The Drama Triangle

I thought I would write another post about an aspect of TA theory I really like, that I use with my clients and they tell me they find really helpful..

Relationship Patterns

The Drama Triangle, originated by Steve Karpman, is a way of understanding the repeating patterns we can sometimes get into in our relationships, that result in uncomfortable feelings.  How often have you found yourself getting into a familiar discussion with your partner or a family member, where both of you end up feeling a bit rubbish?  Karpman’s idea suggests that this is because we often take up one of three roles in our interactions with people.  The roles are Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim, and the defining characteristic of each of these roles is the view of self in relation to others.  This draws on the idea of life positions, developed by Eric Berne.  He proposed 4 life positions, where people take up one of the four positions listed below and live their lives according to it.

I’m OK You’re Ok –  This is where I see both myself and others as OK with appropriate levels of self esteem, I am able to trust in others and the in world.

I’m OK, You’re not Ok – this is very often the position of the person who bullies, persecutes or rescues. Someone who sees themselves as OK, and others as not OK in some way, they operate from a one up position.

I’m not OK You’re Ok – this can often be the position of the Victim.  The person who has low self esteem and views others as having more power than them and consequently behaves towards them in that fashion, they operate from a one down position.

I’m not OK, You’re not Ok – this is a life position of futility as self and others are viewed as not being ok and able to get on with life.  It may be perceived as futile and full of despair.

Looking again at the roles of the Drama Triangle,  both the Rescuer and the Persecutor operate from a one up position, from the I’m OK You’re not OK life position and the Victim operates from one down.  Here’s an example to illustrate this more fully.

Your colleague is preparing some figures for her boss and she has looked pretty stressed all morning.  She heaves a huge sigh, pushes her chair away from her desk and puts her head in her hands, saying, “I’m never going to get this done in time, I hate excel, I just can’t make sense of this at all.”  Immediately you rush over and take a look at what she is doing.  You think you have spotted the mistake she is making and correct it for her.  Saying “there you are, that’s sorted now”.

She takes a look at what you have done and tells you that it wasn’t the problem at all and now she’s probably going to have to start all over again and she wishes you would mind your own damn business.

You go back to your desk feeling awful saying to yourself  – “But I was only trying to help.”

Uncomfortable Feelings

If we take a look at this little episode again, this time putting in the Drama triangle roles, some commentary and identifying that switch in roles which so often results in uncomfortable feelings.

Your colleague is preparing some figures for her boss and she has looked pretty stressed all morning.  She heaves a huge sigh, pushes her chair away from her desk and puts her head in her hands, saying. I’m never going to get this done in time, I hate excel, I just can’t make sense of this at all.”

Your colleague is probably in Victim, the words she is using and her body language are pretty big clues.  She is could be issuing an invitation to be Rescued or Persecuted.

 Immediately you rush over and take a look at what she is doing.  You think you have spotted the mistake she is making and correct it for her.  Saying “there you are, that’s sorted now”. 

Your response is definitely one of Rescuing. At this point you have not been asked to help and in fact are operating in the dark doing what you think is best, rather than what the other person wants.  Thinking that you know best for someone, whether it is how solve an excel problem or what might make them happy is very much part of the Rescuer role.

She takes a look at what you have done and tells you that it wasn’t the problem at all and now she’s probably going to have to start all over again and she wishes you would mind your own damn business for once.

Your colleague has moved roles into Persecutor.  Part of the way the Drama Triangle plays out is for the participants to switch roles.

You go back to your desk feeling awful saying to yourself – I was only trying to help.

And you have now moved into Victim feeling bad because of getting it wrong.

Any of this familiar?  The good news is that once identify what it is we are doing then we can, if we wish, change. And how do we change this?  Firstly be becoming aware of our own behaviours and the roles we might more often take up. Then by moving from one of the Drama Triangle roles where someone is always in a not OK life position to the I’m OK You’re OK life position.

Here’s an exercise you might find useful to do as a piece of persona reflection.

Can you recall a situation where you were caught in the Drama Triangle?  What role did you take on, what role did the person you were with take on, what occurred in this situation and what was the final outcome?  How might you have got a different result?

Adult Ego State

Ego State Model
Ego State Model

Here’s the final post on explaining ego states;  one of the ideas in TA I use widely with my clients and that I find really helpful in understanding ourselves and why we think,  feel and behave in the ways that we do sometimes.

It was Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis who originally described an ego state as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behaviour”.  I have written about the other two egos states, Parent and Child in previous posts. Today I’m going to write about Adult.  Where Parent, Adult or Child is capitalised I am referring to the concept of ego state, where lower case I am referring to real parents, adults or children.

Adult. 

