drama triangulation

What does it mean to live on the edge in a way that is fundamentally creative, generative, and prosocial?

What does it mean to live on the edge in a way that is fundamentally destructive, degenerative, and antisocial?

Life in the dead zone is being in a place of meaninglessness… we go looking for this edge – but not in healthy ways.

When things get intense in the world, we have to meet it not in survival mode but as a functional person.  (For that) fearlessness is needed.

from notes on Dharma at the Edge, Fleet Maull

Maull related our unskillful attempts to live on the edge to the ego roles we adopt and for that he used Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle.  I’ve used this concept in therapy for years; roles we play and roles we evoke from others that support the roles we play.  If you want to read more, here is a detailed but accessible explanation of the triangle and all its possibilities.  The premise is simple: the interactions between the ego identities we take on can be dysfunction when the roles are those of Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.  (These are the original Karpman terms which are useful in some circumstances and can be modified to suit other specific interactions.)  The roles can switch when the goal is obstructed and, in fact, if we look closely all three roles are positions of powerlessness.

(Please note that saying roles switch or the three roles co-create each other does not imply that a victim of physical or emotional crime is at fault.  We can be victims of assault and abuse without having played a role in creating the situation or the Perpetrator.  Under such circumstances, this model is only useful in working through the internal process of self-blame, shame, and an understandable avoidance of our internal distress.)

Here’s an incident that shows how the model works in a relational setting: I was walking back from a meeting with someone I trusted as a colleague (we weren’t close enough to be called friends).  He was agitated about a decision he had made and was expressing anxiety and indecision about what he had committed to in the meeting (Powerless/Victim/Eliciting Rescuing).  Ever the sucker for men in tragic poses (that’s another week-long explore, folks!), I offered reassurances and soothing statements (Rescuer/Looking for short-term relief).  Then in an attempt to disengage because we were getting to our destination where he would go one way and I the other, I made a joke about my own vulnerabilities (moving towards Victim/eliciting rescuing).  At this, he grabbed my sleeve and spun me around to face him (we can’t both occupy the same role space so he SWITCHES from Victim to Aggressor).  Towering over and poking his finger at me, he ranted about how that was my issue which needed to be dealt with immediately (Aggressor/Authoritarian stance).  Instantly, I felt my chest collapse and under the intensity of his words, I reacted with my age-old victim statements (complete SWITCH from Rescuer to Victim).

The dynamic is powerful and, ironically, serves to build a base of powerlessness in all participants.  I had an encouraging chat with Fleet sharing how we tend to see the triangle as statement of each participant’s pathology and how that misses the relational creative process.  In fact, it’s a pathogenic process, i.e., creating ill-being in a relationship through our ignorance, grasping, and fearful rejection.  In other words, less of a triangle, more of a triangulation or attempt to develop connection with the other.  I also proposed that Bearing Witness, Compassionate Action, and Not Knowing, the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker, were more skilful means of connecting when we see ourselves caught in these roles.

Maull indicated that first we have to take radical responsibility for our role.  Then, flipping the triangle around so the base is long and solid, we can transform our roles to be more creative, generative, and prosocial. The diagram below uses the terminology of The Empowerment Dynamic.  I’m not totally comfortable with the language but also do not want to get caught in concepts (words).  However, suffice to say my discomfort is that the Victim position has evolved into a process yet the other two remain as objectified roles.

For all three positions to emphasize the relational nature of the system, I thought a Dharma Triangle had more potential to make the transformational leap and meshed well with the Three Tenets:

In Dharmic terms, the interactions are intended to relieve suffering and the first step to alleviating suffering is to step out of our roles and the concepts those roles confer on us.  By seeing the impermanence in each of these roles, letting go of all fixed selves (victim, aggressor, rescuer), and concepts about the other, the potential of a new dynamic that is truly co-creative can emerge.

To shift from a role-based system (Victim, Aggressor, Rescuer), we first look at the lack of skillful means embodied by each of these roles.  The Victim role embodies helplessness, negativity, and elicits support for that mode of interaction.  The Aggressor role embodies righteousness, authoritarian views, and controlling behaviours.  The Rescuer role embodies co-dependence through a need to be needed.  The Aggressor and Rescuer also have poor distress tolerance so their attempts to foster change are based more in relieving their own discomfort and less in the victim’s need to be assisted.

The skillful means arises from honouring the true intention of each person in the relationship.  The Victims’ intention is to have their suffering acknowledged.  The Aggressors’ intention is to protect using their vast energy to push away what is harmful.  The Rescuers’ intention is to lift the Victims out of their suffering.  The question now becomes: How can we honour our true intentions and cultivate skillful interactions using dharma wisdom?  Over this week, I’ll try to explore the potential for transformation from our role-based interactions to a dynamic that can arise through practising with the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: Bearing Witness, Compassionate Action, and Not Knowing.

Thank you for practising,


5 thoughts on “drama triangulation

  1. This tiresome circle of vitim, rescuer and agressor (passive -agressor at times). Playing out the fear when the smoke is in my eyes. tearing them up so I cannot see…
    bearing witness takes me out of myself so that I can sit with not knowing before taking action or no action. I fall into the trap of wanting to do.. so that I feel not my own suffering.
    learning to listen more without knowing… is a skillfull means

  2. what a helpful and info packed post. yes I know the roles of rescuer and victim well. I recently attended a workshop where some uncomfortable things were said to myself and others (meant to be helpful but not because it immediately plunged us into the role of victim, taking away our sense of how we might rectify our suggested “problem”). I love this skillful means triangle. I think what was missing was some guiding in the incident.

  3. Thank you for this rich, deep post. I can hardly absorb it, but I noted that I responded to “radical responsibility” as a way of relating successfully in any situation.

    My own understanding of this responsibility is fairly simple, but perhaps useful: I can only relate successfully to someone who is occupying some role (victim, aggressor, etc.), when I have “seen through” the ways in which I occupy that role.

    That is, the suffering of others only become truly clear when I have perceived directly my own similar suffering.

    I can recognize paranoia in someone else only to the extent that I can recognize it in myself. I can recognize empty authority in someone else only when I have seen through my own feeble attempts at acting with authority.

    So, yes: When I can see someone’s “true intention” (which can only occur when I can seem my own “true intention”), then I might be able to respond appropriately.

    What an appropriate response might be . . . well, that’s an interesting topic. How do we tell a victim to “knock it off” without plunging them more deeply into their victimhood?

  4. Hi Genju,
    Just read this again. A bit more sunk in. Whatever amount makes its way in to this heart this:
    “What does it mean to live on the edge in a way that is fundamentally creative, generative, and prosocial?”
    is really how I want to live. I look forward to combining your skillfull advice with whatever space of not-knowing I can muster. Thank you for these inciteful posts.

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