Narcissism and Triangulation in Psychology and GeoPolitics

“… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”--William Shakespeare

ately, in the world of intelligence and geopolitics, there is much talk about triangulation, what used to go by the name of Finlandization, now considered an obscene word in the world of diplomacy. “Velvet occupation” seems to be preferred.

In any case the terms refer to the majority of the world’s nations which, being surrounded by much vaster and more powerful countries play both sides of the game attempting to get concessions from both sides of the competition. I suppose, the strategy has been around from time immemorial, since the game of “might makes right” began to be played on the world stage.

Less well known is the fact that the phenomenon of triangulation is even more familiar in the field of psychology and literature, and that moreover, a literary master such as William Shakespeare adopted it in quite a few of his dramas.

As the word triangulation amply suggests, triangles in the early days of modern psychology theories were illustrative of toxic relationship. Not surprisingly, the way to heal those kinds of relationships started taking on a triangular shape as well. Let’s briefly explore what psychological triangulation is all about. It may end up shedding some light on geo-political triangulation as well.


Karpman’s Triangle. The one on the Right shows how to reverse the Negative Trend

Basically the definition of triangulation is about talking about one person to another person so as to keep from directly communicating to the person you are talking about. Usually this kind of communication is an expressed dissatisfaction with the main party who is not addressed directly. Within traditional Irish culture, the worst form of insult is to refuse to talk directly to one’s interlocutor and use the third pronoun “he” or “she” instead of “you.”

This happens often in academia in reviews of books, dissertations, treatises, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Academic careers have been destroyed by innuendos and assumptions never directly and publicly expressed and elucidated. It is a rather surreptitious mode of smearing a reputation and sway others against him/her.

This is how it works: one person sits in the middle and controls information flow between others. He/she becomes the arbiter of information: he/she tells people what he/she wants them to hear and does his/her best to prevent others from openly talking to each other and compare notes. Basically he/she becomes a conduit between parties, in the process he/she is free to remove stuff he/she does not like, twist, even fabricate the information if need be. Thus the correspondents will form opinions and mirror those of the fabricator. Once they have taken the bait, they may never know what exactly is going on. If in this context Wikileak jumps to mind. Well it should.

How does this phenomenon of triangulation function in a dysfunctional family with a narcissist as its head? In this kind of family the assumptions of how normal people think and feel will be mostly inaccurate. This is because the head narcissist does things that the rest of us would never contemplate doing. Things like damaging others’ good name or reputation out of spite or jealousy or simply to display his “brilliance” or arrogant power. As the saying goes “tell a lie often enough and people will begin to accept it.” Feed the misinformation long enough to lots of people and they’ll be indoctrinated and accept the information as the truth.

The illustrated triangles above, perhaps the best known in psychology (with emotions well identified) may furnish a better idea of how the game is played. They clearly show how each party uses negative emotions to create a situation with no resolution, a catch-22, switching roles and a thankless, pointless nonsensical cycle. The last one shows how to get out of the Karpman’s triangle to recover one’s mental health.

For that to occur there must first be an agreement between all three people to stop trying to manipulate and blame each other. They have to agree that the status of the unhappy relationship takes two people, not three, and the only way to resolve it is to recognize one’s own part in the conflict.

The problem is that persecutors have to be right at all cost. It’s their way or the highway. To get their way they use anger and intimidation and, when necessary to ensure compliance, guilt and shame.

Victims can operate on the premise that "you have no integrity; I have the integrity." They are often too committed to pleasing others, can have poor boundaries, can be too eager to forgive and be self effacing, and try to control their own negative emotions (like anger) to always appear perfect, without reproach. They expect to be loved based on their integrity alone. They often use tears to get their way. The 3 people can be, and often are, in interchangeable roles: with the victim acting like a perpetrator to get the original perpetrator to change his rigid manipulative stances.

The roles can stay fixed forever. However, the Karpman's triangle is about roles not being fixed, of being interchangeable where the victim can act like a persecutor, and where the persecutor can act like a victim, and where the rescuer can act like a perpetrator in defending the perpetrator's actions, and another victim to defend the victim's actions.  

