Many of us don’t do conflict well. For some conflict becomes downright dramatic. Karpman’s Drama Triangle is a social model of dysfunctional human conflict coined by Stephen Karpman M.D.. The Drama Triangle depicts three primary roles we occupy when caught in a neurotic, circular form of conflict. They are: the Victim, the Persecutor, and the Rescuer.
The thinking of each role fuels the others. The Victim’s thinking is one of hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness, oppression, and shame. They say or think things like, “Poor me”, “Everyone betrays me.” “I always end up on the short end of the stick.” “Why does this always happen to me?” “No one can help me.” “Why does he always do this to me?”, etc. A Victim blames the Persecutors in their lives for their problems (while at the same time unconsciously seeking them out). It is the boss, the spouse, the mother in law, the neighbor, etc., that are causing all the Victim’s problems. They shirk taking responsibility for ongoing patterns of thinking and behaving that leave them feeling and acting like they are Victimized by life.
Every Victim needs a Persecutor. A Persecutor takes the consistent stance that, “Its all your fault.” The Persecutor is oppressive, authoritative, rigid, thinks of themselves as superior, controls, blames, and is critical. They can be verbally and even physically abusive. They unconsciously seek out Victims to Persecute. The Persecutor believes themselves to be powerful and beyond reproach.
Who’s gonna help these two? The Rescuer comes riding in on a white horse. Rescuers think they are innocently, and even heroically helping the Victim—but end up enabling them to stay Victims. The Rescuer needs the Victim to stay a Victim so they can get accolades for Rescuing. They might keep paying the Victim’s bills instead of challenging them to get a job. The Rescuer might bail the Victim out of jail repeatedly instead of letting them experience the consequences of their destructive behaviors. The Rescuer feels noble, important, better than the poor Victim who would die without them. The Rescuer also gets to feel justified in avoiding their own problems because they are so concerned about the Victim.
It’s interesting to note that, while we adapt habitual, regular roles within the Drama Triangle, we also switch roles inside of it. For example, a Rescuer might switch to a Persecutor if the Victim is not appreciative. “After all I’ve done for you, you think you can talk to me like that? You are cut off! Don’t ever talk to me again!” A Persecutor might move in the Victim position, “Ok, I screamed at you again, but you don’t’ know what a nag you are. I didn’t have a choice.” A Victim may suddenly become a Persecutor to the Rescuer. “You didn’t pay my rent? How can you do that to me? You know my family doesn’t give me anything and you have the money!”
The Drama Triangle has some fundamental dynamics of manipulation that are unconsciously kept in motion by the players:
1. Players keep responsibility out in space with manipulation; never taking ownership, always blaming.
2. There is a lack of internal conflict within the individual players. Their agenda becomes about creating conflict with others.
3. The players lack empathy. They are self-absorbed in their role.
4. Patterns of the triangle prevent any real problem solving because the drama becomes the goal.
5. Maintaining bad boundaries is essential to the identity of the players in the Drama Triangle.
6. The Drama Triangle provides identity and fills emptiness. People can jump around in all three roles to keep the Drama dynamics in play.
So how do we break out of these patterns of relating? While this blog is too brief to go into all the ways the codependent cycle of the Drama Triangle can heal, there are basic ways to break out of each role.
The Victim can learn to take responsibility and stop looking for others to Rescue them. They must learn to deal with their own problems, seeking support to address their problems, but not looking to get rescued. They can learn about the pay offs they get from playing Victim and become willing to give them up. They may need to do trauma recovery work that keeps their thinking and behavior locked in “learned helplessness.” (see the You Are Not Helpless post) The Victim needs to learn boundary setting with Persecutors to avoid being abused and boundaries with Rescuers to stop being rescued.
A Persecutor can do anger management work. They need to work out unconscious shame that is avoided by going into anger and control. A Persecutor can benefit from learning how to be vulnerable, negotiate others needs with theirs, and see others as fully human—not objects to meet their needs. They must replace the benefit of control over others with the benefit of true intimacy with others. A Persecutor can learn the difference between a rigid emotional “wall” and a boundary.
A Rescuer’s work is to focus on themselves. They need to give up Rescuing as a way of feeling important or needed. They may need to heal a deep sense of inadequacy that is compensated for with Rescuing. They can learn to tolerate guilt that arises from not Rescuing. Al-Anon is a program the Rescuer can join if they are Rescuing an addict. A Rescuer may need to learn “tough love.” That is, they may need to redefine their understanding of love that means letting others grow up, become adults, suffer consequences, and take responsibility for themselves. A Rescuer can learn to redirect their focus to their own career, relationships, money, self-care, etc.
There are many ways the Drama Triangle can be acted out. Jeff Gazley explains one possibility below: