By Fleet Maull, Ph.D.
In the intricate tapestry of our lives, relationships play a pivotal role in determining our overall quality of life, health, and well-being. They can be the source of profound joy and fulfillment, and they can also lead to stress, conflict, and drama. This blog is an invitation to explore the opportunity we all have to care for and optimize our relationships, particularly our primary relationships, and how the concept of radical responsibility can transform the way we navigate them.
The Power of Relationships
Our relationships, both romantic and platonic, are the cornerstones of our existence. They influence our emotional and physical health, shape our perception of the world, and impact the choices we make.
There is a famous research study—the Harvard Study of Adult Development—which is the longest-running longitudinal study of its kind, spanning nearly 90 years. It originally followed two groups: Harvard undergraduates and young men from an underprivileged Boston neighborhood, and eventually including their spouses and children. The study's crucial finding is that the quality of our primary and other important relationships significantly shapes our overall life quality, health, and longevity. Positive, nurturing relationships contribute to improved mental and physical health and well-being, while unhealthy relationships can have adverse effects.
Our relationships don’t have to be perfect to be of benefit, but investing time and energy to improve their quality can make a big difference to our long-term health and well-being. And to harness the transformative potential of relationships, I believe we could benefit from understanding and embracing the concept of radical responsibility.
Embracing Radical Responsibility
Radical responsibility involves taking ownership of our experiences and choices, and in this case, more specifically in the context of personal relationships. It's a powerful shift in mindset that empowers us to transcend the limitations of blame, victimhood, and power struggles. At its core, radical responsibility means recognizing that we have the agency to shape our relationships and our lives.
Since we cannot control others, our efforts will be more fruitful if we focus on working with ourselves to first improve our relationship with ourselves and to transform our internal landscape to one that is more positive, nurturing, and befriending. And from there, we can improve the quality of our relationships with others. So the radical responsibility perspective is grounded in connecting with our own innate goodness and our own innate wholeness. And that insight allows for positive relationships, because to the extent that we really have experiential confidence in our own innate goodness, then this is what we begin to see in others, and it invites a whole different environment for our relationships.
An important point to underline: Radical responsibility stands in stark contrast to blame in all its forms. It is not about pointing fingers at others, and it certainly does not entail self-blame or assigning blame to victims. Instead, it centers around the concept of ownership—taking ownership of our own experiences and choices. However, it's important to note that without a foundation of self-confidence in our innate goodness and wholeness, the endeavor to embrace this level of ownership can sometimes inadvertently morph into self-blame. This shift occurs due to societal influences that have ingrained in us a proclivity for both blaming and shaming.
The Drama Triangle
One of the key challenges in this process of ownership is recognizing and avoiding the drama that can seep into our relationships. According to Stephen Karpman’s model, this drama often emerges from a destructive cycle known as the drama triangle, which consists of three roles: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. These roles are not fixed identities but rather mindsets or psychological positions that we all move through at different times. Let me describe each one of these positions:
The victim mindset is characterized by a pervasive sense of helplessness, often manifesting as a "poor me" mentality. It involves unhappiness or dissatisfaction attributed to external sources, leaving the individual feeling powerless to enact change. This mindset thrives on external causes.
The persecutor mindset emerges when the individual attempts to assert dominance. This often leads to the use of judgemental or even aggressive language and actions, as a means to control situations. Paradoxically, the persecutor mindset typically stems from an underlying sense of personal powerlessness. In essence, it is an attempt to regain control—moving from a victim mindset to a persecutor role.
