Drama Triangle: What is it? Cause? How to Break From it?

Are You a Persecutor, a Rescuer, or a Victim?

The Drama Triangle is a model that shows the 3 roles of unproductive, intense, and potentially toxic relationships. The Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim (PRV). The Triangle can help people adopting those three roles to break away from the dreaded drama triangle of conflicted relationships. They do this by knowing that firstly these roles exist and secondly how each role plays a part in the triangle.

Drama triangle with Snow White characters
The roles of Snow White, The Prince and The Witch illustrates the 3 drama triangle roles

A Quick Background of How the Drama Triangle Was First Invented

First, we need to understand basketball and football fakes:

A ball fake in basketball is a technique used by an offensive player to distract the defender and give the ball handler an advantage. A ball fake is executed when a player pretends to pass or shoot the ball in a convincing motion, but they do not actually let go of the ball.

Stephen B.Karpman M.D. is the creator of the drama triangle. He was studying fakes whilst sitting at the side of basketball and football games. Stephen started, in his own words by ‘…doodling with some circles and symbols trying to figure out ways that the quarterback could outsmart the defensive halfback in football…’.

His father was a psychoanalyst who worked in a psychiatric prison hospital. A Russian scientist who studied with Freud and opened up a new field of criminal psychoanalysis. Also, he wrote 20 books and 100 articles.

Stephen Karpman, the son, attended Eric Berne’s Tuesday night seminar. Eric was a Canadian-born psychiatrist who created the theory of transactional analysis as a way of explaining human behaviour. Moreover, Berne encouraged his student to brainstorm by offering weekly credits for new theories. The first published theory of his work was called, ‘Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis‘ in 1968.

After Stephen showed Eric his original theory in 1968, Berne said, ‘Write it up and people will be quoting you for 200 years.’ The drama triangle won the Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award in 1972. Therefore, Berne was right. Forty years later the drama triangle is as useful today as it was then.

What is the Drama Triangle? An Overview of What is Meant by the Drama Triangle

Wiki says,

The Karpman drama triangle is a social model of human interaction proposed by Stephen B. Karpman. The triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur among people in conflict. The drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis.

My understanding is that the Drama Triangle provides a model that helps us to initially understand relationships better – social interaction. Secondly, it can be used to compare that model of unproductive relationships to our own, to know whether our relationships are toxic, or not. To know whether our relationships are reactive and not empowered. Somewhat like a map showing us where we are, to then know where we want to be.

What is the Drama Triangle? Details of How the Drama Triangle Works

The dreaded Drama Triangle is made up of 3 roles; The Persecutor, The Rescuer, and The Victim. Sometimes called the ‘Three Faces of the Victim’ and the triangle is sometimes known as the ‘Victim Triangle’. The roles are also described as the two-up and the one-down roles. The persecutor, and the rescuer at the top of the triangle, and the victim at the top of the triangle.

Drama triangle with real life work examples
This drama triangle demonstrates a real-life work example

These 3 roles are in relationships that depend on each other. Relationships that are not productive and will drain their energies with unhealthy interactions. Even if you are not playing one of these roles on a daily basis it is highly likely that you are dealing with people that are. Remember that these roles can be played consciously or subconsciously.

The trap is that people caught in the dreaded drama triangle are wanting to meet their needs, which can be unconscious desires, rather than taking responsibility for the part they play in making the triangle a reality.

To bring this to life, let’s relate it back to something we know. Here are 3 examples:

Little Red Riding Hood

In this famous fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood was the Victim to the Persecutor, the Big Bad Wolf, and the Rescuer was the Woodsman. Interestingly the roles change through the fairytale. For example, Little Red Riding Hood was originally the Rescuer to her Grandmother and later became the Persecutor. More about roles changing later in this article.

The Film Titanic

Rose, the ‘poor little rich girl’, is the Victim. Her Persecutor is Cal, the rich oil tycoon, and her husband-to-be. Jack is ‘just a poor guy’, and the Rescuer.

Donald Trump

In the Presidential Elections, Donald Trump would often put himself forward as the victim. For example, ‘Oh, so I get less time to speak than him’. He was referring to Biden. In this case, the moderator was being put forward as the Persecutor, and Donald was hoping that the American people would be his Rescuer.

Examples at Home

All of these examples are of the triangle relationship, also known as the emotional triangle. A more ‘at home’ example would be:

Mum and her young son are arguing about the state of his room. Dad comes home from work and says, ‘He’s had a long day at school. Let him off’. Mum is the Persecutor, the son is the victim and Dad is the Rescuer. What follows can either be a continuation of those roles, or possibly a change of roles where Dad turns on Mum, and their son tries to rescue his Mum. Everybody switching roles.

