A Decade of Hope and Resilience

A Decade of Hope and Resilience

1 January 2020 – 31 December 2029

Exploring the outer-reaches and far corners of this decade**

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all.”– Emily Dickinson

As we enter a new decade full of mystery, unexpected change, uncertainty and unknown challenges, we tend to become stuck in our maladaptive coping habits. We easily become busy and distracted. We ‘fake it till we make it’, instead of ‘face it till we make it’. We tend to live in avoiding-autopilot rather than becoming aware of the hope and resilience we daily receive.

The poem “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers”, written by Emily Dickinson in 1862, transforms hope into a bird that is ever present in the human soul. It sings, especially when times get tough. If we allow ourselves to become quiet enough amid our loud and busy days, we may experience and share this song so much easier during pleasant and unpleasant times. Then, although we still find ourselves sometimes lost and overwhelmed, we can get back on our feet so much sooner.

Resilience refers to the ability to remain determined and maintain positive affect and well-being despite failures and setbacks. The Japanese proverb “Nanakorobi yaoki” describes this well: “fall seven times, stand up eight”. When we become resilient, we adapt and make allowance for moments of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.
Daniel Siegel (2007) taught that mindfulness practice is scientifically proven to develop a long-term state of resilience by enhancing physical, mental and social well-being (2007).

Being resilient does not mean that we don’t experience difficulty. It rather refers to becoming aware of our emotional pain, fear and sadness non-judgmentally, with a kind curiosity. Research suggests that feelings can’t be changed by (positive) thinking, but only by awareness and regulation of feelings.

Emotions are possibly your greatest source of instincts, intelligence, and energy. All emotions contain genius, and our emotions are crucial for thinking, learning and understanding others. Therefore, it becomes crucial to practice daily leaning into feelings, by means of mindfulness.

Mindfulness takes us out of automatic doing-mode, so we can practice better hope and resilience by means of self- and other-compassion, connection with loved ones, awareness and regulation of our feelings, focus on in-the-moment planning and problem-solving, healthy self-care and acceptance of life as it is.
The practice of being fully present is a way to reclaim hope and resilience. It is a personal journey for all of us. By leaning into how you are feeling both physically and mentally, you can connect and accept life as it is, moment by moment.

Here at the Free State Institute for Mindfulness, and at our online learning platform, 360smartly.com, we don’t aim to generate mindfulness teachers. Our intention is to remind ourselves and our fellow human-beings in moments of uncertainty and change, that mindfulness belongs to everyone.
We were all born being capable of being aware in-the-moment, with a kind curiosity… whether we are drinking coffee, talking to loved ones, or facing a challenging moment. As we learn to embrace our pleasant and unpleasant feelings, the thoughts and bodily sensations they generate, we progress inch by inch on our journey with joy, hope and resilience.

In this decade we aim to remind ourselves and our fellow human beings to develop these affective intentions so clearly and purposefully that they overshadow any other intention or goal (especially materialistic ones) that we may have, and that all we do arise in the first place from and touch on our mindful being. It is in this manner that we will truly stay in control in moments of extensive change (when animal and plant species march, the climate becomes unpredictable, and water becomes either too scarce or too much) and overcome, and not fail in the face of challenges we will face.

Human beings are remarkable resilient creatures. We are copers and problem solvers. We cope through sheer determination, through our creativity and imagination, through prayer and religious beliefs, through involvements and diversions that feed our need for purpose,meaning, joy, and belonging, and for stepping outside ourselves and caring for others. We cope and are buoyed up by our own tenacious love for life, and by receiving love, encouragement, and support from our family, our friends and our larger community”. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

**When we think (now in January 2020) of our immediate future in the light of the destruction wrought by Australian fires, the uncertainty of climate change and the inability of world leaders to grapple with this, it helps to think in terms of a decade.
It also helps to assign a definitive commitment, vision and strategy of Hope and Resilience to this decade.
Then we feel more comfortable exploring the journey to 2029 and the outer-reaches and far corners of the decade.
Hope and resilience will bring us there.
Take up this guiding light, take our hands, and walk with us all the way to December 2029 and beyond.

Stay Blessed

Dirk Joubert (040835720) & Mariki Smith (0832884393)
The Free State Institute of Mindfulness team.

