The drama triangle

Lack of autonomy leads to a lack of motivation

To this conclusion, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci come in their Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which they published at the University of Rochester in 2000.

In addition to an expanded focus on success, learning, and flow, our self-determination plays another decisive role when it comes to sustainable and resilient motivation.

The self-determination theory is comprehensive. It covers topics that we cover in this course, too. This includes the concepts of flow orientation and self-efficacy. The theory also addresses the issue of social connectedness, which we leave out here.

And even if this course in its entirety is an ode to self-determination and the self-determined shaping of our lives, we will focus on self-responsibility here. And with this focus on self-responsibility, I would like to invite you to change from a passive mode in life to an active, self-responsible one.

But what is autonomy all about?

As far as our autonomy is concerned, it is of secondary importance whether it is limited by external conditions or not. Often, we have unconsciously internalized earlier restrictions on autonomy. Sometimes, due to cost-benefit considerations, we have consciously decided not to make use of our possibility to shape our lives on our terms.

But sometimes our lack of autonomy has to do with environmental factors In a totalitarian political system, in strict or fanatical religious contexts, but also in toxic relationships, we feel severely limited in our options for action. There is a huge temptation to perceive the limitations for action in these contexts as rather real than felt.

But most of the time, we have room for maneuver that invites us to take on our responsibility to shape our experience. Given the threat of sanctions and existential consequences, however, this leeway seems more like an abstract option that proves to be difficult to access in everyday life.

We will return to dealing with the available autonomy options, even under harsh conditions, when dealing with the risks of self-development.

Our limited autonomy rarely has to do with external factors

Most of the time we are dealing with consciously or unconsciously internalized restrictions on autonomy. These restrictions live comfortably within internalized characters. And they appear in the inner dialogues those inner characters have with one another. Often without us noticing.

Many of the stories we tell ourselves and others are about victims. Regardless of whether these stories are about us or others, we describe the characters of those stories as victims of multiple circumstances.

Sometimes it’s about biographical moments, authoritarian figures, and difficult experiences. Sometimes it is about political systems, the prevailing social culture, or the family system. Often it is about tyrants in the guises of bosses, colleagues and employees, or customers and clients.

Whatever the context, the perpetrator or monumental circumstances make it impossible for the supposed victims to make use of their life-shaping options.

It’s amazingly weird how much we love those victim stories

Sometimes it seems like we spend most of our interaction with others sharing such stories. And while entertainment and relief value seem to be high, the price we have to pay for this form of “entertainment” and the supposed relief is surprisingly high.

We may not be aware of how we devaluate the characters of our stories with these victim attributions. But probably one of the bigger reasons why we give so much room to these stories. We rid ourselves of our self-responsibility through the victim status and the derived powerlessness. Sure, we would like to change something about our lives, but unfortunately, this is not possible given the bad or difficult circumstances.

We are relieved to turn away from the perceived dangerous invitations to shape our lives. Then we look for viable ways to put our ambition on the back burner on one hand and feel alive at the same time on the other. Which is tantamount to squaring the circle, in short, impossible.

Alternative stories that sabotage our autonomy are about heroes and superhuman saviors

Sometimes we are the protagonists of these stories. That’s what we usually do when we have a longing for superhuman greatness. And this is usually the case when we want to counter feelings of inferiority and powerlessness with something powerful and exhilarating.

But mostly these heroic stories are about others. They are about people that we idealize and thus make unattainable. This has the advantage that we can stay in our comfort zone. If the performance and agency of those “heroes” are superhuman, then we do not even need to try to integrate livable parts of the hero into our personality. We are not the chosen. And the hero takes care of everything.

If the supposed hero can’t do it or tumbles off the throne to which we have promoted him with our submissive worship, then we can point the finger at him. In ancient Rome, this was a common practice to introduce new laws and rules. An interim emperor was appointed. He was allowed to implement the changes. And to appease the resentment of the citizens about the changes, the “tyrant” was publicly executed. Mind you, while the amended laws and rules remained in force.

But what’s going on with those heroes, saviors, and victims in our constructions of reality?

The dynamic with which we betray our autonomy and try with perseverance to escape our self-responsibility is called the “Drama Triangle” in the Transactional Analysis founded by Eric Berne. Sometimes we are dealing with fixed roles. But often the characters have dramatic fun in the constant transition between the role of the perpetrator, the victim, and the savior.

Oh, this dynamic is intense. And due to the emotional intensity of the constant drama, we also feel somewhat alive in this game. But it’s an extremely frustrating and toxic substitute for the game that life invites us to play.

We must see through the game we’re playing so often

If we take our ambition and our creative invitations seriously, if we turn away from the dramatic inner theater of heroes, victims, and saviors and turn to productivity bliss, then the roles we take on change subtly.

We leave the victim stories behind and become humble designers. We are neither omnipotent nor impotent. We acknowledge that we are not in control. But we accept the invitation to shape “our” world in mindful dialogue with people and things.

We leave the savior stories behind and become empathetic designers. We take our longing for social connectedness seriously. We seek ways to productively resolve conflicting tensions with others. We are looking for real answers to what seems to be harassing and threatening us. And we recognize that we can come to amazingly livable insights and results, especially in the exciting and challenging exchange with the world.

We leave the perpetrator stories behind and become ambitious designers. We bow to our life force. We bow to the abundance of our ideas. We bow to the challenges that life confronts us with. And we are looking for viable ways to bring our ambition and our inspiration into play in a smooth, warm-hearted, and benevolent manner.

What exactly can we do to carry out this metamorphosis?

  • We can take on responsibility for our stories
  • We can take on responsibility for our ambition
  • And we take on responsibility for the risks