Some words put you in the Drama Triangle, whether you speak them or think them. You can’t use them and stay out of the Drama Triangle. You can’t use them and have inner peace. They generate addiction to one or more persecuting, victimizing, or rescuing emotions. Those emotions in turn color your perception in such a way that it is very difficult for you to accurately interpret the words, feelings, and actions of others or to be able to listen to and follow your inner compass. Consequently, they are to be avoided.
Words that put you in the role of victim
“Can’t” puts you into the role of victim because it says, “I am powerless, unable, helpless.” Do not use it. If you do, you will not only be telling yourself, “I am a victim,” you will be telling everyone else that you expect them to treat you like you are a victim. If you use “can’t,” don’t be surprised when people either try to rescue you or take advantage of your powerlessness. They are treating you the way you’ve told them to treat you.
People often use “can’t” to excuse themselves from someone’s request: “I would love to come, but I can’t.” Are you unable to come or is the truth that you don’t want to or you have another appointment? What’s keeping you from just saying you have another appointment or simply, that you have other plans?
“Couldn’t” does the same damage that “can’t” does. It tells others and yourself that you are powerless. “I would have come, but I couldn’t.” No; you could have; no one was holding you prisoner. If you have a conflict, just say you have a conflict. Instead of using “can’t,” substitute words like, “won’t,” “choose not to,” “will not,” or “do not want to.” These may take some getting used to; they may feel too strong or powerful. That’s because you may not be used to feeling strong or powerful. Use them and you’ll naturally grow into greater confidence.
Ask those around you to point out to you when you use the word “can’t.” Getting the assistance of others in avoiding this pernicious little word will help you to create a Drama-free culture at home and at work.
Words that put you in the role of persecutor
“Always” puts you in the role of persecutor because it says, “perfection.” Perfection does not exist in reality. If the person you are talking to can find only one instance that disproves “always” they have grounds to dismiss what you are saying and stop listening to you. “You are always late,” can be disproved by only one instance in which the person was on time. “I am always thoughtful,” can be disproved by only one instance in which you were not thoughtful.
If you use “always” you will teach other people to expect you to be an opinionated, unrealistic, unreasonable person who doesn’t listen to others. This is because you are making an absolute judgment that something is always true or always occurs. You can’t use “always” without sounding self-righteous, opinionated, and superior. If you use “always,” don’t be surprised when other people don’t want to share what they really think or feel with you, because they don’t want you to make them wrong.
Don’t use “always.” Instead use words like “usually,” or “mostly.” They communicate that you are confident, but not certain or rigid. They indicate that you believe you can defend your position but that it is not unchangeable.
Like “always,” “never” puts you in the role of persecutor because it also says, “perfection.” Perfection does not exist in reality, because there are instances that disprove “never.” “You are never reliable,” can be disproved by only one instance in which the person was reliable. “I am never unkind,” can be disproved by only one instance in which you were unkind.
People use “always” and “never” because they convey the intense feelings that they have. It feels like “always” or “never.” That’s the problem. Those feelings are reactions; they are too intense; they are inaccurate; they lack credibility, and to use words that express extreme feelings strengthens those extreme feelings while destroying your credibility and increasing your emotional reactivity. There is no way to use these words without snaring yourself in the Drama Triangle. When you change your words to conditional and less extreme expressions, you will also find that you learn to have more control over your feelings. They will no longer rule your life, determine your happiness, make others so defensive, or cause you so much unhappiness.
If you use “never” others will see you as judgmental and intolerant. Don’t be surprised when other people don’t want to share what they really think or feel with you, because they don’t want you to make them wrong.
Don’t use “never.” Instead use words like “rarely,” or “infrequently.” Like “usually” and “mostly,” they communicate that you are confident, but not certain or rigid. They indicate that you believe you can defend your position but that it is not unchangeable.
Searching for someone to blame is a favorite defense for those who feel persecuted. They are saying, “I am in the role of victim, and there’s someone or something to blame for it!” Blaming is an avoidance strategy. It doesn’t solve any problem; it only wastes time while making your problem worse. That is because where there was one problem before, now there are two. The first problem is what you are attempting to avoid dealing with by blaming: “You left your underwear on the floor again!” The blaming creates your second problem: a snipe hunt that changes the subject without doing anything to solve the original problem of a messy room. A better response would be, “What can you do to not leave your underwear on the floor in the future?”
How does blaming anyone make anything better? Can you force anyone to take responsibility? Do you think you will feel better because you make someone else feel worse? Perhaps you will feel better because someone gets punished, but will anything get better? Aren’t you just reinforcing a culture of recrimination and blame? South Africa set up a noble alternative to national and personal blaming when, after apartheid, instead of persecuting the malefactors, it set up a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. The idea was for wrong-doers and perpetrators to acknowledge their misdeeds, take responsibility, and take actions that demonstrated a desire to help their society grow into greater health. Isn’t that what matters?