Finding Joy in Times of Groundlessness…

Finding Joy in Times of Groundlessness…
On the brink of 2020, the one thing we can be sure of, is that aside from the countless blessings and the magic moments that lies ahead, there will also be changes, uncertainties and challenges… Sigh…

Obviously, it is normal, even common, for most people to be a bit uncomfortable with uncertainty. Although, according to research, people vary in their ability to tolerate uncertainty. That is, some people are okay with having a lot of uncertainty in their lives, and other people cannot stand even a small amount of uncertainty. If you ever did the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, and you are a “J”, you may understand this a bit better.

I learned a lot about dealing with uncertainty in one of FSIM’s CPD Workshops, presented by Prof Stephen Walker from the University of the Free State: Intolerance of Uncertainty (IOU). As uncertainty is frightening for most of us, we spend all our energy trying to remove or avoid all uncertainty in daily life situations. One thing we often do is to worry. We may even think that worrying is a way of preparing ourselves for the worst – getting us ready for anything that might happen. Worrying is seen as a way of attempting to predict life so that there are no nasty surprises. We believe it is our only strategy for making things in life more certain and more predictable – it helps us believe that we have more control. But, has our worrying ever made anything more certain or more predictable? By worrying, does it change the outcome of what will happen? Isn’t life still as uncertain and unpredictable as it ever was?

Some other behaviors we repeatedly try without success, are seeking excessive reassurance from others when having to make decisions; making long and detailed “to do” lists; double checking e.g. if our loved ones are okay; we procrastinate or try distractions. This can get to be exhausting, time consuming and unsatisfying. And unfortunately, none of these works. Unless we can see the future, we need to learn to accept that we will always be uncertain about some things.

Saki Santorelli, director and professor in Preventative and Behavioral Medicine at the Mindfulness Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts, calls these times of uncertainty, “groundlessness”. We are all seeking solid ground. But, needing to be certain about everything can often take the fun out of life. We might miss out on a lot of good opportunities in life simply because of a dislike of uncertainty.

In times of groundlessness, we need to become the inner inventor of our own joy. The groundedness you need is not in the space around you, but in the space within you. Start just here. Tune into your heart. That is where love, wisdom, grace, and compassion reside. With loving attention, feel into what matters most to you. “The true seeker needs to become a pharmacist of bliss”… in the words of Rumi. We need to step out of the worries, overthinking, automatic habits and unhealthy distraction and find enough peace within to learn the wisdom of our inner pharmacist. To do this, we need to acknowledge that we are in such a place, with grace and kindness. As Santorelli puts it, we need “ … a willingness to step into open, unbounded space one moment after the next, dancing at the edge of chaos while catching to the tendency to stray, to revert to old habits, to fill in the open spaces…”

To step into this unbounded space within you, you can do the following mindfulness exercise:

1. Just where you are, become aware of the present moment. Feel your feet touching your shoes, or your body making contact with the chair you sit on, or the bed you are lying on.

2. Then, become aware of your breathing. Notice your bodily sensations as you breathe normally.

3. Next, become aware of all your unsettling, unpleasant feelings. Notice the feelings of frustration, hopelessness, overwhelment or confusion. Just acknowledge them, without judging them or trying to change them. Become aware of your need of certainty. Sit for a while with all the worrying thoughts… all the plans of getting rid of the uncertainty, without reacting on them.

4. As you breathe in, tell yourself: “I am learning to accept that uncertainty is just part of life” As you breathe out, tell yourself: “I am learning to let go of everything that is not mine to carry”…. “uncertainty is part of life”… “letting go”… “it’s part of life”… “let go”…

5. While you are breathing in loving awareness, visualize your need for certainty floating past you like clouds in the sky.

6. Whenever your mind wanders back to needing certainty, because that is what minds do, just notice that with no judgment, and return to your breathing.

7. See if you can become aware of a willingness to trust the journey.

The Team of the Free State Institute for Mindfulness wish you a joyful, mindful 2020!

Mariki Smith (PhD Psychology) marikismith.co.za

Free State Institute for Mindfulness (FSIM) fsmindfulness.co.za

When we Need to Silence our Self-Judgment

When we Need to Silence our Self-Judgment

When we start living in our “minds” instead of our lives because of buzzy-ness, we judge our inner world as good or bad, right or wrong… We then start to avoid spending quiet leisure time on our own because the sense of emptiness may be so intense that it is just too painful to be in our own company. But, as spending quiet time is one of the most important ways (aside from physical exercise and connection with others) to deal with stress – according to the Centre for Studies on Human Stress – we might as well learn how to do that. It is good to keep in mind that we are bigger than our emotions and thoughts. They don’t fill us, they travel through us.

