The Birth of a Model

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” ­­­

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden


“You have learned – Way too soon – You should never trust the pantaloon.”

―Tyler Joseph, TWENTY ØNE PILØTS, The Pantaloon


“Trust is not a myth.”



From the age of eight, until my young adulthood, I lived between two sets of households that held extreme versions of scarcity and abundance.  In my mother’s household, I experienced a scarcity of resources and a basic sense of safety.  At the same time, I experienced an abundance of emotional connection, a sense of love and belonging, and a respect for magic in nature.  In my father and stepmother’s household, I experienced scarcity of fully belonging.  I simultaneously experienced an abundance of love and connection; access to higher learning; awareness of diversity; musical training; a stable household environment; and a platform with which to understand the world through philosophy and spirituality.   It was not until my children came of age that I realized both parents were offering their experience and knowledge of all they had lived through.  When I let my past wounds heal from living in such stark dichotomies, I began to see my parents’ context from a new perspective.  I realized my father and stepmother refused to fully absorb me into their family culture because they held the value that it is important for a child to know both their biological mother and father–come what may.

Therefore, I lived between two starkly different households.  One household was with a single mother who held very traditional New Mexican Mestiza values of self-sacrifice, while experiencing a context of poverty, lack of education, and lack of resources.  On the other extreme was a household that held a hybrid of my stepmother’s Caucasian American values and my father’s New Mexican Mestizo culture valuing discipline, respect, sometimes overly strict, and always open to discussion and connection.  Living within both households consistently throughout my young life showed me that there are good (moving towards growth in my definition) and bad (away from growth) experiences within contexts of scarcity and abundance.  However, because my two worlds were at odds with each other, this also cultivated a consistent sense of dissonance within my understanding of who I am. I struggled with the same mindset that many people experience, one of scarcity and survival. Like many people, I struggled to categorize life into neat boxes of “right” and “wrong.”  But what if opposite experiences are both “good” or both “bad”? Or, both “good” and “bad”?

It is a natural tendency for us to categorize information or individuals into two different categories, such as “one of us” or “outsider” (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). Our associations with the colors black and white often consist of an intuitive categorization that the color black means “bad” and the color white means “good”.  This association automatically puts us into a literal black and white mindset, where we tend to automatically react to situations in extremes (all or nothing, yes or no, right or wrong).  Over the years, there have been several studies in which researchers found an automatic association with moral judgment and black and white visual cues.  In one study done by Zarkadi and Schnall in 2013, participants were introduced to imagery that was either in black and white (greyscale) or color; followed by a moral dilemma. They found that when participants were introduced to black and white imagery, they commonly endorsed extreme moral judgments (Zarkadi &Schnall, 2013).  In other words, they often selected extreme responses of either end of a Likert scale.  Such stark categorization may be helpful when an individual must make a quick, life-saving decision; however, when we get stuck in processing our experiences from extremes, we leave ourselves with only two categories to sift every bit of information.  This can become extremely problematic in relationships.

When we are stuck in a dichotomous mindset, we fail to recognize the fundamental concept that light cannot exist without dark, and dark cannot exist without light.  Without both these dichotomies, there would be nothing to contrast or compare.  When we accept both sides of extremes as true and relevant, we are more equipped to accept variation and diversity.  In other words, once we consciously acknowledge that we make automatic associations that are extreme if we are stuck in dichotomous thinking, we can work toward understanding not just differences in our perspectives, but also the value of having different perspectives.

For example, one may regard every negative, dark, or unacceptable emotion as “bad” and thus to be avoided.  When we change our automatic associations, such as dark being bad, we can change our response to it as well.  During the workshop for this study, I discussed alternative ways to become aware by acknowledging the good and bad in our associations with the very words black and white.  I began by asking participants what words they associate with white as opposed to black.  At the end of the workshop, I created a visual of the most common words that were used to describe both good and bad words associated with black (dark) and white (light).

