There’s this concept in psychology called triangulation. It’s when a two-people problem seeks resolution, solution or a state of rest through involving a third person. If you’ve ever had a parent turn towards you and frustratingly say ‘Can you believe them? Not this again’ about your other parent, this is you being triangulated. Or when a friend asks you to ask someone something for them, this is triangulation.
It can work, or it can make matters worse. It can be stable triangulation (a consistent, long-term interaction that doesn’t blow up) or it can be unstable triangulation (ineffective, volatile). Either way, it usually isn’t great for the third wheel.
Now, for those of us who have been repetitively (and non-consensually) been put in this position, I think we might end up unfortunately familiar with eye rolls in our direction, conversations that shouldn’t involve us left intentionally open for us to finish, and worst of all, the instinct to step in and help when things aren’t really our problem.
While some situations are easier to avoid: moving out, moving country, moving job, changing friends - it can be harder to get rid of the instinct, familiarity and drive to ‘just fix things in front of us’. And this isn’t great.
Especially when entering a world of much more diverse social connection: the not-always-present willingness to step in and help, advise and resolve every little problem our senses pick up can be perceived as caring, empathetic, kind, admirable, moral. When this instinct you should’ve never grown so far is encouraged and selected for in friends and jobs, how do you know it’s actually good for everyone and you, and how do you stop it?
Now, I’m not saying that being helpful and empathetic is bad, if anything, it’s one good thing out of this whole situation, but it’s about context and reason. It’s not good for a child to need to be highly empathetic, emotionally and intellectually challenged to a high degree when they are supposed to be a bit selfish. Learn to hear and answer their own needs. Trust themselves and that they are being taken care of.
The adults that grow out of these prematurely-empathetic children can be outwards-facing, anxious, problem-solvers who neglect to take proper care and give kindness to themselves. Not ideal.
I’ve started to ask myself if I’m triangulating by instinct. Even though I rarely triangulate with two people (I’m quite avoidant and aware of this situation unfolding), I still create my new version of triangulation I hadn’t even realised I was doing. Triangulating when the second person isn’t there.
When someone complains or shows signs of distress to me, I insert myself immediately: what’s the situation? What do they want? What are their needs? What is the problem? How can we solve it?
I insert myself into problems that aren’t mine. I interpret problems as mine to solve. I instinctively and often without question try to quieten my inner anxiety at any sign of difficulty in others by helping to solve their problems.
Because I avoid literally being the third person, I thought I’d stopped it. But in 1:1 conversations with others, I’m still a triangulator. It isn’t great.
I’m getting over it by realising:
- I hated having to do this, I’m still doing it but not even seeing that I am. I’m still triangulating.
- Not all problems are mine to be solved. I need better boundaries with what does and doesn’t concern me: a lot doesn’t.
- Not all support needs to look like problem solving. Listening, being empathetic, understanding, open-minded, kind and just there is also support.
- Not all problems need solutions. Not all problems can be solved. I’m not equipped to solve all problems. When I see my problem-solving as misguided confidence or blind ignorance, I am more likely to stop it.
And so I’m hopefully becoming healthier, calmer, and more balanced by removing the patterns of behaviour I never enjoyed in the first place.
PS. this is of course just my opinion and perspective - none if this is established truth - I hope it resonates with someone else like me, if it helps, it’s good enough I hope :)