Susan Dunlop: Lead Believe Create

Our Childhood Responses to Fear and the DDT Roles™

Understanding these responses has been a pivotal step in my personally breaking the generational cycle of drama and moving towards empowered ways of engaging with life’s challenges.

This is part two of the five part series sharing an interesting, relatable topic of work that led me to become a certified facilitator delivering training to organisations and individuals.

Fear is a fundamental part of the human experience, shaping our responses and behaviours from a young age.

One of the reasons I chose to deliver this meaningful work is because I had experienced a lifetime of overactive fight, flight and freeze reactivity. It began at eight, and I carried it through as an undercurrent to how I operated as a self-started business owner, a high- or over-achiever, and burnout. Not saying there wasn’t joy, successes and highlights galore, and personally we had family trips, and many magic moments. However, I am being honest here.

That undercurrent stayed, humming away underneath all of the good and the hard times. No wonder I always felt like I was at the end of my tether, fearful, at risk of failing, being not good enough, and that fulfillment was a mile away for me to attain, if I ever could.

I sold my company to a national competitor and exited sixteen years after I started it. In 2016 I took a gap year to travel the world. Next I restarted with certifications in the work that I found meaningful, and helpful to my clients.

Still, during this next iteration of me, I didn’t address what I’d buried from my childhood. Not at first.

I looked back to see when this shift began for me. It was 2019. I started journalling, to connect the dots of my childhood experience and found it rocked me to my core. I walked into my GP, explained what I was feeling, like I was unsafe, vigilant. She gave me a box of tissues to stem the flow of tears, and said ‘I’ll get you in to see a psychologist, experienced in childhood trauma, to help you with strategies to manage your cPTSD’. My what! cPTSD, who me?

To think that only came to light in my 50s blew my mind and broke my heart.

Thankfully, the work I had come across in 2018, TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic), the antidote to the Dreaded Drama Triangle, arrived at the right time for me. I completely understood its message! So, whilst I was immersing myself in therapy, I interwove learning, training and eventually became a certified facilitator in it. It helped me, before I could help others, through my delivery of it. I get it. It worked!

Important note: you, as a manager or leader, may not have experienced childhood trauma. However if you are in a business where you employ people, or serve people, many of those people will be survivors.

How important is it to you as a leader to understand how your people think, how they’re operating, and how they’re taking action?

It’s not healthy nor sustainable to operate by ignoring it and studies have proven that reactivity and drama are costly in all kinds of ways to you and your business, in terms of financial, time, productivity and effectiveness.

The Dreaded Drama Triangle™ sheds light on the roles individuals assume in challenging situations. At its core are three primary roles: the Victim, reacting to the perceived Persecutor, and seeking salvation from the Rescuer. These roles often become ingrained as default ways of thinking and relating, influencing our actions and interactions in adulthood.

The Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT™) is a framework developed by David Emerald, co-founder of the Center for The Empowerment Dynamic. It is a more in-depth framework than its origin, Dr Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle (image below).

Dr Stephen Karpman's Drama Triangle and its toxic roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer
The training I deliver touches lightly on Dr Karen Horney’s classifications of childhood responses to fear, giving participants a moment to reflect and accept how amazing and resilient we were as children.
Dr Karen Horney (1885-1952), a German psychoanalyst who practised in the United States during her later career, wrote that children adopt strategies to safeguard themselves.
Karen Horney’s research provides valuable insights into how children adapt to perceived dangers, shaping their interactions and strategies for self-protection.

Dr Horney classified a child’s responses to fear, further elucidating these drama roles we play:

  1. Moving toward people to please, accommodate, and be helpful. From a child’s perspective, if I please others, they will love and care for me. This is the strategy of a Rescuer.
  2. Moving away from others to avoid, withdraw, observe, and wait. This is based upon the child’s belief that if they isolate and “stay above the fray” they will be safe. This feeds the perspective of the Victim.
  3. Moving against others by being aggressive. Here the child develops the idea that, if they use control and domination, they will manage their environment to get what they want. This is the defensive strategy of a Persecutor.
Understanding these childhood responses illuminates our default patterns of relating and interacting. All three are strategies of protection from the dangers of life. The reality is that we all play all three roles.

It offers a lens through which we can examine our own reactions to stress or danger. Recognising that these roles stem from childhood survival strategies helps us consciously navigate our responses in adulthood.

Awareness of this helps us to be more self-loving and empathetic and have compassion for how we get about in life. We get to understand how others we live or work with may be operating. It highlights how these reactive roles impact adult behaviour and offers insights into making conscious behavioural shifts.

I found that exploring these childhood strategies helped me to recognise and shift my own default patterns of behaviour.

I had not joined the dots of my childhood trauma and the way I was operating as an adult until I was in my 40s.

Wasn’t the way I communicated, or avoided, or how I ‘flew the coop’, as I am prone to do in times of stress, just me being me? I knew people would observe me doing that. It made me feel less than them. It could drop me quickly into a downward spiral, which happened often. Yet, there wasn’t something I could grasp hold of at that time, that let me see how to break the cycle. I did feel like I owned my own reactivity more often because I could see me playing out the drama triangle roles and I’d pull myself up on them when I could. What it did do was it let me see the drama triangle in action everywhere!

Thankfully, my life journey took me around a corner to find the work that mattered to me and others in 2018!

I now help the people I work with to become present, practice vulnerability and compassion, be in the moment, learn a new language of empowerment. They get to choose then to take that into their most important relationships. From that place they will find themselves having more grace, clarity and ease. The choices that they will see available to them are considered, no longer reactive, and will lead them into action. However, they will now be actions worth taking and are inspired by what they really want in life.

I’ll close out this blog with three journal prompts that may assist you in reflecting on your experiences. They’re examples of exercises we cover in the 3 Vital Questions™ bringing the Power of TED*™ to Life and Work facilitated program I deliver.

  1. Reflect on Childhood Responses: Explore moments from your childhood when you might have exhibited behaviours similar to those described by Karen Horney—seeking approval, withdrawing, or being aggressive; or a mix of the three. How do these behaviours resonate with your early experiences? How might they have influenced your reactions to stress or danger in your adult life?
  2. Identify Present Patterns: Take a moment to observe your current reactions to challenging situations. Do you notice any parallels between your childhood responses and your present behaviours? How do these reactions manifest in your relationships or interactions? Are there any patterns you recognise that might be linked to past experiences?
  3. Exploring Healing and Growth: Consider areas in your life where you feel empowered to make positive changes. How can understanding your childhood strategies for safety contribute to your healing journey? What steps can you take to consciously shift away from default patterns towards more empowering responses in your present circumstances?
I hope that these prompts will encourage introspection and self-awareness, allowing you to connect your childhood experiences with your current behaviours and paving the way for conscious healing and growth.
This is the second of five weekly posts in the series focused on the two mindsets of Victim and Creator. Next week’s post will be an easy-to-follow post describing the Dreaded Drama Triangle™ Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer Roles. It includes what they sound like, how it feels, and the related behaviours. Plus a few points that will help you to begin the shift.

Please reach out if you want to explore the DDT™ and TED*™ more. There are a variety of options to bring these frameworks into your life and help you make the shift from DDT™ to TED*™.

Take care,


*I share this information here as a certified Facilitator in TED*™ (*The Empowerment Dynamic) and the 3 Vital Questions™. Both are frameworks developed by David Emerald of The Center for The Empowerment Dynamic. I highly recommend reading David’s foundational book, The Power of TED*, available on Amazon and Audible.

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