Quite a few of my clients are going through some rough patches at the moment. Family trouble, divorce, bullying bosses (or partners) and so on. And although each and every situation is very different, they all seem to have a certain common denominator. Because each relationship asks for communication and this is already not always easy in a normal situation, let alone in a troubled and difficult one. And when there is conflict, all situations fall, at some point, into the Drama Triangle, a term first described by Stephen Karpmann.
So let’s look at the different players:
They see themselves as ‘helper’ or ‘caretaker’. They want to rescue someone (victim) in order to feel valued and important. They do not see themselves as a victim. They have all the answers after all! They have the ‘good’ role, like a nurturing and supporting mother. But it often is perceived as smothering, controlling and manipulating, even if presented as being ‘for your own good’. They have a distorted understanding of how to encourage, protect and empower. They are often called ‘co-dependent’ because they enable the triangle by wanting to over-protect and fix things. Being a savior makes them feel valued. They want to take care of others so that in the long run the care taking is returned to them. But help is selfless and expecting a return payment never works out so rescuers are often disappointed and can turn into martyr victims by saying ‘After all I’ve done for you, this is the thank you I get?’ or ‘I do so much, but it’s never enough’. Their value comes from how much they do for others and encourage dependency: ‘If you need me you will not leave me’.
They identify themselves as victims in need of protection and are completely in denial about their blaming tactics. When pointed out that they are blaming and persectuing, they argue that it’s normal and even necessary for self-protection. They often come out of abusive childhoods and are therefore internally mad at the world. They repress their feelings of worthlessness and hide their internal pain and show their strength and power by being angry and detached. Their motto is ‘It’s a tough world out there and only the ruthless survive’. They ‘protect’ themselves by being controlling, authoritarian and punishing. They have the more traditional ‘Father’ role of protection and discipline. They hide their shame and helplessness by over-powering and dominating others. The Persecutor needs someone to blame, they need a victim. They need to make someone inferior in order to become superior and others deserve what they get.
These two, Rescuer and Persectuor, are at the extreme ends of the victim. But regardless of where you start in the triangle, all roles eventually end up in the victim role at some point.
They believe they cannot take care of themselves. They see themselves as consistently unable to handle life. They love to be rescued! They project an image of being fragile, weak and not smart enough. They say ‘I can’t do this by myself’. They always look for someone stronger to take care of them. And although they feel broken and unfixable, they still resent those they depend on because it reminds them that they are inadequate. So they try to get even by showing passive-aggressive behavior with sentences like ‘Yes, but’ and thus moving towards the Persecutor role trying to convince the Rescuer that their problem is insolvable. Victims are often ashamed and have a tendency for abuse (drugs, alcohol, food…)
We act out these triangular distortions in our everyday relations with others, but we also play out the victim triangle internally. We are our own worst enemy and worst critic. We blame ourselves for not being able to handle a situation or project (Persecutor), we feel totally overwhelmed and can’t handle it anymore (Victim) and then decide to justify ourselves or minimize certain aspects which save us (Rescuer).
We also have a tendency to enter into this triangle in a preferred role. It is how we define ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) and it becomes a strong part of our identity. Each role has its own way of seeing and reacting to the world. And we all have unconscious core beliefs from childhood and ways of interpreting relationships, communication and conflictual encounters. They define our preference for a certain entry into this triangle. But even if we tend to enter one way, we often take each role of the triangle, sometimes in a matter of minutes.
Living in a drama triangle is no fun. It makes us miserable and we suffer. It’s a vicious circle.
So why do we get and stay in the Drama Triangle?
The people in the triangle, get in and stay in there because they each get something out of it. – no one has to take responsibility (not even the Rescuer takes responsibility) – manipulation and blame are ‘easier’ than taking ownership of the problem – it’s a reactive way of behaving which is often ‘easier’ than having to come up with a creative solution – lack of empathy of the players, they are self absorbed in their own role – players have unhealthy beliefs about themselves which the triangle confirms – for many this is a learned pattern and they don’t know any better – often enough, players don’t even realize they are in the triangle (no change without awareness) – the game gives each person a role and can fill emptiness – it is difficult to sit with conflict and uncomfortable feelings (such as guilt, fear, shame, anger…) – we let painful feelings rule our life – we are in denial (denial comes out of negative self-judgment) – lack of self-knowledge, self-honesty, hidden agendas – lack of personal integrity – our ego and the story of who we are – fear of vulnerability and intimacy
How to get out of it?
We can’t get off the triangle until we recognize we’re on it. We need to be aware of it in order to observe our interactions with others, in order to identify our entry role.
- What hooks or triggers me?
- From where do I enter the triangle once I’ve been hooked?
- Which situations or people make me go into the drama triangle?
- What stories do you tell yourself? Are they true?
Start to train your internal observer to notice your conversations with others, without judging. Do this especially in the more tricky situations, those where you think you have to be ‘careful’.
- start small by becoming accountable
- sort through your real motives and feelings about a situation
- learn how to experience uncomfortable feelings without rescuing them
- know where you stand
- learn to set boundaries
- tell the truth (especially to yourself)
Often the exit of the triangle is through the Persecutor door. It does not mean you become a persecutor. But the other players will try to put you in that role: ‘How can she do that to me?’ or ‘How dare you not take care of me!’ or ‘What do you mean you don’t need my help?’ So we must be willing to be seen as the ‘bad guy’. This does not mean we are one, we just need to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of being perceived as one.
The good news is that it only takes one person to get off the triangle to change the whole dynamic of the relation.
We are never victims except by choice!
There’s your story and their story. They don’t have to match for you to be happy. How others see you should not be your concern.
And getting off the drama triangle is not something you do once and for all. It needs to happen all the time. It’s a process, not a destination.