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The Drama triangle

Updated: Jun 5

Have you ever found yourself in a familiar, and usually infuriating, situation with someone where there is a suspicion they are playing (mind) games? You might suspect you are being played for a fool. Perhaps it is a power thing or a way of passively taking control without being upfront about it? It could be, and often is, a work relationship but could equally  be with a partner, family member or friendship.

If you are experiencing a sudden flash of irritation because this situation has arisen so many times before, the chances are, the drama triangle (Stephen Karpman) is playing out. In this triangle, there are three positions that people (subconsciously) move between: the rescuer, the victim, and the persecutor.

To be clear, all of these are unhealthy positions and make for very uncomfortable reading! However, we are in good company as all of us will fall into one or more of these behaviours at some point... (there is better news to follow, so don't be too disheartened!)

The rescuer:

This is often played by someone who needs to be needed, but interestingly, this is, in fact,  a form of control. They want to look good, and rescuing someone can make them feel superior. They can be blind to their own needs  because they're so busy with other people's needs,  but can also experience high levels of (unnecessary) guilt if they resist being drawn into rescue mode.   By "rescuing" they are actually preventing the other person from taking responsibility for their own behaviour and decisions.

The Victim:

NB to be very clear, this is does NOT refer someone who is a genuine victim of crime.

This role is played by someone who will not take responsibility for themselves, their choices or their actions. They are often "poor me" or people-pleasing types ("I don't mind") and quite manipulative in an underhand and passive way. They can be resentful and blaming others for their situation but also look to others to save them or make decisions for them.

The Persecutor:

The persecutor can often very critical and likes to keep the victim in their place. They tend to blame others and be very controlling.  They can  appear aggressive (to protect themselves).They might also view themselves as important, or always right,  and can often angry and resentful.

We can play any of these roles in a relationship, and suddenly switch between them depending on the dynamics playing out.

Case Study 1:

Beth has worked really hard for her bullying boss. She constantly rescues him from his tendency to be last minute and chaotic by hitting deadlines even if that means cancelling her own plans (rescuer), but he continues to be critical and never seems grateful. Beth starts to feel downtrodden and powerless but continues to people-please (victim), gradually getting more and more annoyed. Eventually,  she can't stand it any more and snaps... Beth moves into the persecutor role and tells him she's had enough, and quits. Suddenly her boss shifts to victim, begging her to stay, saying he can't manage without her. Beth now feels appreciated and pacified and feels guilty about leaving him in the lurch so she moves back into the rescuer role once again, agreeing to help him out just one more time...

...and so the triangle continues.

Case Study 2:

Ben is a CEO of a small, successful local company but has grown up with a domineering mother. She is ALWAYS right and never apologises. He feels belittled by her but tries to reason that she is the way she is because she is lonely and can't help it, but deep down, massively resents her. Every time he visits his mother, he tries to keep her happy by completing all the tasks she has saved for him and trying not to rise to the bait when she criticises his endeavours. Ben starts to notice that when his siblings meet up with her, everyone reverts to the roles they played as children. On one such occasion, Ben finally has enough and says he is going to leave. His mother sobs and makes him feel guilty - he gives in and the triangle continues...

The great news is that once realisation about those dynamics has come into awareness, you can choose to do things differently by stepping outside the triangle and behaving in a new, healthier and boundaried way. 

More on this new, boundaried way to come! Watch this space...


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