I was interviewed on the Trauma Triangle and What It Means for Your Relationships by Renée Fabian of TheMighty.com. You can read her article here: https://themighty.com/2020/03/trauma-triangle-meaning/
My unedited answers to her interview questions are below. I hope this helps. Blessings on your journey.
- What is the “trauma triangle” and why is it a useful tool to help people understand their relational patterns?
The trauma triangle describes roles or patterns that trauma survivors reenact in their present relationships. The roles are “ego states” that develop initially as a function of the trauma response – or the fight, flight, freeze and fawn behaviors that happen when our nervous systems are overwhelmed or in a state of hyperarousal. Typical roles are victim, perpetrator and rescuer. We also pick these behaviors up – or introject them – from observing the adults we’re attached to. When we’re powerless as children and unsupported by safe authorities, the chemical and electrical impulses that fire in our bodies and brains during a traumatic event won’t be free to complete a healthy action potential cycle. Instead, these trauma impulses get lodged in our brains/nervous systems. The bundled neurons, holding trauma memories stored as these “roles” will then get triggered and fire under present circumstances. I call the roles our “inner soldiers” because they show up in situations that feel essential to survival. They “think” they’re fighting for us. The roles feel like rigid scripts we have to play. The body and mind experience them as emotionally real and relevant in the present, even though they are no longer needed for survival, nor are they appropriate in the present circumstances. Trauma survivors will follow their scripts because it feels essential to do so, since these parts of the nervous system are linked to our survival mechanisms. (REF Psychiatr Clin North Am. 1989 Jun;12(2):389-411.The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism.van der Kolk BA1.)
- How do you define each role in the trauma triangle — victim, perpetrator and rescuer? What does it look like when someone is in those roles?
The three typical roles that emerge from trauma are perpetrators, sometimes called “persecutors,” victims and rescuers. When someone is triggered to take on the perpetrator role, they’ll experience the following features of that script playing out in their lives – a lack of compassion and care for others, a grandiose view of self, which has unrecognized self-loathing at the core, and impulses to act out with aggression against others or self, if self also feels the victim role.
In the perpetrator role, power and anger mask vulnerable feelings that the person in this role is too fragile or afraid to connect with, so therefore unable to feel. Instead they’ll feel and express contempt toward softer, kinder, more nurturing feelings, as well as those who manifest these values. They’ll also be triggered to bully someone who’s in a victim role.
When in the victim role, a person will also lack self compassion and self-awareness. But instead of feeling grandiose and powerful, they’ll feel collapsed and powerless. Others will seem to have all the power, and the one in the victim role feels hopeless to stand against what or who is causing harm. Sometimes, a person will voice the victim script inside them with words like, “it’s no use; I’m worthless” etc.
The rescuer role is triggered in the presence of someone else’s need or victimization. While seeming good or positive, following the rescuer script is still a function of trauma – and, like the other trauma responses will ultimately result in disconnection -” dis-integration” – rather than healthy connection and positive healing outcomes. Rescuers also do harm because in rigidly playing their roles, they keep others in the victim role. In the rescuer role, we disconnect from our own vulnerability and project it onto others.
The presence and reenactment of these roles continues to deepen the trauma through experiencing similar distress in the present. The roles also perpetuate the pattern of repressing the true or genuine self, so healthy, appropriate options for behavior aren’t available.
By now, you may recognize that one person can and will function in all three roles at different times, depending on the dynamics and triggers in their current life situation through relationships, bosses, colleagues, friends and family.
Even though a rescuer or perpetrator may feel powerful in the moment, at the core of all the roles is the hopeless despair of feeling trapped, wounded, not valued or abandoned.
There’s a fourth role that I see frequently in my therapy clients. This is the “abandoning authority” role. When a parent or care-giver turned away from our needs or even put us in harm’s way, we’ll continue to play that role toward ourselves or others in our care. This explains why people deny concerns and don’t “show up for themselves” to make healthier choices or end harmful relationships.
- How do trauma survivors most often get stuck in this triangular pattern of relating later in life?
Theories of personality assert that each person has a unique and authentic self. The discovery of, and ability to live fully in this true self and to connect with others who are likewise in “genuine self” is what deeply satisfies us as humans, and defines what it is to be “healthy.” Some characteristics of the genuine self in all humans are caring, compassionate toward self and others and openness to connect.