One way to silence self-judgement according to Tara Brach, an American psychologist is moving from head, to heart, to heart-space.

1. Moving from the Head

When you spend quiet time with yourself driving, trying to get to sleep or standing in a queue, the first step will be to become aware of any critical and judgmental thoughts. Then, make it your intention to unhook from these judging thoughts. Without believing or identifying with these thoughts, shift your attention to your senses (what do you see, hear or smell) or your breathing. Remind yourself that they’re just thoughts…Open up to your heart

2. Open-up to your Heart

What feelings are you experiencing…? Can you give them names? Shame… guilt… anxiety… anger or sadness? Maybe there are feelings of being overwhelmed, fragile or fatigue. How do you experience this feeling in your body? What are you unwilling to feel? Try to connect with this feeling, and to allow this while softening your heart a little.

3. Open to your heart-space

Put your hand on your heart, while saying kind words to yourself in this moment. “It ‘s okay, I am there for you.” Decide in what way you can take good self-care in this moment. Decide to enter these next few steps of walking through this difficulty with self-compassion and loving kindness

Our heartspace is the ocean – it includes the waves – the vulnerability, the thoughts and all the different experiences that move through us. If we remember that we’re the ocean. We will not be afraid of the waves. It’s okay that they are here… This belongs…”

– Tara Brach

Mariki Smith (PhD Psychology)

Taking Care of the Caretaker

Taking Care of the Caretaker

When we take care of ourselves we give the world the best of us,
instead of what’s left of us…
“Compassion Fatigue is a disorder that affects those who do their work well.”
– Charles Figley.

Healing Space for Healers

The Free State Institute for Mindfulness had the privilege this month to present a Healing Space for Healers work session for the hero’s, healers and helpers of 2 Psychiatric Hospitals in Bloemfontein – both highly recommended mental health clinics. Being human, all of us can remember a moment in our job or home we could give the best of us to others. But, we can also can remember a moment we could only give what was left of us.

Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue can sneak up on us. This happens especially when we neglect our own self-compassion, self-care and awareness of our own well-being. The one day we give our all, finding it easy to care, show compassion and to make a difference in others. The next day we suddenly find ourselves dreading to go to work, experiencing resentment, irritability, impatience and reduced empathy.

According to Christina Maslach, we know that we are in trouble when we start to experience extreme emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization (loss of compassion, cynicism, lack of empathy and care), as well as lack of personal accomplishment.

If we are not mindful or aware of our inner experience, we could easily miss out on the signs, and it may lead to burnout, depression or anxiety.

Aside from the importance of our own well-being, burnout and compassion fatigue may lead to ethical and legal implications if left untreated.
We are especially vulnerable to burnout when we have difficulty with healthy boundaries, when there are high expectations of performance from ourselves or others, when we work with those at the low point of their lives, and when we take on what is not “ours”. Another reason why we burnout is that we tend to avoid leisure time because the sense of emptiness is so intense that it is just too painful to be in our own company. Thus, we work just harder, or turn to unhealthy quick fixes or distraction to experience short-term relief.
Being in the Compassion Business, (whether we are healers or helpers for children, adults or the elderly), we have a huge responsibility to manage good self-care, so to prevent burnout or compassion fatigue. In this way we can keep on being there for others.
We can only do this by knowing ourselves with non-judgmental awareness. We need to stay aware of our own level of stress (1 to 10), our own triggers and stressors, as well as our own unique signs and symptoms thereof.

Research at the Center for Studies on Human Stress in Canada

“The first step is to recognize when you are under stress. There may be some clues that we are under stress, that we must become aware of.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Research at the Center for Studies on Human Stress in Canada implies that the three most effective ways to deal with a huge amount of stress are:

1. Relaxation and mindful meditation (mindfulness meditation, prayer, being creative)

You can find your own way to retreat e.g. mindfulness exercises, journaling, prayer, music or art.
The Being BOLD exercise is a simple quick way to practice mindfulness during your workday:
B – Breathe. Become aware of 3 deep abdominal in- and out-breaths.
O – Observe your inner experience: your feelings (name it, validate it, feel it), your thoughts and bodily sensations – not trying to change it in this moment, and trying not to judge it – lots of self-compassion.
L – Listen to your values and needs. What life values are important to me at this stage in my life? (respect, compassion, kindness, achievement). What do I need in this moment that is good for me, to be okay.
D – Decide how to take the next few steps and Do it…

Being Bold

2. Physical Activity

Write down your plan of action for your physical exercise and eating plan for the next three months.

3. Social Support and Connection

Write down who are the give-and-take loved ones in your life, and how you are going to strengthen the connection with them in the next three months. Stay aware of creative healthy boundaries.
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” – Brené Brown

Mariki Smith (PhD Psychology) can be reached at mariki@fsmindfulness.co.za

On Mindfulness and Art Therapy

On Mindfulness and Art Therapy

by Jan Joubert

As I sit here to write this blog, I first suspend my thoughts and ruminations about my to-do list and I drop down into my body, I become aware of my somatic experience in this moment, I listen to my emotions and notice what I feel. I hear myself. Yes there’s some stress, beneath this, subtle fears. Noticing this, I accept this is my experience in this moment. This is who I am, now, this is what I have to offer this blank page. 

And then, my mind prattles for a bit about how I should approach writing this article, theories I could describe or postulations I could make, skeptical thoughts about myself or creating. So, I follow this process again, feeling the familiar fear of being good enough or safely abundant enough to create. I recognize under that is a desire for self-protection, a need for safety and having acknowledged this too, I validate that this is a risk that I’m taking, yes, being creative is essentialy a leap of faith. 

And like any relationally focussed family therapist would recommend, I feel that fear, I stay with it, I hold it, I witness it and thus, I console myself by acknowledging and validating it (yes it is scary to write something that will go public), as well as comforting myself with some compassion and empathy. A simple combination of faithful affirmations, self-compassion and critical thinking (I am good enough to write, yes it can be scary, I will survive this) is my antidote. 

Having moved through the self protective layers of my ego and thoughts connected to emotions, I step into the opportunity to create.  

Do you notice how the focus of my meditation was not to push my mind into stillness but the opposite? 

Do you notice how my relationship with creativity challenged me to face my fears? 

Art is as much a reflection of our psyche as thought is a (complexified) reflection of emotions, and of course, all of this can be felt through somatic reflection too. I will explain. In the above experience there are two modes of self present. The witness, which notices whatever happens, and the content of whatever happens or is witnessed. The witness stays an (ineffible) subjective experience. Then there’s the content, which for me today was some fears of the future and of being brave enough to let go enough to create. This content is felt in the body, is witnessed in the patterns of thought, and is equally present in whatever we create. Ranging from intentional art-making to unintentional creative choices, such as what we choose to wear on any given day, my world is an ever-present reflection of what I feel. 

There is a thoroughly studied relationship between the unconscious content of our minds and hearts and our spontaneously creative choices. These are of course connected to relevant emotions, memories and behaviors. 

Our feelings tend to appear in those choices as as metaphors, and this tends to click in when we describe what we’re doing or feel and hear the metaphors in our language. Think of how with children, we see their emotions acted out in play.

While I’ve made an effort to describe a subjective series of mindfulness related events, sometimes it is much easier for others to see this, or for yourself to see it more clearly, when it is expressed in a creative form, and art-making, especially when spontaneous and not pre-meditated, always produces metaphors that helps us see exactly how we really feel. Additionally, art acts as a container for our emotions that we can put them into, and a space for processing what we feel. Ask any child to put how they feel into an artwork and you’ll see it happen. 

As an art therapist, I work with my clients and their artworks and often help them sink deeper into feeling things that are just out of sight. Emotional content that they can’t witness on their own, that the ego bars them from seeing out of a denial that comes as a result of self-preservation. 

That is therapy, processing things, to release them, to free us from their grasp on our lives, broadening our consciousness. Often I find that when fears are too great the witness sticks to thought as a safe harbour and a persons emotions becomes acted out rather than taken charge of. The Art, and therapists training, helps these parts of self in shadow to be revealed and I frequently train clients in mindfulness to help them sit-with what they feel. 

The essence of art-making is playful joy, witnessing people’s varying degrees of hesitation to step into that is witness a microcosm of how they relate to that through (often unconscious) choices they make in their lives, and always, regardless of the artists technical skill or creative accomplishments, brings these up. 

To expand your mindfulness practice and come to know yourself more deeply, you must confront your Shadow. So make art. Yes, ANY art will do. 