When you blame others you are inevitably blaming the part of yourselves that they represent. You can’t blame someone else without blaming yourself. This means you can’t persecute someone else without persecuting yourself. Do you want to do that? Do you deserve abuse?
When you blame others you are making it more likely that they will eventually blame you. If you want to live in a relationship, family, and culture in which you are blamed and in which, instead of solving problems, you remain mired in the suffering of the Drama Triangle, by all means, continue to use the world “blame.”
Get the word “fault” out of your vocabulary today. Why? It can’t be used without implying blame. Finding fault is not the same as objectively looking for mistakes, confusions, or deletions. Finding fault is looking for such things and then blaming. Instead of focusing on solutions, fault-finders have to tell others what they’ve done wrong. Why do they do this? They generally think they are performing a teaching function. They justify it as “feedback,” “information,” “help.” They see themselves as “helpers.” To disabuse yourself of this delusion, go through the rescuer checklist: Was the feedback requested? Was the information helpful and appreciated? Did you stop finding fault when the other person told you it wasn’t helpful or appreciated? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then the information you are giving is not “feedback,” “information,” or “help.” It is fault-finding, and you are in the role of persecutor. However, you don’t see it that way because you don’t want to take responsibility for the fact that you are making yourself feel right or powerful at the expense of someone else – most probably someone you love.
If you need to criticize, ask permission. Say something like, “Something you did really irritates/upsets/concerns me, but I don’t want to get into the role of persecutor about it. I want to tell you so it doesn’t happen again, but I don’t want to make it your fault.” Wait and see what they say. They will probably reluctantly give you permission to share. When you do, make it about you, not about them. Otherwise, they will be unlikely to give you permission in the future – nor should they.
If you think this is too much trouble and continue to point out the weaknesses and failures of others in a way they view as fault-finding, don’t be surprised when they lie to you about what they have done or not done in order to avoid your criticism. Don’t be surprised when they look for opportunities to find fault with you, as a way to take revenge for what they view as unfair attacks. Don’t be surprised when they distance themselves from you to protect themselves. Don’t be surprised when they are not there when you need them. Don’t be surprised when you find the same patterns of alienation of affection repeating with new relationships, because it’s not the other person who is the problem; it’s because you’re stuck in the Drama Triangle and you would rather find fault in others and yourself than get out.
Don’t use the word “fault. There is no peace of mind within the Drama Triangle and the word “fault” puts you right in the middle of it.
“Should” implies conscience, parents, God, church, script, obligation, permission from authorities, and guilt. This pernicious verb is often used to express externally imposed rules and laws. You “shouldn’t” jay-walk; you “should” brush your teeth. You “shouldn’t” fart in public; you “should” obey your parents. When you tell yourself you “should” do something, you put the full weight of some moral code on your shoulders. Everyone benefits from having a moral code. How about having one that you choose, in consultation with respected others, including your own inner compass? When you act out of that moral code, how about doing so because it’s helpful, not because you “should?” If you enjoy feeling guilty, if you want to make someone else feel guilty, use “should” and “shouldn’t.”
How does “should” relate to all those things that you have to do that you don’t want to do, like paying taxes, showing up in court, flossing, going to work, and obeying your boss? First, recognize that you don’t have to do any of those things; it’s just that the alternatives are worse. If you look at them objectively, you do these things because they are in your own best interest. You are doing them for you. Once you get clear on this, you can own the fact that you want to do them more than you don’t want to do them. Therefore, you no longer have to frame them in terms of “have to” or “should.”
“Should” and “shouldn’t create inner resistance that makes it more difficult to do things you don’t want to do or are required to do. Once you recognize that you have a choice and that you are doing whatever because it is helping yourself or someone else, your resistance will become a lot less. It may even vanish entirely. You will then spend your life doing things that make your life and the lives of others more productive, rather than doing things you should do, and spending your life feeling oppressed, in the victim role of the Drama Triangle.
Notice that when you use “should” and “shouldn’t” you put yourself in all three roles of the Drama Triangle. You not only get to feel you are a helpless victim, but you get to find persecutors everywhere: work, municipal hall, police, other drivers, your parents, your partner. Even your kids become persecutors, because after all, you “should” help them with their homework and make sure they grow up to be good people. “Should” also has the function of rescuing you from guilt and shame since, if you do what you are expected to do, you are blameless. This mechanism has been used since time immemorial by parents to get children to behave. Once they have internalized the tyranny of “should” they will parent themselves, making the jobs of mom and dad, teachers and police much easier. Society uses it to great benefit to get citizens to obey laws so that society runs more smoothly and authority is not questioned, giving autocrats much more license than they deserve or is good for those they govern.