Beyond dichotomous thinking lies what is colloquially known as spectrum thinking.  Psychologists often refer to this concept as dialectics.  Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), increases dialects by focusing on reconciling contradictory information using skills and techniques that increase mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness (Linehan, 1993). The term “spectrum thinking” has primarily been referenced a handful of times in journal articles from the fields of philosophy, military/intelligence, technology, and economic research.  The most recent reference came from the book Full-Spectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical Future (2020).  In his book, Bob Johansen highlights the need for us as a society to cultivate our ability to conceptualize our world from a spectrum perspective as opposed to a categorical or “binary” one.  He concludes with the following:

Sometimes, certainty trumps truth.  Saying things with certitude, however, will often trigger even greater uncertainty in the long run.  In the future, people will need to trade in the certainty and the comfort of binary categories for full-spectrum thinking.  Full-spectrum thinking will provide powerful ways to make sense out of new opportunities without assuming that new experiences mirror old categories, boxes, labels, or buckets. Full-spectrum thinking will help people avoid thoughtless labeling of others. Full-spectrum thinking will be a technology-enabled antidote to polarization and simplistic thinking. (p. 161)

Johansen makes the argument throughout the book that the next generation is acutely aware of differences that are not easily categorized and are instead better understood as lying on or within a spectrum of possibilities. Similarly, an essay by Adrian Wolfberg for the publication Military Review proposes a similar concept, suggesting the importance of spectrum-thinking in peaceful relations with other countries whose cultures are vastly different than our own (2006). Spectrum thinking, in both instances is defined as an ability to recognize the nuances and variations within and between categorical values (Johansen, 2020; Wolfberg, 2006). I suspect, as the two authors elude to, that if we can expand our awareness to include natural variations in perspective, we are more likely to find a connection between extreme dichotomous beliefs.  I demonstrate this idea by examining our associations with colors.   For example, we often associate red with passion, fire, and violence.  When I ask the question, “what words do you associate with the color red,” these are the responses I usually get.  Our associations with colors also show up in our metaphors and euphemisms such as describing our anger as “seeing red”.  When we examine individual associations with red, each of our perceptions are like a gradient of that color (from pink to burgundy to blood red, etc.).  Using the idea of varying gradients of experience to describe differing perspectives, we can develop our ability to more readily examine information from a spectrum mindset and are more open and accepting of individual differences in others.

A profoundly deep example of this surfaced when I began to question my own spiritual and religious belief system.  I was baptized as Catholic when I was born, then became a born again Christian when I was 8 years old.  I struggled with the idea that Lucifer, or Satan, was the closest to God, and ultimately became his adversary.  When I was about 12 years old, I remember contemplating this with my father by asking, “What if God and the Devil are working together?”  His response was, “You need to choose a side, or it will be chosen for you.”  I then replied, “What if I choose both?” He just shook his head and walked off.  What I did not realize at the time was that I was trying to break into a sort of “spectrum” mindset by challenging the duality of Christianity.

It wasn’t until my adulthood that this line of reasoning led me to other numerous disciplines, philosophies, religions, and oral traditions that imagine the diversity in the divine, such as with numerous gods as worshiped by ancient, Druids, Greeks, Romans, and Celts.  This journey from spiritual belief to science and research expanded my ability to hold each religion, philosophy, way of life, or belief system as inherently “right” or “truthful” when examined or experienced within the context from which it came.  By examining our context and reactions to our context, we begin to see just how much variation there is for every individual perspective.  Said differently, human experience can be more thoroughly understood by becoming aware of context, response/reaction to context (thoughts, emotions, awareness), and intention or personal value behind the response.  These three concepts were born out of understanding the tenets of the Integrative or Integral approach to therapy.  In his book, Ken Wilbur discusses consciousness as perceived by all major theoretical orientations in clinical psychology (2008).  He then suggests that each orientation holds a piece of a more complicated puzzle and proposes integrative or integral psychology as the end pieces of the puzzle that makes up its border (Wilbur, 2008).  He describes his approach below:

What if, on the other hand, all of the above accounts [theoretical orientations] were an important part of the story? What if they all possessed true, but partial, insights into the vast field of consciousness? At the very least, assembling their conclusions under one roof would vastly expand our ideas of what consciousness is and, more important, what it might become. The endeavor to honor and embrace every legitimate aspect of human consciousness is the goal of an integral psychology (Wilbur, 2008). 

This line of reasoning led me to recognize first, that each of us have our own unique perspective.  It also led me to acknowledge that every individual’s perspective is valid, regardless of the dictates of social perception.  The prevailing question is, how do we transition from a dichotomous or categorical mindset to a more spectrum like mindset?

