In the late 60’s, Stephen Karpman, M.D. came up with a way to graphically display destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict. The Karpman Drama Triangle describes the kind of crazy-making dynamics that we often see taking place in the workplace and in family relationships.
It starts when two people enter into conflict. Two people going at it usually take on the role of Persecutor or Victim without even realizing it.
The Persecutor: The Persecutor is the “bad guy,” the one who makes the other one “wrong.” He insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior.
The Victim: The Victim is of course persecuted, the one who has been “wronged.” The Victim’s stance is “Poor me!” The Victim feels victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight.
People, nations, entire cultures assume these roles switching back and forth from Persecutor to Victim. It’s a dance that can go on for centuries.
It gets even more interesting when a third person, the Rescuer, enters the fray.
The Rescuer: The rescuer’s line is “Let me help you.” A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if he doesn’t come to the rescue. But his rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. When The Rescuer focuses his energy on someone else, it enables him to ignore his own pain and suffering.
Karpman drama triangle
In order for this to work, each person must take on a role. Karpman defined them as: Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim.
People will hang onto these roles because they experience a twisted kind of self-serving reward in doing so. The unfortunate consequence is that there is usually a larger problem or situation that is not dealt with, because Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer are putting all their energy into engaging with each other, maintaining their roles, maintaining their position on the Triangle.
And it really gets interesting when Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer change places – in the course of the same argument!
Saying “No!” to the Triangle
All it takes is one of the participants, Persecutor, Victim, or Rescuer to stop the role play – for the system to collapse. Stopping means behaving differently, and one of the most effective ways is by setting and maintaining boundaries.
For example, as soon as the Victim says to the Persecutor, “I will be glad to discuss this when you can speak to me without insults and sarcasm. Until then, I’ll be in the next room,” he is no longer a Victim.
A Rescuer leaves the Triangle when, for example, he says to the Victim, “It’s not in your best interest for me to defend you in this situation again. I’m willing to help, but only if you if you stop dating abusive men.”
A Persecutor brings the curtain down on the play when (in a work situation for example) he says something like, “Attacking you and making you wrong is not getting the results I want or need. You’ve got one week to shape up or I’ll be forced to fire you.
See if you can observe this dynamic playing out in your life. It’s quite sobering when we turn out to be one of the players on the Triangle.
For most of us, deciding to make a change in life is a decision to leave our Comfort Zone: We sell our house and move to another state; we say “yes” to a committed relationship, we quit our job or accept a promotion with new responsibilities.
Sometimes without consultation, life simply boots us out of the Comfort Zone: We get fired; someone who “wasn’t supposed to” dies; an unplanned birth turns you into a parent.
Consider how many “disasters” in your life have ultimately proved to be gifts in disguise.
And…What is a Comfort Zone? Is it really a place of “comfort”?
It’s been my experience that what I thought was a Comfort Zone was in fact a Familiar Zone. And life in the the Familiar Zone had its share of despair, anxiety, fear and unhappiness.
When we leave our Comfort Zone, where do we go?
Dr. Ron Hulnick calls the new territory into which we find ourselves exiled “The Divine Unknowing”.
It’s “unknowing” for obvious reasons, and it’s “divine” because this is often when unexpected things happen, things that were not in our plans. Life in the Divine Unknowing instinctively invites fear in most of us. So, successfully coping with fear requires faith – an understanding that ultimately, “It’s all going to turn out okay.”
“The secret of navigating the fear of the unknown is that you must be willing to … (do) whatever it is that you are afraid of doing—all while being fully afraid of doing it.”
Integral to my faith practice is the notion that my life is playing out in concert with a higher power. That this higher power is what shapes my life when “I am busy making plans.” Adopting this view lessens my fear and frees me up to do the work of growing through change.
Amazing things can happen when you decide to “get comfortable” in the Divine Unknowing. Some describe it as “facing your fears.” Jack Canfield”s quote is a favorite of mine, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” In other words, if you have fear about doing something different in your life, then it’s probably what you should do.
As you make the Divine Unknowing your reality, you might ask yourself, “Is there really such a thing as ‘security’ or a Comfort Zone? Or is this entire human experience one of Divine Unknowing?”
“In our experience, fear of the unknown—be it expressed as comfort, security, control, or any other ego pattern—is the single dynamic that stops more people from moving ahead in their lives than any other factor. This is why it is so difficult for many people to break addictions and other habits that do not serve their aspirations. They are unwilling to be with their fear long enough to allow it to run its course. The familiarity of their habitual addictive behavior is stronger than their intention.
Now here’s the good news. The secret of navigating the fear of the unknown is that you must be willing to run the experiment of venturing into the unknown, doing whatever it is that you are afraid of doing—all while being fully afraid of doing it. It is through this experiential process that you demonstrate to yourself that there really was nothing to be afraid of in the first place.” – Hulnick Ph.D., Mary R.. Remembering the Light Within: A Course in Soul-Centered Living (pp. 108-109). Hay House, Inc..