If you consider your own life you will have played one of these roles at some point. It is very uncomfortable to admit, yet knowing that you have can be the very first step towards being happier. More about breaking free from the drama triangle later in this article.

Understanding the 3 Roles Better; Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim

Each role is unique and comes with its own feelings, sayings, desire, and responsibilities. Remember that these are unhealthy roles and formed by habitual behavioural habits.

PersecutorsAngry businessman pointing finger
Examples of The Persecutor

In the examples above, our Persecutors were the Big Bad Wolf, Cal – the billionaire husband, and the Election moderator.

The Persecutor’s Role – Angry

Persecutors might also be called the villain, tormentor, betrayer, oppressor, or accuser. The role of a Persecutor is to blame. It is a shame-based role – the ‘shadow father principle’. Resembling a critical parent. They must always be right and by blaming they deny their vulnerability that they fear becoming a victim themselves. They criticise and blame.

Often this person received mental or physical abuse as a child. Persecutors are often secretly seething because they were ‘abused’ and have now decided never to be a victim again, and instead to be a survivor, and the only way to survive is to be anything but a ‘picked-on loser’. Their persecution is a means of protecting themselves by almost making the first strike.

A Persecutor’s ‘job’ is to keep the victim feeling oppressed – being a victim. They don’t solve problems and their power is used negatively and can be very destructive – ‘I’m Ok you’re not – I put others down to feel ok’. Persecutors do not bend, and cannot be vulnerable.

If the Persecutor does not keep the victim oppressed the victim can rise up, and then the persecutor has no role, as the victim leaves the triangle. This role is the most extreme of the 3, though you can find more passive-aggressive persecutors.

Persecutor’s Sayings

  • ‘It’s all your fault’.
  • ‘They are wrong and I’m right’.
  • ‘You can’t do anything right’.
  • To the Victim: ‘You are to blame for all this going wrong’.

How to Recognise a Persecutor’s Personality

  • Disparages other people’s worth
  • Persecutes to feel superior
  • Discounts others’ value and integrity
  • Aggressive
  • Angry
  • Judgemental
  • Critical
  • Blaming
  • Controlling
  • Superior
  • Hurts

The Relationship The Persecutor Seeks Out in the Triangle

The Persecutor seeks victims. By keeping a victim oppressed they keep themselves as the persecutor.

RescuersConcerned businesswoman looking over her shoulderExamples of the Rescuer

In the examples above our rescuers were the Woodsman, Jack, and the American people.

The Rescuer’s Role – Fear

The Rescuers save people that he/she believes are vulnerable and they help without being asked. ‘I’m Ok you’re not’ – I take on the victim’s responsibilities to feel ok. Not my own.’ Rescuers want to caretake other people, and even need to do this to feel good about themselves, whilst neglecting themselves or not taking responsibility for their own needs. They want to feel valued and there’s no better way than to be a saviour.

Their belief is that if they take care of others, then eventually they will be taken care of. This is born from not having their needs met as a child. Believes that their own needs are not important and their only way of achieving value is to connect with others and rescue them.

Rescuers are overworked, tired, caught, stuck, almost a martyr-type style, whilst resentment builds beneath the surface. Their role is the extreme opposite of the Persecutor. They could be described as a shadow aspect of the mother principle, but instead of support and nurturing instead they control and smother, which is a misguided understanding of to empower.

They cannot allow the victim to get better or succeed because the victim would leave the triangle, which would stop their ability to ‘rescue’.

Rescuer Sayings

  • ‘Let me help you’.
  • ‘I can help you’.
  • ‘You can’t do it on your own’.
  • ‘Poor you, let me help’.
  • ‘if they did what I say, they’d be happy’.

How to Recognise a Rescuer’s Personality

  • Disparages other people’s skills
  • Helps to feel superior
  • Poor you
  • Pain reliever
  • Discounts others’ ability to think for themselves
  • Enabler
  • Keeps victim dependent
  • Over-helpful
  • Self-sacrificing
  • Needs to be needed
  • Rescues when it is not needed
  • Feels guilty if they don’t rescue
  • fears not being needed
  • Keeps the victim dependent on them
  • Discounts that the victim might be able to solve the problem themselves

VictimBusinesswoman with head in hands at desk looking stressedThe Victim

In the examples above the victims were Little Red Riding Hood, Rose, and Donald Trump. Know that the Persecutor and the Rescuer fear the less desirable role of the Victim.