The rescuer mindset, although it may seem virtuous, has a more complex dynamic. While there are instances where people genuinely require assistance, the psychological rescuer operates differently. This mindset involves helping others but often from a position of superiority. The rescuer perceives themselves as the expert or fixer, meeting their ego's needs for status and reinforcing their identity and strength. Paradoxically, the underlying reason for adopting the rescuer role is often rooted in feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. It is essentially, again, an attempt to regain control, albeit under the guise of being the 'good guy' or 'good girl.' This makes the rescuer mindset more subtle and potentially insidious because it masquerades as a helpful role while secretly striving for power and control over others. So these three mindsets link up and triangulate to create the drama triangle. Once it is formed, the drama triangle just starts spinning, roles change, going back and forth, and it creates a vortex of negativity and toxicity. That dynamic is all pervasive in our culture and shows up in our families, workplaces, and even on the world stage as endless war and conflict. Understanding this concept is crucial for breaking free from negative drama and embracing radical responsibility.
Escaping the Drama Triangle
When we find ourselves ensnared in the web of the drama triangle, having unwittingly taken the bait, it's imperative to discover how to free ourselves from its clutches. The initial step is recognizing these patterns for what they are. It's about pausing and acknowledging: "Here's a potential drama unfolding, and I'd rather not perpetuate it."
Here are a few guidelines to untangle oneself from drama:
1- Pause and take a deep breath.
2- Learn to draw from your inner resources, connect with your emotions, and be open to experiencing them fully. 3- Shift your communication from projecting blame through "you" or "they" statements and reclaim ownership by stating, "I'm experiencing these emotions – I'm angry, upset, fearful, anxious, or frustrated."
4- But don't stop there. Delve even deeper into your emotional landscape and ask, "What underlies these feelings? What needs do I perceive as unmet or obstructed?" This exploration is pivotal because, contrary to common belief, our emotions don't arise from external circumstances. Rather, they originate from our perception of whether our fundamental needs are met or neglected.
And… here’s the thing:
Our perceptions are not infallible; they often offer a limited interpretation of a selective set of data that we choose to prioritize. Consequently, we tend to harbor a propensity for negativity bias and confirmation bias, shaping our perspectives and interpretations to fit a certain narrative.
As we delve deeper into this reflective process, we can detach ourselves from the drama triangle. This detachment helps us transcend the fight-or-flight response, rescuing us from the emotional triggers and hooks that propel us into reactive survival mode. When we operate from this reactive standpoint, the locus of control shifts from the rational, smart part of our brain to the primal, instinct-driven section, resulting in actions and words that are often counterproductive.
Engaging in this reflective process empowers us to step off the drama triangle and, in doing so, allows us to make conscious choices about how we engage with others. The transformative power of recognizing and disentangling from the drama triangle cannot be overstated. It equips us to approach our interactions with newfound skill and mindfulness.
Our survival hinges on the goodwill of others, and the experience of unconditional parental love diminishes over time, contributing to our vulnerability. Even the most loving parents can't shield us from existential fear about survival and self-worth. The fear-based distrust of ourselves and others isn't solely rooted in modern Christianity but is another example of fear pervading human institutions. This leaves us torn between love and fear, forgiveness and shame.
This dilemma also prompts the question: What drives violence, crime, and conflict in our societies? Is it an inherent flaw in human nature or the result of misguided beliefs and habitual patterns rooted in fear, shame, and trauma? I would posit that if evil exists, it is more like a virus circulating in our culture as internalized trauma and shame that erupts as violence in its various forms.
Perhaps it's time to address violence as a pervasive issue and tackle its root causes. Ensuring the safety of our children and fostering non-coercive, non-shaming education and enculturation methods is crucial.
What can I do?
On a personal level, we can use these challenges as opportunities for self-reflection and growth. When we feel inadequate due to the media's standards of beauty or succumb to fear in response to global events, we can delve into the origins of our unworthiness, fear, blame, and shame. We must recognize that we are all in this together.
For real change to occur, we need to heal the negative conditioning we've absorbed to varying degrees. Questioning and breaking down the belief that something is inherently wrong with us or with others can lead to positive shifts. As we explore our proclivity for fear, shame, and blame, we can rewire our brains to align with our innate goodness, both within ourselves and others.
This transformation can pave the way for new possibilities grounded in the acknowledgment of human goodness, trust in our shared humanity, and reverence for the unconditional sacredness of our world.