Whenever life gives you a challenge, and this never stops, you have a choice how to view it. When you exercise the right use of power, you will always maintain your dignity and inner strength. If your goal is to maintain the relationship, the right use of power is also your best weapon. Feelings of invalidation don’t happen because using the right use of power keeps you in full possession of your power regardless of whether the situation ends up as a win, loss, or draw.
As with everything, there is a strategy for exercising the right use of power. I am going to share it with you here, but first let’s look at the roles people assume: the victim, hero, and oppressor.
When there is a conflict, the victim deals with this by relinquishing power and responsibility and waiting for someone else to deal with it. Although the victim assumes little responsibility, he maintains control through helplessness. Those who use this as the primary way of functioning are usually the youngest child or a coddled child. He didn’t get to fail or struggle, so he doesn’t learn how to be self-sufficient.
Our hero deals with issues by caretaking, rescuing, or saving the victim. He rescues in order to feel needed or important. Our hero is “Mr. Nice Guy.” He controls the situation by taking responsibility for the making things better. He’s learned that if he can be good, do things right, and please people, all will be well.
The oppressor is the one who deals with conflict by becoming angry, critical, and blaming. His underlying message is “This is unfair! I am tired of carrying the load. Step up!” He doesn’t know how to meet his needs Effectively, so he controls the situation through rage and blame. This person learned early in life to stay in control by being strong and forceful. He learned to control through domination. By becoming the oppressor, he gains the energy to move out of his habitual role and say what he feels.
These roles are learned in childhood. Although people tend to primarily occupy one role, when the triangle is in motion, we move through all of the roles. Let’s look at an example to see what I mean.
“Sheila” (victim) is a stay-at-home mom who takes care of the household, finances, social calendar, pets, and children. “Guy” (hero) is the breadwinner who brings home the money to provide his family with all their wants and needs. When Sheila gets emotional and overwhelmed, Guy comforts her. When Sheila needs attention or things, Guy gets to be Santa Claus. This generally works out well for both parties. Sheila gets to feel cared for and Guy gets to feel important and in charge.
Then something happens. Let’s say that Sheila spends more than Guy expects. He sees the bill and explodes. Guy now steps into that oppressor role and rages about how he’s not appreciated. All he wants is some respect. Can’t she just reign it in sometimes? Etc.
Sheila responds by stepping into the hero position and tries to take charge by taking care of Guy. She says something like “It’s okay. Just let me know what you need. We can get through this.”
Now Guy feels bad about being so forceful that he begins to take care of her. Now that Mr. Nice Guy is back, Sheila collapses and starts crying and goes back to the victim role. This can either keep Guy in his caretaking/hero space or spin him up again into the oppressor. If this is a long standing situation, Guy is more likely to go back to feeling manipulated and overwhelmed by the tears and start the cycle all over again by taking in the oppressor energy. If the relationship is strong and/or the issues are small and infrequent, he’s more likely to stay the hero.
Another way that this can play out is that Sheila (the victim) can get tired of being the victim. She can get tired of hearing the message “If it weren’t for me, you’d be a helpless ruin.” So the victim blows up and moves into the oppressor role. It’s as if she’s saying, “I am tired of being treated like a child. Stop controlling me!” The hero responds by doing the “woe is me” victim role and this moves the couple back into their comfort zone.
I’m talking about a romantic relationship, but this doesn’t have to be a couple. It can be parents and children, boss and employee, friends, or any type of relationship. Once you learn these roles, you tend to bring them with you wherever you go.
Okay, so we’ve got that right? Makes sense? Now here is the way out that I told you about.
First we step out of the labels and make sure that we clearly see these are roles and not identities. It’s very hard to change your identity, but really easy to change your roles. We all have lots of experience with this. We go from being first graders to second graders, singles to couples, and unemployed to employed. So you are not a victim, hero or oppressor, but maybe you’re playing that role.
The work of the victim is to give up helplessness, accept vulnerability, be solution focused and be more self aware. Victims are encourage to take responsibility for choosing the way they feel, respond, and act. They are also encouraged to make steps towards creating what they want. For instance, if you don’t want to be treated like a baby, become more of an active participant in your own life.
The work of the hero is showing caring and concern without doing the work of anyone else. He can do this by asking clarifying questions to help the victim get clear on what she wants and guide her to make informed choices. He can also see the victim as an equal who is capable of solving her own problems if given the proper guidance. That goal is equality. A healthy relationship needs this. So it’s a win/win and also the best way of caretaking. The hero can also simply witness the situation, affirm, and do nothing.
Oppressors work on asking for what they want in an assertive way, but without demanding or controlling.
If you’re in the triangle and are hit with the oppressor, instead of going to the victim, be direct. Ask the person in the oppressor role what he wants. Listen mindfully. Then ask yourself if/how you did anything to provoke that. If so, accept responsibility for your part. If not, don’t take ownership of it. This means don’t fix it and don’t coddle.
All players need to adjust their power so that they are neither giving up nor taking on more than is legitimately theirs. When we do this, we allow others to live fully as we live fully. Witnessing is very healing. A person can step up and take care of themselves when given this support. It’s really powerful.
All players also need to see the truth of their own needs. If I a catch myself playing the hero (or any other role) and can say, “Oh, that’s my need to feel safe,” it opens up other choices. Instead I might choose to have an honest conversation, get vulnerable, take a break, or do anything other than rescue.
The way out of this drama triangle is to stop playing the game. These are all manipulations. It only takes one player to bow out and the whole thing collapses. All players need each other to sustain the tension and balance. When you step out and say, “I see you. I care, and I am not going to engage in this way” it forces those around you to meet you where you are or continue to play the game with someone else.
We all need power to live a fully actualized, authentic life. How you use power is really important. So be careful to stand fully in your own without dominating, subjugating, or borrowing that of others. Life is more fun when you’re running with equals.
*These ideas are from Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle, Acey Choy’s Winner Triangle, and The Power of TED.