Jan Joubert is an art therapist with a post-baccalaureate Diploma in art therapy. He lives in North-Western Canada. Here is more about the diploma. He can be reached here

Jan Joubert

Life – a mushroom full of possibility

Life – a mushroom full of possibility

by Rolyn du Plessis

Dr. Daniel Siegel, founder of the Mindsight Instititute, in his book ‘The Mindful Therapist,’ writes: ‘Health in many ways can be seen as bathing in a wide-open pool of possibility.’ Mindfulness, he writes, allows us to navigate into the ‘plane of open awareness’ – a space free of prejudice and judgement, of habituated ways of thinking and doing. A space where anything might happen.

Recently I was making a vegetarian shepherd’s pie. My 5-year old daughter asked me if she could help me chop up the vegetables and I gave her the task of slicing up the mushrooms. I demonstrated to her what I had in mind: that she cut them into quarters. As she started cutting and singing as she worked, her uncluttered and creative being probably allowed her to see a multitude of other ways in which the mushrooms might be chopped. She said: ‘Could I cut them any way I like?’ I noticed an immediate ‘no’ rise up inside of me. A part of me definitely wanting the mushrooms to be cut into quarters. As that first, habituated ‘no’ dissipated, a more present and playful part of me contested: ‘Is there really just one right way to cut a mushroom?’ ‘You can cut them any way you like,’ I said. She cut them into halves, some straight and some diagonal. She cut them into small bits and large bits, into rings and slices. She even made a doughnut-shaped mushroom by cutting out the stem and making a hole in the top part! In that moment I became her student –experiencing first-hand what it looks like when one is bathed in a wide-open pool of possibility and suddenly understanding how one can express one’s own authentic being through a task as simple as cutting a mushroom.

I am reminded of the Chinese fable, as told by Jack Kornfield in his book ‘After the Ecstacy, the Laundry,’ in which a young man was observing a sage at the village well:

‘The old man was lowering a wooden bucket on a rope and pulling water up slowly, hand over hand. The youth disappeared and returned with a pulley. He approached the old man and showed him how the device worked. “See, you put your rope around the wheel and draw up the water by crancking the handle.” The old man resisted. “If I use a device like this, my mind will think itself clever. With a cunning mind I will no longer put my heart into what I am doing. Soon my wrists alone will do the work. If my heart and whole body are not in my work, my work will become joyless. When my work is joyless, how do you think the water will taste?”’

It is no wonder that the practice of mindfulness is, for the most part, an unlearning process. It is the practice of noticing when we leave the open plane of awareness, seeing ourselves getting stuck in all the habituated, ‘right’ ways of doing and thinking. It is realising when we have forsaken a whole heart and a whole body in favour of a cunning mind. It is letting go of the rigid ideas about what life should or should not be – letting go into the direct experience of life itself, as it arises moment to moment.

Edward Espe Brown, in his book ‘The Tassajara Bread Book,’ tells this story about mindfulness in his kitchen: (it seems an apt conclusion to this initial post)

‘When I first started cooking at Tassajara, I had a problem. I couldn’t get my biscuits to come out the way they were supposed to. I’d follow a recipe and try variations, but nothing worked. the biscuits just didn’t measure up.

Growing up I had made two kinds of biscuits. One was from Bisquick and the other from Pillsbury. For the one from Bisquick you added milk in the mix and then blobbed the dough in spoonfuls onto the pan – you didn’t even need to roll them out. The biscuits from Pillsbury came in kind of a cardboard can. You rapped the can on the corner of the counter and it popped open. Then you twisted the can open more, put the pre-made biscuits on a pan, and baked them. I really liked those Pillsbury biscuits. Isn’t that what biscuits should taste like? Mine weren’t coming out right.

It’s wonderful and amazing the ideas we get about what biscuits should taste like, or what a life should look like. Compared to what? Canned biscuits from Pillsbury? People who ate my biscuits would extol their virtues, eating one after another, but to me these perfectly good biscuits just weren’t right. Finally one day came a shifting-into-place, an awakening. “Not right” compared to what? Oh, my word, I’d been trying to make canned Pillsbury biscuits! Then came an exquisite moment of actually tasting my biscuits without comparing them to some previously hidden standard. They were wheaty, flaky, buttery, sunny, earthy, real. They were incomparably alive – in fact, much more satisfying than any memory.

