Why Your Reactive Ego Wants Center Stage

The reactive ego is the driving force in most of our lives. It’s similar to a preschooler who wants the starring role in their school play.   It wants attention!

But why does the reactive ego want to star on center stage?

EGO(2)The journey of the reactive ego starts during the first couple years of life. Think of yourself as a lovely newborn baby. While your capacity to think was limited, your undeveloped mind knew you were dependent on others to take care of you. You cried when hungry or uncomfortable so others would meet your needs

Your young ego figured out it had a good thing going and developed a brilliant strategy to get what it wanted.  As your self-centered ego got more of what it needed to grow, it split away from your true Creator ego that anchors TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)™. Your reactive ego had to split from your Creator ego to get stronger and find new and more complex ways to get its needs met.

By the age of two, the small ego noticed that it was different from other people. In its own mind, the ego established itself as separate and apart from other human beings (think of the terrible twos). The ego, especially if there was trauma or unhealthy early childhood experiences, declares:  “Okay. It’s me against everyone else.”

Once this split occurred, the world divided between “me” and “other”. The positive side to the separateness is that you focused on your own needs, which allowed you to grow and survive. The downside is that your reactive ego got stronger and insisted on being the drama star.

What we love about the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT)™ is that it identifies the ego’s primary reactive roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer that originally helped us to survive and grow. The simplicity of the DDT helps us to see them in action. But as mature adults we long to rewrite our script and allow new roles to emerge.

Our ego gets uncomfortable when we change the plot. It’s been center stage for a long time, which explains why it is so difficult to shift out of the DDT into the TED* roles.

The TED* roles are alternative starring roles and the essence of who we really are.   In our mature adult years we want more freedom and ease in work and life than our reactive ego can supply.   The Creator in all of us wants to emerge. We can update our earlier reactive strategies, once we see them on stage, and learn to shift into empowering roles. It takes a lifetime of practice to stop and observe the reactive ego in action—then allow your Creator self to star in your new life story.

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Setting the Tone at the Top

A few weeks ago, we spoke with a TED* Practitioner who is president of an industrial company (read more information about becoming a TED* Practitioner). He has made TED* a cornerstone of the company’s corporate culture and has personally trained everyone – from shop floor to the executive staff—in the TED* framework. He “walks his talk” when it comes to being a Creator, Challenger and Coach and clearly sets a “tone at the top.”

We said to him, “You certainly set the tone at the top by the way you spread TED* throughout the organization.”

In the business world, the phrase “tone at the top” comes from the corporate accounting scandals (such as Enron and WorldCom in the US) and refers to the attitude in the company to prevent fraud and other unethical behavior.

In short, the tone at the top refers to leaders who create high codes of conduct and live by them.

Set the tone at the top.

We can “set the tone at the top” by using TED* in all areas of work and life:

  • Meetings – We can begin meetings by being clear about the intended outcomes. We have noticed that most agendas are problem oriented and focus on what the group doesn’t like or want.   Setting the tone at the top means each meeting begins with the Outcome Orientation. “What is the outcome we want for this meeting? If we had that outcome, how would we know it?” are powerful “tone at the top” questions.
  • At Home – Spouses and parents can set the tone in families by also focusing on outcomes. David has a friend who shared with him a story about a particularly drama-filled period with their teenage son. Rather than falling into the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT) ™ with him, they instead stayed in a Coach role and asked questions to help the son clarify what he wanted and how he could go about meeting his needs in healthy and fruitful ways. (Of course, there were also a few times in which they had to step in and a conscious, constructive Challenger with him as well!) Not just talking about TED* but actually putting the concepts to work sets the tone at the top.
  • Decision-Making Conversations – Any time we are in a conversation related to making a decision (e.g. where to go for vacation; what kind of food we want in dining out; how to rearrange the furniture in a room; etc.), setting outcome criteria at the top can reduce the amount of “debate” that can often accompany day-to-day decision making in our relationships.

And, finally, we can begin each day “at the top” by setting our intentions for the day, staying focused on the outcomes we want to create, and to choosing our response to the situations that arise throughout the day.

