18 July 2007

Life Scripts and Tipping Points

Have you ever had a ringside seat at the ruination of a person? Watched them pull a fast one - with drinks, drugs, their best friend's wallet, or their best friend's husband - then look around to see if they got caught, and discover that they get a slap on the wrist at most?

Unfortunately, direct attempts to intervene in this process rarely succeed. The final choice rests with the person choosing to act destructively; efforts to intervene, no matter how well-intentioned, all too easily become efforts to control.

Both the self-destructive person and the one attempting intervention are often acting from 'life scripts' - re-enacting old familial dramas, acting out old expectations laid upon them in early childhood by dysfunctional parents. Such scripts are overwhelmingly powerful. Living them puts many actions and thoughts on 'autopilot', making detachment and re-evaluation and constructive change nearly impossible. Instead, a classic Karpman dynamic often plays out, with the self-destructive individual playing Victim to the intervener's Persecutor; and nothing is accomplished other than enmeshment and reinforcement of the Karpman roles, until one or both participants become aware that a script is being played out. Then and only then can they begin to consider other options.

Have you ever observed such developments within a group - a family, a workplace, a church or club? In the first scenario, the self-destructive person is embarking solo on a process which will eventually harm or ruin them; the second person may be able to detach and remove themselves from the system if they see that their own actions are merely perpetuating a Karpman dynamic. But in the second scenario, one individual's self- or other-destructive behavior [in the case of workplace bullies, the behavior is always other-destructive] will ultimately damage the entire group or system. It is difficult for perceptive witnesses either to intervene or remove themselves from these adult systems; they may be economically or emotionally dependent on them to a great extent. Often, because of group homeostasis, the destructive individual will not merely be enabled, but actively, even fiercely, protected from any threat of accountability.

Life scripts and Karpman dynamics come into play very forcefully in such group situations. Perceptive observers who attempt to intervene will almost always find themselves cast into roles from old family scripts, their own or those of other group participants. They will also almost always be deliberately labeled as the one with the problem. This preserves group homeostasis [keeps the family 'looking good'] and allows any built-up anger and tension [resulting from the actions of the destructive individual] to be displaced onto the perceptive individual who has 'rocked the boat'. Such scapegoating provides catharsis, while the real problem remains unaddressed - and almost always continues to worsen.

In a family system, one designated scapegoat is usually chosen and fills that role as long as they remain connected to the family; rarely can a scapegoated child safely escape. In a workplace setting, scapegoated adults may leave voluntarily [to be replaced either by a new hire, or the next most perceptive individual on the premises] or may be driven out [terminated, or hounded until they break down physically or emotionally] - but a replacement will always be needed, because the group will continue to channel its destructive energies in destructive ways until enough group members identify the 'script' and its strong compulsion is broken.

Such tipping points are very rare. Unexamined scapegoating reactions are, unfortunately, the norm. That is why most therapists who work with families or other systems will use the term "the named patient' to refer to the person whose 'acting out' - or speaking out - causes them to be designated as the problem.

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