Are You Stuck in a Drama Triangle?

drama triangle

Conflict is so very human. We all experience it regularly, sometimes quite minor, sometimes major! Think about the last time you dealt with interpersonal conflict…

  • How did you behave and react?
  • How did you feel?
  • What role did you play in the conflict?
  • How did you perceive yourself and others?

The “Drama Triangle” is a concept from Dr Stephen Karpman. It outlines three archetypal roles people unconsciously play out, or which they sometimes use consciously to manipulate others when in conflict. By understanding these roles and correlating them to our own behaviour, we are able to understand what role we play and what elements of our behaviour we might need to examine.

As you read this, remember that these are archetypes (recognisable patterns of human behaviour across time and culture) and we have ALL slipped into these three roles at different times with different relationships. And even in the same situation, we can switch roles. However, consider which role you identify with most (which may depend on the situation).

The Three Roles of The Drama Triangle

Victim

  • Victims are not fully in touch with their own needs, therefore they do not voice their needs assertively.
  • As such, the victim role is associated with the following feelings: hurt, powerless, depressed, oppressed, ostracised, ashamed, hopeless, victimised, dependent, indignant, and/or angry.
  • These feelings may be used to guilt-trip others.
  • Feeling ‘inferior’ and helpless, victims will often look for a Rescuer (see below) – someone to help or save them from their circumstances.
  • Sometimes, they may even unconsciously look for a Persecutor (see below) to validate their own abiding sense of victimhood and unconscious desire for drama.
  • Due to their feelings of helplessness, people heavily identified with this role may struggle to make hard decisions or take action to solve their problems.
  • Victims find power in their belief that they are ‘in the right’ and blameless.

Persecutor

  • The persecutor places the blame onto others, failing to take responsibility for their own actions, feelings, needs and perceptions.
  • Due to a belief in their ‘superior’ position, they can feel quite righteous and ‘inflated’ and be controlling, authoritarian, angry, critical, rigid, and/or aggressive.
  • They will often fear becoming a victim, which stops them from being able to be vulnerable.
  • Persecutors find power in judging others and tearing them down in order to prove themselves ‘right’.

Rescuer

  • The rescuer is the “White Knight” who takes the victim’s side and tries to help them solve their problems.
  • Some rescuers feel it is their responsibility to help others solve their problems, protect them, or make them happy. This could stem from separation anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem, or fear of isolation / loneliness.
  • Rescuers tend to neglect their own needs as they focus on the problems of others.
  • They may go so far as to enable the victim, not allowing for the victim to solve their own problems. They may also rely on the victim staying disempowered.
  • Rescuers find power in feeling heroic and being ‘needed’.

Ten Tips to Break Out of the Drama Triangle

  1. Realise that you have been triggered and are repeating your old pattern, as well as an age-old pattern of human dynamics. Step back and observe this pattern. Once you are aware of your part in the drama, stand back. Identify your own needs. Do something different. Take a contrary action. Set boundaries.
  2. Don’t become defensive. Breathe deep and take a neutral attitude. Even though you will feel defensive, do not act from that emotional state. Use a non-reactive, non-emotional tone. Make statements to deescalate the conflict, such as, “Perhaps you’re right.” “There might be some truth in that.” “Interesting point.” “Nevertheless…” And coach yourself: “Relax. Practice patience. Don’t get hooked”.
  3. If you find yourself feeling like a victim, take responsibility for yourself instead of blaming others for how your life is going. Even if you truly are a victim, do not conclude that you are powerless to act. Take the energy you feel about being victimised and transform it into determination. Resolve that you will figure out how to better manage your problems. Be tenacious. This will help you develop your own personal power.
  4. If you find yourself “rescuing” and taking on too much responsibility, back off, and allow others to take responsibility, even allowing others to fail if need be. Sometimes others need to face consequences of their own decisions. Remind yourself that you are NOT responsible for others’ choices – even if that person is your best friend, son or daughter. It can be healthier for a parent to let children learn the hard way than to jump in and fix everything for them. This goes for other relationships too. Allow others the dignity to manage their own lives.
  5. Remember that when you rescue others, you are sending them the message that they are not competent to deal with things themselves.
  6. If you find yourself tempted to either rescue or blame – breathe breathe breathe and refrain from the following: threatening, blaming, criticising, accusing, lecturing, scolding, monitoring, preaching, obsessing, ghosting, and over-reacting. Instead, focus on being neutral. Ask yourself, “How can I be a soothing presence right now?” If the other person is unwilling or unable to participate in a healthy interaction, figure out a way to remove yourself from the encounter until a better time.
  7. Remember the acronym FOG. FOG stands for Fear, Obligation, Guilt. If you feel ANY of those feelings consistently in a relationship, you are likely dealing with a manipulative person who is triggering your anxiety and stress. You need to get out of the FOG.
  8. On the other hand, if you WANT the other person to feel Fearful, Obligated, or Guilty, you are the manipulator and are not operating with integrity. Be direct, honest, and seek help to communicate better.
  9. Realise that when a person is living in active addiction or an abusive situation, you will not be able to have a healthy relationship with the person until they are in a genuine recovery phase. If the person is a recovering addict, they need to be sober and working a program of some kind. If the person is a recovering abuser, they will be seeking help to be accountable, introspective and thoughtful. If your loved one is not healthy, you cannot have a healthy relationship with that person. The best thing you can do is focus on your own emotional strengthening and growth.
  10. Remember that personal growth and recovery are for those who really want it, not for those who need it.

Struggling with your conflict handling style? At North Brisbane Psychologists we can help. Book an appointment today!

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