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Go Against Yourself

At the center of the TED* work is love and appreciation for others. Creators, Challengers and Coaches are genuinely interested in the views of others while still expressing what is true for them.

Fear, however, is the emotion that drives all three roles of Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor that make up the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT)™. The most common strategy Persecutors use to manage their fear is to attempt to control situations and people. If they are in control, they tell themselves, they will feel less fear and anxiety.

For the Persecutor, fear is minimized if their viewpoint wins the day. Being right helps control the situation.

If you don’t think you play the persecuting role, notice when you are highly attached to your point of view and see how other respond to you. You may observe that they receive your strongly held views as persecuting them.

Go Against Yourself(1)If you discover you frequently are arguing that you are right, especially about the little things in life, the Persecutor is taking root in you. Developing your own opinions is part of becoming an individualized and mature adult. But when needing to be right is a habit, you will slow the shift from the DDT to the more resourceful TED* roles.

One tip for the Persecutor to let go of the need to be right is to “go against yourself.” Intentionally take the opposite position when you feel the need to be right. This will be very uncomfortable at first—which is the point of the exercise.

Notice what it feels like to move away from your opinion. Observe yourself as you attempt to sit still and deeply listening—even taking the opposite side.

For well-practiced Persecutors, this can be a highly uncomfortable experience. It is in this discomfort that you will learn how attached you are to your viewpoint—and your need to control fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Be on-guard for your need to control the emotional discomfort you may feel. Continue to “go against yourself” and you will be amazed at what you learn from this simple, yet profound exercise.

By going against yourself, you will begin the journey from Persecutor toward the more resourceful TED* role of Challenger. The Challenger has a gift for stating what they see or feel without blame or judgment. They are the “truth tellers” in the room yet have learned that their truth is not necessarily everyone’s truth. As you cultivate the Challenger, you will discover a new sense of personal freedom and ease, having given up the need to be right—and you might even learn something new!

DDT – The Persecutor Role

TED – The Challenger Role

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What is Your Intention?

After our essay last week, entitled “Exaggerated Sense of Responsibility,” we had a few questions and this week we are delighted to respond to one reader’s inquiry.

Dear David and Donna,
Your newsletter last week was about Exaggerated Sense of Responsibility. You wrote about the persecuting role, but isn’t an exaggerated sense of responsibility more of a rescuing role?

This is an excellent question and shows the complexity behind the simplicity of both the Drama Triangle and the shift to TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) ™. It is important to remember that there are two triangles operating at once. One triangle is our internal relationship with ourselves and the other triangle is about how we relate to our experiences or other people.

The examples we outlined last week could absolutely be the face of the Rescuer, as well as that of the Persecutor. For example, when we don’t like a situation and act with an exaggerated sense of responsibility, we are trying to rescue ourselves (the inner triangle) from our uncomfortableness with the situation. Our outward behavior toward others (the outer triangle) is often seen as persecuting when we inappropriately intervene.

To go deeper with how these roles co-mingle, we have to look at the intention behind the behavior. When Donna looked at her intentions behind her exaggerated sense of responsibility, she often fooled herself that she was “only trying to help” (Rescuer) but what she wanted was to control the situation so that she was right, or looked good, or because she wanted to manage her stress. While her internal strategy may be rescuing, her external behavior was often seen as persecuting to others.

All three roles in the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT)™ want to control what they don’t like or don’t want and the resulting anxiety that arises. By observing ourselves in these roles we can peel back the layers of the deep psychological games that emerge. Trying to correctly diagnosis the actual role we are playing at any one moment is not as important as looking at the underlying strategy that is driving the behavior.

Asking ourselves, “What is my intention here?” gives us a big clue toward what our ego wants to manage. Whether a Victim, Persecutor or Rescuer, when in the DDT we are always about controlling and managing the fear. By observing and naming the roles, we have a better opportunity see the behavior so we can choose to shift into more empowering TED* roles. As we go deeper by observing ourselves in the moment, we must learn to pause and observe our reactive strategies and then choose to shift into the more resourceful roles of Creator, Challenger and Coach that are based upon a higher sense of purpose and intention.
What is my intention(1)

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Exaggerated Sense of Responsibility

Donna shares a story about one morning – years ago as a full-time working mom and wife with 3 children – when she woke up and realized she wasn’t responsible for the sun rising that morning.

