The Drama Triangle was first described by Stephen Karpman in the 1960s. It is a model of dysfunctional social interactions and illustrates a power game that involves three roles: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor, each role represents a common and ineffective response to conflict.
The journey around the triangle can be done with self or another, such as a spouse, child, co-worker, and so on. Most of us are neurologically programmed to play these three roles, and we consciously or unconsciously choose one role given the particular context.
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The Three Roles Explained
In the Drama Triangle, each player in the particular mind game begins by assuming one of the three typical roles:
- Victim – “Poor me.”
Victims often feel victimised, trapped, helpless and hopeless. They think they are at the mercy of life. They are unwilling to take responsibility for their undesirable circumstances and don’t think they have the power to change their lives.
Victims assume themselves as powerless or incompetent and blame on Persecutors (can be other people or a particular situation). They always seek for Rescuers to solve the problem for them. If the Victims continue to stay in the ‘dejected’ stance, it will prevent them from making decisions, solving problems, changing the current state, or sensing any satisfaction or achievement.
- Rescuer – “Let me help you.”
Rescuers constantly intervene on behalf of the Victims and try to save Victims from perceived harm. They feel guilty of standing by and ‘watching people drown’.
Rescuers may have all the good intention and strive to ‘help’ other people as they see necessary. They fail to realise that by offering short-term fixes to Victims, they keep Victims dependent and neglect their own needs. This is why Rescuers often find themselves pressured, tired, and may not have time to finish their own tasks, as they are busy fire-fighting for the Victims as they arise!
- Persecutor – “It’s all your fault.”
Persecutors are like ‘Critical Parents’ who are strict and firm and set boundaries. They tend to think that they must win at any cost.
Persecutors blame the Victims and criticize the behaviour of Rescuers, without providing appropriate guidance, assistance or a solution to the problem. They are critical and good at finding fault, and control with order and rigidity. They keep the Victims oppressed and sometimes can be a bully.
Are you a Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor?
Now you are aware of the Drama Triangle and the roles in the triangular setting. So are you a victim, a rescuer, or a persecutor?
If you’re human, chances are you may see yourself or be seen by others, as all three in different scenarios.
It is important to point out that the players in the Drama Triangle may switch roles during a mind game, and if anyone in this triangle changes roles, the other two roles change as well.
Below is a fictitious example which demonstrates the Drama Triangle in motion and the way players move from one role of the triangle to another.
Mark: Alex, the Programme Status Report is due at noon today. Could you please send it over to me as soon as possible? (P)
Alex: Doh! I haven’t done it yet, I wasn’t sure what is required, and I have been overwhelmed with the other priorities for my programme. (V)
Mark: The request and report template were sent to you last week. If you were not sure about the requirement, why didn’t you ask? (P)
Alex: I was overwhelmed and didn’t have the capacity. (V)
Mark: It is already 10 am now, can you pull something up for your programme quickly? (P)
Kate: Mark, what information do you need from our programme? (R)
Mark: The standard – programme RAG status, programme highlights, key risks and issues, milestones and dependencies. (R)
Kate: We produce quite a few programme reports for the portfolio already. Can’t you just tweak the information to get what you need? (P)
Mark: Do you know how many programme updates I have to collate for the portfolio updates? (V)
Alex: Honestly, I think the status report is an overkill! (P)
Kate: Never mind, give me half an hour. I will update the status report and send it over. (R)
And the conversation can go on indefinitely, so are the chances of the roles.
Escape the Drama Triangle
As per the example above, whilst the triangular role play may not be all bad, it can lead to friction and conflicts and detrimental for people involved. In my next blog, I am going to discuss briefly how we can escape the Drama Triangle.
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