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Ask About BPD: The Drama Triangle

Ask about BPD: Parenting Relationships

I was diagnosed with BPD about a year ago. I believe my mother also has BPD, but is undiagnosed. We have a really rocky relationship, but my daughter loves her grandmother so much. Do you have any tips on how I can improve my relationship with my mother?

I think this is a question we have all asked ourselves at some time or another. For some of us this question applies to our mothers, others to our fathers. I will explore what I’ve come to understand in regards to having a relationship with a parent experiencing BPD.

I can list many things that play a part in the complexity of the situation:

  1. BPD Parenting Style. If you are unaware of BPD Parenting Styles here is an article that explains them.
  2. Emotional Age
  3. Maintaining Realistic Expectations
  4. Setting Boundaries

The list goes on and on, but it does not get to the heart of the situation: The Drama Triangle and its role in dysfunctional families.

The Drama Triangle

The Drama Triangle was developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman in 1968, and is a graphical model of the use of power in interpersonal conflicts; including the destructive and shifting roles people play.

Each position on this triangle has unique and easily identifiable characteristics:

  1. Perpetrator: acts as the instigator. Makes others feel unworthy or unsure about themselves, and/or blames others for what’s wrong in their life.
  2. Rescuer: Put others first to feel they are valued, irreplaceable or respected.
  3. Victim: Feels overwhelmed with helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, or shame.

Together, these roles represents maladaptive relationship patterns that function to keep people in the illusion of control. Whenever a person engages in the drama triangle they literally keep spinning from one position to another, destroying the opportunity for healthy relationships.

The cycle is pictured as an upside down triangle.

dramatriangle

 

The Persecutor and Rescuer are on the top upper ends of the triangle and take on the “one-up” position over the victim, meaning they relate as though they are better, stronger, smarter, or more-together than the victim.

Victim is at the “one-down” position feeling looked down on and helplessness.

This pattern of behavior allows participants to get their unspoken wishes/needs met in a manner they feel justified, without having to acknowledge the broader dysfunction or harm done in the situation as a whole.

The perpetuation of the drama triangle is often unconscious and automatic in families. Acknowledging your role and recognizing when it begins to play into your experience is the first step in changing the cycle.

Roles change

Our place on the drama triangle can shift as people change emotions. The Victim may become angry at the injustice of being persecuted, lash out, which then shifts them into the Perpetrator role.

The perpetrator may feel guilty for their actions and shift into the rescuing role.

The rescuer may feel taken advantage of and emotionally exhausted and move into the victim role.

No matter where we start out on the triangle, victim is where we end up.

Ex:

Your parent is in the perpetrator role and you are the victim. After a while you become irritated that you are in this role so you act out, becoming the perpetrator and placing your parent as the victim.

Feeling guilty that your actions may have jeopardized your daughter’s relationship with your mother you become the rescuer.

The mental work required to maintain this position can be overwhelming and you may feel taken advantage of, so you release this role which puts you back in the role of victim.

The Professional Victim

If you are like me, one of your parents is a professional victim. This person wants nothing more than your attention, time, love, support, money, energy and nurturing, however they are not really willing or committed to making the effort, or take the actions, required to change their circumstances.

It is called “professional” because this role is one that does not change. They will allow others to “share” the victim role, but will make it known that they are still the bigger victim in the situation.

Getting off of the drama triangle

 There is no simple solution to getting yourself off the triangle. I will give you a few suggestions to start, but working with a therapist trained in CBT/DBT can assist you learn new skills that allow you to step away, be assertive without playing games, and learn when it is necessary to leave the situation.

Stopping the cycle is dependent upon:

  1. Seeing, accepting, and releasing the underlying needs the drama triangle fills within your family.
  2. Changing your role in the dynamic.
  3. Becoming accountable and own all thoughts, feelings and behaviors that keep you in the drama roles.
  4. Your ability to forgive yourself and accept that other’s behavior is not your fault.

drama triangle

Know your triggers

The perpetuation of the drama cycle within families is unconscious, and to keep the cycle going each role relies on pushing our emotional buttons. Knowing what those buttons are, how they are being used to keep us in a negative cycle, and how to change the subject away from them lessens the chance we stay on the drama triangle.

STOPP

A big part of getting off the drama triangle is recognizing and working with our automatic responses. This is difficult because our reactions and roles have been ingrained in us from a very young age.

Learning to overcome automatic reactions is often done by using the CBT technique known as STOPP.

STOPP

Step back

Take a breath

Observe

Pull back

Practice what works

Here is a great worksheet to guide you through the exercise.

 Know when to walk away

You must also radically accept that others may not want to end this cycle and that a healthy relationship may never be possible. If you find that even with your best efforts their behavior is causing you stress and illness you may need to walk away.

If you feel like your parent’s behavior is not putting your child at risk for trauma or abuse try setting up times where they see their grandparents independently of you.

Teach your child how the cycle works and that the behavior of others is not a reflection of them. This is a great lesson that will not only help them understand their grandparents, but other individuals in their life that try to bring them into their drama.

When living with a parent experiencing BPD there are no easy solutions. Looking after your self and the needs of your child come first in any relationship. I hope getting off the drama triangle alleviates enough stress in your family so that your daughter can continue to feel the love she experiences with her grandmother.

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