On the other hand in the last healthy triangle as elaborated by psychologist Rhoda Mills Sommer two people resolve to give up "dodging, deflecting and blaming" to "honestly face painful situations" and "take responsibility" and "negotiate". This type of triangulation requires risk taking , vulnerability, and authenticity. It requires the development of self-awareness of one’s own dark side instead of blaming others, openness to dialogue instead of self-protecting monologues and narcissism.

In a parent-child relationship for instance, as the persecutor parent blames the victim child for not doing what she is expected and told to do, and escalates the anger and rage to get her way, the victim blames the mother for holding her back (infantilizing; i.e. not respecting that the daughter is an adult with her own way of doing things which may be separate from the mother). The persecutor is blamed by the victim for not loving her enough to stop hurting her, and the victim is blamed by the persecutor for not loving her enough to capitulate to all of the persecutor's demands. Triangulation is typical in alcoholic and narcissistic families.

Let’s demonstrate now with some of Shakespeare’s plays. In doing so it may become more apparent how the world of psychology can be applied to that of geo-politics. We will briefly peruse three plays: King Lear, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet.

In King Lear the question arises: Who is at fault for King Lear dying on exposure in a storm. Cordelia for not pleasing her fathers? Goneril and Regan for lying to their father about their feelings and intentions? King Lear for expecting the flattery of his daughters to ensure his happiness and care in old age? Everyone has a part, but can any one person be blamed for the unfolding of events?

MacBeth: Who is at fault for the tragedy here? MacBeth, the witches, Lady MacBeth, Banquo or the murderers? It seems like there are a lot of people who contribute to the tragedy; one person would be hard-pressed to do it all alone.

Romeo and Juliet: Who is at fault for the lovers’ double suicide? Mercutio, Tybalt, Lady Capulet who insists that Juliet marry Paris, the prince of Verona who banishes Romeo, the nurse who insists that Juliet forget all about Romeo and do what her parents desire by marrying Paris, Friar Lawrence for giving Juliet a fake vial of poison, the reluctant Apothecary who gives Romeo some real poison, the entire families of Capulets and Montagues, or Romeo and Juliet themselves?

In alcoholic and narcissistic families sometimes an authority figure decides who is to blame for everything that goes wrong in a family: a scapegoat. In King Lear, for instance, Cordelia would be blamed for everything that went wrong. So, to keep with a scapegoating agenda, the play would have to be rewritten so that Shakespeare and all of the characters he created would all blame Cordelia. What she was blamed for would not stop at not flattering her father, the king, but would grow by leaps and bounds. Perhaps Cordelia would be blamed for too much honesty, and through default for inspiring her sisters to lie. Cordelia would be termed ungrateful for choosing honesty over dishonest flattery as her two evil sisters had done. The sisters would have been seen as doing what is best by casting Lear out into a storm. Cordelia would somehow be blamed for her father being in the storm and exposed to the elements, perhaps because she was also cast out and thereby should have magically found her father and taken responsibility for him. Cordelia would also be blamed for Lear's death, of course.

Anything else that might have implicated another character in the play would be Cordelia's fault as well. The writer would desperately grasp at anything that would always make Cordelia responsible for the events in her family, while making everyone else innocent. A glance, rolling eyes, a feeling by Cordelia would be blackened by the narrator to make her motives seem sinister. She would be villainized and tortured for all of it. It might not have been enough that she was merely banished. The rack and the screw might have been used too. Meanwhile Goneril and Regan would have been exonerated, held in the highest regard. This is typical alcoholic, narcissistic dysfunctional family thinking.

Shakespeare is wiser than this: he knows that there are nuances that go into the making of a family tragedy: everyone has a part that contributes to the ultimate ending of the story. He knew that relationships require disagreements in order to remain authentic; they require dialogue. In the scapegoat family dynamic one person is chosen on whom to blame any issue that proves painful or uncomfortable, or makes someone look bad. Here the triangulation consists of the alcoholic, the enablers and the scapegoat. Even when the scapegoat leaves the family, another family scapegoat is adopted.

