As a child, I routinely told my mother when I thought my friends were being mean. I knew she would telephone their mothers and insist they teach their children better manners — but it almost always made my friends more unpleasant.
Even as adults, we all fall into such behaviors from time to time. We complain about how others treat us, and we feel helpless. We behave heroically to protect someone we think is weak. Or we treat others unkindly, believing the recipients of our anger deserve it.
And then we wonder why these actions never truly satisfy us.
In 1968, psychiatrist Stephen Karpman wondered the same thing. He observed that when his clients were stuck in intractable conflicts, they were often playing one of three classic fairy-tale roles: the rescuer, persecutor, or victim.
Those roles operated in a kind of symbiosis, Karpman realized. After all, for Prince Charming to do his job, he requires an evil villain from which to rescue the helpless princess.
The dynamic was so common that Karpman gave it a name: the Drama Triangle. And he recognized that as long as we are playing any one of the triangle’s three starring roles, the resulting conflict will just go round and round.
If you want to move beyond the bounds of the Drama Triangle, you have to choose a different role altogether.
Why We Play Roles
Almost no one likes conflict, but we like feeling responsible for discord even less. Playing the role of the heroic rescuer, righteous persecutor, or helpless victim allows us to shift responsibility for our feelings onto others.
“These roles aren’t so much personality types as major defense strategies,” says life coach Lynne Forrest, author of Guiding Principles for Life Beyond Victim Consciousness.
They’re also a recipe for frustration. “If I believe you’re making me feel the way I do, I automatically try to control your behavior so that I can feel better,” Forrest explains.
Trying to control others rarely endears us to them. And it rarely works. Still, the seduction of the triangle is strong. Each role provides a feel-ing of innocence and a false sense of purpose.
When we’re caught in a victim mindset, we feel persecuted and helpless — and think we need heroes to save us. When we’re playing the hero, we feel responsible for everyone and everything, and seek out victims to save. When we’re operating in persecutor mode, we feel angry — and may dole out punishing justice.
We frequently adopt these roles in childhood. Abuse survivors might play the victim more frequently. Family peacemakers often play the rescuer. Childhood bullies learn how to be persecutors.
Still, we can all transform at any moment — either into another role on the triangle (which is what makes these patterns so tricky) or into a more empowered character, one that leaves the drama behind.
How to Get Real
The first step to moving beyond relationship drama is to realize that the roles exist, and accept that none of them will get us what we want — unless what we want is to stay in an uncomfortable dynamic in perpetuity.
The next step is to identify our own part in the drama. “For most people, ‘self-responsibility’ translates to ‘self-blame,’” Forrest says. “Asked to take responsibility for our own discomfort, we think: ‘What? Are you implying that it’s all my fault?’ And then we look for somewhere else to project the blame.”
Blame is a central feature of most relationship drama. It also spurs defensiveness and denial, which rarely help a situation move forward. Finding an empowered stance requires taking 100 percent responsibility for your feelings. Here are some strategies to practice:
View difficult situations as if you were a casual bystander. “Develop what the Buddhists call an ‘I don’t know’ consciousness,” Forrest suggests. She says a nonjudgmental, observer state of mind produces a “complete reversal of orientation from victim consciousness” to that of the witness perspective.
Visualize blame as a corrosive chemical. Watch its flow while you’re thinking about someone who’s part of your triangle, or talking to him or her. Who sends out blame? Why and when? When it touches you, when you hold it, how does that feel? What blocks its flow?
Reset with yoga. Forrest recommends two basic postures to help diffuse drama-prone thinking: tadasana (mountain pose), where one stands tall and straight, both feet on the ground, and savasana (corpse pose), where one lies on the floor quietly. These promote willingness and open-mindedness.
Notice your posture. “We carry our belief systems in our bodies,” Forrest explains. There are postural patterns associated with the various roles: slack shoulders on the victim, a stiff back for the rescuer, the clenched jaw of the persecutor. Check these for indications that you’re slipping into unhelpful thinking. “Then you can bring your body out of that unhealthy alignment into a healthier one, which frees the mind,” says Forrest.
Ask questions. The Drama Triangle can persist only when we’re too immersed to stop and inquire: What role am I playing right now? And: Is there a better way to do this?
Rather than berate ourselves every time we find ourselves getting caught in high-drama patterns, it can be helpful to simply recognize that these dynamics persist at the heart of almost every human conflict. So recognizing our role in the Drama Triangle and stepping outside it is something we’ll all probably have to do again and again.
With practice and time, though, we might find that the less drama we co-create, the more satisfying relationships we are able to enjoy.
Meet the Cast
According to Stephen Karpman, when we experience tension or conflict, we’re usually playing one of three roles on the Drama Triangle — and we’ve often cast our nemesis in one of the opposing two. Here’s how they work.
When we feel helpless, abused, or taken advantage of, we’re caught in the victim role. We insist that we’ve been treated unfairly or cruelly, or we collapse into tears or silence. Hidden in the victim’s apparent weakness is great power — to trigger the caretaking impulses that characterize the rescuer, or the hostility that prompts the persecutor.
When we act as compulsive caretakers or enablers, we’re caught in the rescuer role. We drain our bodies, souls, and bank accounts in an effort to rescue apparent victims. The rescuer helps provoke victim behavior by ignoring the autonomy of others and inadvertently stealing their power. This triggers the arrival of a persecutor when the subject of a rescue effort becomes resentful.
If we intimidate or act aggressively toward others, we get caught in the persecutor role. We might act out of self-protection or believe someone deserves to be punished, but either way we’re blaming others for our anger. The persecutor triggers others to play the victim through bullying, and produces rescuers by creating situations where someone needs to be saved.