The Drama Triangle (part 1)

Six months ago I learned about a framework called the Drama Triangle. It’s been on my mind ever since, and now I see it everywhere. Those who I’ve taught about it have found value in the way it conceptualizes the victim mentality. It’s simple, yet profound at the same time, as all the truest things are. 🙂 I knew I had to share it on this blog. And since there’s a wealth of ways to extend and apply this framework to different aspects of life, I’m breaking it up into 2 or 3 separate posts. Be excited–there’s more to come!

Before diving into the content, I wanted to add context about my own ongoing journey from victim to victor. As a child and into young adulthood, I didn’t think I had much of a choice about the way my life unfolded. I thought that things just happened to me and that I didn’t have much control over my feelings and reactions. I was fearful around most people because I saw them as having power and myself as helpless. Either that or, with those I considered myself already having power over, such as my younger brothers, I’d manipulate and control them to make sure I kept the upper hand and got what I wanted. Even when people did nice things for me, I would suspiciously wonder what selfish motives underlay their actions rather than attributing it to love. I didn’t see others as REAL people with their own thoughts, feelings and perspectives. They were more like objects that were either roadblocks, saviors, or non-entities, because I only viewed them in relation to myself.

Although I cringe to look back on how I used to be, I have to give myself a break, for not really knowing better. Looking back at how I was raised, I don’t recall much instruction in emotional intelligence or social skills, either at school or home. The little bit I did get came from church, although the concrete tools taught were limited and seemed to only apply in isolated situations. So, I was largely left alone to navigate the complex worlds of emotions and of social relationships through trial and error.

The most difficult relationship of my youth was between me and my dad. Because we just couldn’t understand each other and kept triggering each other every time we tried to communicate, things were broken between us for a long time. For something like eight years, I neither hugged him nor told him I loved him. Although we have a good relationship now, I still feel sad about my part in the disconnect and to have missed out on what might have been.

I’ll come back to that story. First, here’s the Drama Triangle framework, which was first conceptualized in the 1960s by Dr. Stephen Karpman. David Emerald precedes it with “Dreaded” in order to acronym it D.D.T.–like the poison–because it’s toxic to relationships and to peace and happiness.

At the bottom point of the triangle, VICTIM is player #1. A person assigns himself or herself the role of Victim. We step into this mindset through the disempowering stories we tell ourselves and meanings we attach to others’ behavior and the experiences of life. Victims don’t see their own thoughts and actions as contributing to their circumstances. They see other people and situations as having the power over their lives. Because they don’t take responsibility for a given situation, they don’t take action to change it and just wait for others to change it for them, or manipulate them into it. Wherever there is drama, there’s always a victim.

PERSECUTOR is player #2. A persecutor inflicts their will on another person, usually in a dominating or blaming way. A persecutor can also be nonhuman, such as an event that creates a problem; for example, a recession or natural disaster. A persecutor is either real or perceived, from the point of view of the victim. (I don’t minimize the fact that real abuse happens in the world. There are actual persecutors out there; not simply perceived. And yet, it is possible to be actually persecuted without necessarily stepping into the Victim role or blaming yourself.) Although our society likes to blame persecutors for any drama that exists, I’m learning more and more that the persecutor doesn’t really have much to do with it. Stay with me here and read on.

RESCUER is player #3. The rescuer is any person, thing, or experience that the victim turns to to solve their problem or temporarily distract them from or numb their pain. The victim believes the rescuer can make the persecutor go away. A rescuer may not always be present or apparent in every situation, but the victim is constantly looking for it, yearning to be rescued somehow. Rescuers can show up in many forms–a friend who takes pity on you or gets indignant on your behalf; a parent, spouse or coworker who goes after and takes down your persecutor; distracting addictions such as shopping, eating, gaming, social media, substances, etc.; “feel good” literature designed to soothe and excuse–to name a few.

You may look at these three players and think: “Well, if I’ve gotta be one, I think I’ll be the rescuer. I’m a nice person and I like to help people, especially underdogs.” But know that nowhere in this dreaded drama triangle is a place you want to be. All three roles are disempowering and toxic by nature. Rescuers actually do more harm than good. Rescuers keep victims stuck in their own victimhood by reinforcing their sense of powerlessness. They say things like, “Oh, you poor thing! How awful!” or “I can’t believe he did that to you! What a jerk. I’d like to throttle him!” or “It wasn’t your fault. There was nothing else you could have done.” Although these may seem like nice things to say, all it really does is elevate the rescuer, making them feel important and needed, and keeps the victim stuck in their low place.

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What I’ve learned about the roles of victim, persecutor and rescuer has helped me understand why things went wrong with my dad. Whenever he treated me “unfairly,” which I perceived as happening often, I saw him as my all-powerful persecutor and myself as a helpless, innocent victim. We had arguments when I wanted to spend time with my friends and he thought once a week was too frequent, or if I invited people to our house before making sure it was clean. I didn’t think I had any real choices besides reacting to his authority through yelling, crying, resisting, pleading, retaliating, etc. And despite my dad’s efforts to “teach” me through doling out severe consequences when I behaved in such ways, I didn’t see the connection between my own behavior and the way I was being treated. I viewed his “teaching” only as further persecution, so I defended against it rather than taking the opportunity to learn and grow.

If my dad was my persecutor, my sweet mother was my rescuer. I would give her sob stories about how unfair my dad was being, and she would try, usually unsuccessfully, to intercede on my behalf. I would listen to them argue with my ear pressed up against their closed bedroom door and feel a twisted sense of satisfaction that my mom was taking a stand for me. I had been pleased that I had an ally and that she loved me enough to take my side, but it made me sick inside to see what the contention was doing to their marriage. I felt guilty about being the thing that came between them and thereby weakened our entire family. But those guilty feelings weren’t enough for me to change the dynamic. And I hate to admit it, but I didn’t respect my mom very much when she was my rescuer. I didn’t see her as a real person with feelings, only concerning myself with how she could help me get what I wanted.

So the years went by. I convinced myself that I didn’t want or care about having a relationship with my dad. I had stacked up so much evidence of all the wrongs against me, and of my innocence and entitlement, that even when my dad wrote apology letters and left them on my pillow, I wouldn’t budge an inch from my victim stance. The letters pulled at my heart when I would first read them, but then I’d convince myself that he was just trying to manipulate me. In fact, I took on the persecutor role against him many, many times because I thought that that was the only way to avoid being the trodden-under victim. I was not myself. And I was so, so sad.

I took the victim mentality with me into other relationships, including my early marriage, and I remained sad and felt trapped. It was only when it finally sunk in that I am always at choice, no matter how other people act, that I started to change my thinking and behavior patterns. I feel so much more empowered now as I strive to take responsibility for my own part in the situations that arise. I still have a long way to go, but the peace I feel tells me I’m on the right track.

Friends, the drama triangle is never a place we want to be. The good news is, we can choose to step out of it and into more empowering roles. We can shift our focus away from problems and onto what we want to build and create. Part 2, my next blog post, will be about the Empowerment Triangle, and how the situations and relationships in our lives can help us grow and get us closer to our goals. Watch for it within the next few weeks. This information has blessed my life and I know it will bless yours as well. (*High five* if you actually stuck with this clear to the end!!!)

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