The Drama Triangle developed by Dr Stephen Karpman in 1968 helps us see where we get stuck in relationships, be they at work, intimately or in any situation. It’s called the drama triangle because it explains how we play games when we are not living authentically and trusting ourselves! You might find that you often feel ‘out of sorts after spending time with someone. Or within your group of friends, you feel unseen or angry and you can quite understand why.
Everybody plays games until they realise that actually, they are unhappy in this role. We play these roles because we have learned that we can get what we want from others and the world by doing so. We have learned that this is the only way and that if we are not behaving in this way, we will be left, alone, abandoned, wrong, etc. The only outcome for games is to feel cheated and unhappy and actually very alone at the deepest level because who we are is not being seen.
The persecutor puts people down and blames and criticises other people they believe they are OKAY and others are not. They are rigid bullies who discount others’ feelings and worth.
The rescuer believes that they have to help people because they are incapable of helping themselves. So an example would be a parent who does her child’s homework for her and, in so doing, discounts her child’s ability to do it herself.
The victim sees herself as powerless and helpless and believes that she is not okay. She denies that she can take responsibility for herself.
We can move from one position to the next and somewhere in our interactions with our partner, friend, boss or colleague, we switch and find ourselves perhaps feeling angry that we have reacted in the way we have. We can have the feeling that ‘this is not me, and I’m tired of trying to help or be understood only to be told that I am the bad guy.’
Here are some examples:
Jim Persecutor: Why are you planting the roses over here? This is where I like to keep my materials for painting in the barn
Jan victim: Oh, I’m sorry, I imagined it would be easy to move the materials and that this is the perfect place for a rose tree
Jim Persecutor: You always imagine …. Don’t you think to ask me!
Jan victim: I don’t understand why it has to always be like this
This kind of game can go on for years and years, with people believing that this is the way things are and that there is nothing they can do to change this. Both Jim and Jan are getting what they want. Jim is controlling and thinks he is okay, and Jan is not; that s she is inferior, he has a right to punish her. Jan believes that she cannot do anything about this and that someone else has to change to be happy.
Here’s what can happen next:
Jim Persecutor: Like what? I’m surprised you can’t imagine another way to understand that my materials go there and not fluffy roses
Jan victim to persecutor: Oh, just shut up, Jim, you are a nasty piece of work and not able to understand anything only I feel bad. You are offensive and only concerned about your materials and couldn’t care less about the garden or even helping make it nice
Jim victim: I do care and am only trying to help you
Getting off the Drama triangle to the Winners triangle
According to Choy (1990), we can look at the winner’s triangle that shows how the victim can get off by being vulnerable, that is, be honest in themselves about how they think and feel and from this position and ask for what they need
Vulnerability – “vulnerability is the willingness to show up and share your authentic self while knowing you have no control over the outcomes of your interactions.” Brene Brown
If you are in the rescuing position, you become caring by looking at the winner’s triangle. Caring enough to respect the ability of the other people to think, feel and ask for what they need themselves. Taking responsibility for their own needs and listening to others without being pulled into the belief that it is their job to rescue them
Caring – “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”
If you are a persecutor, your challenge is to become assertive according to the winner’s triangle. That is to ask for what you want without putting other people down, punishing them or shaming them
Assertive – “Assertiveness is not what you do; it’s who you are.”
So, using this shows that by trusting ourselves and being confident in ourselves, we can get out of the dramas and enjoy being ourselves with healthy, loving boundaries. I like to bring tenderness and compassion to the mix here. So, as examples, if you notice you are in the victim position, instead of listening to messages such as ‘you don’t help yourself or ‘you’re asking for this treatment’ in being vulnerable, you might try being gentle with yourself and reassuring yourself that you are not wrong or faulty (it might be how you feel) and you are going to begin to take care of yourself. Be compassionate with yourself as you jump off the rescuer drama onto the winners’ triangle of care. You might try trusting others to take care of themselves and simply being there for them just as you are without stress. STOP, be compassionate by kindly asking for what you need if you are persecuting.
“And yet, although you might be worn out, there’s no such thing as compassion fatigue. No one gets tired of being compassionate. Compassion is part of our nature, and we don’t get tired of being ourselves. In fact, I’m going to suggest that we get tired of not being ourselves”
Gabor Mate (2021)