I invite you to describe an experience of leaving your comfort zone. What happened? What did you feel? What unexpected life change came out of it? How did you deal with fear and uncertainty?
Around the time my son, Elliot turned three, I began to consider my fatherly duty to teach him how to be a man. Actually, his mother said, “Hey, it’s your fatherly duty to teach him how to be a man!” I had only a vague notion of what being a man meant, much less how to teach it. Guys watching sports together was a bonding ritual I’d seen, maybe we’d start there. At that age, Elliot had a beautiful kind of moment to moment, “What are we going to do now?” enthusiasm about everything. And when I told him that we were going to a Dodgers / Minnesota Twins baseball game, just us men, no mom, no sister – he beamed.
We arrived at Dodger Stadium on a warm June afternoon. Elliot was light enough to carry in my arms as we became part of the crowd moving through the turnstiles. I watched him soak up the sensations: the crush of the crowd; the crusty old men barking, “Get your programs here!”; the echoing voice of the game announcer over the PA system; the rich blend of food smells. And that spectacular moment when you see the field for the first time: the deep saturated green of the grass set against the reddish dirt of the infield, the pure white bases and foul lines, and the rainbow totality of the crowd.
Our seats were on the third-base line, about 10 rows up from the field. The left fielder was directly in front of us. Slightly to our left, above the outfield bleachers was a huge TV screen showing the game. Elliot couldn’t help but watch the screen, so every so often I would remind him that home plate was where the action was, down there, in the distance, to our right.
By the 5th inning, Elliot was losing interest. We’d indulged in every variety of junk food: popcorn, hot dogs, ice cream, peanuts, and as the temperature got hotter – a big Coke filled to the brim with crushed ice. It seemed like we had satisfied the requirements of male bonding, and I was about to suggest we leave.
That’s when it happened.
The Minnesota Twins batter smacked a high fly ball into left field. The higher the ball went, the more unmistakable was the curve in its path. It was going foul. It was going to land in our vicinity. Instinctually, all of the fans in our section stood up like a pack of predators focusing on prey. I stood; I could feel Elliott clutching my right leg.
The baseball reached its peak and was now on a trajectory back to earth, a tiny dark spec in the sky. Gravity pulled on the spec; it picked up speed and grew larger. And a reality dawned – that ball was coming right to me.
Time slowed. I could feel bodily contact around me, but it didn’t matter. I was in the perfect place to catch that ball, and no one was going to interfere with that. I let myself indulge in the possibility…no, the certainty… of catching that baseball. With my young son and 14,512 fans in the stadium watching, I would man-up, fend off the other dads, rise above the pack and claim the prize. That baseball would adorn a shelf in Elliot’s room for years to come, a symbol of masculinity and the extraordinary relationship he had with his father. “Yeah,” he would brag to his friends, “my dad caught that baseball at the first game we ever went to.” Wide-eyed, those boys would chorus, “how cool!” The closer the ball got, the more disconnected my thoughts: Maybe we could get the ball autographed! We’ll definitely get one of those glass boxes…Hmmm, I wonder if I should have brought my mitt.
My slow-motion reverie was rudely interrupted by two sensations of sudden, intense pain. The first was a shocking compression of my left thumb beginning at the tip and extending downward into my wrist. The second came milliseconds later: a dull explosion on the upper part of my forehead….where my hairline use to be. I saw stars. The high-frequency part of my hearing vanished, as a muted cacophony of voices around me shared my pain, “Oh…oow!” And though I can’t swear to it, I thought heard a boy, somewhere close by, joyously exclaim, “My dad got it! My dad got the baseball!”
My senses began to return, and my first rational thought was, Oh shit, is this game being televised? Is it possible that 1 million people just saw me try to catch a foul ball only to have it carom off the tip of my thumb and smack me in the head?
My next thought was: Elliot. Did Elliot see what just happened? Have I lost all masculine credibility forever? I sank into my seat. This brought me eye to eye with my son. His face was filled with the utter joy of something really exciting having just happened… about which he had no concept. Thank God.
At this point, my left thumb sent me a memo requesting a meeting. It was swelling rapidly. I plunged it into the icy Coke, too embarrassed to make eye contact with any of the guys around me, the witnesses to my humiliation. Instead, I focused on Elliot. His sweet, adoring smile anchored me. His unconditional love was all I needed, all that mattered.
Moments later, the Twins catcher hit a double into right field. As he rounded first, I pulled my thumb out of the Coke, grabbed Elliot and, eyes down, made a B-line for the exit.