The human nervous system has a good design for keeping us safe – but when high-jacked by trauma – it will respond by locking us into conscripted patterns – blocking our access to the true self, which gets fragmented into what appear to be wounded younger parts of us. These parts hold beliefs and histories and “ways of being” which were true for us at the time of traumatization.
In the presence of high levels of stress hormones produced during original trauma events, we won’t be able to integrate memories and emotions in meaningful ways. Thus, the true self starts to get lost. Instead, the chemical and electrical impulses we fire at the time of the trauma get trapped or fragmented through-out our brains and bodies, and later will re-fire in the presence of similar stimuli. In other words, we shift into trauma roles when we get triggered. For those who were wounded in relationships, the current relationship will be triggering, and they’ll find themselves “living out of” their trauma scripts rather than from “true self.”
Sadly, because their experience is so powerfully felt, often people will over-identify with the roles – and believe this is the “true self.” This reinforces hopelessness, inflexibility or openness to explore healing changes.
This is how it was at first for my clients Terry and Jose. As children, both were wounded in different ways by persecuting authorities. Jose was abused emotionally, physically and mentally by his step-father and Terry was sexually abused by a much older step-brother. Terry also had a neglectful – or “abandoning authority” in a mother who wasn’t protective. As an adult, Terry tended to play her mother’s role by abandoning herself – not noticing or dismissing her own needs, and not taking a stand against harm done to her.
Jose, when stressed or frustrated, he’d slide into the role of persecutor. At first, his anger would be turned on himself, but the anxiety this caused flipped a switch inside so he’d focus his anger onto Terry instead, the way his step-father had done to him.
Under the pressure of this emotional abuse, Terry would be triggered into the freeze response. She’d involuntarily collapse inside, and wear a frozen still expression on her face. She felt exactly like the child- victim she has been long ago. She’d even have the very same mindset as her child self and the very same coping mechanisms – to “play dead” or “hide.” She’d feel, think and act like that wounded younger version of herself – “fuzzy and shut down.” Her frozen stillness, intended by her nervous system to keep her safe, had the opposite effect in her dynamic with Jose. Since her response felt to him like abandonment, his rage was triggered further, and he’d continue to blame and attack her, escalating the abuse.
It wasn’t until this couple was able to see that these rigid roles had high-jacked their genuine selves, and thus, their relationship, that they were able to end their painful patterns. For them, it wasn’t simply a matter of learning to communicate differently. They each needed to work individually to heal their trauma.
Gottman research has demonstrated the importance of “flooding” or diffuse physiological arousal – DPA. Couples in Gottman therapy learn they can’t connect with one another when their nervous systems are in hyperarousal. They literally won’t hear or accept one another’s truth or be able to strengthen their bond because the heightened stress levels in their nervous systems prevent the openness of mind and heart necessary to really attune well enough to make constructive changes together.
Even a seemingly soothing, well meaning “rescuer” is not literally connecting. A healthy connection includes the following features: openness to your present self; open-hearted and open-minded listening to your partner; hopeful; curious, accepting of both yourself and your partner; encouraging; creative – able to be flexible enough to change in response to another’s truth.
Any sort of communication, however well intended – that cuts off feelings or the healthy expression of self will be counterproductive and keep us stuck in roles, and therefore living in diminished versions of ourselves.
As we can see from Terry and Jose, these roles always make sense when you understand the circumstances the person has emerged from, and the roles are there to serve the survival interests of the wounded traumatized child self. However, the roles are never helpful for the long term or even appropriate for the present. They emerge from the chaos of the past.
We now understand that all humans have some degree of trauma, and will exhibit these roles when under enough stress, although the specifics vary from person to person.
- Why do people at different times take on each role in the trauma triangle in their relationships?
When people enter a relationship, they’re often triggered to enter what I call the “family trance.” Because the neural networks of bonding and attachment are opened up in relationships, the emotion memories held by those ego states will be reexperienced. Without conscious awareness, we’ll anticipate abandonment or attack, and with the increase in stress hormones this heightened arousal brings, our “inner soldiers” come out to play their roles.
These trauma roles will express in both rigidity – (when someone is inflexible and unable to see beyond the role) and chaos – (the feelings of hurt, harm and hopelessness that emerge from following the script).
