Triangulation is a common mode of interaction in dysfunctional families. And children become unwitting players in the toxic drama games of the adults in their life. They get sucked into playing roles or scripts their parents foster upon them. The child is forced to become the third party of a dyadic relationship (usually parents) in order to ease the tension within it.
My earliest memory of my childhood was being a moderator, playing the go-between my waring parents. When my father wasn’t speaking to my mother, it was my job to check out when he would be going to work (he worked shifts) so my mother could make his tiffin.
Understandably, roles will oscillate between trying to save the parent/situation (rescuer) or become the scapegoat (victim), blamed for everything. Furthermore, we learn to take any shit as normal because our parents/caregivers, the persecutors in our life instilled this belief. We accept our designated roles because that’s the only way to survive and win the favor of our caregivers.
Sadly, our childhood pattern of relating becomes our blueprint for nearly all our adult relationships. We usually end up being used and/or abused. Our life is not our own but lived according to the whims of those around us.
Triangulation – The Drama Triangle Model
The Karpman drama triangle was created by psychiatrist Stephen Karpman a student of Eric Berne founder of Transactional Analysis theory and author of the bestseller Games People Play. Originally, the theory of triangulation was published in 1966 by Murray Bowen as one of eight parts of Bowen’s family systems theory.
This triangle has three actors; The Persecutor, The Rescuer, and The Victim, and the roles may or may be fixed. The players may shift between roles depending upon the situation.
Karpman’s Drama Triangle helps us understand the dysfunctional interpersonal relational patterns and the conscious and unconscious mind games we play. Further, it demonstrates how we can end up falling into the trap of playing the persecutor, the rescuer, or the victim in interactions in our personal and professional lives.
Triangulation – Enmeshment – Codependency
Usually, in dysfunctional families, a drama triangle arises when a parent takes on the role of a persecutor who victimizes the spouse and/or kids. Inevitably, the spouse or one of the kids takes on the mantle of the rescuer.
Toxic families create a pecking order of power and influence, in which the sickest person is at the top calling all the shots and is listened to, and the sanest person, to whom no-one listens, is at the bottom.
Moreover, growing up in a family-like this one tends to lose one’s autonomy. One’s identity becomes enmeshed with the expectations of others. We have trouble setting boundaries and get dragged into everyone’s problems. And we don’t know where we end and others begin. Worse, we become life-long codependent fixers/rescuers who end up attracting narcissistic and abusive relationships later in life.
How To Stay Clear of Drama Triangles
In order to avoid becoming sucked into drama triangles, Be aware of your blind spots and your past patterns of relating. You need to wisen up to manipulation both overt and covert. Be clear about your priorities and stop taking on the roles of victim, rescuer, or persecutor.
Here are some ways one can get lost in triangulation:
1) Playing Therapist/Helper
Don’t fall for every sob story. The poor-me persona is a common tactic used by covert narcissists to reel you in. By sympathetically listening to their victim-stories and offering support you invariably encourage them to use you as their dumpster. They dump their rage, frustration, and every shit on to you without ever making any effort to look at their own role in their problems.
One aunt (I hate calling her that, she was such a conniving witch) would constantly gripe about her husband and how she wanted to leave him. As an 11-year child still coping with my mother’s death, I felt sorry and listened to her woes. She did not see any irony in being one of the key members of the Christian Marriage Encounter who was giving talks on marital relationships. It was only after listening to her shit for years, I finally asked why didn’t discuss it with their ME group, she shut up. But by then she had literally sucked my life-force out of me.
2) Listening To Gossip
Gossip is a common way to draw you into other people’s drama. When someone who is not really close to you talks about someone else, don’t listen – change the topic or walk away. Worse don’t offer your inputs or ask for more information.
Remember, the gossip goes flitting around causing havoc all around. They talk about someone to you while going about talking about you to everyone else. And, in the end, you may become the rotten seed that sows disharmony.