Start asking yourself, “Am I doing this because it’s something that’s helpful to myself or others or because I “should?” If it is the latter,
Everything above regarding “should” applies to “ought” as well. However, “ought” might be a bit more compelling and have a bit more of the persecutor about it. Stop using “ought.” It’s toxic.
“Must” implies, “Don’t think; don’t question; don’t doubt; just DO what you have to do.” “Must” provides a double bind. For example, if you are in the military, you “must” obey your superiors. If you don’t, very bad things happen to you. However, if your military superiors order you to do something illegal, like torture, and you get caught, you will go to jail, not your superiors. If you “must” do your homework to pass a class, then you risk spending your life beating yourself with a stick, so to speak, to make yourself work. What do you get for that? In order to succeed you will keep yourself under constant stress. You will have no peace of mind.
When you use “must,” you put yourself in this same type of moral vice. It’s a guaranteed “lose-lose” situation, where you are going to end up feeling bad, regardless of what you do. When you use “must” with others, you are almost guaranteed to be viewed as a persecutor. You are also almost guaranteeing that the other person will resent you and will do whatever you want with passive or active resistance, meaning that it will not be done well. Parents typically find themselves in this situation with their children and wonder why.
What do you do when something must be done? How can you avoid these problems? With children, give them a choice they can’t refuse: “Would you prefer to do your homework or vacuum the house?” “Would you prefer to clean your room or clean the bathrooms?” With adults you supervise, just make it a matter of policy, part of their job description. With a partner, talk about the consequences if they don’t do it: “You don’t have to pick up after yourself if you don’t want to, and I don’t have to cook you dinner if I don’t want to.” Not too subtle. They will probably get the message. If they accuse you of blackmail, say, “What do you think would be appropriate consequences if you don’t pick up after yourself?”
While there are legitimate uses for this little word, when it is used in sentences it negates what has been said before the “but.” If you say, “I can be very thoughtful, but I can forget really important things,” what are you really saying? You are emphasizing that you can forget really important things. You are also teaching the other person that if they need to criticize you, they can simply remind you that you forget really important things. If you say, “I love you, but I can’t stand it when you are late,” what are you really saying? You are saying that your intolerance is more important than your love. You are also teaching the other person that if they want to get you mad, all they have to do is be late.
When you use “but” you are contradicting what you just said before the “but.” Not only is that crazy-making and confusing; it is a form of self-persecution or persecution of the other person. Sometimes we reverse these to lessen the impact of a criticism: “You are a real jackass, but I love you anyway.” This is a complement with a hook in it. You are still in the role of persecutor, making the other person into a victim.
These examples show that using “but” either mixes pepper into the honey of your words or is designed to make you appear truthful, honest, or loving by sugar-coating the medicine you are dishing out. In either case, it rarely works. It just sends a mixed message. What to do?
Why not simply eliminate “but” and use “and” instead? Why not simply say, “I can be very thoughtful, and I can forget really important things?” Why not just say, “I love you, and I can’t stand it when you are late?” Why not say, “You are a real jackass, and I love you anyway?”
If you will make this simple change you will find that you are clearer and speak with more confidence. It will also be a small step to keep you out of the Drama Triangle.
Explanations are fine if there has been a request for them, as in formal teaching, or a socially mandated requirement for them, as a cop telling you your rights when you get arrested. If you have an investment in being heard, in being clear, in being understood, as many of us do, other people will pick up on that. Some will listen to your explanations. Others, particularly those who don’t feel that you listen to them, will purposefully trash or ignore any and every explanation you give. They may think that your explanations are excuses; why should they listen to you when they feel you haven’t listened to them? Here’s the key: if your partner, child, or friend don’t feel heard, they are very likely to hear your explanations as ignoring, avoiding, or disrespecting them. In such instances, you are talking to yourself; the more you try to be heard, desperately searching for the right words, the right actions, the more you dig yourself into a lonely ditch.
If you find yourself explaining a lot and nothing changes, take that as a Sign from Above that you are in the Drama Triangle. Your explanations are being seen as a form of self-serving persecution; the other person is feeling victimized and ignoring you. Your explanations are merely serving you from yourself and your fear that you aren’t being understood. What to do?
Consider the possibility that you are addicted to explaining yourself. It is an expression of your neediness, of your sense of inadequacy, of your need to be understood. Consider instead giving very little in the way of explanation. Use that time and energy instead to simply repeat to the other person what you heard them say. Don’t add your interpretations. Just repeat the gist of what they say, focusing on what you believe the feeling is that they are trying to get across. If you get it right, they will feel heard. They will then be much more likely to listen to what you have to say.