While she can laugh about it now, it was a very serious moment in her early adult years. Intellectually, she knew of course that she wasn’t responsible for the sunrise, yet she had emotionally taken on an exaggerated sense of responsibility that felt like the weight of the universe on her shoulders.

In an odd way, Donna was victimized by her strong sense of responsibility. With the sunrise epiphany, she was able to see that it was her thinking that created the extreme sense of responsibility—not the situation. Her self-persecuting internal dialogue resulted in her feeling responsible for everyone’s happiness and kept her locked into her own private Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT) ™.

Donna took this picture on July 20 near their home on Bainbridge Island, WA

Because of her realization, she had conversations with her family out of which they volunteered that they could do a lot more to take care of themselves – and, to her surprise, they wanted to. They were happier and Donna discovered more personal freedom as well. It was such a relief to let go and let more ease and freedom flow through the family.

Being overly responsible certainly happens at work as well and can have equally frustrating results.

For example, David reflects on a time when he was managing a major department in a large corporation. Working late at night (because of his own exaggerated sense of responsibility and not wanting to let anyone down), he was copied on an email that went to one of his direct reports. The person to whom the email was directed had left for the evening. Instead of letting the direct report respond in the morning, David went ahead and answered the email – only to find out the next morning that he gave the wrong information, which caused a flurry of additional messages.

To not let go of the burden of exaggerated responsibility puts us on the path of burnout and misery – and feeling persecuted by our own thinking. We can release ourselves form the burden of false responsibilities when we wake up to the fact that we are ultimately only responsible for our own attitudes and behavior. We really are not in charge of the sunrise….and a heck of a lot of other happenings and events in our life.

Donna now realizes that she did not trust life to unfold as it will and admits to a certain amount of unconscious arrogance that was running in the background of her life. She failed to see that her exaggerated sense of responsibility was really about controlling circumstances and situations. Now with each sunrise and sunset she reminds herself to let go, enjoy the beauty and do only what is hers to do.

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Letting Go of the Way It’s Gotta Be

Envisioning outcomes – and taking Baby Steps in creating them – is a central focus of being a Creator. In training sessions and working with clients, we coach clients to be as clear as they can in describing the vision of their outcome. Robert Fritz’s very powerful question of “If you had what you want, how would you know it?” leads us to define the qualities, characteristics and other descriptors of the result.

EnvisionHowever, our experience has also taught us that we can over-define the outcome we envision. Doing so can actually limit the final form the outcome might take.

One example was David’s writing of The Power of TED*. When he first set out to write the book, he outlined his ideas and clarified a number of criteria he envisioned. These included conveying in simple language the essential concepts and frameworks, which someone could read it in a few hours (his image was that someone could pick the book up in the bookstore at the Los Angeles airport and finish it by the time they landed in Chicago).

His assumption was that the book would be non-fiction, consistent with his professional background in leadership development, and would be more business focused. Writing a fable as a teaching story on “self-leadership” was the furthest thing from his mind.

That was until he actually came up with a name for the alternatives to the Karpman Drama Triangle which, of course, became TED* (The Empowerment Dynamic*) ™. By giving the concept a name, our publishing coach at the time (Ceci Miller) encouraged David to write a story with a character named TED – a prospect that felt daunting and out of his comfort zone at the time.

However, he considered the suggestion in light of his criteria and saw that writing a fable was not only within the boundaries of what he saw as “non-negotiable” but actually might better fit them than a non-fiction approach.

If he had held to “the way it’s gotta be is a non-fiction book,” what emerged would have taken on a much different form and may have not touched as many people. For this, we are very grateful.

The lesson here is that, as you envision the outcomes you want to create in your life and work, clarify the essential elements – the non-negotiables – and let go of the rest as to how it’s got to be. Leave room for serendipity and synchronicity to occur and stay open to alternative possibilities. In that new and more open “creating space” all kinds of magic may morph the final form it takes.

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The Sign Read: “Free Beer Tomorrow”

A few years ago we were in the desert South West enjoying a winter holiday. As we drove through a small rural town we saw a sign in front of the lone, dusty tavern that read:

Free Beer Tomorrow.