The Model does not propose new theories or interventions; rather, it is a structure for organizing existing psychological knowledge in a way that can help individuals recognize and understand the complexities of how context and personal response shapes our perceptions of each other within relationships.  The model begins with the understanding of our tendency to automatically perceive others or events from a dichotomous mindset. For example, when we begin a relationship with someone, we perceive either acceptance or rejection of our own presentation.  We automatically look at ourselves from only two sides, acceptable or unacceptable.  When we are in this black and white thinking, we also tend to be in what people refer to as “survival mode”.  Our ability to survive stressful situations can be determined by whether or not we make an accurate assessment of a situation.  In life or death situations, our ability to make a quick judgment is the difference between staying alive or dying.  In extreme circumstances, such as war, this ability to categorize quickly, is of most importance.  However, if all of our biological needs have been met, and we feel a sense of safety in that we have a roof over our heads, expanding our awareness by acknowledging variability is advantageous. Examining the differences between dichotomous thinking and spectrum thinking, it helps to imagine what context would create these dueling (and ironically dichotomous), mindsets.  Most of my life I have been contemplating the differences in values and behaviors from a context of privilege versus underprivilege.  While contemplating these things with colleagues from graduate school, I began referring to these terms as Scarcity and Abundance.  Experiencing the world from relatively extreme scarcity or abundance, will elicit eight possible roles, four in each context.  Each role can be either passive or active and comes with reactions that are often automatically associated with the role.  Most of the roles that are described in the context of scarcity were roles that were originally mapped out in the Karpman Drama Triangle (1968).  Whereas the roles that are described in the abundance mindset were originally developed within The Empowerment Dynamic (Emerald, 2016).  A short description of each model follows.

Karpman Drama Triangle.

The Karpman Drama Triangle, conceived within a group therapy setting, is a model of perceived roles that individuals hold in transactional, drama-filled, conflictual interactions (Karpman, 1968).  According to Stephen Karpman, the three primary roles that appear in a drama-filled interaction are victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer (1968).  The victim is often the recipient of action by the Persecutor or Rescuer; the Rescuer wants to “save” or take care of the victim; while the Persecutor attacks the victim in an attempt to gain something that was lost (Karpman, 2014).  Holding the victim role can have the benefit of avoiding responsibility.  Playing the role of Rescuer holds the benefit of avoiding the pain of victimhood.  Playing the role of Persecutor holds the benefit of trying to gain power, which is usually taken by force.  All three of these roles are interdependent upon each other in that they cannot exist separately.  In other words, without a victim, there is no Persecutor or Rescuer.   These roles can be played by other individuals or carried out internally.  Each person can transition into other roles based on interpersonal interactions, their perceptions of the other roles, or most importantly, the context in which the individual finds themselves.  For example, a Rescuer may have a conscious or unconscious need to save a victim to avoid their own sense of victimization (saving others instead of self).  If Rescuers cannot find a victim to rescue, they may attempt to create a victim through sabotage and emotional trip wires, taking on the role of the Persecutor.  Often, individuals will have an affinity for one role over another, unconsciously seeking out others to play the “game”, as Karpman suggests (2014).

Since its creation, the Drama Triangle has been expanded and developed into several different adaptations of other drama-filled interactions.  There are even several philosophical books that look at both The Drama Triangle, as well as how to create a sense of compassion within each role.  The most notable of these is the translation of roles from The Drama Triangle to different roles in what was named “The Empowerment Dynamic,” (Emerald, 2016).

The Empowerment Dynamic.

The Empowerment Dynamic, often abbreviated as TED, is a transition of the three roles from the Drama Triangle in a move to cultivate empowerment instead of victimhood (Emerald, 2016).  TED imagines passive victims as empowered creators with agency and self-efficacy; Persecutors as challengers that offer compassionate growth and learning; and Rescuers as Coaches who offer encouragement and support (Emerald, 2016).  Interactions within TED are considered empowering and can help free individuals to feel compassion, trust, and safety within their experiences (Emerald, 2016).