When we are in our Adult ego state we are using thinking, feeling and behaviour in response to the “here and now”.  So being in my  Adult ego state means that I am in the present and will respond to a situation or stimulus using my capacity as an adult for solving problems,   reality testing situations, being honest,  direct and open about what I am thinking and feeling and being spontaneous.

Problem Solving

I’m going to look again the examples I gave you in my posts about Child ego state and Parent ego state to explain this further.  I want to talk about what the Adult response might be in those same scenarios as a way of demonstrating what I mean by a here and now response that uses all our resources for problem solving and reality testing.  In the example of getting an answer wrong in a training course,  I used this to demonstrate being in the Child ego state where the person re-experienced  an uncomfortable feeling from childhood when getting an answer wrong.  The Adult response might be to feel ok about not knowing an answer and then to reflect on what you have not understood and what additional information might needed to give the correct answer.  So I am engaging my problem-solving skills as an adult to solve the “problem” of not knowing an answer.

Anger

Thinking about the Parent example of being cut up by a car driving too fast on the motorway, in this scenario I talked about the person getting  angry and swearing  like their Dad had done.  The key point about this is, once again,  that the response to the stimulus of being cut up by another driver does not look at problem solving.  A response from Adult might be to check my own speed and see if I going too slow, I might move over out of the way of other drivers who want to get past. I might also think about my own driving behaviour and if I am driving safely and appropriately for road conditions.

Being Resourceful

How is this useful to us?  Being in our Adult opens all up all of our resources to be used;   so that we not using out-moded strategies that we have taken in from our parents into our Parent ego state that are not applicable to the lives we are leading.  It also means not re-experiencing a child response to a situation and using old ways to get our needs met.  The examples I have used are about taking action and problem solving.  Other scenarios might involve being how you are in a relationship with your partner, how you parent your children, how you relax and have fun.

Are there certain situations that stimulate a Child or Parent response from you?  What would be an Adult response?  Would this be more useful?

Child Ego State

Here’s the second of my posts on ego states.  A piece of Transactional Analysis theory that I think is a useful way of understanding ourselves and something that many of my clients have found helpful.  First, a quick recap on ego states:

Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis described an ego state as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behaviour”.  He identified that we each have three ego states, which he named Parent, Adult and Child.

Childhood

In this post I’m going to write a little about the Child ego state, described as archaic thoughts, feelings and behaviours replayed from childhood.  This is description is one of an internal experience based on early emotional experiences.  So, what do I mean by this?  Here’s a simple example.

You are at school maybe 4 or 5 years old.  The teacher asks a question, you think you know the answer so you put up your hand.  The teacher asks for your response, which, when you give your answer, is wrong.  As you get it wrong someone at the back of the class sniggers, and you feel really embarrassed at not knowing the correct answer.  And think “it’s not a good idea to answer questions in case you get it wrong.”

Thirty years later you are attending a one day training course as part of your job.  The trainer asks a question, you answer and get it wrong and in that moment you revisit the experience you had when you were 4 and answered incorrectly in class,  you feel the same embarrassment and shame and again think,  “it’s not good idea to answer questions. ”

Being a Child

So,  as with  Parent  Ego State when I am in my Child Ego state I am responding to a situation or stimulus using thoughts, feelings and behaviours from the past.  Now some of our experiences that we use from Child can allow us to revisit and enjoy the free and uncensored joy that was part of being a child. For example, when I am out walking with my dogs and it’s wet, muddy and raining there are times when I find myself enjoying splashing through the puddles.  I was walking on Birchen Edge last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed the feel of the sticky mud sucking on my boots in just the same way I have since I was 8 years old.

Update Strategies

How is it useful to know this about our personalities?  When I am in my Child ego state I am likely to be responding to a situation or stimulus using thoughts, feelings and behaviours from the past and this response just may not be relevant or appropriate to the present.  I may also be using the strategies I developed as a child in response to the past, to a present situation an adult.  It is likely therefore, that those strategies will not be an effective way of problem solving.

I invite you reflect on a time when you think you might have responded to someone from Child ego state and to consider how else might you have responded.

Parent Ego State

One of the models I like most in Transactional Analysis is the ego state model.  I generally find that the concept is useful in helping people understand themselves and their relationships better. This is the first of three posts about the ego state model.

Structure of personality.

I will begin by explaining what an ego state is.  Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, described an ego state as “a consistent pattern of feeling and experience directly related to a corresponding consistent pattern of behaviour”.  He identified that we each have three ego states, which he named Parent, Adult and Child.   So, for me, what Berne was saying was that we organise our experience into three different types, and that each of these types has a recognisable  pattern of thinking and  feeling with corresponding  behaviour.   Another way of saying this is that when someone is observed behaving in a way that can be identified with one of the ego states then they will be experiencing the feeling and thoughts that go with that experience and this is consistent.