These occasions can be so stunning, so liberating, these moments when you realise your life is just fine as it is, thank you. Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged product made it seem insufficient. Trying to produce a biscuit – a life – with no dirty bowls, no messy feelings – was so frustrating. Then savouring, actually tasting the present moment of experience – how much more complex and multifaceted. How unfathomable.’



By Beth Mackay

I have been thinking a lot about stillness recently and the benefits of it. And how important it is to create moments of silence for yourself. Why you might ask. Because it is only in stillness that you can hear the beating of your heart. It is only in silence that you can become aware of your truth. It is only in silence that you can become aware of what needs to change and what is not serving you anymore. It is only once we create opportunity for stillness that we become aware of our exhaustion, of how tired our bodies are, of our emotions and thought life. You need to pause and step out of autopilot.
What does it mean to live on autopilot? The literal meaning of autopilot is a device that steers a ship, plane, or spacecraft by itself, without a person. We often live on autopilot – never pausing to reflect on how we are feeling or what we are doing. We are busy, distracted, or both. Being on autopilot has its benefits for mundane activities, such as driving or doing laundry. The problem arises when we are on autopilot during times where we need to make important decisions or when we are interacting with our friends, colleagues and family. Autopilot robs us from experiencing moments of joy and connection as we are not present for our lives.
When we press the brakes, autopilot turns off. A pause is more that slowing down; it is creating space to start paying attention. You can start to reflect on your life. What is happening right now? How do I feel? Is this serving me? Am I enjoying what I am doing? Why do I feel so stressed? What can I do differently? You can start making better choices, as you are paying attention to your life. You are not mindlessly making decisions or repeating patterns that do not serve you, as a pause gives you clarity to listen, pay attention and wisdom. Living mindfully gives you the opportunity to make decisions that will serve you, that will challenge you, that will help you grow. Autopilot has a way of keeping you stuck in the same old routines, habits and patterns.
Mindfulness helps you wake up to your life. It however takes courage to listen to your body, heart and soul. You will need to lean into the uncomfortable, as silence and awareness has a way to bring all the uncomfortable to the surface. The intense sadness and loneliness that you have concealed under all your busyness. The unhappiness that you are experiencing in your work and relationships. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the guilt, the pain – the messy parts that you have been running away from. May we be brave enough to listen. The kindest thing you can do for yourself is to pause and step out of autopilot. In this way we will be able to take better care of ourselves.
May we all find moments of silence in our busy lives, may we all make this a priority, as the alternative is not really living.
In the words of Rumi, “Listen to silence, it has so much to say”.

Managing challenging relationships from your true self: the relationship triangle, mindfulness and mediation

Managing challenging relationships from your true self: the relationship triangle, mindfulness and mediation

By Dr Mariki Smith (Counseling Psychologist) and Dirk Joubert (Mediator and Attorney)

The Relationship Triangle

Relationships can become complicated, whether in family or workplace. This is especially true when we are only aware of the myths we start to live by as life happens to us, and not of our inner world.
Often our identity, roles and values may be called into question when we become overwhelmed by an experience that cannot be contained by our understanding of ourselves and our world.
The myths we live by decrease our window of tolerance.
By applying the so-called victim-triangle, mediation and psychotherapy help us to manage our inner and outer worlds better, to shed the myths, and increase our window of tolerance.
Eric Berne (Games People Play, 1964) conceptualized the Victim Trap with Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor roles. Dianne Zimberoff (Breaking Free from the Victim Trap, 1989), refers to the victim triangle, and we still find wisdom in the graphical representation of the triangle proposed by Stephen Karpman (Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7, no. 26, April1968), which he referred to as the Drama Triangle.
Ken Cloke and Clare Fowler (clarefowler.com), senior mediators in the USA, refer to the victim or drama triangle as the communication triangle in a mediation setting.
We prefer the use of the term “relationship triangle” on the basis that “drama” and “victim” may be emotionally loaded, and “communication” may be a bit strict.

Roles in the Relationship Triangle

In the relationship triangle, we may unconsciously play the role of the hero (rescuer), the victim (the innocent princess- yes you too….), or the villain (persecutor/ dragon).
The concept of a triangle suggests that parties are locked into and stuck in often very dynamic co-dependent relationship equations, instead of being In Presence, especially in stressful relationships. We may even unconsciously become addicted to one of the roles or a dynamic set of them.
The victim or communication triangle may be dynamic: The innocent princess may be the princess in one moment, and the dragon in another, depending on where she perceives the prince “is”. If he deviates from her pre-determined scenarios, she is either the dragon to violently get him back on track, or she is the princess who must be rescued, playing on his willingness to be the rescuer hero.

