After growing up in a highly dysfunctional household, you may find yourself repeatedly engaging in the same relationship patterns later in life without knowing how you got there.
Dr. Stephen Karpman devised a simple way to understand how these kinds of relationships typically work. He calls it the “Drama Triangle.”
The Drama Triangle consists of 3 roles that each relate dysfunctionally to each other:
1. The Perpetrator:
- Believes they have all the power and control
- Bullies and blames to get what they want
- is aggressive/passive-aggressive
- Scapegoats the Victim and ropes the Rescuer into covering for them
2. The Victim:
- Believes they have no control
- Gives up on making their own choices
- Feels worthless and helpless
- Feels powerless against the Perpetrator and dependent on the Rescuer
3. The Rescuer:
- Focuses only on others’ needs
- Ignores their own needs
- Tries to control how others feel
- enables the Victim and makes excuses for the Perpetrator
Different family members will usually gravitate toward one or two of the roles, but over time the roles can start to flip around too. For example, the rescuer in the family may get so burnt out trying to help the family victim, that they start to feel victimized themselves, and begin to view the victim as a perpetrator.
Or the victim may begin to see the rescuer as a perpetrator if the rescuer gets too drained, leaving the victim feeling abandoned. Sometimes the perpetrator may also play the victim role to try to get someone else to rescue them from the consequences of their own actions.
What do all three roles have in common? Everyone on the triangle neglects to take responsibility for their own emotions. The perpetrator blames others, the victim waits to be rescued, and the rescuer focuses on saving others from their emotions instead of acknowledging their own.
Unless someone else is around to consistently model healthy relationship roles, kids born into highly dysfunctional families can grow up to assume all relationships follow this same unhealthy pattern. Then when they encounter similar relationships as an adult, they easily fall back into old familiar roles. It feels normal. When you don’t know what healthy roles look like, it’s also possible to accidentally assume someone is being a perpetrator, victim, or rescuer when they’re actually relating in a healthy way.
In a future post, I’ll talk about what healthy relationship patterns look like in comparison to the Drama Triangle. Stay tuned!
You can check out this quiz if you’re curious to see which role you fall into most: https://cdn.website-editor.net/848c74c539684751972b4649bf55aae7/files/uploaded/Drama%2520triangle%2520quiz.pdf
Some filtering questions for those of you who are Givers at heart (and maybe sometimes over-functioning) 🙂
Many of us (we therapists know we’re In this category too!) find ourselves giving beyond our means and in ways that are unsustainable. People sometimes take more than they give back. And there is always a need that arises among the people we care about. We can find ourselves running around trying to meet these needs and we can get so tired and drained! We sometimes don’t stop to think if it’s something we want to do or something we can do.
If you relate to this, here are a few questions to ask yourself that might help you filter through these situations. Sometimes you can give sacrificially to others and sometimes you may need to practice saying no to others and saying yes to yourself and your needs.
Sidenote: We believe the end goal in our relationships is to be generous to others in a sustainable way. We aren’t advocating for you to be self focused, but to tend to your needs so that you have more to give to those around you.
So ask yourself these questions:
- Is the person asking for your help? Sometimes when we hear about something difficult we want to fix it. But sometimes people don’t need anything from you than just to listen.
- Do you have it to give? Do you have the food in the pantry to be able to make someone a meal? Do you have the time to sit and listen to someone without being late something else? Do you have the patience and energy to give to this person without losing patience for those that you know you must give it to (aka your kids or spouse)
- Can you give joyfully? Without resentment or bitterness.
- Can you give without expecting something in return?
This feels like a sucker punch even as a write this, but when I’ve tried to follow my instincts with how much I can realistically give I end up feeling more rested and centered. Try this out and see how your emotional (and financial and mental) reserves seem to change.
“I know I’m supposed to let myself feel what I feel…but whenever I try, I get depressed for days.”
It’s true that processing your emotions means allowing yourself to feel them. But here’s the thing: when you’ve been stuffing down your feelings for so long, there can be so many intense emotions trapped on the inside that feeling them all at once leads to overwhelm.
And that can make you feel stuck. Stuffing your emotions means invalidating them, and that doesn’t feel good, but then feeling your emotions means inviting a flood of them so strong you either spiral downward or shut down entirely. That doesn’t feel good either. Where does the relief come in?
