In order to extricate ourselves from rigid and entrenched patterns, we first need to understand them in a different way. To that end, I offer the following example of a common pattern which afflicts a number of people.
The pattern is sometimes referred to as a victim/persecutor/rescuer cycle. It was first described by transactional therapist, Stephen Karpman in 1968. It is a shame and guilt cycle which affects many families and people.
In the following, we could substitute hero, villain, and person in distress for rescuer, persecutor, and victim respectively. Point being the names are not as important as the function of the roles. It is the roles that are problematic when they are of the rigid and ingrained variety. Therefore, what we are more interested in initially is investigating what keeps the cycle in a state of rigidity.
What drives rigid states are an attempt to elicit a feeling of power and control usually over some underlying psychological form of distress. For instance, shame and guilt are often the basis for the victim/rescuer/persecutor cycle. There are a number of variations, but the common theme is an attempt to control the psychological pain. Underneath the mechanism of attempting to control are qualities or sets of qualities which are used to maintain the cycle. This should be a little clearer as we move through the example. Let us look at the following to gain a better appreciation of how an ingrained and rigid way of responding typically goes:
Victim > Rescuer > Persecutor > Victim> Ad infinite
One of the things to note is that the pattern can run clockwise or counter-clockwise. The original thesis of this subject had a triangle diagram which tended to denote a one-way flow between roles. This has not been my experience when working with others and also examining myself. The roles can switch from any position to another.
Another thing to note about this pattern is that it is a tacit (unconscious) agreement between the people to play the various roles. People will often shift between roles as ego and consequently identity becomes threatened. Functionally, ego plays a game of catch me if you can when it shifts from one position to another.
Each person has a dominant mode of unconsciousness functioning when caught in this cycle. A person will generally play one role more so than the other roles. However, they can cycle quickly through the other roles in the space of a few minutes. Let us look at each role or position to better illustrate this.
A person who is acting out a rescuer role sees themselves as a helper or carer of others. One of their characteristics is that will rely heavily on expertise and authority in the attempt to influence others. It is a way of stroking their egos, where the basis of identity revolves around power, authority, and expertise. In order to act out this role and feel good about themselves they need people in the position of a victim.
Reverting back to our social media example where people endlessly quote a noted spiritual guru, they are effectively stuck in the position of a rescuer. They are attempting to gain prestige through expertise and authority. In essence, they are bypassing any true form of spirituality or inner work in order to avoid their personal psychological difficulties.
Most spiritual teachers including some of the biggest names in the industry are acting out unconscious fantasies through this role. They often take on the quality of ‘attempting to save the world’ and have great difficulty in seeing their own fallibility. It is distinctly a messiah complex and has nothing to do with their spiritual status.
Seekers in general are drawn to the position of rescuer because it ties in perfectly with their fantasies of becoming an infallible human being. Unconsciously they believe that they will never again have to experience pain or suffering if they can attain their goal. Outwardly, the position of rescuer has the appearance of power and status which also draws a seeker.
Another side of the coin is the role of the victim. Rather than relying on expertise and authority, the position of victim relies on helplessness. We might think that this position is less powerful than the others are, but that is not the case. The victim role is just as powerful a position to be in as the other positions.
The victim likes to engender sympathy via helplessness. At an unconscious level, they believe themselves to be incapable of handling many of life’s problems. The latter becomes more pertinent when difficulties have an aura of intensity around them. Intensity is important to consider in inner work as it is often a trigger for the onset of an extremely rigid pattern. We shall consider intensity in more detail later in the book. Often a victim will seek a rescuer to help them deal with their difficulties.
We can also equate this to the teacher student relationship in spirituality. Often a guru is held in such high esteem that a seeker hangs on every word. The seeker rather than looking inward and doing inner work becomes so infatuated with the guru that all autonomy and independence is lost. The words or presence of the guru become more important than the words. Again, this has nothing to do with authentic spirituality rather it is a spiritual bypassing of the highest order.
A persecutor sees the world as a dangerous place. Their mentality is that attack is the best form of defence. They justify their behaviour in terms of “they got what they deserved”. At times, they can appear to be quite savage and brutal in their interactions with others.
When a victim is unable to elicit a helpful response from a rescuer, they will often get into the persecutor role by blaming the rescuer for not being there for them.
The rescuer may react by being shamed into more rescuing. They can also play the victim role pointing to some of their personal injuries or difficulties. Or they can jostle for the persecutor role where often a war of words will escalate into bitterness. The rescuer may say something along the lines “after all I have done for you, this is how I am treated?” The victim may then break into tears which usually has the effect of eliciting a rescuer position from the other person.
The cycle is one which is bound by shame and guilt. It is held firmly in place by mechanisms of denial and repression. The energy of the cycle goes into blaming, defending, and rescuing as a means of avoiding the unconscious hurt each of the people feel. It is a way to distract from the underlying unconscious issues. The distraction allows the cycle to continue on in a never ending pattern.
By no means is the above meant to be a full representation of all the dynamics that occur in this type of pattern. Each person will have features which will be unique to the role. The individuality of each person plays a part in how the cycle is maintained which needs to be taken into account.
We should also note that there is nothing wrong with asking for help at times. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with helping as long as it is done constructively. There are times in life when we need to be very firm and assertive. Each of the roles has a very healthy psychological counterpart. It is only when a rigid pattern forms that has touches of extremism inherent in it that it becomes a problematic way to live life. Unfortunately, this pattern is rife in society and in particular the spiritual field. Hence, we need to be alert to it.