Elliot will be 27 years old on May 7th. We’ve both matured since that afternoon in Dodger Stadium. Over the years, I continued to drop the occasional pop fly. There came a point after which I couldn’t hide it. Didn’t try. Instead, I began to share my “mistakes” with Elliot; to talk about what I learned, what I was doing differently as a result.
This past Christmas, Elliot wrote in a card to me: “Dad, you are my hero. You make me want to strive to be the best me I can be. I have so enjoyed watching you grow in new directions over the past couple years. Thanks for making me who I am. I love you to the ends of the earth. – Elliot”
I’m considering getting one of those glass boxes and putting his Christmas card in it. Thank you Elliot for helping me to understand: To be a man is to have the courage to look foolish, and turn every “failure” into an opportunity “to be the best me I can be.”
Yesterday, Vickie and I watched Tony Robbins’ 2006 TED talk. I’d seen it before, but this time, I wanted Vicke to analyze it, give me her insight as a professional speaker about Robbins’ technique. At one point, Robbins talks about the power of emotion in calling people forward.
“Emotion is the force of life.”
Al Gore is in the audience, and Robbins says to him (regarding Gore’s effectiveness in the 2000 presidential debates), “I believe that with emotion, you would have beat his ass and won.” Throughout, Robbins talked a million miles an hour. He jumped around and tried to cover way too much material, but by the end, tears were streaming down my face – like they have every time I’ve watched this talk.
Vickie put down her notes and turned to me, “This is not about analyzing technique. What are you feeling?” It took a few minutes for me to realize I was feeling love. Vickie asked, “Why do you think you’re feeling love?” I said, “It’s his ability to pull people out of their victim state. The way he turns defeat into loving service. The way he shines light on self-defeating bullshit. His clarity about action. And it’s all infused with higher power.” Vickie said, “And the fact that you are so moved by it means….?” This opened the floodgates again, big time.
Eventually, I was able to squeak out, “It means that I have this ability within me.” It didn’t matter what Robbins said, or how he said it as much as the emotional experience he gave me of seeing my Self. The Self that has accomplished extraordinary things and will continue to as long as I use the tools, one day at a time, in loving service to other and my Self.
THE MOST POWERFUL means at my disposal to create change in the world is – to BE the change.
It’s an inside job.
It’s not about convincing “them,” or changing “it.”
If I want the world to be a certain way (loving, compassionate, safe, pro-active, fearless, free, etc.), then I must do the work on any issues WITHIN ME that keep me from being loving, compassionate, safe, pro-active, fearless, free, etc..
I have to be the change I want to see.
When I am, then all I have to do is show up, and everything else falls into place.
A month later, the production coordinator from Long Gone called me to work on another HBO film, The Man Who Broke 1000 Chains, featuring Val Kilmer in one of his first starring roles.
Kilmer was very aloof on set. I don’t know whether it was part of his process as an actor, or a symptom of something else, but he remained very much in his own world. I don’t believe he ever looked me directly in the eyes. An odd occurrence when you’re the camera operator.
I went to judgment. This is not right, was the verdict. I created a story about his being self absorbed and egotistical. In hindsight of course I only wanted to be seen by him.
Fifteen years later, I would operate a picture called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Junior. On day two of production, we filmed a scene in an alley in Long Beach with the stars.
We completed the master and were into shooting coverage, a shot that did not include Kilmer, or even require him to be on set. But, someone screwed up and next thing we knew, there was Kilmer exiting the van that had brought him from base camp. He came to a stop standing right next to me. We both stood there, shoulder to shoulder, looking forward.
Kilmer surveyed the camera placement and realized what the shot was. Agitation building, he began to mutter to himself, “I’m not in the shot. I’m not in this shot.”
I gently leaned in his direction and without turning to him, said, “for Christ sake, don’t tell Kilmer – he’s liable to throw a hissy fit.”
In my periphery, I could see Kilmer look at me. I counted to five and then turned to him with a broad smile. I was finally being seen by Val Kilmer. His anger and resentment didn’t have a chance in that moment. He began to smile.
I introduced myself and told him we had worked together on The Man Who Broke a 1000 Chains. Of course, he had no memory of that, but it didn’t matter, we were off to a wonderful start on this project, having performed a variation of “I’m here to be seen. I see you.”
*Excerpted from my book: Shooting Myself: Careening Toward Enlightenment in the Film Biz
All of us, every day are triggered; we have an emotional reaction to a person, event or circumstance. Most people know when they’re upset, but very few know that they’ve been triggered. Instead, they blame the person, event or circumstance for “making me feel this way,” when in reality their upsetting feeling is coming from inside; it’s been there for a long time and is now coming into awareness.
So I’m here to share one of my triggers. It’s really simple; it goes like this:
In the middle of the day, I walk into a room in my house. There are lights on in the room. The combination of skylight through the windows, which tends toward blue, and the orange artificial light coming from the ceiling fixture or lamp instantly triggers a feeling of discomfort in me. My first reaction is to turn off the damn lights as quickly as possible! This causes problems whenever someone I care about is there in the room – minding their own business.
