Thursday, March 5

About the Triangle of Disempowerment

This article is mainly about victims; Victims of destiny, victims of life, victims of circumstance, victims of serendipity or victims of their fellows.

When we see an abusive situation, we immediately split it between a perceived VICTIM and a perceived PERPETRATOR. In this, we have a binary situation (bad guy vs. victim) that is easy to see. The perpetrator may be intangible, something that nothing can be done about, like god/devil, destiny, whatever, or tangible, like an abusive relative or a violent person. It doesn't matter for my little article.

Looking from this point of view (bad guy vs. victim), there is one escape for the victim: become stronger than the aggressor (turning ultimately into another aggressor) and many times, the two change roles (unfortunately, victims of abuse often do this).

Many times though, becomming stronger than the perceived aggressor is impossible (as in, "It is my destiny to suffer for this" - who can go against that?!)

To widen the bad guy vs. victim model, let's introduce a new element, the good guy, the RESCUER. Our model now turns into a triangle, with the victim having three choices: suffer, become a bad guy, or become a good guy (and ultimately help others deal with abuse).

I am not smart enough (or thoughtful enough) to have come up with this model by myself. This model is called "Low Drama", or the "Triangle of Disempowerment" and people play it (more or less) whenever they interact with ... well anything really.

It looks like this:
I hope you can appreciate my great MS Paint skills.

Basically, this is a cycle we go through, with no apparent escape from it.

Here are the roles, in detail:

The Victim

"I'm not OK, both the Perpetrator and the Rescuer are OK."

The victims try to escape their roles by becomming either a Rescuer or a Perpetrator, usually at different levels (in different triangles, with other players, they will play different roles).
They blame the Perpetrators (direct abuser/life/destiny/partner/friends/relatives/whoever is available), and in extremis, everything bad that ever happens, happens to them.
As the perfect example of a victim, see the definition of a Drama Queen.

Ironically, the victim is the most powerful player of the game: a skilled victim can turn a Rescuer into a Perpetrator ("It's your fault for not getting me out of my situation"), it can turn an innocent bystander into a Perpetrator ("I can't believe you're doing this to me"), and it can even stop the whole triangle completely, by becoming aware of the triangle/pattern.

The Perpetrator

"I'm OK, you're not OK, so I'm justified in hurting you".

Usually somebody who is a victim for others and has a need to prove his strength will become a perpetrator. At a certain level, the internal need to be a perpetrator is perceived weakness and the need to compensate for that. From this point of view, a perpetrator is a distorted victim.

As the perfect example of a perpetrator, take your pick, as we are all full of them; just take your pet peeve and see who's doing it to you (yes, you are practicing your low drama also). I do not mean necessarily, that you are a drama queen, merely that there's no escaping the game, and it's a good thing to acknowledge that we actually do it).

The Rescuer

"I'm OK, the victim is OK, the Perpetrator is not OK".

On a first impression, there is nothing wrong with the Rescuer, he is the good guy, something to aspire to.
Except it's not. Sooner or later, splitting a situation in victim/perpetrator/rescuer makes you part of the game, propagates the problem further. The rescuer is all about getting into the problem, not about empowering the victim.

You can probably think of people you've seen getting out of an abusive situation, only to get into another one (I know I did).

Saving the victim (actually saving the victim) would mean breaking the low drama completely, helping the victim become aware of the triangle, and the first step in doing that is not to play the game, as tempting to help as that may be.

If this sounds like I'm saying not to help the victim, that's true, with a catch: Only help the victim if the victim asks for help. Mind your own business, or consider that you're actually joining the game. If the victim asks for help, you can provide help without participating in the triangle ... maybe :)

When they don't ask for help, you're just participating in the victim's play and you'll end up suffering for it sooner or later. The way not to suffer for it, is to see clearly that it doesn't involve you, it has no relationship to you, and any involvement you put into that is voluntary.

That was my insight into the dis-empowerment triangle. I hope you had your fun reading it.

Edit: A friend of mine gave me a perfect example of not being engaged in my drama, a few weeks ago.

I had had a quarrel with somebody and needed a way to vent.

I ended up meeting with my friend and as I was ready to begin ranting on what's been done to me and how my chosen perpetrator (yes, she was my chosen perpetrator) had the gall to do all that, my friend interrupted me and told me she refused to listen to me painting the other person with a "bad" brush, as my perpetrator was also her friend (in the end, that meant she refused to sit and listen to me being a victim).