After a few seconds, we finally got the joke and both laughed out loud. Now, many years later when either of us is tempted to procrastinate, or fantasize that everything will magically be better tomorrow, we remind ourselves of the “free beer tomorrow” sign.

What attracts the beer drinker to this sign is the lure of “free beer.” Whether it’s free beer or a free TV, there’s something exciting about getting a bargain without sweat or toil.

What creates the twist is the idea that what we want will never really be available if we always look to somewhere other than today. We will spend our lives in the illusion that what we want will magically appear tomorrow, relinquishing ourselves of responsibility today for our own thoughts and actions.

Free Beer Tomorrow(2)Procrastination and putting off until tomorrow what we can do today is a common strategy to deal with anxiety and stress in the moment. When this illusion takes hold, we may hear different voices in our head depending on the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT)™ role of a victim, persecutor or rescuer that we take on. Remember, all three of these roles are simply strategies to manage the anxiety, stress and pain in the gap between what you want and what you actually have. And these voices are very subtle — you may not hear them if you don’t stop and listen.

The person with primarily a victim mentality may say: “Well that sign confirms it. I will never have what I want and life just taunt’s me with a free beer sign.”

The persecuting voice, which is controlling and critical in nature, might say: “I want what I want and I want it now. This sign just ticks me off.” And finally, the rescuing voice which manages stress by accommodating and pleasing might say: “Oh, that’s okay. I will wait until tomorrow to get the free beer.”

It is so easy to manage our drama and stress by just putting things off hoping all will be free and clear tomorrow. Sometimes that works perfectly well because many situations clear up on their own without our action. The trick is to understand when we are not taking responsibility for what is ours to do, today, and when it is time to step up and do it.

Here is our challenge to you—Change your sign to: Free Beer Today. (Not really but we trust you get the point.)

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Freedom from Limiting Thoughts

In the United States today we are celebrating Independence Day, which honors the official birth of our nation and signing of the Declaration of Independence.   If you asked Americans what the 4th of July means to them, the overwhelming majority would say: “We are celebrating our freedom.”

While many Americans may struggle with poverty and limited choices, we still have the freedom to pursue individual dreams and desires. We also enjoy freedom from tyranny, oppression or undue government intervention. While that point may be debated in some political circles, most Americans believe freedom from tyranny is a fundamental feature of our culture.

There is another freedom that is often overlooked which may be the most important quality of them all—freedom from our own limiting thoughts. TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)™ is ultimately about freedom.   If we feel free to choose how we react to whatever circumstances arise, we enjoy personal freedom. This is not what happens, though, when we are triggered and slip into drama-filled, reactive responses to what we don’t like and don’t want.

Our reactive self is attached to being right or getting what it wants in the moment. It is attached to old stories about what it needs in order to feel secure and loved. This “old story” is reoccurring in our subconscious and if we are not aware of its power upon our thoughts and actions, we are never free.

One definition of freedom is “not being enslaved” — but when past habits, addictions, opinions or cravings grip us so tightly that we are unable to see or feel any other possibility, we are enslaved.  We become victims to our mind if we are not aware of our habits or thoughts that have an unconscious hold on our view of ourselves or others.

In the TED* work, we practice becoming more aware in the moment by pausing, centering ourselves, and learning to be mindful so we can observe our obsessions and cravings in the moment.  Once aware of the attachments we can choose to let go of limiting stories that keep us from the personal freedom we all want.

This allows us to set our compass toward the outcomes we want to create without being held hostage by limiting beliefs. We have opened ourselves to the mystery of how life will unfold. Being fully present to the moment, then, becomes a central principle of the TED* work. The freedom to choose how we respond to whatever life offers is now available.  In this paradox we discover true freedom.



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People-Pleasing is Self-Centered

A majority of people tell us that when they go reactive and slip into the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT)™, the most common role they take on is that of Rescuer.   Makes sense doesn’t it? Our cultural norms reward people who are kind and pleasing.