The Returning to Compassion Model

In 2016, a colleague of mine, C. Ruth Diaz, was working with teenagers in group therapy on a psychiatric unit when she first began to develop a model of polarizing interactions based on the two models above. Many of these teenagers had experienced such extreme scarcity in their home environments that many of them held a scarcity mindset, meaning that every challenge felt physiologically or mentally threatening because they were so firmly cemented in sympathetic nervous responses (fight-or-flight) to their environment.  At the same time, the Conscious Leadership Group, a consulting organization, published a book and created an animated video that was posted to social media and combined the Karpman Drama Triangle with The Empowerment Dynamic as equal and opposite interactions that occur in triangle relationships within an organization (Dethmer, Chapman & Klemp, 2015).  This became the basis of the Returning to Compassion Model that Diaz utilized in her work with adolescents, eventually becoming a building block to the completed model presented in this study.

During her work with the organization Stand for Courage, which is a group that works to educate children about bullying in schools, Diaz came to understand the role of the bystander.  The bystander is a role that appears consistently in the literature on bullying.  She and I were also engaged in conversations trying to understand interpersonal relationships in terms of “polarities” instead of only a triangular “game”.  In polarities, there are not 3 players; a fourth felt somehow more balanced as we considered polarizing and dual interactions.  I asked if villain (our renamed version of Karpman’s Persecutor) was the opposite of victim, then what was the opposite of Hero (Karpman’s Rescuer)?  The fourth pole, in Diaz’s conception of polarities in scarcity, became the bystander.  The bystander is experiencing the event from a vantage point that holds a feeling of helplessness.  When individuals encounter a situation in which their reaction to the event is inaction, they are a bystander; when the reaction to witnessing an encounter is action, they are a hero.  This completed the second axis of polarizing responses to a situation and added a fourth “player” or respondent to Karpman’s Drama Triangle.  With this inclusion, the beginning of a new model ensued.

Dynamic Interpersonal Model

My contribution in Diaz’s development of the Returning to Compassion model up until this point was entirely philosophical.  I helped by offering my insights and experience of scarcity and abundance, dichotomous thinking, and spectrum thinking. With her adolescent group, they began to describe emotional responses that corresponded with each corner in the scarcity context.  Where the R2C model stopped was including emotional responses in an abundance context.  There were also several other differences in our perception of the model; where we could no longer just say that either of our perceptions were more correct than the others.  Diaz believed that the abundance version of a “bystander” is a “connector”.  I have instead seen this corner of abundance as being the “observer”.  My rational for this came from imagining what a passive bystander in an abundant context, would be doing.  All I could imagine was a psychologist observing behaviors and contemplating their meanings.  The role as observer felt like an intuitive addition and works well with the other three roles in abundance.  Besides changing a role to observer, I also changed my label for its opposite role, to mentor.  Both the R2C and TED models use the label “Coach”.  In the Dynamic Interpersonal Model, I relabeled “coach” as “mentor” primarily due to associations that many people make with the title “coach”.  The other important way this model diverges from the other models is the acknowledgement that there are positive aspects of scarcity as well as negative aspects of abundance.

As our collaboration parted ways, I began to do the preliminary research of what we had anecdotally, philosophically, and in-relationship stumbled across.  I found myself mapping out and providing evidence for the foundation which has now evolved into a model of relationship which I struggled to name, other than to call it “Relative”.  I hung onto this term as I imagined each role existing only in relationship with the other roles.  It was my research mentor (Dr. Lisa Christensen, who suggested the title that felt most appropriate: Dynamic Interpersonal Model

Our experiences in the world are an amalgamation of interactions between our genetic makeup and our infinite number of experiences in a vast sea of past context and present environment.  In other words, each role in this model holds an intention relative to the other three roles and interacts or reacts based on the context that each role is perceived from (scarcity or abundance).  Each individual perception stems from the individual’s experience of past contexts.  Therefore, each interpersonal or intrapersonal interaction is relative to context (scarcity or abundance rooted in individual past context) and intention (villian/challenger, victim/creator, hero/mentor, bystander/observer).  Each role comes with varying gradients of expression or perception that relate to the role they find themselves stuck in.

To break down the model into recognizable pieces, I describe it as being two sides of a coin on which one side resides the context of scarcity and on the other the context of abundance.  The emotional reaction central to scarcity is fear.  When we hold fear in our relationships we contribute to the “drama” of an interaction by not tapering or tempering our automatic and autonomic fear responses.  On the other side of the coin, we find trust at the center of abundance.  When we hold trust in our relationships, we find empowerment and self-efficacy for ourselves and those around us.

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