Children born and grown up in a family where it is forbidden to express emotions, where they are not accepted for who they are, gradually learn to hide their spontaneous feelings and natural reactions.
Moreover, they learn to quickly recognize adults’ moods and expectations, in order to adjust to them. Children feel, that their needs are less important so they reject own emotions and tune to others’ feelings.
They learn that parents see and accept them only if they show designated attitudes and behaviours. In order to match up and play roles appointed in their family, children internally abandon themselves and repress own emotions and needs. They become a part of this dysfunctional and harmful dynamic and repeat it over and over again in their adult relationships.
They become, like their parents, actors in their own lives. They are entangled in endlessly playing roles of either a victim, a rescuer or an oppressor. They find themselves stuck in an emotional trap. This dynamic phenomenon is known in psychology as the Karpman Drama Triangle.
Survive in the Family
It can be emotionally draining to other family members, if there is a person that is given a privileged position. Someone who takes a lot of time, energy, attention or care at the expense of others, which have to negate or waive their own needs and feelings. This is particularly severe and painful to children.
When children are being overlooked or ignored and their emotional needs are not met because of a special needs person, they feel unimportant, irrelevant and unworthy. They experience a lot of inner doubts and fears, and they are unable to trust their own perception, intuition or instincts as well as talents and abilities. They tend to be dependent on others to avoid any risks in life. They are scared of doing new things or doing them their own way.
Children suppress their feelings and replace them with a range of rigid emotional and behavioural patterns. These coercive reactions are compulsively maintained in order to avoid feelings of being overwhelmed with the permanent lack of security and stability in the family.
The special needs person may be someone who is:
– physically or/and mentally disabled;
– addicted to substances, intense emotions or compulsive behaviours;
– emotionally unstable, having personality and mood disorders (i.e. a sad, withdrawn mother or an aggressive, despotic father);
– chronic or terminally ill
– sick and old; required 24/7 care
Other family members are subdued to this person’s special position and try to predict his needs or avoid any triggers that could make him upset, sad, angry or rage. They are walking around him on eggshells experiencing themselves a terrible amount of distress, anxiety and helplessness.
It’s important to highlight that not every family that faces a challenge of having the special needs person becomes a source of emotional suffering or dysfunctional behaviour to children.
It depends on adults’ attitude and their willingness to take responsibility for themselves and for the family. It can work well if they listen to and care for children, meet their needs, treat them equally and don’t get them involved in adult’s problems.
But rigid and devastating dynamics between family members are created inevitably when parents become driven by sadness, frustration, helplessness or hostility, and vent them on children.
The characteristic features of Dramatic Entanglement include:
– addiction to rapid and extreme emotions, as well to chaos, fights and conflicts;
– being afraid of closeness and intimacy (people express their commitment by competing, criticism, fighting to get power, getting what they want their own way, having the last word);
– unclear and blur personal boundaries (family members feel like a combined dish and cannot separate themselves from each other, they mutually invade with no permission or respect, their private matters and affairs);
– instability and volatility in their reactions and attitude; lack of emotional security and trust (it’s risky to invite someone as a guest as it’s impossible to predict what might happen at home);
– inability to deal and sort out difficulties (problems are swept under the rug or used to trigger fights, to blame and punish each other; no one knows how to negotiate or discuss problems nor wants to talk);
– inner disintegration; one’s personality is split into distant parts: the public one (façade, mask on face, artificial image, feelings are kept suppressed) and the personal one (stores fears, difficult emotions, failures and keeps them as a deepest secret that cannot be admitted or shown to anybody; struggling for keeping this dualism under control requires huge amount of inner energy and can lead to health problems: exhaustion, depression, compulsive patterns and addictions: bingeing, alcoholism, workaholism, drug addiction, smoking, gambling, shopping etc.);
The victim was first
If a person who got traumatised can face their emotions by talking to someone they can trust and express their pain, there is a great chance that the defence mechanisms won’t get entrenched.
But if they try to overcome trauma by ignoring, supressing or denying their own feelings, the ‘victim programming’ leads to stiffen, automatic and defensive patterns. They start to feel powerless and weak, and tend to depend on others.
In order to get compassion they manifest how unhappy and sorry for themselves they are:
‘Why does this always happen to me?’, ‘I cannot do anything about it’, ‘Poor me, nothing ever seems to go right’.
They are full of self-pity and always find someone else to blame: ‘If it not were you, I could succeed’ or ‘If it weren’t for you, I’d be happy’ as they never take responsibility for themselves.
In order to maintain the self-sympathy attitude, they attract people who play other roles: a persecutor (i.e. who lies, cheats, gossips, who is verbally or physically aggressive) and a fixer (i.e. who always knows better, gives advise without being asked, involves himself in other people problems, is unable to say ‘no’ to other people and often is being used by them). People when playing their roles become incredible attractive and they lure each other like a magnet.
If you feel like a victim, sooner or later you will play also a rescuer and a persecutor either to yourself or to other people. It’s because if you participate in the Drama Triangle in any of the positions, you will turn and experience all of them.
