The Drama Triangle
Recovery from addiction requires more than simply giving up “X”. The most significant changes come from learning why we ever needed “X” in the first place and then rethinking how we operate. This almost always involves addressing interpersonal relationships. For me, one tool that has been extremely useful in changing my approach is the Karpman Drama Triangle.
Dr. Stephen Karpman developed this simple concept in 1968 to illustrate that three types of roles emerge from every conflict: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.
When a situation upsets me, I look at the it with above image in mind and take responsibility for my role.
Do you have a favourite position on the triangle? Saying, “Hey, this isn’t my fault. Don’t blame me” means identifying as a victim. The persecutor role is not necessarily evil; it often the person who says, “I’m just doing what I think is right. Sorry but you will have to deal with it.” Then comes the hero, who says, “This is awful, poor you!” to the victim and, “Look what you’ve done!” to the persecutor, rescuing one from the other.
We are drawn to roles by subtle motivations. The victim is motivated by safety, the persecutor by power, and the hero feels a need for admiration.
Manipulators are very good at assigning roles. You might relate a benign experience about work to a friend whose reaction takes you aback: “You’re kidding! I can’t believe they did that to you!” Before you know it, you start seeing the circumstances differently and feeling resentful about a situation that wasn’t bothering you originally. You might feel like this friend cares about you more than your coworkers, and confide in her more often to get the comforting feedback that paints you as blameless. Your friend is really manipulating herself into the “hero” role by convincing you that you’ve been victimized. You might even think you are lucky to have this great friend, the only one who “really cares about you”. Chances are the problems at work will escalate because you become entrenched in a pattern unknowingly.
Martyrs, on the other hand, love the victim role and no matter what happens, they make certain it is theirs to keep. Everyone else is either a hero or a villain. They are always explaining at length how they’ve been HURT by others, or how WONDERFUL some people are for saving them. We might wonder why martyrs have friends, but it is likely because the rescuers love to be the hero. If the martyr feels safe and the hero feels admired, who cares about the bad guy?
Type A personalities are easily cast as the persecutors, but they can also be good at rotating the triangle underneath everyone to reassign themselves into the hero or victim role. If you have ever been in a meeting or an argument where suddenly the “tables were turned” on you, that is likely how it happened.
For example, I once walked into an industry planning session and faced a hostile group. Unbeknownst to me, one of my competitors had called everyone ahead of time and told them I would be presenting something that was harmful to the association, and that he would protect the industry by confronting me at the meeting. This
peckerhead fellow set up a drama triangle in which I was the persecutor, the group was the victim, and he the rescuer. The “reality” of my presentation morphed into a “problem” under this dynamic.
I felt (rightfully) ambushed and tried to explain that I was acting in the group’s best interest, that I was really a victim here, and that this guy was manipulating us all. All of this made me look defensive and only dug me deeper into my “villain” corner. In retrospect, I felt wronged (hello, victim!) and then wanted to play the hero by exposing this guy’s tactics (rescuer!) – none of which was satisfying or productive. I didn’t even know about the damn triangle but I hopped all over it unsuccessfully that day.
Now that I know about this tool, here is how I use it when caught up in a situation. The first step is to honestly assess what role I have fallen into and take responsibility for it. Then I am able to disable the triangle by stepping out of that role entirely – not by rotating the triangle but by refusing to participate.
There can be no drama if the victim extends compassion or sympathy to the persecutor, if the persecutor apologizes, or if the rescuer validates the persecutors position. Removing one corner of the triangle diffuses the drama and changes the “problem” back into a “reality”.
If you have one of those families that like to talk about each other behind their backs (*raises hand*), it is likely because they are trying to either assign roles or protect themselves. These conversations can be stopped instantly by politely rejecting the situation as a “problem” and only acknowledge it as a “reality”. “That’s between the two of them,” is a nice way to prevent triangulation.
If we don’t acknowledge the dynamics of the triangle, then we are left with simple reality. It only becomes a drama when we take up our corners.
There is no winning position in a triangle dynamic. Even the hero/rescuer is ultimately vulnerable because each position is subject to the force of the other two. No one is empowered under these circumstances –they only exist by virtue of the problem. If the motivating factors are power, safety and admiration, we should instead seek to achieve all three through healthy self-esteem and self-advocacy.
This is my simple understanding of the “drama triangle” tool and I hope you find it useful. Please comment to add your perspectives, insights, and experiences with as they relate to your personal growth in recovery.