I’ve reacted this way to “lights on during the day” for as long as I can remember, but it’s only recently that I did the work to understand it.
With triggering emotional situations, the first question to ask is, “What am I feeling?”
The answer I got was, ” When I walk into a room during the day, and lights are on, I feel bad.”
I pressed a little deeper, “‘Bad’ covers a lot of ground. Can you be more specific?”
I answered, “… a gnawing discomfort, as though something bad is going to happen.”
“Okay, so anxious, fearful.” The next question was “What’s your earliest memory of feeling like this?” or ” What’s your earliest memory of a similar situation or environment?”
A vague memory began to come out of the mist. It was a winter day in the kitchen of our home in Massachusetts. I was about 4 years old. Somber, gray-blue light was coming from the windows. Lots of lights were on in the kitchen. The warmth of the artificial light was enhanced by the thickly varnished, knotty pine cupboards. (Watch a scene set in the Draper’s kitchen from an early episode of Mad Men – that was the decor.) My father was there cooking. I sat at the kitchen table. Suddenly, I accidentally cut myself with a razor blade. It was traumatizing. When my heaving, convulsive tears finally sputtered out, I was a little less innocent then when I woke up that morning.
The whole of humanity is being triggered millions of times each second. Is it any wonder that we seem, as a species, to be hell-bent on self-destruction?. The good news is, when we talk about our triggers they lose their grip on us; they collapse under the weight of simple awareness, reason, and self-respect.
It’s been a tough year. A lot of triggers. If you’ve read this far, I invite you to call me, to have a conversation about what’s triggering you; how to get more clarity in your life; how to move forward in the face of change, and how to do it all with less fear.
“(In our culture) pain is not acceptable…The message is, ‘You have a right to not have any pain, so take whatever you need to numb it.’ Since wisdom and maturity come from facing pain and learning from it, I believe we are a nation of very immature people who don’t have the willingness to experience the pain that leads to authentic wisdom.” – Pia Mellody, Facing Codependence: What it is, Where it comes from, How it sabotages our lives
There was a revealing moment that took place at the Republican Convention in July, an interview with Newt Gingrich. In it, the interviewer quoted statistics showing that U.S. crime has dropped steadily since the 1990’s. Gingrich called it “liberal propaganda.” The interviewer said the numbers come from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI . Gingrich countered by saying that U.S. citizens feel like there’s more crime, so it doesn’t matter what the facts are, “As a politician, I’ll go with how the people feel, and you can go with the ‘theoreticians’.”
The Power of Fear
Gingrich essentially said, “Because Americans are handicapped by irrational fear, they can’t separate fact from fiction, and in my pursuit of power, I will continue to feed their ignorance and fear .”
If you look at the 2016 Presidential Debates again, you see that the main message Trump repeats ad nauseum is, “Be afraid.” Fear is central to most of his ideas about building a wall, refugees, the economy, the future in general.
And clearly, it worked.
Americans are afraid. Hell, I’m in fear more than I’d like to be, so I don’t want to minimize anyone’s experience of it. My concern is how few realize that emotional fear is a triggered response. It’s an emotion that exists within us that is set off by people, institutions, the media, circumstance…and people in pursuit of power. When fear takes charge, reason is the first casualty. Victim mentality takes over. The blaming starts. And it’s always “their fault.”
Go back to the Pia Mellody quote at the beginning of this article and substitute “fear” wherever the word “pain” appears, I think you have an insight into how Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. To his supporters, he represented a “numbing” of their fear, and a chance to “get ’em.”
As I see it, Trump’s election represents a victory for immaturity, lack of reason, and fear. It seems we as a nation are due for a lesson about what happens when these qualities dictate who we choose to lead our country; a lesson about what happens when we don’t take responsibility for our emotional upset; a lesson about what happens when immaturity, lack of reason, and fear separate us from our neighbor and fail to treat him as we would like to be treated.
It’s going to be interesting. To those of you who are despondent over the election, when you’re finished grieving, take action.
Do something proactive.
Do not yield to the irrational, fear-based thinking that got Trump elected.
Look at this as an opportunity to strengthen your connection and service to others.
And keep in mind, always, that the antidote to fear is love.
The Serenity Prayer, 26 words that summarize the challenge I face each day. An all-purpose intention for ease and grace. A spiritual map for navigating the unknown.
It’s an appeal to a higher power for acceptance, courage and wisdom, three qualities that reside in my heart. Three qualities that all too often yield to thought-based fear. And too often there is fear in my thoughts.
It’s an acknowledgment that this human journey is about change, and change is not easy. But when I slow down and practice acceptance and courage, serenity and the fruits of wisdom are possible.