Words that may put you in the role of rescuer
“Need” and “Want”
“Need” sounds like a perfectly helpful and honest word. You “need” to get things done; you “need” to do your homework; you “need” to set goals; you “need” to be respectful, you “need” to help others. When you “need” to do something, who are you doing it for, others or for yourself? You are doing it for yourself, not the other person because you are the one with the need. This is not the normal implication of the word “need.” It generally implies outside compulsion, something someone or something has imposed upon us.
When you say, “You need to clean your room,” you are posing as mind-reader. Do you know that your child needs to clean his or her room? Don’t you mean that you want them to clean their room? If that is the case, why don’t you say so? Probably because you want to sound “nice.” Instead, you are being unclear, dishonest in your motives, and using language that gets you stuck in the rescuer role of the Drama Triangle.
This holds true even when you say, “They need me to do this,” or, “You need me to help you.” What you probably mean to say is that they want you to do this or I want to help you to do that.”
Using need can also be an invitation for the other person to climb into the role of rescuer: “I need you so much!” “I need your help!” Do you need rescuing or do you want help? If you need rescuing, you’re saying you need to stay stuck in the Drama Triangle. If you say you want help, then you may actually get help instead of rescuing. Instead of using “need,” try using want. It may feel uncomfortable, because it is more direct. It is also more powerful. It expresses more confidence and an honest desire.
However, both “need” and “want” can be used to justify indulging in a craving and thereby jumping into the role of victim, with food, others, drink, or cigarettes in the role of rescuer. In such a case, a cognitive distortion is at work. That is because you don’t “need” a substance or activity that kills you; you don’t really want a substance or activity that kills you; it just feels like you do. By using “need” or “want” in this way you are strengthening your emotional and physical cravings. Instead, use words that reflect preference but with less intensity: “I would like some chocolate”; “I would prefer it if you would repeat what I said so I know I was clear in what I said to you.”
Because using “want” and “need” in these very common ways is a cognitive distortion, you need a substitute thought or statement, such as, “I don’t need/want this cigarette; my body/needy emotions need/want this cigarette.” The basic question to ask is, “Do I want/need this so much that it’s worth it to me to jump into victim role in the Drama Triangle?” “Do I want/need to be a victim?”
Notice that “need” and “want” put you into all three roles of the Drama Triangle. Because they imply compulsion, you risk being in the role of persecutor. If you feel persecuted by a demand associated with the need, you may be in the role of victim. If you are helping others because you “need” to, you are probably in the role of rescuer.
When you use the word “love,” be careful. There are many legitimate uses for it, but it is often used in ways that keep people stuck in the Drama Triangle. For example, “I love you” can mean many things. If it means, “I need you,” it is subject to the same problems with using “need,” discussed above.” If it means, “I want you, that is more honest, but it also could mean, “I am dependent upon you and can’t live without you.” It could also mean, “I don’t want to control my cravings.”
If “love is all you need,” and most people are attempting to be loving and respectful, why is the world so messed up? Why is it that loving people are often so unhappy? Why is it that people who are loved often feel desperately unloved? Part of the problem is that love often puts people in the Drama Triangle. Love often implies the role of rescuer. People think, “If I only find someone to love me, then I will be happy.” What they may mean is, “If I can only find someone who will rescue me from my loneliness, from the boredom of myself, from my bad feelings, from my unhappiness, then I will be happy.” How likely is that? How realistic is that?
Most people think of themselves as helpful, loving people, when in fact, they are rescuers. They don’t ask if people want help before giving it; they don’t check to see if the help that they are giving really is helping; they don’t stop after the job is done. Because it made them feel good, or they hope that more giving will at last generate appreciation and respect, they keep on keeping on. These same people think they are loving themselves when they are in fact rescuing themselves. They think eating comfort foods is a form of self-love when in fact they are using it to escape uncomfortable feelings, while destroying their health. They think laughter is a form of self-love, because it takes their mind off their problems and makes them feel good. Laughter is indeed often loving and curative, but not always. Some laughter is gallows humor, laughter that reinforces self-destruction, such as laughing at a drunk or laughing at sick jokes. Why do we do this? We want to feel good; there’s something really funny about some sick jokes. Are we laughing at the situation or at type of person? We may be laughing at the situation, knowing what it feels like; the person is likely to feel that we are laughing at them, because most people personalize. These are dangerous forms of humor, even if people temporarily feel better, because they are so easily misunderstood and misused.
When people are loving they can be in all three roles of the Drama Triangle. They can be rescuers, as we have seen. They can also feel victimized: giving but not getting; appreciating but not being appreciated; loving but not being loved. In addition, love can be a persecutor when it becomes a possessing craving, desire, or need. It can take the form of either a craving to give love or to be loved; either one can be a persecutor.
So, what’s the solution? To give up love because it puts you in the Drama Triangle? Hardly! What you need to learn to how to differentiate toxic love in the Drama Triangle from love that exists outside of it. Love, by all means; just refuse to love within the context of the Drama Triangle.