Parent Ego State

The Parent ego state is a collection of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that are “taken in” or copied  from significant adults during childhood.  Significant adults can mean our parents, it can also mean aunts, uncles, grandparents, brothers, sisters and teachers, for example.  It is an external experience, so we have observed someone else’s responses to a situation –  their thinking, feeling and behaviour and we have “taken that experience in” so  it then becomes part of how we respond in a similar situation.  Another way of explaining this is to say that we identify with or internalise another’s experience.

Here’s an example of how this might work. You are five years old going away on a family holiday.  As you are driving down the motorway someone cuts in front of your Dad, who is driving.  He swears and shouts, gesturing fiercely at the driver responsible.  Thirty years later you are driving on the motorway and someone cuts in front of you.  You swear, shout and gesture fiercely.  In fact if we could run  DVDs of both events, one of  you and one of your Dad side by side we would proably see that your voice tone,  language,  gestures were virtually identical.  Not only that, but your thoughts and feelings will probably also be the same as well.

Responding from the past

So, how does this help us?  Well what this says to me is that when I am in my Parent ego state I am likely to be responding to a situation or stimulus using thoughts, feelings and behaviours from the past and that I have taken in from someone else.  This response just may not be relevant or appropriate to the present.  I may want to revisit some of the messages and  experiences I have taken in and up date them with how I think, feel and want to behave.

I invite you reflect on a time when you think you might have responded to someone from your Parent ego state.  Did that exchange get you what you wanted.  How else might you have responded?


Take your time.

I recently submitted some paintings for the Great Sheffield Art Show and the night before the submission date  I was rushing to finish a final painting.  I had originally decided to put forward just five pictures and then as the date approached I thought  – I can try to get another piece completed if I “hurry up”.  Needless to say the picture was not accepted and looking at it when I got home I could see why.  As I look back I know as  I was “hurrying” my ability to critically evaluate it was affected.

Messages in Childhood

One of the key ideas in transactional analysis is that we take in messages as children from parents and significant adults.  These messages then become strategies, ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that we use, both to be ok in the world and as ways of adapting to get our needs met.  There can be many different messages that we take in and doing things quickly – or “Hurry up” is a common message that people carry and one that I often talk about with people I am working with.

Therapy

One of the ways that I come across a “Hurry up” message when I am providing counselling or therapy is with the person who is impatient to make changes in their life.  We live in a society where so  much is almost instantaneous – emails, text messaging, entertainment, 24 hour shopping – that sometimes there is an expectation that we can make personal changes at the same pace, forgetting that some of the thinking, feeling and behaviours we want to be different may have been with us for a long time and will take time to change.

Along with this of course is what happens when we hurry – like me with my painting we don’t always think as  clearly and our capacity to evaluate a situation may be affected as our primary drive is to hurry and in so doing  we may miss important aspects of our experience that we can learn from.  All in all it really is ok to take our time.

Appraisal Blues?

Salary Reviews

For lots of people this time of year is often salary and appraisal/personal development review time, a time when it’s possible to receive lots of what Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis, called Strokes.
Stroke is the word that Berne used for the very early needs we have as babies and children for touching, cuddling and physical contact with people. As adults we still have these needs for contact and we learn to substitute other forms of “recognition” in its place. So a stroke can also be called a “unit of recognition.” There are different kinds of strokes. They can be verbal – “I like your jumper” or non verbal – A hug. They can be positive or negative, and conditional or dependent on the receiver doing something – “That’s a great report well done!” They can also be unconditional “Thank you for being you.”

Redundancy

Unfortunately in today’s more difficult employment climate there may not be so many “strokes” available as organisations are cutting back, in some cases making redundancies, there is less security and many of us are being asked to do more.
For lots of us work can be a hugely important source of recognition and strokes and when these are not so readily available we might feel de motivated, stressed and our mood may suffer. So here are five suggestions to help you keep up your stroke quota by freely giving and receiving strokes:
1. Give and receive a big hug from a family member or close friend at least once a day.
2. Notice every stroke that comes your way – even the smile from the person you pass in the street. You may want to keep a note of them in your diary or a notebook.
3. Fully account for the strokes you are receiving. Sometimes we shrug them off or dismiss them. Take a moment to allow yourself to fully experience the recognition you have been given.
4. Say something appreciative to a work colleague every day.
5. Take a break at least once a day and do something for yourself. It may be something like a cup of coffee and a 10 minute read of your favourite magazine, or a walk in the fresh air.
I think that it’s when life is more difficult that we can forget to do the simple and obvious things that can help us keep our equilibrium and maintain a positive state of mind.