Avoid the drama at Christmas

Are you looking forward to Christmas? Are you hoping that everyone ‘behaves’ and the holiday season ends with everyone’s dignity and relationships intact? There is nothing quite like time spent in close proximity to those we love or are at least related to, combined with pressure to be fun, relaxed and stuffed full of goodwill, whilst also stuffed with epic degrees of tiredness, sugar and saturated fat, to bring out the worst in us and our fellow revellers. I love Christmas. But I know I would love it exponentially more if I focused my energy on managing my own emotions and behaviour and stopped trying to emotionally back seat drive everyone else i.e. if I practiced my own coaching practice.

So, when I felt the first tingle of festive anticipation accompanied by a thump of anxiety that the holiday lives up to my expectations, it occurred to me that I could use tool that I use a lot during coaching sessions on myself; Karpman’s Drama Triangle. Karpman was a student of Eric Berne the father of Transactional Analysis and developed this psychological model of social interaction in 1968 to explain the way in which we habitually take one of three roles when engaged in dysfunctional drama (inter-personal conflict rather than real-life dramas involving emergency services). 

 Karpman believed that when faced with unhealthy drama we revert to the primary role we played in our family of origin, that of Rescuer, Victim or Persecutor. Whilst we may feel more comfortable inhabiting one rolehe believes we shuttle in and out of each role and can do so at speed.  The problem is there is no ‘good’ role. You do not want to be on the Drama Triangle at all, however, it can feel extremely hard to extricate yourself because each role is likely to meet a psychological need and therefore it is easy to get stuck. So if you find yourself wondering how it is that you seem to be able to act professionally and maturely for 99% of the year, and then for that 1% when you are surrounded by those who know you best, you lose your coaching cool, read on… 

How does the Drama Triangle Work?

Karpman plotted the three roles on an inverted triangle, with the Victim always in a one-down position below the Rescuer and the Persecutor (which can be a person, event or situation). 

As soon as we fail to take responsibility for (or deny) our emotions and behaviours, hold onto rigid beliefs, or allow our negative feelings to rule our actions, we are forgetting our ability to exercise choice. No-one or thing ‘makes us do’ anything. We are the captains of our own ship. However, it’s easy to forget as we are sucked into the good feelings that can accompany each role – Victims feel innocent, Rescuers valued and Persecutors powerful. So, at the point at which you find yourself feeling as if you put more thought into presents than anyone else, or blaming Uncle Bob for making you feel unsuccessful, or telling your family that you don’t mind doing all the washing up, you are on the Triangle and it is time to get off.

How do you get off the Triangle?

Since Karpman’s work in 1968 there have been several antidotes to his model, most notably in 1990 Acey Choy’s Winner’s Triangle and in 2009 David Emerald’s The Empowerment Dynamic (TED). 

Both Choy and Emerald focus on returning ‘agency’ to each role. The Victim (Vulnerable or Creator) is emotionally mature and able to ask for support as they find a solution; being Assertive or a Challenger enables us to be honest and constructive without blaming or judging and Caring or Coaching empowers the Vulnerable/Creator by enabling and being empathetic without subverting their own needs.

Whichever of these empowerment models resonates with you, the first step is always Awareness. Once you have acknowledged that you are involved in a drama rather than constructive conflict resolution, you can choose to take a healthier version of the role you are playing. If you are feeling got at and under-appreciated, try re-setting your boundaries and challenge yourself to finding your own solution. When you are tempted to rush in sleigh-bells ringing with a solution, ask a question that acknowledges the problem without getting entangled in the emotions. And if you are about to take out your tiredness on your most well-meaning but infuriating relative, try a little honest compassion instead. The discomfort may remain as you inhabit a role that feels unfamiliar but the dynamic will shift positively leaving you more emotional energy to spend on the real drama as brought to you by Netflix.

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