We all hear the term enabling in recovery, most often used to refer to domestic partners, parents and friends, who go into agreement with our self destructive patterns, even providing resources, lies, and other help to continue what we feel we need. Enablers, when questioned, admit to knowing that our personal choices are destructive traps. We might even hear the term codependent often used to identify family systems. Interestingly enough, these patterns include difficulty with conflict management, black and white thinking, indirect communications or solutions and are easily identified generational learned roles, that equate to disfunctional systems and people.

Let’s look deeper into the full conflict model, which for substance abusers often results in relapse rather than growth. Being able to recognize our patterns, even our childhood roles and family systems, gives us clarity to develop new patterns and reshape our thinking. What we fail to recognize in ourselves will usually be repeated in Ground Hog Day style.

  • Victims are helpless and hopeless. They deny responsibility for their negative circumstances and deny the power to change any part of their lives. While, as children, we were unable to be fully responsible, instead adjusting to the expressed and repressed mirrors in our parents and caretakers. We are now capable of seeing ourselves in alternate ways including recognizing patterns that limit our lives.
  • Rescuers are constantly applying short-term repairs to a victim’s problems, while neglecting their own needs. Each of us who has seen these patterns to recognize how destructive such “help” can be.
  • Persecutors blame the victims and criticize the enabling behavior of rescuers, without providing guidance, assistance or solutions to the underlying problems. Often, recovering individuals remember feeling the emotion of shame and blame from family members more often than love. Identification with persecuors is common for small children. Early persecution glued well with mis-emotion becomes a meme voice that lives on to derail adult mental health.

As conflict ensues, people may change roles. Perhaps the rescuer switches to persecutor when the victim won’t be “helped.” The current model, adds a couple of roles to the recipe. These include the switcher, who is a serial role changer, but enthusiastic participant in the triangle for the sheer thrill of the conflict (often masked as altruistic concern).Enablers don’t engage in a particular role, but will throw fuel on the fire either for their own edification or as a matter of principle. Often the fuel of enablers is strong authentic emotion, which is absent from the blame of the persecutor, or the numbness of the victim.

  • People adopt these roles in order to feel some sort of psychological justification, which at it’s root is an attempt to release oneself from full personal responsibility for the way things are. On a basic level, ego defenses are healthy coping strategies that only become maladaptive if they enhance or protect unhealthy behaviors.
  • The persecutor has someone else to blame and does so.The emotional defense of superiority later serves as a disfunctional social factor interrupting intimacy. Blame without solutions is also abusive, depending on the situation and in extreme subset, point to functional narcissism.
  • The victim claims nothing can be done due to the time and attention required to deal with persecution or unfair conditions. While the unfair conditions do, in fact, exist, adaptation is precluded by doing something else (substance abuse, obsessive “7 deadly sin acting out” including raging, persecuting, enabling another, and/or doing nothing, even while in 12 Step Meetings) rather than processing the full event, in context, identifying past patterns, with attention on understanding, learning, personal awareness, and reevaluating choices.
  • The rescuer can neglect doing the things that really matter because they have to spend their energy saving someone else. For instance, the best personal choices for a balanced life might be continued “family of origin” counseling, educational advancement, physical exercise, rather than an altruistic load of 13 sponsees? Nothing good comes from acting out the triangle.

So what do you do when someone else’s drama starts edging your direction? It’s tempting to jump right into one of those roles only to resent them for starting the whole thing. Perhaps this irrational impulse to do something arises from a similar experience in your history, for which you have yet to fully confront? Often, the reaction, even in recovery, is being angry for involving them. The persecutor devolves into anger quickly rather than just reality share. This is especially true where they have failed to make an amends with you in some way..  Examples might include nattering about you with other family members, or withholding their honest emotions, and failing to be there for you in a past conflict.

Or you jump in and try to fix the whole thing even though no one is really asking for your help. Newly recovering individuals trying to maintain sobriety realize that not everything is help in recovery, irregardless of the intent.

All options continue the cycle. Fortunately, there’s another kind of triangle you can adopt to live by, and it’s called the developmental triangle. This triangle is way cooler because it’s productive instead of destructive.

