When we find ourselves in disagreement or conflict we can often find ourselves repeating the same arguments and feeling as if we are constantly playing the same role or feel that others are treating us in the same way consistently.
40 years ago Psychologist Dr Stephen Karpman developed what he called the 'Drama Triangle' which consisted of 3 roles Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor, which is still relevant today
You may recognise these roles, maybe you find yourself playing one of these three roles, or find yourself dealing with others who do.
Being able to recognise when you are being pulled into this triangle can be important for you as you will probably need to put on your “big girl” or “big boy” pants to enable you to get off the triangle.
Being able to recognize when you may have been pulled into the triangle and then recognize the role you and others are playing is essential to help you step off of it, and so step out of the conflict you have become part of.
The drama triangle is a model of social interaction and conflict developed by Dr. Karpman when he was a student of Eric Berne, M.D. who introduced us to Transactional Analysis and the book 'Games People Play-The Psychology of Human Relationships'
[Karpman and other clinicians point out that “Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor” refer to roles people unconsciously play, or try to manipulate other people to play, not the actual circumstances in someone’s life. (There can be real victims of crime or racism or abuse, etc.)]
The three roles of the drama triangle can be looked at in an extreme sense to help you understand the dynamics of each.
The victim will occupy the role of “poor me!”
Victims see themselves as victimized, oppressed, powerless, helpless, hopeless, dejected, and ashamed, and come across as “super-sensitive".
They can deny any responsibility for their negative circumstances and will be convinced they have no power to change that position.
Victims puts themselves in the one down, 'not ok' position.
Sometimes the victim will seek the persecutor to put them down, and push them around, believing they deserve it. If a victim looks for a persecutor then they agree with them and view themselves as someone who is worthy of rejection and deserves to be belittled,
Or they may seek the rescuer who will offer help and confirm the victims belief I can't cope on my own. If a victim seeks a rescuer they believe that they need the rescuers help to be able to act in the right way or make the right decision.
If the rescuer doesn’t offer the help required the victim might put the rescuer into the persecutor role
Victims can struggle with resentment that they are not being rescued.
Victims have real difficulties making decisions, solving problems, finding much pleasure in life, or understanding their self-perpetuating behaviors
The rescuer will occupy the role “Let me help you!”
Rescuers work hard to help and caretake other people, and even need to help other people to feel good about themselves, while neglecting their own needs or not taking responsibility for meeting their own needs.
Rescuers are classically co-dependent and enablers. They need victims to help and often can’t allow the victim to succeed or get better. They can use guilt to keep their victims dependent and feel guilty themselves if they are not rescuing somebody.
Rescuers also see others as being not ok and one down, but the rescuer responds by offering help from a one up position. They believe I have to help all these others because they are not good enough to help themselves
Rescuers are frequently harried, overworked, tired, caught in a martyr style while resentment festers underneath.
The persecutor will occupy the role “It’s all your fault!”
Persecutors criticize and blame the victim, set strict limits, can be controlling, rigid, authoritative, angry and unpleasant.
They keep the victim feeling oppressed through threats and bullying.
Persecutor is someone who puts other people down and belittles them, the persecutor views others as being one down and not ok.
Persecutors take away others value and dignity, in extreme cases physical health or life itself.
Persecutors criticize and blame the victim, they can be controlling, authoritative, unpleasant, sometimes bully the victim. Persecutors can often be critical, but don’t actually solve any problems
Persecutors can’t bend, can’t be flexible, can’t be vulnerable, can’t be human; they fear the risk of being a victim themselves.
These are the most extreme versions of these three roles, but we can encounter people playing milder versions of these roles on a pretty regular basis.
What gives the drama triangle much of its power and significance is the recognition that people will switch roles and cycle through all three roles without ever getting off of the triangle.
The trap is, people are acting out these roles to meet personal (often unconscious) needs rather than being able to see the picture as a whole and take responsibility for their part in keeping the triangle going.
An example from “The Three Faces of Victim – An Overview of the Drama Triangle” by Lynne Forrest:
Dad comes home from work to find Mum and Son engaged in a battle. “Clean up your room or else,” (persecutor) Mum threatens. Dad immediately comes to Sons rescue. “Mum,” he might say, “give the boy a break. He’s been at school all day.”
Any one of several possibilities might follow. Perhaps (persecutor) Mum, feeling victimized by Dad, will turn her wrath on him. In that case, she moves Dad from rescuer to victim. They then might do a few quick trips around the triangle with Son on the sidelines.
Or maybe Son joins Dad in a persecutory “Let’s gang up on Mum” approach, or then again, maybe Son will turn on Dad, rescuing Mum with “Mind your own business, Dad. I don’t need your help!”
So it goes, with endless variations, but nonetheless, pinging from corner to corner on the triangle. For many families, it’s the only way they know to interact.
It takes one person on the triangle to recognise the role they are playing and step off the triangle to stop the game.
Maybe the victim will need to to “grow up” and take responsibility for their own empowerment and find ways to meet their own needs.
Each role on the drama triangle has its own payoffs.
Victims get to be taken care of.
Rescuers get to feel good by caretaking.
Persecutors get to remain feeling superior to both victim and rescuer.
If people fail to recognise their role or the role of others then everyone can continue to move around the triangle and the conflict and dysfunctionality continues.
All 3 roles in the drama triangle are inauthentic. When playing one of these roles we are usually responding from the past self rather than the here and now,
Each person on the triangle is playing a role, not acting from a place of now.
Laura Knight is a qualified and experienced Counsellor and a registered member of BACP (The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)
She is an approved Anxiety UK Therapist and has her own private practice SeeClear Counselling, in Poole Dorset.
She can offer face to face, telephone and video counselling sessions
Laura also spent some time working with Dorset Mind delivering education to local employers on how to identify and manage stress at work reducing the impact that work stress can have on peoples every day lives.
Laura found that many of her clients would present with Anxiety and because of this enhanced her training to include CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) as there is evidence to suggest that CBT is effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Laura now focuses on working with adults who struggle with Anxiety within her private practice, working with them to reduce the scary physical and emotional symptoms they experience so they can lead a calmer life.
For more information about Laura's services please visit her website https://www.seeclearcounselling.co.uk
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