One feature of the chaos is that someone will shift, often very rapidly, from one role to another. In a couple dynamic, often both will do this. My client, Jose’s inner victim turned shame and contempt onto his partner Terry, so he’d take on the perpetrator role. But when Terry collapsed into the victim role, Jose’s victim would re-emerge with feelings of abandonment. Because he couldn’t tolerate those vulnerable feelings and own them, he’d flip instantly back to persecutor. Terry, when she was not collapsed, would attempt to rescue Jose by making excuses for him, or by “fawning” – going along with dynamics that made her uncomfortable, and thus abandoning herself.
Also, we’ve learned from research that people will seek increased connection – or attachment – in the face of danger. That’s why Terry didn’t just leave Jose. Adults, as well as children, may develop strong emotional ties with people who harm them. Hyperarousal in the nervous system from abuse will deepen the attachment bonds, leading to confusion about love and pain. Dissociation and self-abandonment will override good judgement. Longing for the attachment figure or partner will overcome appropriate fears. “All primates subjected to early abuse and deprivation are vulnerable to engage in violent relationships with peers as adults.” (van der Kolk BA)
On the other hand, an emotionally healthy person is someone who has a richly integrated nervous system, allowing them full access to their healthy self with freedom and flexibility. When emotionally healthy we don’t accept harm to ourselves, nor wish it on others.
Our emotional health directly relates to how attuned and supportive our care-givers were during early development, or if we’ve “earned secure attachment” through therapy and embracing healing changes for ourselves. Attunement – or turning towards emotion with listening care and support – creates those richly integrated neural networks resulting in a secure sense of self. When this is the case, rather than turning away from my true self and playing a role, I can notice what I really feel and need at the moment and speak up or advocate for myself.
As I learn to do this for myself, I’ll be better able to do it for others, including my partner, family and friends. A healthy well-integrated nervous system will manifest in flexibility – openness to new growth and healing, and open-heartedness – compassion, curiosity and care for self and others, rather than stuck in scripted patterns. https://www.drdansiegel.com/blog/2014/09/16/brain-insights-and-well-being/
So, trauma and emotional neglect from care-givers in early childhood will fragment the self into survival oriented ego states – or the roles, and their behaviors. Safety and security from care-givers early on, a securely attached partner later in life, or healthy attunement to the self through therapy and self care allows the nervous system to hold secure connection to the self, and thus “live” in the present moment.
- How can people get out of the trauma triangle cycle? What’s the path to relational healing?
Acceptance, Stress & Body Work, Safe People, Boundaries, Detoxing; Replacing
One of the most important steps in healing trauma is to accept that we took on these roles when very young or wounded, and these responses make sense in that light. Since these roles are all based on survival responses, this was the best we could do at the time to survive. In a sense, the roles – our inner soldiers – want to serve us and be of help. So paradoxically, instead of rejecting these parts of ourselves, the beginning of freedom from their control, is to have compassion for these wounded parts, accept and connect with them from the present version of self who is here to heal and put the trauma in the past. This is the beginning of self-care – attuning to self to create healthier neural integration and reduce trauma role activity.
When ego states or “parts” are integrated, we’re aware of the various, even conflicting energies and impulses they bring to us, but we’re able to access the healthiest version of ourselves in any given moment. We can have access to all of our energy, and we aren’t trapped in rigid roles. Yet, when stressed enough most of us will find ourselves suddenly stuck again.
So the next crucial thing to do for trauma healing is caring for our stress levels. Many people benefit from body work, breath work, yoga and exercise for this reason. Getting more in touch with our bodies helps us to notice feelings, impulses and triggers which we used to dismiss or not notice. The sensations to perform or live out of a trauma role are subtle, but you can move into and out of the role (script or state) when you begin to notice these feelings with open curiosity and realize you aren’t a slave to them. These are networks that are deep, but they can be rewired.
When tuned in to our bodies, we’ll notice when our nervous systems are in a state of hyperarousal and learn to soothe before we slip into trauma responses. As you develop “self” awareness, you may lose connection to your true self under stress, and then notice the distress of self-loathing becomes too much to bear, so then you project your anger onto others. Now you’re in the persecutor role. But when you notice it, you can then own it, and begin to change it.