In this case I was lucky: that was enough for me to realize my victim role and acknowledge that the "perpetrator" had just reacted to avoid being hurt (i. e. not to do all that to me as I had been telling myself). My victim role was just me being hurt myself (I guess on a level we hurt each other) and blaming someone else.

Sometimes though, when people don't want to participate in our drama we get angry, as the sympathy we get for playing a victim can be a strong emotional reward (that the listener denies us) and for a ... skilled victim that's just another way to become a stronger victim (they refuse to listen and show sympathy? Do they have no compassion? How can they do this to me?!?).


Anonymous said...

imagine a situation where you are an adult walking on the street and you see a teen ager beeting the crap out of a boy. Thei don't see you. What you're saying is to move along because the boy has to realize that he can break the traingle alone? That's bullshit!

utnapistim said...


I was expecting comments like this one, as it is an apparent flow in my argument.

To answer you, it depends on a case by case basis.

In such a situation there is a big temptation to help (and in many cases it is the right choice).

It may be that the right way to help would be to tell the victim "You don't have to take that, strike back!"

It may be that the best help you can give is to actually stop the aggressor, but then again, I've heard of (just a few) cases where you stop the abuse and the victim attacks you.

It depends on what level the choice to be a victim is there.

(Yes, it's a choice, and the aggression may stop only after the victim realizes that it's a choice).

Gec said...

The right way to act in the street fight is to somehow "awaken" the teen and make him realize that what he does is wrong.

Great article btw. Reading the part with giving unsolicited help reminded me of the unsolicited advice: it is useless. The world is full of people offering free advice which has zero value most of the times.

Anonymous said...

What if you want to stay in the relationship because you are both in love? Is there any way to get out of the triangle situation? What does it mean to step outside the triangle? Does it mean leave the relationship?

If you move on, how do you know that you won't get into another triangle if you don't know how you got into the first one?

Have all parts of the triangle had childhood trauma? war, rape...what are the types of trauma?

Your post has been very helpful to me. Thank you.

utnapistim said...

> What if you want to stay in the relationship because you are both in love?

That's the best reason to stay in a relationship really ;)

> Is there any way to get out of the triangle situation?

Yes. The only exit out of the drama is for the victim to become conscious of it's power and realize it's choice to be a victim. Then, the victim must choose to stop being a victim (I am not talking here about fighting back, though it may come to that).

> What does it mean to step outside the triangle?

It means to stop assuming the role you're playing. The real power player in lower drama is the victim. The victim assigns the roles and the whole game stops when the victim decides not to be a victim any longer.

If you are the victim, stop looking at things from the perspective of what "is happening to you" and switch your perspective to one of "why am I choosing this? am I getting any reward from choosing a victim role? what is the reward? how else could I relate to this situation outside of being victimized by it?"

If you are the rescuer, stop pitying the victim and see the victim's choice in it. Also, acknowledge the victim's power to choose differently.

If you have chosen the role of a perpetrator stop doing what you are doing and if you have been assigned this role by the victim, simply refuse it ("I'm not doing this to you, here's how you do it to yourself." and "Please do not blame me for what is going wrong for you" are good ways to do this).

> Does it mean leave the relationship?

Actually it doesn't. More than that, if you leave the relationship without looking into who is playing what role and getting out of it, in your next relationship you will probably play the same role. That is because whatever role you play, _you chose it_. It is not the perpetrator doing it to you, it is a need to play a victim's role on your part.

If you move on to a different relationship there are high chances you will take your need with you to your new relationship.

> If you move on, how do you know that you won't get into another triangle if you don't know how you got into the first one?

Actually it's almost guaranteed that you will get into another triangle, if you don't acknowledge the way you maintained the first one (in whatever role you played).

> Have all parts of the triangle had childhood trauma?

Yes. We all have childhood trauma, except that it's not as bad as rape, war or anything like that (in most cases).

I'm not sure "childhood trauma" is the best term to use, but we've all been hurt and had things "done to us" when we were little (from taking a beating to being ignored - it's all the same if you need an excuse for assuming a victim's role).

Nanu said...

This is a very good topic... One I am presently looking into and seeking to heal in my own life.

I am finding that it all comes down to being aware of what is actually my responsibility in any given situation as well as what I am projecting at any given time.

Being aware all the time is difficult- very difficult- but not impossible.