ADHD and Relationships: Identifying the Dysfunction past the Drama

Episode 156

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Co-Hosts Ash and Cam continue to explore relationships and the drama related to them, looking at specific ADHD situations and distinctions. They dig deeper into the Karpman model introduced last week and look at the internal factors that can contribute to external dysfunction and drama.

Those of us with ADHD can focus on getting a need met to the detriment of a larger dysfunction, focused on the immediacy of the need and missing the subtle yet damaging effects of a prolonged dynamic that doesn’t work. Ash and Cam look at the dynamic between victim, prosecutor and rescuer to illustrate this phenomenon. When we start to bring curiosity and nuance, though, to how we show up in our relationships, we can start to create change.

The hosts focus on internal roles and stories we can attach to recognizing that change can only occur when we address our own stuff first. Ash shares different examples of how each Karpman role can show up, including how we can conveniently put the “Neurotypical“ in a prosecutor role. The hosts share specific strategies to start to create awareness, including looking at the energy consumption of playing specific roles and exploring ‘next level emotional work’. Remember to seek professional therapeutic help from an ADHD specific counselor if exploring this topic is too difficult on your own.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I’m Ash.

[00:00:01] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:01] Ash: and this is Translating ADHD. Couple of group coaching notes: Agency now begins on January 31st. We’ve pushed the start date back a couple of weeks, so if you were thinking about applying and haven’t yet done so, you’ve got some time. Purpose, which is of course just with me, begins January 30th. Pricing and information and applications for both courses are available on the website Click on the group coaching tab.

So Cam, last week we got into this Karpman Drama Triangle, and we had this interesting realization along the way that not only as ADHD people does this so accurately describe the dramas that we can find ourselves in with others, but it’s also a really compelling model for our internal drama and the different roles that we can switch between in our own self-talk and in our own perception of self.

[00:01:09] Cam: And it brought to light for me, Ash, how it can be really hard to get to what is real. And I think that’s where we’ve been focusing, is getting to the truth, getting to what is real. We do it with our clients, and ADHD just throws in all these different roadblocks to make that happen. And so here we’re talking about drama last week and looking at this Karpman Drama Triangle and this ADHD distinction, and we saw the same thing with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Here are these needs sort of very traditional model, and that when we start to take into consideration sort of the nuance of ADHD and our own lived experience, that there’s some subtle distinctions and nuances and opportunities to create real change.

Before we get into Karpman, because I’m so excited to dig in here, it’s really fascinating. Before we get into this model, I wanna address this bigger issue around why are we looking at drama today? And I go back to this idea of tethers. We tether two things in order to give us a sense of safety, back to the Maslow’s Safety and security needs. And so some of you last week may have been listening and thinking, you know, my purpose in life is to help others. That’s my job. I come in and I help. That gives me purpose. That gives me meaning. And so there’s a tether to a story and a really valuable role.

But listeners, do you see what gets sacrificed here is our own development as human beings to getting to what is real and your own development? And so we tether to certain things, and Ash and I are offering some substitutes, starting to look at tethers that are more healthy with you in the picture, closer to the truth, and where real change can happen.

So there’s all these different factors in play. You brought up the fact that big signals in play with respect to drama, and then this interesting take on this Karpman Drama Triangle that I really want to dig in with and the dilemma around these internal forces that keep us in drama.

[00:03:41] Ash: One of the interesting tenets of this model is that it persists a drama triangle with these three roles of victim, rescuer, persecutor persists because each participant has their often unconscious psychological needs met without acknowledging the broader dysfunction. Ooh.

[00:04:06] Cam: Woohoo.

[00:04:07] Ash: Does that sound like ADHD? Does that sound like the starting place of your journey? The starting place of my journey, particularly when you look at the victim. So the victim feels persecuted, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed. Unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight. The victim convinces themselves and others that they can’t do anything. Nothing can be done and all attempts are futile despite trying really hard. That is a stuck place we see with people with ADHD so often. Cam, you and I have talked offline so much about how large ADHD communities often devolve into this shared victimhood

[00:05:01] Cam: Right?

[00:05:02] Ash: Or someone showing up and playing the victim and others showing up as rescuers. There’s just this belief that while I have ADHD, I’m a victim of my ADHD, and I can’t do anything about it. It just is what it is.

[00:05:17] Cam: There’s also that parent-child dynamic that can happen in relationships too, where there’s the victim, there’s the helplessness, and as I said last week is we will tether to whatever is available. It’s what I did with my spouse when we met years ago. Here’s this grounded person who has their stuff together and I’m flailing about, and I’m gonna hitch my wagon that’s sitting in the mud to this tractor to pull me. And I love that in the sense of not really aware of the larger dysfunction that can be at play. The really interesting thing here, listeners, is that we are taking these models and then considering the ADHD. Because when you’re in that stuck place, you’re operating outta your fear center, right? Ash, you say it the kind of the crouched one down. And the last thing we’re thinking about is our bandwidth, our brain, our cognition, and how that might be coming into play. So imagine this for years and years, not knowing why you don’t do what you know you ought to. And everyone around you wondering why you don’t do what we all know you ought to do, and looking at this performance problem, you’re not performing, why can’t you consistently perform? So we start to make stuff up and we assume a story. And so it fits that many of us fall. The victim, many of us will go into again the rebel, rebellious, and f you all I’m outta here.