If feeling your emotions tends to do this to you, that may be a sign to take things slower. You don’t have to feel everything at once. Take it step by step. Give yourself space to feel just a little piece at a time, and as soon as you’ve had a moment to feel a little bit, take a step back. Give yourself permission to take a break, recharge, and do something you enjoy. You can go back to feeling your emotions later when you’re feeling rejuvenated and ready again.
Here are some tips for how you can feel your emotions safely:
- Write down what each step of your downward spiral looks like. Know the signs that you’re getting too overwhelmed and need a break.
- Create a plan for how to recharge after feeling your emotions. What’s something that truly helps your body feel better? Do you need to take a walk? Listen to some upbeat music? Watch a favorite movie?
- Set a timer for as long as you want – a minute, 5 minutes, 15, whatever feels safest and most doable for you. While the timer is running, notice your emotions and how they feel in your body. Allow them to be there without judging them. When the time is up, take a break.
- Visualize putting your emotions away somewhere safe. You can imagine storing them in a vase, a treasure box, or some other container that marks them as precious and important.
- Remind yourself that you can revisit them later.
You’ll notice that with repetition, the time you can spend feeling your emotions gets longer. The more you practice, the easier it gets!
If the integrity of your relationship has been violated due to a harmful choice or behavior by either party, there are steps that you can take to restore trust and intimacy within the relationship.
There is no one size fits all approach for handling a trust violation in a relationship, however, there are ways to begin the process of repairing the relationship.
Here are 4 actionable steps that you can take to begin the process of healing:
Take 100% accountability.
Accountability is twofold. Accountability includes (1) acknowledgement of your wrongdoings and (2) not offering excuses to suggest that you couldn’t help doing what you did.
Developing empathy in a relationship is crucial. The most effective way to do so is to imagine yourself in your partner’s shoes. Ask yourself, how did my actions affect my partner’s life? Did my behavior cause damage to their sense of self-worth?
Taking accountability for your mistakes and acknowledging the impact helps you to avoid invalidating your partner’s emotions.
Offering an apology and asking your partner what can be done to rectify the situation and repair the damage.
Create an amends plan or contract to demonstrate your commitment to the relationship. An amends plan is a guide for navigating a breach of trust or betrayal; it generally includes an outline for what changes will be made on a personal and relational level. It will include actions and activities that indirectly restore your partner’s faith and trust in you.
For example, “Allow access to social media passwords, computer, phone, etc.” “Increase quality time with my partner and enjoy a date night every Friday.”
Your amends plan will need to be tailored to your relationship’s specific needs. Including your partner in the creation of the plan helps to show your devotion to your partner’s needs.
Making a promise to not betray your partner in the future and to follow-through with the actions you have promised.
Relationship check-ins at various intervals can help keep you on track and provide you with more of an understanding of what relationship needs are not being met and what promises have not been kept.
Communicating with your partner if you feel you are unable to follow through with promises made.
Increasing communication and vulnerability with your partner promotes emotional connection and intimacy. In order to repair and reconnect, you have to give your partner something to connect to. Secrecy, blame, anger, disengagement, and control do not provide connection points for repairing trust and faith in a relationship.
In seeking to mend a fractured relationship, the willingness to work on the relationship and reconstruct the trust that was broken is crucial.
After a traumatic experience, it may feel like triggers are everywhere. Sights, sounds, smells, places, or even thoughts that remind you of what happened can suddenly send you spiraling. If you get too heavily triggered, you may even flashback and feel as if the traumatic event is happening all over again.
No wonder avoiding triggers can become a habit. Nobody wants to be retraumatized. At least to some degree, avoidance can be necessary and helpful at times, but what happens when it becomes your main strategy for coping with triggers?
When we avoid things that cause us anxiety, we’re essentially teaching our brains that we can’t handle whatever it is we’re avoiding. Your brain learns the following:
Triggers = Anxiety
Avoidance = Instant Relief
Instead of draining triggers of their power to cause panic, avoidance heightens the association between triggers and danger, which increases anxiety and makes you want to avoid even more. And the more you avoid, the more limited your life becomes.
