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Masterson’s Triad

The New York psychoanalyst James Masterson has always been one of my favourite authors, ever since I saw him at that memorable conference ‘The Evolution of Psychotherapy’ in Hamburg, Germany, in 1994. For me Masterson’s key discovery is what he first called the ‘borderline triad’ and later the ‘triad of the disorders of the self’ when he extended the concept to schizoid and narcissistic personality traits.

I prefer to call this concept ‘Masterson’s triad’ to honour its author and to make it sound less pathological. In fact the triad has become an everyday perspective for my application of Logosynthesis, for many different trainees and clients, and you don’t need a personality disorder diagnosis to feel how it touches your bones. Masterson’s triad is one of the concepts from which the Logosynthesis multi-level model of dissociation emerged. Other roots of that model are Freud’s primary and secondary process as well as Eric Berne’s structural ego state analysis.

Masterson’s triad says: “Self-expression leads to activation of the abandonment depression, which in turn leads to defence.” In Logosynthesis terms: As soon as Essence becomes active in your life, you’ll become aware of your own uniqueness, of your task in this world, of the meaning of your life. If this uniqueness is expressed, the pain first order dissociation is triggered, which is then avoided through the many mechanisms of second order dissociation.

This seems paradoxical. You might expect that the expression of your Self, your manifested Essence, would be a joyous moment, and indeed it is, for many people. However, for people who have been suffering from loneliness, abandonment, failure and trauma in their early childhood – first order dissociation – expression of the Self has a set of disastrous consequences, which eventually make them forget what they’re here for on this earth.

The reason why children are abandoned or rejected is rooted in the nature of life itself: Children enter this world after a sometimes painful period of pregnancy and birth and they disrupt the routine of the adults who are responsible for their wellbeing. A child has physical and psychological needs, which need to be fulfilled to enable a healthy development of body and mind. Parents are often overwhelmed by this task, and children immediately notice this. They react with strong feelings of loneliness and abandonment if their needs are not met, and these feelings can freeze into childhood trauma if they’re intense or repetitive.

In this way, the foundation is laid for the first leg of Masterson’s triad. The person understands at a very deep level that their arrival into the world has led to discomfort and suffering of the parents. That discomfort limited the parents’ potential to take care of the child. The child feels abandoned and rejected as a result of this discomfort and reaches the deep, mainly unconscious conclusion that something is terribly wrong with them: Before the child was there, the parents had an easier, more joyful life.

This conclusion has consequences for the expression of the Self. The person discovers that when they show their uniqueness, when they show what they want, parents get angry, irritated, sad, impatient, or they just go away, leaving the child in a state of utter despair. Staying there is worse than giving up your Self. The child is not yet aware that parents have their own traumatic history and that this world is an environment full of pain.

This is how second leg of Masterson’s triad develops: Once the child experiences the pain of first order dissociation, the abandonment depression as Masterson calls it, it tries to ease this pain and to reconnect to the environment, at the costs of its own uniqueness and its mission in life. The abandonment is so painful that the child will grasp any option to soothe it. Counting 2+2 together in its limited mind, the child starts to try to reduce the expression of the Self to match the expectations of the parents. The child starts to explore its environment looking for ways to belong again.

Solutions are often found in adaptation, pleasing the parents by trying to be strong, to be perfect or to become invisible. Later in life, you can also try to reduce the pain by drugs, alcohol or risky behaviour. As a result, your mission disappears into the background, in the service of physical and emotional survival. This process, second order dissociation, stands in the way of taking your place in society, expressing your Self, manifesting your Essence.

If you want to discover and live your own, unique potential and to learn the skills necessary to express that potential, Masterson’s triad can become active, often completely unexpected. In the group last weekend, Harriet discovered how she was held back in taking a leading position in the business of her retiring husband. She had all the skills and experience, but there was an inhibition to take the lead, a defence mechanism in Masterson’s terms.

In the analysis it turned out that a position of joy and wealth didn’t match with the hard life of her parents after the war. Living such a life would mean that she wouldn’t be loyal to her parents and that they would reject her. Accessing and neutralising a memory that represented the childhood drama helped her to resolve the pain of first order dissociation, and as a consequence, the reluctance of second order dissociation. At the end of the demo, Harriet stood straight, proudly prepared to take her responsibility in life.

As far as I’m aware, Logosynthesis is the only school of psychotherapy that really resolves the triad, because it’s possible to stop the reactivation of the first or even zero order dissociation. Before, as professionals, we could only interpret a client’s thoughts, emotions and behaviours within the triad, and even though this can be very helpful, the trauma stayed active under the surface. Accessing and neutralising the frozen memories, fantasies and beliefs of early childhood with the help of the Logosynthesis system of guided change sets the stage for living your purpose.

If you’re not familiar with Logosynthesis’ dissociation model, I recommend you to read my 2015 handbook for the helping professions. Understanding different levels of dissociation is of key importance in psychotherapy and very useful in coaching.