What is the Drama Triangle and how do we get out of it?
40 years ago, Stephen Karpman, M.D. theorized the “Drama Triangle”. Decades later, and the model is still commonly found in psychology and counseling around the world.
Why? Like any good model, it’s elegant and effective.
What is it?
The Drama Triangle represents the three roles that we tend to play in interactions with others, especially in conflicts, unconsciously.
Essentially, the triangle represents the habitual and automatic personas/psychological mechanisms of the Reactive Brain.
A lot of the philosophy here on the Drama Triangle and how to escape it parallels what is on the Creative Brain vs. Reactive Brain page. If you haven’t already, please read that page before going further.
With that said, we can view the 3 roles of the Drama Triangle as the mechanisms of the Reactive Brain. That is, they are the automatic, subconscious roles that people play (or try to manipulate others into playing) to rationalize and meet our needs unintentionally.
When we adopt the victim role, we see ourselves as exploited, oppressed, and powerless. We can come across as very sensitive, and even promote ourselves as ‘sensitive’ to our emotions and others, in order to shirk responsibility and explain our poor circumstances.
The victim is probably the most common role on the drama triangle, especially in modern times.
In his book “The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture“, author Bradley Campbell describes this new culture as:
“…characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large. Domination is the main form of deviance, and victimization a way of attracting sympathy, so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.”
This is an insightful take on the recent influx of victim culture. And the part that is so relevant for us here, is that of making a choice other than emphasizing one’s worth and strength. Essentially, a shirking of responsibility and rationalization of one’s own pain and negative feelings.
The Victim role affirms the other roles on the Drama Triangle (they legitimize each other) by looking for a Rescuer to save them. If that fails, and often in conjunction, the Victim role will look for a Villain, one who ‘persecutes’ them and further rationalizes their victim-hood.
When we are in the Victim role, it is a struggle to be decisive or resilient. It can be very self-perpetuating and undermines our autonomy and confidence.
The Rescuer / Hero
“I can be your Hero, baby!”
Also referred to at ‘The Hero’, the Rescuer role is marked by coddling of others, even despite one’s own needs. Again, like the Victim, this role is a psychological mechanism for shirking responsibility. By helping others feel good about themselves, the Rescuer neglects ownership of their own responsibilities and needs.
Some may call this the ‘Enabler’ role. Just as Victims need Villains, Rescuers need Victims. The Rescuer role depends on others’ Victim roles, and can even subtly foster dependency for the Victim on the Rescuer, especially by enforcing their view of another as a Villain. A Rescuer may encounter guilt if/when not rescuing a victim.
The Rescuer can be a martyr, harboring resentment while overworking themselves, caught in the mire of supposed obligation. Or, they can meet their needs by saving others, yet with the other being ‘wrong’. Again, shirking responsibility, the Rescuer takes it upon themselves to help others because they ‘have to‘, while ignoring autonomy and responsibilities to themselves.
This is the voice of blame, control, strictness, authority, and anger. “This is all because of you!”
This role shirks responsibility, again, by putting it on others, finding justification for their anger through other’s responsibility for the anger. It enforces Victim and Rescuer roles by pointing pointing blame for one’s own suffering on them, enhancing the other roles’ narratives in turn.
This role is marked by a stark contrast: yelling and criticizing without actually solving problems. All 3 roles expect others to solve the problem for them, and the Villain can seem especially contradictory, as their expectation can come out as red-hot condemnation.
Persecutors rely on a scapegoat as a container for their own responsibility.
You may have noticed something interesting while reading through these roles: each role can describe a state that people hop to and occupy, depending on the circumstances. And, they can also loosely describe personality types. Most often, they are a momentary donning of a costume.
Since they are rooted in habit, people tend to take one of these roles over the other two more often.
As you were reading, did you think, “Oh…yes, I know a “Victim,” or “That’s exactly how
Now, which one ‘are’ you? That is, which role to you embody more than the others? It may be immediately obvious. If it isn’t, chat with a few of your friends about this model and ask them this trusting question: “Do you see me playing one of these roles more often than the other two?” Chances are, they’ll have a consistent answer.
Being mindful of these roles alone may be very impactful. Like many tools and insight on this sight, the Drama Triangle provides a model for better understanding people’s psychological processes, ways of speaking, etc. Now that you have this awareness, it will only grow as you see and hear it around you.
The Drama Triangle begets itself. When we are on it, we pull others onto it as well. Roles carry and invitation for others to assume a role along with you.
The perks are powerful:
- validation, rationalization, cognitive ease, and non-responsibility for all roles
- Victim: taken care of
- Rescuer: affirmation and feeling good by care-taking
- Villain: feeling superior.
- Sometimes effectively meeting needs.
And yet the costs are sneaky and simply not worth it:
- Limiting choice to oneself and others (choice brought by ownership/responsibility)
- Perpetuating harmful social dynamics
How to Escape
Mindfulness is helpful too, training our awareness (the first step) for when we’re on the triangle. Gratitude, forgiveness, and the power of perspective can be helpful antidotes.
In truth, this site is full of helpful Enablers that will help you live a more meaningful life, and almost all of them can battle the habitual tendencies of the Drama Triangle. For a list of especially pragmatic enablers, visit the Freedom From Suffering page.
And, there is a special nickname for when we jump out of the triangle’s vicious cycles: Shifting.
Please click here to visit that portion of the aforementioned Creative vs. Reactive brain page, where you’ll learn some tricks for escaping the Drama Triangle.
To summarize, Self-accountability is the key. When we leave the triangle, we are taking responsibility for everything we can, reigning in the opportunities that are afforded us in every moment, and letting go of attachment to our own story for who or what is to blame. We shift from a “To me” to a “By me” perspective of our world.
With radical responsibility comes radical change.
Here is how the script can flip for each of the 3 roles after shifting to a BY ME, creative brain perspective:
- Learn self-care, taking responsibility wherever they can for their own troubles
- They look inward instead of outward
- Exchange ‘powerless’ with ‘powerful’
- Learn how to help others help themselves. They empower and promote independence
- Stop expecting reciprocation
- Become inspired by seeing growth in others
- Meet their own needs
- Escape the social costs of anger
- Welcome change gracefully, no longer battling away solutions