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Emotional resilience: Stepping outside the drama triangle

by Julian Hall
21 November 2018

Continuing his series on emotional resilience for lawyers, Julian Hall looks at some common behaviour patterns and explains how to increase your self-awareness of the roles that we can all fall into.

In previous articles, I have articulated key areas of our emotional lives that we can be aware of and take action in to improve our stress levels and build self-esteem. Being an emotionally resilient lawyer, however, does not have to be all about being mindful, paying attention to our stress levels and leading almost saintly lives in terms of the amount we drink, the food we eat and the sleep we get.

In this article I want to raise your awareness of some key behavioural habits that we can fall into that can, over time, grind us down and lead us into unhealthy relationships with clients, colleagues and loved ones.

I want to introduce you to Karpman's drama triangle.

The drama triangle

As you can see from the image below, this is a simple diagram with three roles that all of us are capable of playing whenever situations start to become more emotionally charged. The essence of Karpman's advice is this area was 'stay out of the triangle', which is easier said than done.

Karpman's drama triangle

I outline the three roles below. While they are all natural roles that everyone can step into at different times, they each contain a power dynamic that may be of interest to family lawyers.

Persecutor

This role can be one of a deliberate bully but it is more likely to come from a position of anger or seeking to gain (or retain) control) - which in turn is often rooted in fear, sadness, hurt or shame.

In family law, this role might be assumed by a wronged partner (who is feeling hurt) or an angry spouse who fears losing half their pension.

Within the confines of your own firm, this role could be played out by a senior partner who feels they should have more power or tries to exert influence over or 'motivate' others.

Whatever their reason for taking on this role, participants often come across as aggressive and appear to want a fight. They can also manifest as provocateurs.

Victim

The victim assumes a submissive role, even if there is not always an obvious persecutor present. Some of us naturally take this stance and, in doing so, can unwittingly manoeuvre others into one of the other positions within the drama triangle.

Even though the victim often paints themselves as being powerless, they are not. Some people feel that taking on this role is the only way they can gain any level of power in their relationships. Think of some people you know who assumed the victim position regularly and you will see that they are gaining some control over the situation, even if it is indirectly through the guilting of others.

In family law you will regularly encounter clients who see themselves in this role.

Professionally, even if the aggression on display is not really directed at you, some of us have an instinctive habitual way of identifying as a victim. Even if you outwardly maintain your usual professional veneer, it is possible you may have the victim's discourse playing through your mind: 'I don't need this today, my job is difficult enough without you'.

Rescuer

The rescuer is the classic fixer. They swoop in and help the victim. While they may feel they are being helpful and supportive, they can actually prolong drama by provoking the persecutor. In the long run, they can also increase the victim's sense of helplessness through continually rescuing them.

In family law it is easy to assume the role of rescuer. After all, people come to you for advice, wise counsel and often for protection. It is natural to step into the role the victim is asking you to play. The question is: is this a healthy relationship?

The unhelpful ways we try to break out of our roles

These roles can be interchangeable depending on how much power we feel we have. To put it another way, we will keep a role as long as we feel it serves us. When this is no longer the case, we may swap.

Victims may feel the only way they can change their position is by being more assertive. When people who are not naturally assertive push themselves out of their comfort zone, however, they can fall into the trap of becoming aggressive - and they can quickly become the persecutors.

When a persecutor's behaviour is challenged, they can easily switch and find enough evidence to support their own sense of victimhood. After all, that's the real reason they needed to be so aggressive ... right?

On the other hand, rescuers will often start to feel that they are the overworked, underappreciated victims after spending too much time in their role; so the dance around the triangle continues.

Withdrawing from the triangle

Awareness is everything and we need to be aware of our own capacity to play these roles. I find that a decent starting point to expand our own awareness is to spot these roles being played out by others.

If you observe others taking the victim role, for example, and can name it as such, ask yourself 'what role am I taking in response?'. The answer may be rescuer or persecutor.

Stepping away from the role of victim

If you feel like you are the victim in any situation, consider the following points.

Boundaries

Be clearer with your own personal boundaries. They are, after all, to protect you and those you interact with. Continually working longer and longer hours is a great way to feel disenfranchised, put-upon and unappreciated.

I have many solicitor clients who have left a law firm for precisely this reason, only to find the pattern repeated at the next firm. Why? Because the person involved is a complicit part of the proble,. It is not always just the culture.

Choices

Be aware of the choices you are making that bring you to the point of victimhood. As above, working longer and longer hours is a choice. The firm you work for and the clients you work with are choices too. It is only when you start to acknowledge your own personal power and the range of choices you can make that you can start to make decisions that are healthy.

Validation

Ask yourself: 'Do I really need others to validate the position I have put myself in?' The answer is often no, yet we repeatedly seek it.

Moving away from rescuing

If you find yourself continually rescuing people and beginning to feel victimised by it, consider the following:

  • How can you empower the victim? Sometimes a well-timed question such as 'so what do you think you could do about this?' is the right level of challenge to help jog the victim role into self-help.
  • How can you acknowledge the persecutor's issues without engaging in the drama?
  • Stay aware of the thin line between coaching and rescuing and remember that some victims may resist being empowered or rescued. They are more comfortable as victims.
  • Develop your own way of saying 'no' to others' requests for help - this needs to be both gentle and assertive.

Backing off from the persecutor role

No one likes to think of themselves as a persecutor or bully. That said, there may be times when you will push other peoples' boundaries or act in ways that others would describe as aggressive and find yourself justifying your actions.

Phrases such as 'I had no choice', 'the situation needed dealing with immediately' or 'that's the way it works around here' are all ways of trying to maintain an already unacceptable pushed boundary.

Reflect on your own dialogue and consider the following:

  • aggression is rarely helpful - it may solve a short-term problem but it will cause long term issues that can be more toxic
  • exercise your compassionate side: what level of respect would you want if you were in the same position as the person you were challenging?
  • question how you influence others: are your statements accusatory rather than enquiring? Are you challenging or criticising someone else?

In summary, to stay out of the drama triangle you need the skill sets of assertiveness, compassion, empathy and self-awareness: by emphathising you are unlikely to be aggressive; by being self-aware you are less likely to to rescue; by developing your assertive side you will develop healthy boundaries and play fewer victim roles. Self-awareness is the key.

A drama requires each player to act their part. When you decide to start withdrawing from these roles, other players may not want you to and may do their utmost to drag you back. Be strong.

Read more from Julian's series on emotional resilience.