -- guilt says “Woops, I did something wrong, I did something bad.” Shame says “I am bad, there is something wrong with me.” Small differences in language, hugely different meanings. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling when something we’ve done, or not done, doesn’t measure up to our values. Guilt is usually specific to the experience, can be helpful and adaptive, and motivates us to change and grow. Shame, on the other hand, is the devastating feeling that there is something wrong inherently with who we are, thus making us unworthy of love and connection. Shame is typically consistent over time and experiences, a stable belief about who we are. Shame tends to be toxic, not adaptive, and is associated with depression, bullying, eating disorders, addiction, aggression, violence, and suicide.

Usually our shame messages, or negative core beliefs, develop early in life from family rules (be seen not heard, don’t be a burden, we don’t share hard feelings), family roles (the performer, the jokester, the all-star kid, the troubled kid), or from early childhood pain (abuse, bullying, family ruptures, trauma, etc.). Negative core beliefs often act as a magnet attracting evidence that supports its belief, but repelling contradictory messages. For example, someone with a negative core belief of “I’m unlovable” may have that message reinforced when a boyfriend cheats on them as a teenager, or can’t find a roommate in college, or when they feel lonely at a wedding in adulthood. These early wounds become tender buttons that get pushed in our adult lives. For instance, if someone yells at me or I feel I’m “in trouble” today as an adult, I will often feel exactly the same way I felt as a 2nd grader when I got in trouble for talking and had to pull a card in class.

We work hard to avoid feeling shame, and often turn to hiding places to numb out the uncomfortable feeling. We may use food, TV, technology, exercise, alcohol, substances, sex, porn, control, shopping, gambling, people pleasing, busyness, gaming, work or anything else to protect ourselves from feeling shame. Learning to recognize our cycle, like reaching for the ice cream after a stressful day or controlling the household when feeling afraid, can help us replace those numbing behaviors with more healthy coping. Instead of pouring another glass of wine, pick up your journal, call a friend, go for a run, or sit and meditate. Taking the time to identify our negative core beliefs can help us notice when they get triggered and use affirmations to remind ourselves of truth. Instead of spiraling into negative self-talk about being unlovable, someone may think “That’s old stuff. I know I am beloved, I am perfectly imperfect just as I am.”

Ultimately, as Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the secret superpower to fight shame:

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.

How can you fight shame today? Healing your shame may help impact your family for generations.

Boundary Myths

Many people aren’t taught what boundaries are or how to properly set them. Just like any new skill, learning to set boundaries can feel clumsy and awkward at first. As you learn how to set boundaries, you may run into some common myths:

1. Setting boundaries is mean.

I hear this one a lot, “I don’t want to be mean, but… I feel so rude!” When you are used to accommodating other people's’ needs and ignoring your own, setting boundaries can feel cold. Boundaries are not meant to control or manipulate others, they are intended to protect you from being taken advantage of.

2. Boundaries are punishment.

While there may be natural consequences involved in boundaries, they are not intended to be punitive in nature. Boundaries exist to say, “here is my line in the sand, please don’t cross it. If you do cross it, I will need to ____ in order to take care of myself.” Boundaries exist to protect and care for the boundary maker, not punish the boundary breaker.

3. Boundaries are selfish.

People that struggle to set and maintain boundaries often also struggle with disappointing others. In her research on vulnerability, Brene Brown found that the most compassionate people were also the most boundaried. Setting and keeping boundaries allows you to have your needs and self-care met, allowing you to be more genuinely present to the emotional state of others. Think of how airlines tell you to put your oxygen mask on before helping someone else; it is not selfish to protect yourself.

4. Boundaries are permanent.

You have the right to change your mind at any time. If a boundary isn’t working or something changes, boundaries can always be renegotiated.

5. People won’t respect my boundaries.

Boundaries are not designed to change or control other people’s behavior. The only thing you can control is yourself and the only boundary you can successfully enforce is your own. Boundaries do not depend on other people bending to your wishes, but rather on your ability to consistently follow through on your needs. Other people respecting your boundaries is much less important than you respecting yourself enough to keep them.

Embodied Healing

I have recently been reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD., a book exploring the ways in which our brains, minds, and bodies both hold, and in turn, can heal trauma. Trauma may feel like a scary therapy buzzword, and it becomes tempting to push it away from ourselves “I am not a vet, I wasn’t abused, etc...I don’t have trauma.” The reality is, we all experience trauma in our life, whether it be “little t” traumas, or a “big T” Traumas.

Our brain holds trauma in a very primal, emotional part of our brain called the amygdala which is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze reactions. This part of our brain is responsible for keeping us safe. When we experience trauma, however, this part of our brain can become hijacked and triggered if it feels similar to the trauma of the past, though there may not be imminent danger in the present. This leaves our bodies in prolonged states of stress, tension, and adrenaline. Our bodies, like this part of our brain, hold onto the experience of trauma as well, manifesting in aches, pains, tension, and sometimes medical issues.

Trauma survivors often become disconnected from their body, unaware of what they are feeling or of what the body may be trying to inform them. Becoming connected to our bodies helps integrate both the little and big “t” traumas into our story, loosening the grip of its power over our present reality. Psychologists used to believe that merely talking about the traumatic story would help loosen its grip, but more current research indicates that involving the body in this process yields more lasting results.

If you are looking to heal the effects of trauma in your past to experience more freedom in your present, consider integrating your body into your healing as well. In addition to working with a trained therapist, finding a certified body worker or massage therapist can loosen tension, help you become more aware of bodily sensation, and allow you to experience safe physical touch. Practicing yoga similarly connects you with your body, releases emotion, and empowers you with core strength. Journaling is a helpful way to work through your story and moments of your day by tangibly using your body to write. Therapies like EMDR utilize natural body processes to integrate trauma. Mindfulness, breathing, and meditation exercises help ground you while teaching you to view yourself with compassion. Self-care activities, including exercise, eating well, and sleeping well will help maintain your results. We are embodied people, we cannot divorce our bodies from our inner world.

Please note that if your trauma history includes physical or sexual abuse or assault, some of these practices like yoga or bodywork may be triggering and challenging in the beginning. Safely working through these steps with your therapist will help you pace your healing well.