We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” -Epictetus

A two-part series on the differences between intent and impact.

Last week, I wrote about the smile test regarding the impact our behavior makes on others. In summary, people respond primarily to the impact of our behavior, not our intent. While this means it is vitally important that we know how our behavior lands on others so, if necessary, we can improve it by changing our behavior, there is another important aspect to acknowledge which I call the limit of impact.

In my work across the country, people frequently tell me stories about the things others do and say to them that create a negative experience. I can empathize with the challenges behind many of these stories, yet I occasionally also get to hear the perspective of the other person involved. Sometimes a different picture emerges. There are always at least two parties involved, each with their own viewpoint, and there are times when I discover the person who had a negative reaction to behavior is not taking responsibility for their part of the story.

The Drama Triangle and Impact

Back in 1968, a postgraduate student from Duke, Stephen Karpman, created what came to be called the Drama Triangle. The triangle includes three roles; victim, rescuer or enabler, and persecutor or villain. The key player in the triangle is the victim because without it the other two roles don’t have much power.

The voice of the victim can be boiled down to two words: “Poor me!” It’s a role I think many of us have played at some point in our lives and it occasionally shows up in conversations about the impact others have on us. (To be clear, there are some very real victim situations in life—victims of crime, domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse, hate crimes, etc. This blog entry is not about these types of victimization.)

Sometimes the stories I hear from others about a negative impact experience sound like the voice of the victim. After a recent session, someone came up to me and shared one of these stories. I asked her what she had done and she told me it didn’t matter what she did because nothing was going to help. I asked her a few specific questions about ideas that might make a difference, but she told me the person was unwilling to be reasonable or listen to anything she said. That might have been true but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t do anything differently. A victim believes they are powerless, and the more we talked the more clear it became that was her belief.

“The key player in the triangle is the victim because without it the other two roles don’t have much power.”

I have compassion for these situations because I know how difficult it can be to hear or see how we play the role of a victim in our words, thoughts, and actions. Still, the thoughts we have and the actions we take when we are experiencing a negative impact are just as important as the behavior that is creating the impact. 

What are we doing about what we are experiencing? What thoughts do we have about it? How do we talk about it? Are we proactively addressing it or simply reacting? Are we seeking greater clarity? These questions are important to know the answers to if we are going to make sure we don’t get into a victim mentality.

(Note: In his book, The Power of TED: The Empowerment Dynamic (2005), David Emerald does a nice job outlining strategies to shift out of the drama triangle.)

Last week, I wrote about a good friend who learned the coping mechanism of bullying others as a result of painful childhood experiences. Believe me, if you were the focus of her bullying behavior you could easily and understandably feel like a victim of it. But there were some people who could manage their difficult experiences with her more effectively than others, and, not surprisingly, they were the ones who took responsibility for their response to it.

For healthy relationships, it is essential that we know and manage our impact. However, we also need to take responsibility for what we do when someone has a negative impact on us and avoid playing the victim role. When we don’t, we fail to limit their impact.