Then there is the dysfunctional narcissistic family triangulation which consists of the bully golden child (one thinks of Donald Trump’s spoiled childhood), who is always receiving special treatment and learns early in life to bully, to charm, to lie and to manipulate, the Narcissistic parent who believes that the bully golden child can do no wrong and the scapegoat child can do no right. The bully golden child and the narcissistic parent sycophantically flatter each other while bullying the scapegoat. Here the narcissistic parent rather than referee sibling rivalry will manipulate the children in order to obtain what he wants out of them. They encourage the sibling rivalry so that they compete for parental love. As all narcissists those parents or parent figures (here again Donald Trump jumps to mind) are addicted to flattery, praise, power and control over others and will resort to unethical behavior to get it.

A narcissist cannot stand to feel criticized and will severely punish those who even come close to suggesting that he may be a less than perfect parent. So complaints about the golden bully boy are not acceptable. The bullied or scapegoated children learn to keep quiet about the abuse and accept the label of “difficult child.” The family becomes a perfect family doing quite well in the eyes of society.

From the brief outline above we may conclude that triangulation is an indirect dynamic of communication and behaviors involving more than two people that are unhealthy and unwholesome. The trademarks of triangulation are covert operations, deceit and abuse. The simple definition of triangulation is: one individual attacking, discrediting (smearing) or/ and abusing another person with the use of third-party people or institutions.

The question arises: can this psychological theory be applied as well to polities and institutions. I think it can. Institutions and societies can also fall into triangulation. Just think of Plato’s Republic which in some way reflects the ancient Greek belief that to have a republic of virtue one needs individuals of virtue and wholesome character forming it. It is not the well governed city that produces virtuous individuals but the other way around. That ultimately means that individuals retain responsibility for a badly governed and corrupt city or society.

The narcissist is severely emotionally stunted and underdeveloped. Regardless of how mentally high functioning a narcissist appears to be, or how successful he might have become in some field of endeavor, he or she has the emotional intelligence of an angry, irrational young child. The narcissist has such intense disowned inner parts of shame and self-loathing, that he/she not only behaves abysmally (on a hair-line trigger) after perceiving any criticism (intended or not), he or she has to disown any accountability to these knee-jerk reactions. Here we have the example of the present occupier of the White House.

The narcissist has tried to amputate him or herself away from his or her dark and painful inner shadows unsuccessfully. They still exist, and because he/she will not embrace them, take responsibility for them, or heal them they are super-imposed onto the targeted person. Thus the narcissist, in his or her maladapted thinking, believes you are the pathological person acting out atrocious behavior and that he or she is the victim.

The narcissistic (unconsciously) attacks and tries to destroy the parts of him or herself that he or she despises – the parts that have been projected on to you. This is the irony of narcissistic abuse – the narcissist acts out and abuses you and then blames you for these acts and seeks to punish your further. The narcissist is totally oblivious that the fueling of his or her narcissistic rage is self-hatred. You just happen to be the container ‘holding’ these projected split-off parts.

The very definition of unconsciousness is the inability to self-reflect. This retards all ability to grow, heal and evolve – and this is narcissism personified. Is this is what Socrates meant by his dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living?” Without self-reflection is left with the unconscious and its outbursts.

The triangulation process begins when the narcissist acts narcissistically toward someone, the abused person reacts, and is then classified by the narcissist as ‘the enemy’.

According to the narcissist’s disordered psyche brutal offence is necessary in order to survive. The narcissist truly believes the threat needs to be eliminated, and he or she needs to get the upper hand and disable you before you attack. The Christian maxim “do unto others as you’d want them to do unto you” is turned into “do unto them before they do unto you.” One is adored and then abhorred on a dime. It is a process of dehumanization that can be devastating for those who experience it.

