As caregivers, we are each drawn to the work we do for a reason. It may be because we simply like to help, have someone in our lives suffering from a disease or an injury, or are just stopping along the way to get to another spot. Whatever the reason, our jobs involve helping people. This can be very rewarding and enriching – it can also be troubling, stressful and distressing.

One tactic we come across in the world of therapy is triangulation – a form of manipulation where a person will not communicate directly with another person, instead they use a third person to relay the information to the second person – thus forming a triangle.

Triangulation is a concept primarily used in trauma-based therapy, taught to mental health professionals specifically trained to work with individuals who have experienced a traumatic incident, such as a car accident, fire, death of a loved one, etc. The way these individuals perceive life and relationships can be drastically influenced by that experience.

This has much to do with how the brain is wired, through social and emotional experience, and how social experiences have affected the individual. The act of triangulation can be intentional or unintentional – a very complicated cycle that negatively impacts everyone involved. Triangulation can be common in many aspects of our lives, but as a psychologist in the world of brain injury rehabilitation, I see it quite often.

To have a triangle, you must have three people: a victim, a persecutor, and a rescuer.

Victim: “The good guy”. No voice, no power. In this frame of mind, the victim does have power and a voice but are afraid to use them.

Persecutor: “The bad guy”. The attacker, the one who bothers the victim. It could include allowing the victim to experience the natural consequences of their choices or behaviors.

Rescuer: “The hero”. Swoops in and takes care of the victim’s problem – but at the same time ensures the victim never finds their own voice or personal power.

Let’s use the characters in the movie The Wizard of Oz as an example...

Dorothy – the victim. Riding in a house which drops and kills the Wicked Witch; obtains the Ruby Slippers.

Wicked Witch of the West – the persecutor. Unhappy about sister’s death, but more importantly – wants the Ruby Slippers.

Glenda the “Good Witch” – Dorothy’s potential first rescuer. Glenda is good, and tells Dorothy how to solve her problem but doesn’t do it for her.

In the movie, Dorothy picks up potential rescuers along the way – the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow – all victims of their own life circumstances. Each of them do their best to rescue one another from their fears. We also see several persecutors for the victims, each of whom are looking for help/rescuing from the Wizard of Oz.

“When we cast ourselves in the victim role, we often feel helpless, hopeless, powerless, inept, etc. Sometimes, we may think “I can’t do it, I need you to do it.”

Fast forward to the Emerald City, where the best rescuer is believed to reside – the Wizard. Dorothy asks the Wizard for help, but is denied. [Oh, no, that isn’t supposed to happen – the Wizard (rescuer) is supposed to help me.] For the Wizard, his role quickly transitions from rescuer to persecutor.

“Now the victim has to find a new rescuer.”

In the case of the Wizard of Oz, that person becomes Glenda. Glenda helps Dorothy rescue herself by finding her voice and enacting her power to dissolve the witch with a bucket of water, and with three taps of the shoes, we see Dorothy back home.

“Rescuers, understand: if you are not able to rescue your victim, the victim doesn’t like how you rescued them, or other reasons – you – the rescuer is now becomes the persecutor.”

So, how do we break out of the triangle?

  • Support, don’t rescue. If someone comes to you to rescue them, assist them in figuring out how to solve the problem themselves.
  • Refer the victim back to the person with whom they are having the problem.
  • Help the victim find their voice. Role play what they could say by using the “I” message concept:

When your [insert description of behavior], I feel [insert name the emotion], I want [insert description of replacement behavior].

Example:

“When you act like a jerk, you make me angry, I want you to stop” will serve to incite more conflict versus help resolve. A different approach might be “when you keep your headphones on when I am trying to talk to you, I feel frustrated. I would like you to take the headphones off.”

We can also use this method to communicate positives. “When you take off your headphones when I’m trying to talk to you, I feel appreciative, please keep it up!”

Some helpful reminders:

  • When we say “I feel,” we’ve taken responsibility for our own emotions, versus when we say “you make me feel,” we give all the power to the other person.
  • Make sure the description of the behavior is without opinion or judgement.

References:
Psych Central – Mental Health & Psychology Information and Support. Triangulation: The Trap of the Problematic Person, By Támara Hill, MS, LPC.
Triangulation: The Trap Of The Problematic Person

Kimberly McGowan, MA, LLP, CBIS
Limited License Psychologist
Hope Network Neuro Rehabilitation

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