[00:07:11] Ash: Cam, we talked about the rebel a little bit last week because I have a client who calls her internal persecutor, the drill sergeant. She borrowed your language from several episodes back. and started to realize that internally her rebel is a response to her drill sergeant. Her victim is a response to her persecutor when she starts piling all of these shoulds on herself. The rebel comes out and says, Nope, I don’t wanna play ball. I’m the victim here. I deserve downtime, I deserve this. And so here you have this land of what you should do and what you quote unquote deserve. And in neither place is the client actually attending to her needs.

We had a fascinating conversation about that. She was looking ahead to Christmas break and the many transitions involved knowing that transitions are a time that her rebel comes out. So transitioning into a holiday trip back out of the holiday trip, but into time off work at home, and then back into work. And the fascinating question she was asking herself is, what’s the actual need here? Standing between this victim and this persecutor, this I deserve, and I should, what’s the actual need? What do I actually need to transition successfully? And that goes back to, again, this model is about we fall into these patterns because we’re meeting a need without addressing the dysfunction. So what were my client and I doing? We were looking for what wasn’t functioning. What’s real here between these two voices, both of which are distorted and how they’re seeing reality.

[00:09:10] Cam: This points to this really important work that we’re talking about today. Cause I thought, Ash, today we’re gonna talk about tools that our clients can use to address those dynamics and figure out how to navigate drama. It’s that tool that’s happening outside the individual between people. in these dynamics, in these relationships, and you and I both realize there’s such an opportunity here to first pause and really disrupt that internal stuff that’s happening, right? Those thoughts, those feelings are assumptions and those roles that we easily step into when we’re stressed, when we’re one down, when we’re operating out of this fear center, we assume one of these roles and what plummets at this moment. Awareness, our ability to be aware and reflective in this moment, plummet to almost zero because we’re captured by that big signal. We’re captured by what we are attached to. Winning or fighting or avoiding or it’s their problem, right? So this is the opportunity today is really to stop and look at this internal stuff that’s happening. We’re using Karpman as a tool.

[00:10:41] Ash: Cam, I love that you say that because this whole drama triangle, whether it’s internally as we’re discussing today, or it’s a dynamic that exists between us and other people, it lives in the limbic system. It lives in the emotional brain. It is separated from what is real and what have we said so often on this show is one of the most confusing things about ADHD is we have these strong emotional responses and the emotion itself is real, but the story that’s attached to it, the story that we can build based on that emotional signal is so often not real. It’s distorted in some way, and this model even does a good job of explaining how that might be true if you’re in your victimhood.

If you are in your victimhood and you believe that all attempts are futile despite trying hard, what’s the opportunity for change or growth? There is none. You know, what’s the victim doing? The victim blame sponges. The victim reacts to the victim, stays in that defensive crouch, and there’s no distinguishing there. I’m the victim. Everybody else sees it as my fault, and I’m just trying to navigate that. And same with the persecutor. You know, the persecutor. Is controlling, blaming, oppressive, rigid, here’s what you should be doing. Why can’t you do this? Why can’t you be like everybody else? What is wrong with you? There’s no room there for curiosity or distinction. There’s no room to get curious about the question, why do I not do what I know I ought to do? Because all the persecutor can say is, you should do it. Why can’t you do it?

And then the rescuer. What’s that? That’s this escape place because the rescuer is about avoiding your own problems, jumping into someone else’s pool, following a big signal that is distraction. And by the way, I think it’s important to say with the rescuer in particular, that rescuing and supporting are two very different things, meaning you can show up and support other people. This is what we talked about last week, but when you’re jumping headfirst into someone else’s drama, that’s not support. In fact, it’s the opposite of support because it doesn’t work. Rescuing creates dependency, and it’s a tax on us too. It leaves no room again, for curiosity, for what matters to us for meeting our own needs. It’s the stuff of we’re not putting our own oxygen mask on first, which feels like such a tired metaphor, but it’s such a true one with ADHD. That story of, well, I can, focus on myself or I can look at what matters to me later. Everybody else needs me right now. Things are too crazy. Right. I’ll worry about my stuff later, and we keep drawing and drawing and drawing from an increasingly empty well.

[00:14:04] Cam: You know what Ash is focusing here on is in the sense of what’s mine, yours and ours. It’s really about mine. What’s mine here? It’s this internal stuff that’s happening, and you may not be identifying with the Karpman Drama Triangle at all, listeners, and that’s not the point. The point here is to orient to what is going on that Karpman offers a certain dynamic that sets up that is dysfunctional. This triangle, there are many other dysfunctional dynamics that happen out there we haven’t even talked about. Perfect.