As “recovering Rescuers” we understand well the default habit of wanting to please and be helpful. Over the years we have learned to stop and ask ourselves: “Why do we always think first about helping others when we actually may be interfering with their job or their ability to take responsibility for their own affairs? Are we really helping, or are we interfering?”

Once we began observing the habit of always pleasing first, we saw that constant helping, ironically, often created fuel for the DDT. The cycle looks something like this:   We want to help, but when the person with the victim mentality shuns our interfering, we eventually feel persecuted because they did not take our advice.

In creating the TED* work, we have investigated what is behind the Rescuer’s need to habitually please others.  We feel it is a craving to want others to give us positive feedback, and think well of us for being helpful.   To be blunt, we want others to love us for our good deeds rather than love us simply for who we are.

RescuersSayWhat we have discovered is that people-pleasing is really self-centered because we are more interested in people liking us than deeply listening to them or accepting them just as they are. We have fooled ourselves in believing that we are being helpful for altruistic reasons when down deep, we crave love and respect.

Through our good deeds, we Rescuers are really saying: “I will make you need me. I will be so helpful and pleasing that you cannot live without me.” Eventually Rescuers may become very critical (all in the name of being helpful!) if others don’t follow our suggestions.

Rescuers repress our own needs and pretend we don’t have any needs at all. Finally, we realize: “No one’s giving back to me!”

This can be a powerful turning point, if the Rescuer can see that it is time to let go and turn their attention to their own affairs. This is very difficult because Rescuers have a life-long habit of taking care of others.

We have learned it is not selfish to focus on ourselves and what is ours to do rather than shaping our self-image around the needs of others. Once we can develop an authentic self-image, not depending on the approval of others, we will be ready to assist and appreciate others for who they truly are.

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How We Turned “Oh No” Into “Yes!”

We just returned from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, celebrating David’s 60th birthday and sharing the TED* work with a group of coaches and consultants. After two excellent weeks we were on our way home when a “victim story” gave us an opportunity to practice the TED* principles of: (1) seeing current reality as it is without blame or judgment and (2) having faith that we would figure out the Baby Steps needed to face our “drama.”

Here’s what happened:

We had completed the TED* 2-day training in Amsterdam the night before and were scheduled on a Friday morning train to Paris, from which we had a 1:30 flight to Chicago. We had purchased our tickets and reservation the Tuesday before, so all we had to do was to show up and get on the train.

Or so we thought!

The day of our travel home we arrived at the Amsterdam train station at 5:30 AM for our 6:30 AM train to Paris. David pulled out the tickets to look at them and his jaw dropped. Donna knew something wasn’t right. “These tickets are for yesterday’s train,” he announced. We immediately headed for the ticket window and the agent confirmed that we “had a problem,” that she only worked domestic reservations and the international window would open at 6:15. We look over to see that there were about half- dozen people already in line. Needless to say, we felt victimized by the circumstance.

For a few brief moments we nervously listed back-up plans, and reviewed in our minds who was to blame. At that moment we both realized we were not going to be victims to this mistake. We took a few deep breaths, reminded one another to stay calm and to trust that all was going to be okay however this worked out.
The next few moments were incredible.

The ticket agent at the international desk opened fifteen minutes early and within ten minutes all the customers ahead of us were on their way. We showed the agent our tickets and explained the situation. “Oh my, that IS a problem!” was his response. He said he could not give us a refund and the “senior discount” fare was no longer available. We told him of our urgent need to get to Paris and David said “We are at your mercy.”

“Let me see what I can do,” he replied. After a few “hmms” and pauses, clicks on the screen, conversation with his colleague (in Dutch) – who just shrugged – he printed and gave us two tickets. We pushed our credit card toward him, wondering how much it was going to set us back. “No additional charge. Here are your seats. Have a great trip.”

Amazed, we thanked him profusely and ran to the train. A few minutes later we were sitting in first class (we had booked second class) and on our way home.

The lesson for us was that, rather than overly reacting to the Challenger of the wrong date on the tickets, we saw Current Reality for what it was without blame or judgment. We paused, grounded and centered ourselves. That allowed us to calmly brainstorm possible alternate Baby Steps, then let go. We had faith that we would find our way home.
A few Baby Steps later we were on our way!

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