The Drama Triangle: What It Is and How To Get Out of It
Are healthy relationships even possible?
For most people, relationships aren’t easy. Too often they’re ruled by unconscious patterns and fraught with drama, disappointment, and distress.
You leave one partner and move on to the next only to find yourself embroiled in hauntingly familiar styles of dysfunctional interaction yet again. You may even carry the same patterns into everyday interactions with family, friends, and colleagues.
Let’s look at one classic explanation of what goes wrong in relationships and how to counteract it.
The “drama triangle” refers to a model of social interaction and conflict developed by Dr. Steven Karpman in 1968. It identifies three roles commonly and often unconsciously played out in relationships: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor.
Let’s look at the characteristics of each role, and the suffering that occurs in these stressful interactions. Then we’ll explore the “empowerment dynamic,” the way out of the Drama Triangle.
Characteristics of a Victim
The characteristics of a victim attitude include:
A belief he or she is unable to care for themselves
Feels broke and unfixable
Feels stuck or persecuted
Lacks accountability for their circumstances
Doesn’t question his or her own responses to life
Wants to be saved or rescued by someone else
Wants others to treat them gently or carefully
Finds it difficult to make decisions
A Victim says things like:
“Life is against me”
“This always happens to me”
“Nothing can help me”
“It’s not my fault”
Characteristics of a Rescuer
The characteristics of a rescuer include:
Wants to solve other peoples’ problems, instead of looking at their own issues and challenges
Neglects their own needs
Keeps the victim dependent
Needs to be needed
Feels guilty or worthless if they are unable to help
Often burdened, overworked, and may be at the edge of exhaustion
The martyr, enabler, co-dependent
A rescuer says things like:
“Let me help you”
“I can do it for you”
“If they just listened to me, they’d feel better”
“I would love to help”
Characteristics of a Persecutor
The characteristics of a persecutor include:
A persecutor says things like:
“It’s all you’re fault”
“You’re wrong, I’m right”
“I know best”
Obviously, these three roles need each other. If you function in one of these roles, you’ll try to draw someone into a corresponding role on the Drama Triangle. Or if you’re not in one of these roles, you may find someone else is trying to pull you into one of them.
The Drama Triangle Creates Pain and Misery
Most people operate from one primary or habitual role when they’re involved in a Drama Triangle. They typically embrace this role as their identity in life.
But we also move between roles. For example, a victim can become a persecutor or a rescuer can move into the victim role. You might even move between roles in a single conversation.
When you interact from a position on the Drama Triangle, you re-enact and reinforce painful beliefs and patterns that keep you from living a conscious, authentic, and fulfilled life.
So how do you move out of the Drama Triangle? Let’s take a look at the Empowerment Dynamic.
How to Get Out of The Drama Triangle
The Empowerment Dynamic was developed by David Emerald to help people move out of the Drama Triangle. It identifies three empowered roles: Creator, Coach, and Challenger.
Below are some of the actions you can take to move from a dysfunctional role in the Drama Triangle into an empowered one. You’ll have to take these actions again and again to create new modes of healthy interaction.
Victim -> Creator
To move from victim to creator take these steps:
Take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Think like a problem solver and use your creative imagination.
Take actions that will achieve your desires outcomes.
Instead of looking for someone to save you, learn to take care of yourself.
Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want.
Ask empowering questions like: “What do I want?” and “What steps can I take to get what I want?”
Look at what’s going right in your life. You can do this by practicing gratitude each day, reviewing your accomplishments often, and appreciating the goodness in life.
Rescuer -> Coach
To move from rescuer to coach, take these steps:
Be helpful and supportive by acting like a teacher or a coach instead of a rescuer or a fixer.
Help people learn to solve their own problems instead of solving problems for them.
Encourage self-responsibility rather than dependency.
Set boundaries on the amount of time you’ll listen and provide support.
Ask empowering questions like: “What would you like to see happen in this situation?” or “What can you do to change this?”
Trust that the other person can solve their own problems.
Persecutor -> Challenger
To move from persecutor to challenger, take these steps:
Challenge people but don’t blame, criticize, or oppress them.
Be firm but fair in your interactions.
Ask for what you want, be clear but not punishing.
Address the consequences of their actions and set boundaries.
Ask questions like, “What do you think you react so strongly in this situation?” or “What would happen if you challenged the belief you can’t take care of yourself?”
Another empowered model, the Winner’s Triangle, was developed by Acey Choy in 1990. It recommends alternative ways of being to counteract the roles on the Drama Triangle: vulnerable and outcome oriented instead of victim, caring instead of rescuer, and assertive instead of persecutor.
Are You Ready To Get Out of the Drama Triangle?
Acting out a role in the Drama Triangle only leads to pain, suffering, anger, and resentment for everyone involved. While you might get your needs meet on the short term or feel gratified temporarily, triangle dynamics never bring lasting happiness.
No matter how embedded you are in a particular role, you can learn to act in more empowered ways through self-awareness and making alternative choices.
It’s not necessarily easy because we’ve practice and reinforced these patterns so many times. You need to give it your all. Take time to study the Drama Triangle and the Empowerment Dynamic. Journal about your reactions and and the role you see yourself playing. Make your own program to practice the skills for your corresponding role in the Empowerment Dynamic, one at a time.
Chances are, you’ll return to and play out your former role in the Drama Triangle again and again. But every time you act from an empowered place, you build your capacity to interact in healthier and happier ways. Gradually, your relationships will feel more satisfying, you won’t feel so powerless, and you’ll be able to avoid toxic relationships that would only draw you back into the Drama Triangle.
Your Turn: Which role on the Drama Triangle feels most familiar to you? What emotions come up when you see this? How do you notice when you’re in a self-defeating role and how do you get out of it? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
Resources and Recommended Reading
The Three Faces of Victim: An Overview of the Drama Triangle - Lynne Forrest
The Drama Triangle - Lauren Kress (YouTube)
The Dreaded Drama Triangle - Lucy Barnes (TED talk)
The Power of TED* (The Empowerment Dynamic) - by David Emerald (affiliate link)
How to Free Yourself from Unhappy Personality Patterns - a different but complementary approach to personality patterns.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for Wild Arisings, my twice monthly letters from the heart filled with insights, inspiration, and ideas to help you connect with and live from your truest self.