The Drama Triangle, and how to beat it

All of us have experienced drama at one point or another. It’s the stuff that happens outside of ourselves, things like temper tantrums, insecurity, needy energy vampires that spiral out of control and leaving us feeling like we’re losing our grip.

by Michelle Ashburner

Can relationships truly be drama-free?

For most people relationships aren’t easy. One brings the baggage with, and most often unconscious patterns serve up drama, disappointment, and distress in most relationships.

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.

The ongoing drama starts to affect us emotionally and then it leads to stress. If the auto-correct works, why doesn’t it get better? Why do we allow it to get out of control? Let’s look at one how the drama triangle works.

The “drama triangle” refers to a social interaction and conflict model developed by Dr Steven Karpman (1968). The model identifies three most common roles played out in relationships (both conscious and unconscious): that of Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor.

Below, we will look at the characteristics of each role, and the suffering that is present in these stressful interactions. Following that we’ll see the “empowerment dynamic,” (TED) the way out of the Drama Triangle.

Characteristics of a Victim

The characteristics of a victim attitude include:

  • Powerlessness
  • A belief that he or she is unable to care for themselves
  • Feels broken and unable to fix it
  • Hopelessness
  • Expects others to treat them gently or carefully
  • Feels stuck or persecuted
  • Are not accountable for their circumstances
  • Doesn’t question his or her own response-ability in life situations
  • Wants to be saved or rescued by someone else
  • Finds it difficult to make decisions
  • A Victim says things like:
  • “Life always works against me”
  • “This is always happening to me”
  • “Nothing can help”
  • “It’s not my fault”
  • “Yes, but…”

The Rescuers Characteristics

The characteristics of a rescuer include:

  • The need to solve other peoples’ problems, instead of looking at their own issues and challenges
  • Neglects their own needs
  • Keeps the victim dependent
  • Overly protective
  • Needs to be needed
  • Feels guilty or worthless if they are unable to help
  • Often burdened, overworked, and could be on the edge of exhaustion
  • The martyr, enabler, co-dependent

A rescuer says things like:

  • “Let me help you”
  • “If only they listened to me, they’d feel better”
  • “I can do it for you”
  • “I would love to help”

Characteristics of a Persecutor

The characteristics of a persecutor include:

  • Critical
  • Blaming others
  • Frustration
  • Self-righteous
  • Authoritative
  • Angry
  • Manipulative
  • Over-powering
  • Controlling

A persecutor says things like:

  • “It’s your fault”
  • “You’re wrong”
  • “I’m right”
  • “I know best”

Obviously, these three roles are dependent on each other for the drama to run. If someone is playing in one of these roles, they’ll try to draw someone into a similar or opposite position on the Drama Triangle. Even if someone isn’t playing in one of these roles, they could find someone else is trying to pull them into one.

The Drama Triangle Is Counter-Productive Despite Any Well Meaning Intentions

Most people operate from one primary or default role when they’re involved in a Drama Triangle. They typically embrace this role as part of their identity in life.

There can also be role-changing in the triangle. An example of this is that a victim can become a persecutor or a rescuer can move into the victim role and vice versa. There might even be movement between the positions in a single interaction or conversation.

When you interact from any 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, developed by David Emerald, helps 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 to 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 desired results.
  • Learn to take care of yourself instead of wanting someone else to save you.
  • 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. Some things that can be done is practicing gratitude or reviewing your accomplishments regularly, and of course, appreciating the good in your life.


Rescuer to Coach

To move from rescuer to coach, follow 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 your ideal result in this situation be?” or “What can you do to change your response?”
  • Trust the other person to create solutions for their own problems.


Persecutor to Challenger

To move from persecutor to challenger, take these steps:

  • Challenge people but don’t get into a blame-game, criticise, or suppress them in any way.
  • Be firm and fair in your relationship exchanges.
  • Be clear when asking for what you want, avoid punishing anyone.
  • Address the consequences of their actions and set boundaries.
  • Ask yourself questions like, “Why do you think you reacted so strongly in this instance?” 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 (1990). It recommends alternative ways of being to counteract the roles in the Drama Triangle: vulnerable and results oriented instead of the victim, caring instead of rescuer, and assertive instead of the persecutor. The diagram link is below.

Do You Want To Leave the Drama Triangle?

Being part of the Drama Triangle only leads to negative emotional experiences for everyone in the triangle. While you might get your needs met in the short term, it’s temporary, and triangle dynamics never bring lasting happiness.

Irrespective of how embedded you are in a particular role in the triangle, you can learn to act differently through self-awareness and making alternative choices.

It doesn’t mean that because we’ve practiced and reinforced these patterns many times, that it is easy. You’ll need to keep giving it everything you have. Make time to study the information on the Drama Triangle and the Empowerment Dynamic. Keep a record of your reactions and the roles you play. Make up your own program to practice the skills for the same role in the Empowerment Dynamic, one at a time (the link to the information is at the end).

Finally,

in the interactions that follow, chances are you’ll default and play out your former role in the Drama Triangle again and again. Don’t give up! Every time you switch it up and operate from an empowered place, you flex that skill and in time will interact in healthier and more satisfying ways. Gradually, you won’t feel so powerless, and you’ll learn to avoid toxic relationships that put you back into the Drama Triangle.

Over to you now! Which position on the Drama Triangle feels most familiar and/or comfortable? What emotions come up for you when you see this? How do you become aware that you have been triggered into a self-defeating role and how do you get out of it? I would love to hear your opinions on this – info@face-off.co.za

The Winner’s Triangle – Acey Choy

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