The Merry-Go-Round (MGR) is a model for better understanding interactions between people and events, and our responses to those interactions. It operates as a powerful and often unconscious force. The concepts in the MGR help us better understand what motivates us to behave in ways we don’t like. The MGR framework provides specific tools to relieve suffering.
Briefly, there are four main positions called clusters on the MGR. Cluster I is the Aggressor/Controller/Critic. Cluster II is the Rescuer, in which one focuses on helping others rather than taking care of self, with the payoff being not having to deal with one’s own issues. Cluster III is the Victim, which has two positions: helpless and overwhelmed, or passive/aggressive. Custer IV is the Demand position, in which preferences become rigidly attached to specific outcomes.
Riding any position on the MGR makes you and others suffer. Since the ride is uncomfortable the natural tendency is to switch positions. It’s called the Merry-Go-Round because moving to another position doesn’t solve anything and you still suffer; the ride continues.
The Merry-Go-Round is a description of an archetypal force prevalent in people’s lives, a model developed by Errol Schubot, Ph.D., a CA licensed clinical psychologist.
According to Errol, the MGR expands on a concept called the Drama Triangle, developed out of Transactional Analysis by Stephen Karpman, M.D. You can learn more about the Drama Triangle, which was originally published in 1968, at www.karpmandramatriangle.com.
The MGR has similarities with a framework developed by Eckhart Tolle in his books, The Power of Now (September 2004) and A New Earth (January 2008), called the Pain Body. Tolle postulates the existence of an invisible pain body for each person. Pain bodies increase emotional wounding and mental suffering, and often work unconsciously to collude with other pain bodies to grow and feed.
We have all run into people caught in Cluster I, which is the Aggressor/Controller/Critic position. Intimidation, strong criticism, blame and shame, one-upmanship and dictating what people do are all tactics used when caught here. Making it all the other person’s fault, constantly finding fault and harsh criticism are standard. Dominating and manipulating, rejecting others, killing and annihilating are extremes of Cluster I behavior.
People sometimes find themselves on Cluster II, the Rescuer position, with the intention of helping others. The distinction between helping people from a healthy place and being on the MGR in this position is that help, when offered from an overflow and a position of well-being, is positive and useful. When you don’t take care of yourself, and put all your attention on helping others, then you suffer. The payoff is you don’t have to feel your own difficult emotions. You are so busy taking care of others’ business that you don’t have to deal with your own. Solving others’ problems, telling them what to do, defending people, denying your own needs or living to please others are examples of Cluster II behaviors.
The Victim position has two seats. The first is the helpless, flattened, or overwhelmed person, and the second is a person who feels victimized, but responds with passive/aggressive behaviors. Feeling not good enough or worthless, defeated, shamed or collapsed are indicators of being caught on Cluster III. Habitually avoiding conflict and ignoring your own wants are Cluster III behaviors.
The Demand position is often involved with the other Clusters. When you become so attached to the outcome of what happens that it has to go your way, you suffer when it doesn’t. Preferences can easily slide into strong attachment to how it turns out. If you are riding the Victim position after being confronted by someone on the Aggressor/Controller/Critic position, it’s easy to switch to the demand that the Aggressor behave differently. Cravings, becoming obsessed with having something or someone and always wanting more are signs of being caught on Cluster IV.
Relationships on the Merry-Go-Round
With permission, here are descriptions by Errol of what life is like in relationships caught up on the MGR:
You are more interested in proving you are right and the other wrong than healing the relationship. You are unwilling to understand the other’s point of view. There is no listening. When the other talks you are planning your rebuttal. Interruptions prevent anyone from really expressing their point of view fully. Like a lawyer you build a case to prove your point of view is the right one.
There are no skills for negotiating and compromising; it is my way or your way or the highway. You have no understanding or empathy for the other’s struggle. Many fights include the question of whether to stay or leave the relationship.
You tell your story to others with the expectation that they will agree with you and take your side against the other. You actually get others to agree with you and judge the other. When you talk to the other, you are always defending yourself. You feel like you are accused of being “the bad person”. You have lost trust in each other and faith in the relationship. You do not always believe the other is telling the truth. You begin to avoid each other in order not to fight.
You remember back through time to all previous and similar upsets when the other was also wrong. When you are fighting about something in the now you are also experiencing similar times in the past when you were upset.
You are afraid to become vulnerable because you believe you will just be hurt. You blame the other for your upsets rather than taking responsibility for being upset. You do not have any skills to soothe your upset when you are in conflict. You believe the other needs to change in some fundamental way. You want to punish the other and get even. Your energy is weakened by the relationship.
You don’t believe you are on the Merry-Go-Round, and you are more focused on what the other did to you. You go over and over the same territory when you do talk and you get nowhere. When you speak, the other quickly defends her or him-self, and you do not believe you were even heard. When you or they talk, often there is more interest in expressing intense feelings rather than communicating information. You both do not anticipate problems and plan ahead; rather you wait until there is a crisis and attempt to manage it.
You do not know how to make agreements together and keep them. Questions you ask are not asked for information but rather to challenge the other (How could you……?). When you speak, one primary intention is to convince the other of the right way of viewing things. You feel so unsafe with the other, you are always planning to retreat, escape or leave. You think about all the people you can talk to without this struggle and use that as a way of blaming the other for the conflict. You are attempting to give the other advice or attempting to change the other to become a “better person”.
Underneath it all, the relationship struggles make you doubt yourself. You experience the other as too demanding. The other rarely lives up to the ideal person you once hoped for or knew. Struggles are not resolved – rather they are put aside and you and the other just go on. When struggles are not resolved, you feel more distant each time. You cannot imagine how to have a struggle in a relationship without being on the Merry-Go-Round and experiencing all these negative patterns.
As you can see, life in relationship on the MGR is not fun or easy, and can lead to despair.
Getting Off the Merry-Go-Round
The easiest way off of the MGR is to let go of demands. You don’t have to give up your preferences, but pay attention to accepting things as they turn out. Relaxing demands and letting go of expectations of outcome allow a person to find more peace in life.
If you are in the victim position, the easiest way off is to make choices. If you are choosing, even if you don’t like the choices, then you don’t feel helpless. You don’t resent the situation or person as much if you are consciously choosing.
The way off of the Rescuer position is to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, to recognize whether you are OK or not, and to take care of yourself. If you are fundamentally OK, and can offer help to others, then that’s fulfilling and useful. It is important to monitor whether you are depleting yourself and to have a line past which you stop and take care of yourself. A good indication of whether you are actually giving someone help with no strings attached is whether you are building up resentment, or thinking that the person you are helping owes you great thanks or some other return.
People often become aggressive or critical and controlling out of insecurity. The aggression, criticism or control does not directly address the insecurity. Becoming mindful of your fears and facing the fears, rather than trying to control others, allows you to step off of Cluster I.
Here are some of Errol’s suggestions for what life is like off the Merry-Go-Round and how to get there:
Stay in your truth
Look for the positive
Listen to the other’s point of view
Accept that there is always more than one point of view
Learn to communicate
Reflect back what you heard the other say
Negotiate differences and compromise
Use I messages — not you messages
Keep your agreements and commitments
Allow others to solve their own problems
Let go of past hurts and upsets
Take a break when you are on the Merry-Go-Round
Let go of your demand to have it all your way
Accept each other for having limitations
Connect to a higher power
Pray together and ask for guidance
Make up your own mind
Set effective boundaries
Balance your own needs with those of others