The drama triangle model is a theory of how people behave in relationships. It was made popular by Stephen B. Karpman in the 1960’s and has been used to explain many different kinds of relationship problems, including those between parents and children, romantic partners, siblings, and friends.
In his book Conflict Resolution, Dr. Stephen Karpman explains how we can use the drama triangle to understand our relationships better.
Karpman Drama Triangle
Karpman used triangles to model conflict in human relationships. His theory suggests that there are three habitual roles people take on within relationships and that the interplay of these roles lead to nearly all dysfunctional social interactions.
The dreaded drama triangle roles:
Table of Contents
- How does the Drama Triangle play out in real life?
- How does the Drama Triangle affect relationships?
- The Drama Triangle Explained
- What the Drama Roles Look and Sounds Like
- How a Drama Triangle Can Play Out in a Social Model
- How Do we Break the Dreaded Drama Triangle? – Assume Responsibility
- Strategies for Breaking Drama Triangle Habits
- Drama to Empowerment
How does the Drama Triangle play out in real life?
When we blame others for our own problems (poor me), we become victims, and being a victim isn’t an empowering position. We must take responsibility for our actions if we’re going to change them.
We may find ourselves often playing a primary or habitual role, or we may be self aware enough to see how our feelings and roles change in different social situations.
How does the Drama Triangle affect relationships?
When we blame others for our problems, we tend to attract people into our lives who will enable us to stay stuck in our old ways of thinking. These people, often stuck in their own habitual roles, may encourage us to keep playing the same old games.
Why is it Important to be Aware of the Drama Triangle?
If we don’t learn to identify and deal with the dynamics of the drama triangle, we can easily fall back into the same dysfunctional patterns over and over again.
The self awareness and self responsibility that comes with identifying the roles of Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor in your life, relationships, and any social situation can help you understand why you behave the way you do.
The Drama Triangle Explained
Each role represents a different way of perceiving the world and the things that happen in life. These roles are based on the work of psychologist Erich Fromm who identified three basic ways of relating to others. Within relationships, all people tend to assume one of these roles, often switching between the different roles rapidly – even within one interaction.
A Victim Role involves a belief or feeling that things are happening to them. Sometimes there is an underlying belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them or that they have done something wrong.
Victims see themselves and their circumstances as being controlled by external forces rather than having control over their own destiny.
Regardless of actual circumstances, social interactions often leave a victim feeling anxious and oppressed.
The Persecutor Role is often played by someone who views themselves as persecuted and oppressed within a relationship or circumstance.
They may be feeling vulnerable, victimized or out of control and lash out and blame others as a result.
Similar to the victim, they are feeling incapable of controlling their own fate and acting out of fear and frustration.
Rescuers see themselves as helpers in a situation.
They respond to situations by seeing or presenting themselves as strong and capable of handling anything life throws at them. In any interaction or relationship, the rescuer role will often try to jump in and save the day.
What the Drama Roles Look and Sounds Like
#1 – Playing a victim: “This is happening to me”
You can spot someone locked into a victim role when they repeatedly saying things such as “this is happening to me“.
This thinking implies that they are powerless over what is happening around them. Someone living a primary habitual victim role will often show their wounded inner child when reacting to their circumstances – this is often clear to everyone but them.
In reality, victims are often in a position to take action and change their circumstance, but because of a deep, perhaps unconscious belief that they are helpless, they don’t want to try.
Instead, they blame others for your problems.
A victim will often say things like: “I am always getting sick”; “My parents/spouse/children treat me badly”; “People make fun of me”; “Things never go my way”; “No one understands me”; ” I am too old/young/fat/thin/ugly etc.”
It is of critical importance to note that the victim role described in the drama triangle DOES NOT apply to situations where someone is an actual victim of mistreatment. The victim role described a tendency to feel like a victim in any social interaction, regardless of actual circumstance.
#2 – A Persecutor: “It’s All Your Fault”
A persecutor has a tendency to dominate, blame and threaten others. This type of individual seeks to exert power over others.
Persecutors often feel, or at least act, superior to others and are quick to point out flaws in others. Interestingly, they tend to see themselves as victims and blame others for their problems.
A critical parent is often playing the persecutor role. Persecutors may not want to take too close a look at their own life or their own feelings and therefore project negative emotions onto others
#3 – Being the Hero: “I Need to Save Others”
Helpers want to be seen as and to feel as though they are someone who helps others.
This can be a great thing. However, there are some problems with this way of thinking. When we think like this, we become dependent on others to validate our worthiness. We can end up using others to feed our own sense of self.
The rescuer is the classic co-dependent, enabling, overly protective – the one who wants to “fix it.” Taking care of others helps a rescuer feel worthwhile.
How a Drama Triangle Can Play Out in a Social Model
The following is an example of how the drama triangle can play out:
A woman receives new diamond earrings from her boyfriend and one day they go mysteriously missing. A few weeks later the woman finds the earrings in her daughter’s jewelry box. The daughter denies taking them and says she doesn’t know how they got in her jewellery box. The mother can’t believe her daughter would steal from her so she accepts this explanation.
The boyfriend gently explains that it is very likely the daughter did take the earrings without asking, and suggests it might be good for the mother to speak with the daughter about taking things that belong to other people.