Developmental Triangle
Here are some descriptions of roles in the developmental triangle:

  • Mentor – This role is based on personal potency and confidence in the capacity of people to leverage their context. The best mentor listens to us, but also shares their own history in deeply personal emotional ways careful not to maintain a hierarchal ego position.  By reality sharing and drawing out greater truths through examples, Mentors model developmental tools, assisting us to re-edit and shape our thinking or setup vigilence to objectively recognize human patterns, memes and limiting basic premises. 
  • Facilitator – The Facilitator role is based on providing permission and opportunity to improve skills and competencies. The facilitator provides resources, suggestions and education.  
  • Companion – The Companion role is based on comfort with sharing power, achievement and emotions. The companion provides intimacy and joy. Companions also understand and have developed skills to side step powerful memes. Memes are mental programs, including emotions and thinking patterns that can be imprinted from one person to another. Often a part of this contagion, includes misidentification that the concept and emotions are actually “us”. For instance, destructive memes are transmitted when one person shares or communicates while in relapse mode, and their power and pictures are so strong that they actually key in other similar memes. A powerful common cultural recovery program is the Jones meme. The danger to the newly recovering individual who has yet to identify a strong inner “I” core (and the reason 12 Step meetings disallow lamenting and aggrandizing, drunkalog, and war stories) is inherent in their experiencing the full hunger and obsession.  Learning to identify the “Jones meme” in a room full of people or during a share is one of the ways that we learn what is and is not “us” in sobriety.  As we “seat” some of our extremely sensitive awareness, empathy and intuition in sobriety, we learn that some of our disability is actually ability.  The Companion mirrors us, providing closeness and empathy.
  • Witness – This role is not directly involved in the situation but supports and validates the process. The witness obtains emotional energy and objective truth from the positive roles enacted.  Witnesses sometimes provide evidence that helps clarify options. A good skill called active listening serves this process. We actually experience the emotions and thoughts via shared reality of those who speak and listen around us. A witness is required in many different situations within our society wherein we need objective truth.  It is said that we can lie to ourselves one on one, and we can be fooled by the mirror with a two person interaction, but in a group of 3 more, untruths can be easily recognized even in ourselves.
  • Energizer – Some people evolve a preference for moving around the triangle and adopting different roles for the pleasure and variety of the roles themselves. The particular stance becomes less important than the energy and education resulting from the switch.

Ask yourself in your relationships with others, if your actions are those of a mentor, facilitator, companion, or witness. Workshops, library books, and classes are available to develop skills for constructive, creative human relationships.

Does providing money for someone to obtain drugs or alcohol fit into any of the positive roles?

Does providing your emotional truth and time just being together in a safe staged visit, with a drug or alcohol dependent family member equal enabling?

Can you, in good conscience, allow a drug/alcohol abusing friend to live at your house rather than pursue treatment for the issues that keep them unemployed, loaded and dependent?

Can you believe a prospective husband who says he “drinks socially” while knowing full well that drinking more than 5 drinks within an evening is alcoholic binge drinking.

Can you deny to yourself in victim style when he also displays personality traits classic in an alcoholic, to accept that engagement ring?

Since this type of destructive “victim role” denial is common in early recovery, reality sharing with a peer, sponsor or safely in a woman’s meeting is an excellent way to observe what Carl Jung deemed the “Shadow Self’ agenda. Taking feedback seriously while using good suggestions after taking the time to explain your situation with Counselor, Peer or Sponsor will surprise you as your life changes. 

Does continuing to live with a cyclic abusive/loving partner where your past patterns required drinking and using to deal with the emotional pain and chaos, provide anything positive for either you or your partner?  Why is the relationship more important than your serenity and growth?

Does refusing all emotional involvement (and financial assistance for basic needs or school) to children (under 21 and older) who binge drink equate to good recovery and positive mentoring, facilitating, witnessing or energizing? 
Refusing to speak with children also is a means of withholding. While not speaking with lost children also serves as a way to control keying in guilt for past actions for parents who were, themselves running amok, there are many ways to continue to be emotionally present for children who might have classified themselves as “normal drinkers” yet who are suspected of abusive patterns. Using is the “tip of the iceberg” symptom pointing to a greater problem; focusing on a symptom to alienate family members in the role of persecutor allows an ego defense, but facilitates nothing toward resolving the deep issues and healing the deep wounds.

Ironically judging or otherwise persecuting others in recovery is taking a role in the triangle, so take care to keep your observations to yourself unless asked and look deeply at your negative attitudes. If we simply watch ourselves for negative over reaction, look back into our past for a similar situation and do the work to clean your ethical “plate” so we can be objective and provide realistic mirrors for others to see themselves.

Matrix model publications are available for long distance family education, that can be worked and traded, then discussed via Zoom conference or telephone and email. Be cognizant that you must include everyone, otherwise you are perpetuating the disease model. 

Contact us for more information.

How could your family roles and choices be rewritten in a development model?

Developed by Steven Karpman in 1968.  Other content available from Alicia Parr or discussion of the Victim Triangle available from Lynne Forrest and rewritten for clarity by Recovery Systems.