Escaping the Drama Triangle
Do you ever find yourself in repetitive conflict, trying your best to solve the problem, but instead everything gets worse? You and whoever you are in conflict with, might be falling into the temping trap of the Drama Triangle.
What is the Drama Triangle?
Developed by Stephen Karpman and born out of the Transactional Analysis approach to Psychotherapy, the Drama Triangle depicts three roles that are taken on during unhelpful and destructive conflict. The Drama Triangle is an interpersonal interaction pattern that might be unintentional, but often these roles are engaged in to work out some other result – a relational one – rather than the actual problem at hand. This pattern of interacting is, unhelpful and acts as a barrier to problem-solving, connection, and accountability.
It involves three roles, although not all of them need to be filled at any given moment. These roles are not permanent, and people often oscillate between roles during conflict. Most of us have a role that we gravitate towards, most often because playing that role has gotten us results in the past. It is important to note that these roles are not who the person is in life. Rather, they simply denote a specific behavioural pattern of interaction – how they are rather than who they are.
The victim sees themselves as passive, life happens to them, and they feel powerless to affect their situation. The victim, in this model, is not an actual victim (e.g., domestic violence or abuse); rather, they feel and act like a victim. They see themselves as oppressed, helpless, dejected and powerless and often deny responsibility for their role in their problems. The victim needs to be saved or rescued as they don’t believe they have the power to stand up for themselves. The victim takes the stance of “I’m blameless!”
The Persecutor criticizes and blames others, often the victim. They behave in ways that come off to others as strict, controlling, and unforgiving. The persecutor role keeps the victim feeling powerless through bullying, and in turn, needs a victim in order to stay in the persecutor role. The persecutor often yells and directs but does not actually help to solve any problems. The Persecutor’s stance is, “I’m right!”
The rescuer is usually the enabler. The rescuer might feel guilty if they don’t jump in to help the victim or believe that the victim is incapable of advocating for themselves and therefore needs the rescuer to save them. While their actions take the form of helping, they really keep the victim in a position of helplessness and give the rescuer a feeling of superiority. They often focus on others’ needs while ignoring their own. The rescuer takes the stance, “I’m good!”
The drama triangle is maintained because each person gets some psychological need met through their role. Nobody wins in this triangle – the only thing you get is drama.
Escaping the Drama Triangle
The drama triangle is anxiety-based and problem-focused. Each role is fearful of owning their own experience and being accountable to others, so they focus their attention outward. To escape the triangle, the first step is to recognize your role. Next, turn your attention inwards and reflect on what needs you are trying to have met through the dysfunctional role you have taken on. Last, to step out of that role, acknowledge your needs and step into your power by taking on a new role with new behaviours.
Acey Choy developed The Winners Triangle to depict the shift in behaviours each role could take to move towards helpful communication.
Victimized to Vulnerable
A victim is blameless and, therefore, powerless to change their situation. Instead, opt for vulnerability – acknowledge you are struggling. Accept your situation and your responsibility to take action to change it.
Rescuing to Caring
Rescuing takes power away from others and keeps you from acknowledging your own needs and experiences. Instead, focus on caring – empathize with others’ feelings but respect them enough to allow them to cope however they see fit. This frees up your time and energy to focus on your own needs and supports the confidence and competence of others.
Persecuting to Asserting
When you are acting as a persecutor, you bully and threaten punishment to control others. This is likely done as a way to protect yourself. Instead, be assertive. Acknowledge that you have needs and take on the responsibility of doing and asking. Take action to meet your own needs and ask to have them met. Asserting your needs and experience in ways that are not intimidating and controlling often has the effect of softening others, allowing them to take accountability rather than defend or collapse.