Have you ever felt like you’re having the same argument over and over again with no resolution? Or do you feel a pressure to act in ways that aren’t authentic and you resent later? Do you find that you take on responsibility for other people’s happiness?
First developed in the 1960’s by Stephen Karpman, the drama triangle describes the role that people take on in conflict. Those roles being the Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim. It is a dynamic model of social interaction and can give you an insight into how you and others around you deal with challenging situations and how to step out of these roles and make positive change in your relationships.
Drama triangles can be painful and emotionally draining situations to be caught in so lets talk a little bit about how they work, how to recognise them and how to step out of them.
The drama triangle
The “roles” in the drama triangle
Here are the three roles Karpman described:
Persecutor: A role that is controlling, oppressive, critical and superior. Their power is expressed with aggression and they criticise and blame their victim. They avoid being vulnerable or wrong for fear of becoming the victim themselves.
Stance: “It’s all your fault!”
Pay off: Feeling superior
Victim:The passive and persecuted underdog, victims feel hopeless and powerless. This makes them unable to make decisions or solve problems for themselves. Victims subconsciously seek out persecutors and rescuers to absolve themselves of responsibility for failure. The latter save the day, but perpetuate victims’ feelings of helplessness.
Stance: “Poor me!”
Pay off: Feeling looked after
Rescuer: An enabler who feels guilty if they don’t go to the rescue. Rescuers find value in being needed by others, but their actions are really an avoidance of their own problems, and their interventions sticking plasters rather than sustainable solutions. We think of rescuing people as a positive but in this situation it is more a case of “I know best for you” and not empowering the ‘victim’ to help themselves
Stance: “Let me help you!”
Pay off: Feeling good about self due to caretaking for others
While these are the extreme examples of these roles, we know people (and see ourselves) playing versions of these roles on a regular basis. Each role depends on the others – Victims depend on a saviour; Rescuers yearn for a basket case; Persecutors need a scapegoat. Each reinforces the behaviour of the others.
Taking part in the drama triangle
The drama triangle can be seen in action in many situations including romantic relationships and the workplace. They are also typical in children stories – think of the typical damsel in distress (victim), a fearless knight in shining armour (rescuer) and the evil step-mother (persecutor). The problem with the drama triangle is that real life is not a fairy tale and being pushed to act in ways we wouldn’t actively choose can actually perpetuate conflict and avoid resolving the underlying issues.
When someone else inhabits a role in the drama triangle, it can push us to take on another. For example, a boss shouting at us (persecutor) can make us feel small and unable to respond (moving us into victim). Seeing someone being targeted by another can put us into rescuer mode to ‘save’ them. Someone playing a victim can make us irritated and push us to be the persecutor. So you can see the complex social interactions involved in the drama triangle.
Moving through roles
We don’t tend to always fit into one role here and we can ‘shapeshift’ between them. We do tend to have one position that we fall into more easily, especially at the beginning of conflict. Here is an example of how this can happen in an imagined conversation between a married couple who’ll name Anna and Ben.
Anna: “You’re late home from work again. You are always late.” (persecutor)
Ben: “The commute home was terrible and I’ve been stuck in stressful traffic for an hour” (victim)
Anna: “Well I see you managed to get a coffee on the way home so it can’t have been that bad” (persecutor)
Ben: “I’m sorry. I will put the kids to bed tonight and cook dinner to make up for it” (rescuer) “Anyway, it’s alright for you working from home without any commuting.” (persecutor)
Anna: “I have to juggle working from home and the children which is really hard. I’m so tired all the time and have no-one to help. I know you resent me working from home” (victim)
Ben: “I don’t resent you. I want to help make it easier for you” (rescuer) “I’m tired too and commuting doesn’t help” (shifts to victim)
You can see here the shifting dynamics between this imaginary couple. They never leave the drama triangle and so nothing is actually resolved.
Empowering yourself out of the drama triangle
It often takes just one person moving out of the triangle to make positive progress and often these roles are unconscious. So the first step is to recognise you are in a drama triangle! Here are some good clues that this is happening, when you or someone else …
- Behaves and responds in ways that are way too intense; rather than responding in a rational way
- Reacts from high emotions rather than logic
- Takes on too much responsibility for someone else’s happiness
- Doesn’t take responsibility for their own happiness
- Often becoming defensive
- Frequently apologising
- Relationship feels unpredictable and chaotic
Understanding the role that you are playing and moving out of it can empower and encourage others to do the same with compassion and self-compassion.
Persecutors can acknowledge their need for control and find ways to increase self-confidence without dominating social interactions. Victims can find support in more direct and positive ways (like seeking counselling) which will empower them rather than expecting to be helped by others. And finally, rescuers should consider the difference between rescuing (taking over) and empowering and supporting others in a way that encourages them to learn to help themselves.
So next time you find yourself in a challenging social situation, have a look at the dynamics of roles you and others are playing. Noticing when we are being pulled into a role by another person will help us to avoid the drama triangle and communicate more effectively with others. This moves you from potentially toxic and dysfunctional social interactions to more healthy and resilient relationships with others. I’d love to hear how you get on!
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder”
– Yumi, ancient poet