If you tend to gravitate toward the perpetrator, victim or rescuer role, become curious about your own vulnerable, assertive or tender feelings which you avoid when playing those roles. See if you can discover your longings for having those feelings known and accepted. One of the most courageous things someone with a history of trauma can do is to own these raw emotions of needing, caring and enjoying both self and others.
Another crucial first step is detox – removal of substances and emotional interactions that introduce neurotoxins – chemicals which hinder neural integration necessary for healing the brain and nervous system. These are not only intoxicating substances, but chemicals produced in our bodies. The stress hormones that fire from conflictual interactions are neurotoxins which can destabilize the brain and nervous system. Detox involves setting new boundaries on your own behavior. A lot of people recognize the need to also detox from entertainment and media that trigger trauma scripts with themes of predator or persecutor, victim and rescuer.
Since “nature abhors a vacuum” it’s really important when detoxing to replace what you’re removing. It’s great to add and maintain regular habits that include the following:
- Reading or listening to content from on-line communities that promote emotional health and self care such as The Mighty is an excellent way to “re-mind” yourself of your value, and of the skills you’re working on.
- Physical practices such as walking meditations, yoga, breathwork, (for example, shorter inhales; longer exhales in a ratio of about 2 – 1) to process emotion from the body and to maintain better emotional regulation.
- Social connection with healthy safe others: a therapist, a support group, spiritual or recovery community, or a therapeutic course offered through mental health or recovery networks.
It seems paradoxical, but the way trauma enters our lives is through human interactions, and the way to freedom from trauma is also through human relationship. A crucial step necessary for transformation is to begin to trust safe people. “Safe” is defined as those who are also on a growth and healing journey of their own, and so can honor yours. Many people won’t be safe for us, no matter how much we wish they were.
It’s important to get very clear on the difference between safe people and those who aren’t. Unsafe people will, in some way, manipulate or invalidate you. They may pose as nurturing but they aren’t really interested in your freedom. They don’t want to hear your true voice and don’t want you to have a choice, but instead want to perpetuate trauma with you. They only accept you when you’re playing the submissive victim to their dominating perpetrator or the controlling rescuer to their hopeless victim.
Limiting or ending connection with those who are unsafe for us is an act of self care. In order to do this, we have to learn boundary setting that is ultimately from within. These boundaries define “what I will and will not do; who I will and will not share with.” It’s about changing myself and not about controlling the other or expecting anyone else to change. But it may mean ending certain connections or at least ending the ways that we participate in those relationships, and finding safe people instead. We can learn that attachment, love and acceptance don’t have to involve pain.
In Gottman Therapy with couples, we emphasize small frequent positive behaviors like turning toward instead of away from our partners, building routines or rituals of connection and other healthy habits that help to heal the nervous system and create a secure couple bond. Secure attachment can be established in people past infancy – even in adults – who are willing to engage in the work of personal growth and healing.
- Anything additional you would like to add?
Insight about trauma isn’t enough to heal it. Just as we can’t learn to dance by reading about dance, talking about it, or even by watching dance videos, insight alone won’t heal trauma. We won’t dance well until we’ve built “muscle memory” for the skills. After hours of experiential practice, we can enter a flow state – where the dance is a natural extension of ourselves. This can happen when we heal from trauma, too. In some cases triggers can be reduced or eliminated, and we can live out of our authentic selves.
Healing from trauma involves some combination of therapy, support group work, reading good material that continues to remind (“re-mind”) and experiential practice of the skills of boundary setting, self-care, emotion recognition and regulation.
It’s perfectly normal to want a short-cut to healing. I get it. I believe the most direct way is through working with a therapist trained in the newer modalities based in neuroscience – EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Lifespan Integration (https://lifespanintegration.com), CIMBS (Complex Integration of Multiple Brain Systems http://www.complexintegrationmbs.com) and Neurofeedback are examples of some promising neurotherapies. DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) is an excellent therapy for building emotion regulation skills, which can lower stress levels and open us to allow for further needed changes. Gottman Method Therapy works to help couples regulate emotion by processing together in new ways.
Even if you have a skilled therapist, actual practice needs to occur in real time with safe others. If you have safe people in your life already – you’re very lucky! It can take quite awhile just to find them. The best way to attract healthier people is to become healthier yourself.