Hero Breaking Free

By becoming aware that we tend to play the hero (rescuer) in relationships, we may want to go back to where it all started – e.g. having too much responsibility as a child because of a dysfunctional family. Although helping people is a wonderful trait, playing the hero constantly may be harmful to the other person, as well as the hero self. The rescuer tends to take responsibility for others’ happiness by giving temporary relief, creating dependency instead of empowering the other person. When we become present, instead of playing the hero, we can rather focus on being the coach. A coach does not want to fix, but rather supports and empowers others to create the life they most want.

Dragon Breaking Free

When we become aware that we tend to play the villain/dragon/persecutor, we may observe thoughts of blaming ourselves or others. Our harsh self-judgment makes us feel worthless, so we tend to point out the mistakes of others. We may become aware that others experience us as dictating or bullying. In becoming present, the dragon could rather focus on being the challenger, who brings healthy pressure to the group or relationship to support the other(s) in facing and dealing with their lives. The challenger does not blame or criticise, but rather gives others the necessary push to leave their comfort zone, and enter new possibilities.

Victim Breaking Free

Most often, we may become aware of playing the victim/helpless princess (which is different from being victimized). We may observe thoughts and feelings of helplessness, self-pity, excuses, guilt, blaming instead of taking responsibility and complaining. Guilt, helplessness and low self-esteem all work together in a vicious cycle to keep us in the victim role. When we allow ourselves to be in the present, we can shift our focus to rather become the creator. Being a creator, we take responsibility for ourselves, stop complaining and rather plan the next few steps, or learn to accept our circumstances.

Mindful Awareness

It may be meaningful to sometimes pause, becoming mindful of our role, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that teach us whether we are acting from our centre, our true self, or not.

Mediation and the Roles People live out

In a mediation setting, the challenge facing the mediator is to get the princess, prince and dragon out of the roles into the present, and into their true self. Only then is a lasting resolution possible.
Any agreement between parties embedded in one of these roles, will deepen and enforce the role into the future by agreement as ‘t were, so that the resolution, if any, at best will end up to be superficial and of short duration.

Getting mediating parties to who they really are

Clare Fowler suggests that the mediator will assist parties to find their true-self by asking questions, such as the following:
She will typically ask the “victim”, “what contributions have you made in the past to resolve the conflict?” The “victim” is forced to go back and examine a time when she had power and could effectively make decisions. You want her to know she is involved in a conversation.
The question for the dragon is, “what do you suggest can be done in the future?” and “what contributions would you like to make to resolve the conflict?” This assist creative thought and help the dragon to perceive a future in which she is not the dragon.
To the hero she poses the question: “can you describe what contribution has the other party made towards resolving the conflict?” In this manner two things are achieved: the other parties are empowered and the amount of power that hero may have is normalised.
In mediation the triangle is a tool to identify where parties come from so that the mediator can take them to a place where they see themselves more realistically in relation to the other party.
These examples enforce the idea of the holistic nature of conflict – we seem to be at loggerheads, breaking apart, but in reality we are co-dependant. Upon resolution of the conflict we will be either on a path where the old conflicts simmer or on a new path if the old conflicts were shed during mediation
How we resolve our conflicts therefor is crucial. Mediation is probably best suited to arrive at a new path. Mindfulness can play substantial role in the process. One way would be for the client to practice the following mindfulness exercise:


• Find a quiet place. Sit up straight but relaxed, feel your feet on the floor and put your hands on your lap. Close your eyes and imagine a picture of a difficult situation in a relationship you are facing at this moment.
• Become aware of your thoughts (or lack of it), feelings (whether pleasant or unpleasant) and your bodily sensations. Try to do this without trying to change anything. No judgement.
• Try to determine according to your thoughts and feelings, and your tendency how to react on them, whether you might play the part of the innocent princess (victim), the hero (rescuer), dragon (persecutor) or just being your true self in this situation.
• Acknowledge your feelings and needs, by allowing them, feeling them without reacting or supressing them.
• While having compassion, acceptance and grace for yourself, focus on your breathing. With each inbreath, focus on acceptance of this difficult situation. With each outbreath, focus on finding your true centre, and what your experienced intuition is telling you about managing the situation.
• After the exercise, write down a few notes on your next steps in becoming your true self.

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