Victims can be impulsive as they perceive every situation as a drama in order to feed themselves with other people’s sympathy but they really do not want to make any changes in life.
People playing victims are masters in avoiding any responsibility for themselves, in finding excuses, explanations, pleas and rationalisations for everything that happens to them.
To protect themselves from disappointment, they usually set up goals below their own capability or stand down before the end. This way they put themselves in lost positions at the beginning. They don’t want to see their compulsion to fail or face the truth that their behaviours and feelings are programmed on defeats.
A Family Rescuer
The rescuer role comes also from a position of being a victim. Children seeing parents trapped in dramatic roles, copy them and repeat their attitudes. First of all children supress feelings and their ability to spontaneously express themselves.
They hide deeply their true nature and emotions in order to adjust to adults and their expectations: ‘Behave yourself’, ‘Look after your mum’, ‘I count on you’, ‘Be quiet’, ‘Go to your room’.
A child, who is unable to trust his parents, because of their incoherency, feels lost and confused. He adjusts to the circumstances, plays roles given to him and puts a mask on his face like adults around him do.
Children do that to protect themselves but also to protect their parents. In order to survive, children need their parents and their family as a whole so they take a part in maintaining the illusion of the family picture. Little by little they feel more and more responsible for rescuing parents and keeping family together.
When children participate in the game that adults play, they lose their childhood, are overwhelmed by guilt, anger and helplessness, but what’s most tragic is they get used to this role and treat it as a mission for life.
A rescuer is a person who felt as a child responsible for adults, for their duties and especially for keeping family guises. He is a victim who tries to save another victim in order to cut off and supress his own unbearable emotions. He becomes a giver and a fixer, pleasing others and sacrificing his own needs.
He feeds other needy people’s hungriness hoping that it will replace love and care he yearns for himself.
A rescuer needs victims around in order to feel useful, needed and appreciated. The more he rescues others the more they feel as victims and become powerless, clinging and dependent on the fixer. A victim obviously needs rescuers to feel important, loved and cared for. A victim manipulates rescuers using guilt to control them and also make them dependent.
The relationship is based on co-dependency, which increases mutual frustration, anger and grievances. When the resentment increases, it gradually and inevitably leads to either passive-aggressive acting outs or open fights and wars.
An Interdependent Aggressor
When the wounded, resentful victim takes a revenge on the rescuer for his unmet needs, desires and expectations he switches into an aggressor position. He still feels like a victim but behaves nasty to others.
He hopes he will push away his disappointment, frustration or weakness and will feel again strong and in control. Punishing and hurting others can have passive and hidden, or overt and active, forms of aggression.
It might be blaming, accusing, yelling and threatening or emotional withdrawing, silencing and ignoring.
It can be arguing, fighting and bullying. It can also have a form of refusing carrying out duties and financial support or depraving of physical closeness and sexual engagement.
The Vicious Circle of Helplessness
When victims become aggressors and put down a rescuer, they soon feel sorry and guilty, and want to comfort him and uppease. The victims who turn first to oppressors’ roles now play rescuers.
The humiliated rescuer feels powerless like a victim and wants take a revenge for how he has been treated. So he is acting out and directing his anger against this ‘trying-to-fix victims’.
The role players switch endlessly from one position to another and are trapped in a vicious circle of helplessness, fear, anxiety and anger. Each person stuck in the victim triangle loses his own personality and identifies himself with the current role.
Children are victimized simply by observing their fighting parents. They can also be emotionally or physically neglected by adults, who care more for their rights and wrongs than for their own children. What’s worse, children can get involved in their parents dramas and are manipulated in order to choose one parent’s side.
Children witnessing parents who constantly fight can also feel deeply threatened and hopeless so they feel an urge or a need to do something and help adults. They may distract parents by funny behaviour or by causing unconsciously some problems at school or by having health problems and this way attract parents’ attention. They probably will do anything to discharge the atmosphere at home.
Obviously they cannot help no matter how hard they try because they are only children. They lose their childhood, their easiness and carefreeness. They also learn a pattern of carrying emotionally other people’s burdens and how to fee (over)responsible for them. Children’s natural ability to joy, happiness and creativity gradually shrinks and dwarfs being covered by the adapted façade.
Monodrama – one character’s voices
The drama triangle paradox means that one person is enough to play interchangeably the roles. It is because we can behave like a victim, an aggressor and a rescuer to ourselves.
Imagine that you set up a goal and take some action in order to achieve it but unfortunately you fail. You feel disappointed, weak and helpless like a victim, but at the same time you blame yourself and feel angry like an oppressor. Later as you want to get better, you try comfort and cheer up with food, alcohol, drugs or by throwing yourself into work, cleaning or shopping. After some time you feel again down, sad or depressed like a victim.
No matter how you suppress your emotions, you end up getting caught up in quicksand, you toddle in one spot over and over again maintaining a painful cycle.
We won’t change our past, we cannot alter our parents, siblings or other family members but we can heal our wounds and traumas.
We can discover our ability to care and look after ourselves, to learn how to have healthy boundaries with other people and to experience life as much more easy, light and happy.