3) Becoming a Flying Monkey
A flying monkey is a narcissist’s tool to do their dirty work. Don’t be naive in thinking you are being helpful trying to be an intermediary between two warring parties. A narcissistic person knows how to manipulate stories to suit their own agenda.
Furthermore, don’t believe everything you hear, wisen up, there are evil people in this world. Disengage yourself from people who are always talking bad about other people. The flying monkeys have no idea that they are being used by a narcissist and will be discarded once their dirty work is done.
4) Being the Nice Guy/Gal
When you are always the nice guy/gal, people expect more and more from you. Don’t over-accommodate everybody’s whims to the detriment of your own well-being. Stop over-functioning, being always ready to take on burdens and responsibilities. Believe me, the world is filled with people looking to shovel their garbage onto you.
I had been brainwashed into thinking that being nice was the way to go to heaven. And so I kept forgiving and turning the other cheek, But there are bloodsuckers who are out there who will take and take or play the victim story over and over without doing anything to help themselves.
You have to know where to draw a line and reign in your compassion. Empathy is always not a good thing. You could get used and abused.
6) Not Saying No or Protecting Your Boundaries
Learn to say ‘No’, stop taking on burdens that are not your responsibility. Moreover, you have to learn to put your foot down and stop being the cook, the helper, the butler, and the therapist just because they are family or friends. You need to get out of your codependency trap.
Learn self-love and self-care – acknowledge and cater to your needs first. It is okay to say ‘No’ and you don’t have to give explanations.
Though it may seem heartless to say ‘No’ in the long run it may be the right thing to do.
7) Lack of Self-Awareness – Your Johari Window
Become self-aware, learn what are your blind spots, A useful way to do this is to employ the Johari window, a psychological tool developed by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham. It helps people better understand their relationship with themselves and others.
The better you understand yourself, your past, your needs, and your drives the better you can operate in the world. Introspect and become aware of your patterns of behavior.
Does your life feel lacking in direction that you allow yourself to be drawn into other people’s drama? Immerse yourself in things that are emotionally satisfying. Stay firmly focussed on your own life.
8) Not Minding Your Business – Not Becoming Self-Differentiated
Try to mind your business unless you are specifically asked for help. Even then do so with wisdom and caution.
Many a time we get involved with other people’s drama because of our weak sense of self. Our dysfunctional past did not allow us to develop a solid robust self-identity. Being useful or being used gives us a sense of purpose. Before we know it our day and night are filled with trying to manage the drama and its fallout of our friends, siblings, or even strangers and we end up feeling bitter and resentful.
Moreover, since the drama triangle is all about being in other people’s business, learn to become self-differentiated. Whenever faced with requests or demands take a step back and use your cognitive brain to evaluate the situation. Do I need to get involved? How does this affect me? Work on building up your self and life. Find your own sacred purpose of your life and work towards it.
Understanding the Drama Triangle vs. Presence
Learning To Be Ok Even When Everyone Is Not Ok
As we build our self-esteem and self-worth we will grow in the wisdom of doing or acting with integrity. Additionally, we must practice discernment in our relationships. Even with our kids, we must know when to step in or stay out. We have to learn to be okay even when everyone is not okay. That can be difficult for us codependent empaths.
No doubt, healing from the effects of toxic triangulation is not an easy task, it requires a complete overhaul of our belief system. What we should do or not do, what is right and what is wrong. However, by learning and by building self-mastery, self-confidence we can recover from our earlier detrimental patterns of relating. Clarity is always the best policy when it comes to relationships, Don’t get lost in the triangulation tactics of manipulative people.
The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) provides the antidote roles of Creator, Challenger, and Coach. To learn of a better alternative to the drama triangle, check the video above.
For me, it has meant overcoming the past program of taking on responsibilities that were not my own and feeling guilty for not being the ever-obliging rescuer. It takes the daily practice of building a more robust sense of self that does not get lost in triangulation.