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Family Dynamics

The Key to Fixing a Dysfunctional Family

Families can overcome the pains of family drama and dysfunction.

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Think of the most painful family drama you ever experienced, one that has left you with such an indelible scar that it has impacted your relationships, job stability, and satisfaction with life. Then imagine learning about thousands of people who overcame strikingly similar experiences—in which their entire family healed and grew closer, and each individual member transformed into a stable, loving, mature, and dependable person, attaining their best personal success.

The Lesson of the Drama Triangle

For every rescuer, there is a victim. For every victim, there is a persecutor. People familiar with psychology may know about Karpman’s Triangle. Stephen Karpman, M.D., developed a model that captures one of the most common triangular interactions among people—victim, rescuer, and persecutor. The fascinating thing that Karpman reveals is that each role has an egoic payoff.

Victim ("Poor Me”): The victim avoids responsibility and becomes dependent, getting their egoic needs met by having people do things for them. They also succeed in getting attention, for both the rescuer and the persecutor are focusing on them.

Rescuer (“Let Me Help You”): The rescuer rushes to the aid of the victim and gets a two-fold egoic payoff by being perceived in a positive light and simultaneously avoiding their own problems and feelings.

Persecutor (“It’s All Your Fault”): Every persecutor needs a victim, and their egoic need of feeling powerful and superior is fulfilled when they blame, attack, and bully a victim. Like the rescuer, the persecutor gets to avoid any real feelings and fears they have.

While people tend to assume a primary role in the triangle, they will often shift and take turns taking on the different roles with each other. Thus, the rescuer may get upset with the persecutor and take on the persecutor role and attack them, placing them in the victim role. The victim may then rescue the persecutor. Or the persecutor may shift into the rescuer role, with endless variations of role-switching between the players. The goal is to recognize the trap of the triangle and to distance oneself from getting seduced into any of the roles — especially when it’s so entrenched that it’s the only culturally acceptable way of behaving.

Avoiding one’s role in a family or organization's drama can be challenging. First, most people are so busy that they don’t stop to put their head above the fray and recognize that they’re engaged in a role. The lure of the role is so reinforced that it’s as comfortable and powerful as a gravitational pull. People don’t know what they don’t know, so stepping out of the triangle is akin to moving to another country with unknown language, customs, and environmental conditions.

Yet, as repeatedly demonstrated by family therapy giants like Salvador Minuchin, significant change can be initiated by a sudden shift. “It’s not a matter of trying harder, it’s a matter of trying something different,” he says.

One prime family therapy dictum is that when one over-functions, the other under-functions. So try something different. If it feels a little uncomfortable, that might be a good thing.

One repeated example among family cases with positive outcomes is the cessation of nagging and criticizing. When parents responded to their older teen and young adult children with respect and stopped trampling across their boundaries, the children were in a better position to step out of the victim role and become more autonomous and responsible. Another byproduct was that parents stopped over-focusing on their children, and could then better focus on and improve the intimate relationship they have with each other.

If you are reading this and deeply desiring help with your family, my suggestion is to pause and focus on you. Feel your feelings fully. Recognize if you’re escaping your feelings by taking part in one of the triangle roles. Try to step out of the roles completely. Take responsibility for your life and feelings, and let others take responsibility for their lives and their feelings. Avoid mind-reading, blaming, scapegoating, rescuing, martyrdom, and being the target of someone else’s blaming. Employ boundaries, and respect other people’s boundaries. Be consistent. Dare to live your life’s passion without needing an excuse or justification. Know that change takes commitment and time, so allow the change to take hold steadily and gradually until it becomes the new normal.

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