The woman starts to feel angry at her boyfriend for blaming her daughter, persecuting the boyfriend, but putting the boyfriend in the role of persecutor and her daughter in the victim role and herself (the mother) in the role of rescuer for her daughter.
The daughter overhears this conversation and cries to her mother in anger and frustration, saying “I always get blamed for everything!!” – settling snugly into the victim role.
In this example – you can see how the mother may be an actual victim in this case, however the dynamic plays out in a way that twists reality, creates negative feelings, makes it difficult to solve problems.
How Do we Break the Dreaded Drama Triangle? – Assume Responsibility
The reason we often fail to change destructive patterns is because we don’t recognise the impact they’re having on our lives. We become blind to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Once we realise the power of the drama triangle, we can make changes that lead to lasting improvements.
Noticing the positions you, your family and/or friends are taking in this dynamic model can help you start to break down the control it has over your relationships and life, and help you to hold yourself and others accountable for their behavior and choices.
Strategies for Breaking Drama Triangle Habits
1. Acceptance and Willingness
The first step in improving anything we do is to admit our mistakes. We must accept our part in creating the problem. Then, we must commit ourselves to changing. This requires us to look at our behavior objectively and honestly. In doing so, we become aware of how we are unintentionally following the scripts of a drama triangle culture. Once we recognize our own patterns within social interactions , we are empowered to take responsibility and change our behaviors.
2. Learn to Recognise Patterns in a Drama Triangle
Notice the habitual roles you are playing and the roles people around you are playing. Is your boss assuming a persecutor role because that’s what they think leadership looks like. Are those around assuming victim roles rather than taking responsibility for their own lives. These roles play out unseen in any human interaction unless those involved are intentionally vigilant in identifying and avoiding these habitual roles. If you find yourself in a destructive interaction – notice what role those involved have assumed.
3. Set Boundaries and Consciously Withdraw
There will be some unhealthy relationships where the Karpman drama triangle patterns play themselves no matter how aware you are of it. Often, our family of origin may contain deeply embedded drama roles.
If the drama patterns continue to play out within close relationships (eg., family of origin) you may need to set boundaries to protect yourself from unintentionally taking on an unwanted role (e.g., vulnerable person, assertive person, victim position).
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, remember that you have options. If you choose to go along with it, you’re giving away control and will find yourself in the victim position. Setting boundaries isn’t easy at first, but it can become second nature with practice and can, in time, change the dynamic of your relationships.
Setting boundaries is easier said than done. For more information on how to start to set boundaries, read our blog post on setting boundaries.
Drama to Empowerment
Tips for Avoiding Participating in Drama Triangles
1. Be aware of your own emotions
When we participate in drama triangles, we tend to unconsciously follow the script of the drama triangle. When we do this, we lose sight of who we really are and end up feeling powerless or victimized. It’s important to note that when we participate in drama triangles we are not necessarily bad people. We just haven’t learned how to express our true selves without getting caught up in the drama triangle.
2. Learn to express your feelings clearly
When we get caught up in drama triangles, we often don’t know how to express our feelings clearly. Instead, we act out our emotions by becoming angry, hurt, or depressed. By expressing our emotions clearly, we gain more power over them.
3. Understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger
We all experience anger sometimes. But there is a big difference between healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger. Healthy anger helps us to communicate effectively and move forward. Unhealthy anger keeps us stuck in the past and prevents us from moving forward.
4. Know when to walk away
Sometimes, we get caught up in dramas and we don’t realize that we’ve crossed a line. Sometimes, we don’t even realize that we’ve been hurt until much later. When we see that we’ve crossed a boundary, we should stop participating in the drama. This doesn’t mean that we give up. It means that we take back our power and make sure that we never cross that boundary again.
5. Avoid blaming others
Blame is one of the most common ways that we try to avoid dealing with our own pain. Blaming someone else allows us to escape responsibility for ourselves. It also makes it easier for us to justify staying in a relationship that hurts us.
6. Don’t let other people define you
It’s tempting to allow others to define us based on their expectations. For example, if you want to be seen as “the nice girl” then you might agree to stay in a toxic relationship because you think that’s what people expect of you. You’ll eventually learn that no matter what you do, people won’t respect you. They’ll only respect you if you stand up for yourself and speak your truth.
7. Recognize when you’re acting out of character
If you notice that you’re behaving differently than usual, chances are that you’re acting out of your authentic self. In these situations, it’s best to step back and ask yourself: What am I doing? Why am I doing this? How does this relate to my values?
8. Take responsibility for your own actions
When we blame others for our problems, we become victims. And being a victim isn’t empowering. If we want to feel empowered, we need to take responsibility for our actions. When we stop seeing ourselves as a victim we can start to experience more pleasure in life.
9. Learn about the Empowerment Dynamic
The Empowerment Dynamic a set of relationships or roles that serve as the alternative “antidote” to the toxic DDT and to living life victimized by drama.
To learn more about the empowerment dynamic, check out the book, The Power of TED: The Empowerment Dynamic.
The empowerment dynamic can help you choose a more empowering way to think, relate, and take action within your relationships and social interactions.