We didn’t really talk about parent child, but it’s what we do with this. Here’s a tool that as we start to look at it and orient to. Okay, how much of this is coming into play? You know, your statement of Why do I not do what I know I ought to do? There’s another question. The question is, why do I do what I do? But to ask it with curiosity and love, with compassion, giving yourself some grace. I love what you are doing with your client there because starting with rebel and drill sergeant and persecutor and victim. and then getting to this question of, right, there’s the, first of all, acknowledging the behavior, number one.

Then number two, getting to a better question, what’s the need here? What is my need? What am I trying to do here? What am I avoiding? Us rescuers, I did a lot of rescuing because it was. Too painful to go look at my stuff. But it wasn’t that it was painful ash, it was because it was that undifferentiated mass. I didn’t know where to begin because ADHD keeps everything on a spin cycle, so it’s so hard to find an entry point to do my own work. And that’s the message here. You have work to do. It’s worthy, you’re deserving of doing your own work and getting to have a functional life.

So that’s a part of identifying the dysfunction that’s happening if you are prone to drama to look at this Karpman Drama Triangle other dynamics that might be coming into play that contribute to drama? To take that step back and really look at your own stuff here.

[00:16:36] Ash: I wanna take a step back here and just talk about a very basic way that this dynamic can play out as a way to help our listeners help orient to it. So the thing about the victim is the victim will seek a persecutor or create or become the persecutor themselves when provoked into that defensive crouch place.

So a broad example of what that looks like is the negative discourse that happens around ADHD when people are talking about the neurotypicals are a classic persecutor set up for people with ADHD. And again, in large ADHD communities, you’ll see just endless conversations about the neurotypicals as the persecutor. And don’t get us wrong, there are neurotypicals out there who don’t get it and who will never get it.

So it’s not about that. It’s about this framing, right? The neurotypicals, the problem is the neurotypicals. I’m not the problem, they’re the problem, and I’m a victim of neurotypicals and the way that they have set up the world. And on the flip side, what happens, right? We can become the persecutors. Of the neurotypicals and the way that we see them, the way that we talk about them, we can very easily flip that role.

And again, neither role makes room for curiosity or nuance. By the way, you know, our show assistant, Jen, we haven’t talked about her in a while on the show, is a neurotypical. She is my favorite neurotypical. This show would not function without her. My business would not function without her. She has a high degree of empathy and ability to listen to you translate your ADHD, Cam, me translate my ADHD and the patience to get in there with us and figure out what works for everyone so that she can support us in the ways that we need. There’s nuance, right? Here’s this powerful, supportive person that makes this show possible, who doesn’t listen because she’s a neurotypical, but from that stance of, oh, the neurotypicals, there’s no room to cultivate a relationship like the one that you and I have with Jen.

[00:19:09] Cam: So as we finish up here, Ash, I wanna go back to last week and one of the things that was a driver for going in this direction around drama is I started with the drum beat about emotional regulation and this term DESR – deficient emotional self-regulation. It’s sort of this stamp that it’s really hard to do anything with, and so I appreciate what you are saying there in the sense. When we operate out of our fear center, when we make these assumptions, when we chase the big signal, we go to this convenient picture, oh, it’s the neurotypicals, or, oh, it’s my spouse, or, oh, it’s this situation and there’s no opportunity for a curiosity and nuance.

And what I know to be true is, we are able to do next level emotional work. This is the basis of my Equanimity class. This is the basis of big C coaching, of start with the dilemma, the challenge, but then getting in there and digging in with curiosity and nuance to see is there a need that’s not getting addressed? What’s the expect? What is the actual dysfunction to orient to it? Then to start to take steps, towards healthy functioning, to seeing oneself in the picture, and so taking a step back from that big negative. and that, story that’s so compelling, this is my purpose. My purpose is to jump into other people’s pools and pull them out.

What’s the condition of your pool? What is putting yourself in the picture and addressing your own needs first? So start with looking at your relationships. The ones that are working and the ones that are maybe not working and how they’re not working. Do they fit into this Karpman Drama Triangle? Are you rotating through these different roles yourself? I’ll just say one more thing here is that we can put so much energy and energy consumption jumping into the victim and the prosecutor and the rescuer is to take a step back and maybe notice that energy consumption, the amount of energy you’re putting into this to create this drama, it’s exhausting. And we get to the end of our day and the end of our week, and we’re just so depleted. So look there first and look back. And again, start to bring that keen observer with curiosity and nuance will start to reveal itself.

[00:21:46] Ash: Well said, Cam, and I think that’s a great place for us to wrap for today. Listeners, one big way you can help us out, leave a review wherever you listen to the show. And for those of you who have left reviews recently, thank you so much for that, that means so much to Cam and I for you to take the time out to do so, and we enjoy hearing your feedback.

So until next week, I’m Ash

[00:22:09] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:22:10] Ash: and this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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