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.

Karpman Drama Triangle

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.

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36 comments

  1. Oh gosh, I was looking for a blog on the Karpman Triangle and was happy to find this one so as to be able to discuss this great tool. Triangulation might be an entrenched characteristic of families with alcoholism. But also narcissism where the mortal wound never to be forgiven is a recurring refrain with “what X did to me” and never what that person is doing in the present to others. Victimhood, real or perceived, is a great way of getting what you want by making people feel guilty. I could write a whole novel about my family based on the KT. I can even feel sorry for those running around on it like rats in a cage.
    But I do have a question, the original reason why I sought out a blog: is there ANY way one can influence family members to see how dysfunctional their behavior is and possibly succeeding with that to some degree, any hope of healing? With regard to the rescuer becoming persecutor, the Dudley Do Right would never imagine his role as dysfunctional when everyone is applauding it. When the self-righteousness justifies persecution it should be obvious that something is wrong.
    Persecution in turn creates real victims. But a skewed system would never see it that way since those in it are locked into their roles. Is it possible to wake any of them up and see how dysfunctional they are and in many cases, very hurtful?

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    • I totally relate to everything you wrote, Cabbagejuice. Here is how I have been working towards changing my place in the drama triangle and it works well for me. Think of the drama triangle as if each corner is held out by a tent pole. If any of the three poles is removed, that corner will fall flat. Then instead of a triangle, you are left with a line between the other two corners. So if you are cast as a villain, you can reject that identity and “deflate” your corner. This happens not by resistance (“I DID NOTHING WRONG!”) but by responding in kindness to the “victim” (“I am so sorry you are hurting. How can I help?). It is also important to reject being cast in the other roles – we tend to be more accepting of the hero and victim roles. But we must refuse to participate in the drama triangle regardless of which role we are assigned. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that we must accept that we cannot change others; only ourselves. We can’t coax anyone out of their corner, only deflate the triangle by negating our role. I just did some digging and found this article which I really like. It has some great insights and tips: http://weinholds.org/the-drama-triangle-victim-consciousness/ Good luck!!!

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      • Thanks for answering. Extending kindness didn’t seem to work with these people. They just regarded it as weakness on my part. In fact one of the group announced more than once: “The door is always open to a relationship with me only X (me) has to realize SHE has a problem”. Once a doormat, always a doormat…NOT!
        Maybe I should take the advice of someone on an online support group who wrote: “They all went down in the Titanic”. In other words, I shouldn’t imagine that they could ever be resurrected in my life.

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  2. Wow, great post. I’m going to keep this in mind, get out of the triangle. I want to speak in the present and in truth, with compassion. 15 days today!

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  3. WOW!!! After spending Thanksgiving with my family and having this “problem” presented to me by different members of the family, I was finally courageous enough to step out of it all together and express it was only a “problem” between the two parties involved. I refused to get dragged into it! It felt so healthy to not be responsible for another person’s drama and to encourage them to take it God for themselves (1 Peter 5:7). Your visual brought it all to light!
    THANK YOU!!!

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  4. Sadly these rolls have ended my relationship with my father and with my stepmother, both very active alcoholics and have had sever trauma in their past. But the alcohol and the triangle have been so deeply integrated they can’t get past each of their own trauma. I had nothing to do with their trauma. One, my mom died in a horrible car accident my father and I were in and two, my step mom was an incest survivor. They never worked on healing. I was the “face of trauma” per a psychologist so I was the outcast. I played all three of those rolls just to survive in my household. It is so important to actively work on healing especially when attaining sobriety. My healing started when I lovingly walked away a year ago. It was too exhausting. I have two weeks sober and looking into building a strong foundation thru possibly a group therapy, A.A. or Women for sobriety etc.
    Thank you so much for your post.
    Rachael

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    • Oh Rachael, precious girl. You deserve love and safety and comfort and support. Your ability to rise above everything is truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing you story here. Please keep allowing us to learn from/with you.

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  5. Love the Karpman Drama Triangle and see it play out a great deal in my professional life. Equally a close family member of mine would try to engage me in the game and when I remained neutral, in the ‘reality’ position, it would be reported back to me via another (they love traingulated conversations too!) that I had become argumentative because I wouldn’t agree! Can’t win in those situations and my default position has mostly been victim/martyr but I’m working on it 🙂

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  6. I have also found that there are always certain people who want to “triangulate” into your problem with another person, and that is never helpful! This is one of the big reasons I think marital issues should stay between the husband and wife (ok, venting to a friend once in a while is probably ok and sometimes funny!). But when one party regularly includes their mother, sister, best buddy, etc, to get validation that they are in the the right and hubby/wifey is unfair and doesn’t understand, it’s usually disastrous to the relationship dynamic and very unfair to the other spouse.

    The triangle graphic and analogy are very helpful and present it in another way than I had typically watched out for.

    Liked by 1 person

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