So how do you keep avoidance from taking over your life without getting overwhelmed and retraumatized by all the triggers? It takes a balance. By working with a therapist, you can begin learning new tools for managing triggers, that way avoidance is no longer the only means of relief.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sometimes unhealthy relationships give you weird skills. For instance, you may realize you pick up on the tiniest changes in facial expressions. Others don’t even notice, but you’re already registering someone else’s body language and slight variations in tone. You can guess what others are thinking and feeling before they even say a word.
That’s called mindreading, and many people do it. In fact, sometimes people expect you to do it. That’s how you acquired the skill in the first place. Maybe you grew up in a family where direct communication was discouraged. If you didn’t guess what people wanted before they said something, you got in trouble or were accused of not loving them enough to figure it out.
Or maybe you’ve been in a toxic relationship that required a lot of mindreading. You may have gotten used to constantly scanning conversations for warning signs of the next meltdown or blowup. In any case, mindreading helped you avoid danger. You learned to read the cues so you could either step in to prevent something bad from happening or run away from it.
As useful as it is, though, mindreading comes with its own problems. For one thing, accurately guessing what others think 100% of the time is impossible! Spending so much energy on reading between the lines can be exhausting. Plus, the more you try to guess what other people think, the more likely you are to eventually misunderstand them.
While mindreading may have been a useful tool to have in a toxic relationship, it may no longer work as well in other relationships. This is because abusive relationships teach you to expect the negative. For example, if a friend doesn’t reply to your text, you automatically assume the negative – they don’t like you anymore – rather than assuming the positive – they’re just busy and will get back to you later.
When you feel tempted to mindread, it can be helpful to remind yourself:
· Mindreading helped me survive…
· …but it’s an impossible task that puts too much pressure on me.
· It’s not my responsibility to guess what others want/think/feel.
· If others want something, they can clearly communicate their needs to me.
· Instead of stressing and guessing, I can ask others what they think.
Mindreading can happen so automatically you don’t notice when you’re doing it. If you’d like some help figuring out how to let go of stressing over what others think, set up an appointment at eastdallastherapy.com or contact email@example.com.
Caretaking is an others-focused way of living where you spend most of your time and energy trying to help people. On the surface, it may look a lot like caring, but there are some key differences. For one, caretaking behavior is accompanied by the nagging underlying belief that “I don’t matter.”
Consider whether any of these signs of caretaking apply to you:
· I never ask others for help.
· I tend to be the giver in all my relationships.
· I believe if I can fix somebody’s problem, I must.
· I find myself listening to everyone else’s problems, but I rarely talk about my own.
· I feel guilty telling others “no.”
· I believe others matter more than I do.
· I tend to ignore my own needs.
People who struggle with caretaking come across as very selfless. They listen more than they speak. They are quick to empathize and lend a helping hand. They shower others with encouragement. But too often, the compassion they extend to others is not something they give to themselves.
The result? Exhaustion. It is common for those who caretake to live in a constant cycle of burnout. When they have energy, it’s quickly spent on those who’ve come to depend on them. That can cause the person caretaking to feel depleted, fearful, depressed, or even resentful. They may isolate themselves from others until they finally have energy to spend again, only to be drained once more.
There are many reasons why you might find yourself trapped in this cycle. Maybe you grew up in an environment that overemphasized self-sacrifice and labeled getting your needs met as selfish. Or maybe you took on the parentified role in your family, expected to look after your siblings or parents from a very young age. Caretaking is also a common result of trauma. Feelings of shame reside at the core of trauma, and often those who carry shame try to battle against it by people-pleasing to gain approval. But the sense of finally being good enough is always fleeting.
So how do you break the cycle? Start to focus more on you. Putting forth the effort to heal and grow frees us up to be more caring to others! When we learn how to meet our own needs, there is less exhaustion, fear, and shame holding us back.
It also helps to remember the motto, “never do for others what they can do for themselves.” Encouraging others to use the tools they have empowers people to feel more capable and confident in themselves. For example, rather than making it your life mission to cheer up a depressed friend, truly caring for them might still involve listening, but also reminding them of the things they can do that help them feel better.
You’ll be much better prepared to care for others when you’ve had time to tackle your own problems, recharge, and show compassion to yourself. Caretaking comes from a place of depletion, but caring comes from a place of wholeness.
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