What has happened is that the narcissist has regressed back to the stunted childhood wounds deeply embedded inside him or her, when he/she felt victimized, unacceptable, unlovable, powerless, in short violated. But the wounds are disowned and so they take a life of their own and powerfully control the narcissist’s personality. The demons producing pain, panic and rage are projected on to someone else and the person on whom they have been projected is destroyed with the wounds. The cycle is repeated person after person but never producing healing.

So the narcissist has the capacity to dehumanize and demonize anyone on whom his shadows are projected. You have a terrified child in an aggressive adult’s body doing what he thinks is needed to stop the assault he/she imagines you are capable of and from which he/she feels powerless to defend from. Allies have to be recruited.

Triangulation is a tactic he or she has generally mastered at a very early age. Virtually every narcissist does it, and it is one of the absolute trademarks of narcissism. It is underpinned by deep deception. One recruits an organization or another person to do one’s bidding. Most narcissist are amoral and situational. It all depends on the circumstances and the end justifies the means. The narcissist is adept at lying pathologically. His/her brain is disorderly wired to the point that he/she believes his/her own lies. The kind of brain they possess with hard wired neuron pathways for self-avoidance are very good in creating stories and alternate realities which will justify the telling of lies. They have perfected over a life-time the art of acting out emotions in order to manipulate.

Organisations often have no option other than to get involved with the narcissist’s lies, because it’s their job to investigate claims of child-abuse, criminal activity, fraud, tax-evasion, violence etc.

One of the most simplest and profound realisations is this: when we have unresolved trauma it is trapped in our bodies. It then has ‘a life of its own’. What this means is we have internalised the abuser, and the abusive acts and we remain bonded to them, and we will continue re-creating that abuse over and over again.

Given all those premises, how would geopolitical triangulation mirror psychological triangulation?

Let’s substitute person A B C above in the triangulation above with three political entities. The Russian Federation which is an enormous territory spanning eleven time zones borders with another vast territory comprised of a confederation of 27 nations, the European Union. One of those two does not wish to respect the boundary of the other. To get around that boundary, without provoking a major conflict, political entity B establishes a relationship with a third polity which does not belong to the Union or the Confederation, let’s say Norway, or the Ukraine, as we see in the TV series Okkupart, already examined in another article in MD.

Triangulation has de facto occurred. As such, if indeed it mirrors the psychological triangulation above examined, it is a toxic relationship, not one based on mutual respect of each other’s autonomy and on dialogue but one based on raw Machiavellian power (might makes right) and control of the weaker entity by the more powerful, all accomplished by abusing a third entity which has been velvet occupied, not with an army but with disinformation, deception, cyber-space, manipulation. It used to be called Finlandization: we will leave you sovereign with a truncated autonomy as long as you stay in our sphere of influence. Now it is called “velvet occupation.”

The geo-political experts would like us to believe that it is to the advantage of the weaker nations that they triangulate and play one power against another agreeing with both or perhaps disagreeing with both, which is another form of corruption because the weaker nations who decide to triangulate remain under the influence of or the other nation and never learn to be free and autonomous. In other words, as we see in the series Okkupert, which has been vehemently protested by the Russian ambassador in Norway, liberty, autonomy and democracy are progressively weakened till some patriots decide to resist, as we see in the movie. Just as on the psychological plane, triangulation appears as a solution but it is ultimately toxic for a free democratic society, the same thing may be happening on the political level. Is it is a mere mode of survival of the fittest?

As mentioned, this line of thought is valid as long as we accept the Platonic-Aristotelian idea (which is not Machiavellian nor Hobbesian) that it is virtuous citizens who form a republic of virtue and not a republic of virtue that forms virtuous citizens. I suppose the dialogue, if one is desirable and preferable to another World War, needs to begin with Plato’s Republic, go through Augustine’s City of God, Machiavelli’s Prince, Hobbes’ Leviathan, the Declaration of Independence, and Marx Das Kapital but the ultimate concern needs to remain the preservation of democracy, liberty, and our very humanity. As Kierkegaard reminded us; the sickness unto death consists in being sick and not even consciously know it. For once we have lost our humanity, everything else will not matter any longer.

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.


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