Victim’s Sayings and Self-Talk

  • ‘Poor me. So unfair’.
  • ‘It always happens to me’.
  • ‘I never get a break’.
  • To the Rescuer: ‘Only you can help me’.

The Victim Role – Sadness

Victims are overwhelmed by their own vulnerability and don’t take responsibility for their situation. They deny any responsibility for their negative circumstances and deny possession of the power to change those circumstances.  Victims have a real problem making decisions, solving problems, finding much pleasure in life, or understanding their self-perpetuating behaviours.

‘I’m not Ok, you are – I help others to feel ok.’

This role is a shadow of our wounded inner child. The innocent, vulnerable, and needy part of us. Criplling dependency on primary relationships. Broken and unfixable. Eventually, the one down Victim becomes tired of being so and will look to level the playing field, which will mean that they seek to get even by becoming a persecutor (Blaimg others) or a rescuer (Helping others).

How to Recognise a Victim’s Personality

  • Disparages oneself
  • Avoids responsibilities to feel inferior
  • Discounts self
  • Powerless
  • Hopeless
  • Trapped
  • Stuck
  • Downtrodden
  • Helpless
  • Complains of unmet needs
  • Dejected
  • Child behaviour
  • Discounts their own ability to solve the problem
  • Dream denied

The Relationship Each Role Most Wants to Deal with in the Triangle

The Victim seeks the Rescuer, a saviour so that they can stay the Victim. If they approach that person and refuse to ‘save them’, the Victim can then turn them into a persecutor. Imagine the example:

– Victim: ‘I have no money because the government keep taxing me’.

– Desired Rescuer: ‘Everyone gets taxed. That’s just the way it is’.

– Victim: ‘You never lend me any money either. You want me to be unhappy’. The victim makes the Rescuer a Persecutor.

The Persecutor seeks someone to blame and the Rescuer seeks someone to save. Each of the three roles is playing out its own dysfunctional pattern.

Benefits of Being in the Triangle

Most articles you read will not share the benefits of being in the drama triangle because being in the triangle is seen as bad. Yet, we have all have been part of the triangle more than we’d care to admit. So why have we?

Because in the triangle Persecutors can feel superior, Rescuers can feel good about caretaking, and victims get taken care of. What’s not to like?! The cost is that they continue with these unhealthy relationships. The Persecutors never get to properly challenge that achieves a positive outcome. The Rescuers never get to truly help someone long-term (Feed a man fish). And the Victims never get to help themselves.

Consequences of Triangle Living

Living in the triangle is toxic, unhealthy, and is destined for misery and suffering. The cost for any of the roles living in this triangular existence is mental, emotional, and maybe even physical pain. As we chase ourselves around the triangle we live in reaction. Instead of living proactively, spontaneously, or with personal choice, we live in a world of action and reaction, which is dull, painful, and unhappy.

Moving from the Drama Triangle to the Empowered Triangle is a challenge for us all.

the drama and empowerment triangles with an arrow
The move from the drama triangle to the empowerment triangle can be difficult

How We Move Between the 3 Roles of Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim

We each enter the triangle at our default. One of the 3 roles. This is our default and it is our identity. Our starting gate, and the role we take, define us and are generally crystalised in our childhood. This will be a well-trodden path and a familiar script used again and again to help us, be us. If you place the 3 roles on a horizontal line they would look like this:

Persecutor —— Victim ——— Rescuer

When you enter, you eventually become a victim. Moving from one of the 2 ups; either the Persecutor or the Rescuer and sliding downwards to the one down – the Victim. We all end up as victims. Powerless and helpless. That is one of the problems with entering the drama triangle, you always end up at the inevitable place of feeling sad, helpless, and powerless.

Karpman shared his thoughts on moving between roles using the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood. In Little Red Riding Hood, the heroine starts as the Rescuer. Bringing food to her grandmother, who is the Victim. Then she becomes the Victim of the Big Bad Wolf, who is the Persecutor. Then, later Little Red Riding Hood becomes the Persecutor when she sews stones into the wolf’s belly, who has now become the victim.

Little Red Riding Hood plays all the roles of the drama triangle. The intensity of the drama increases the more switches she has. For example, if we are the persecutor blaming someone and then we switch to the victim, our feelings are even more pronounced. We were ‘comfortable’ blaming and now we’ve switched roles, with new thoughts, and new feelings, which are like riding an emotional rollercoaster. It takes its toll.

Moving Around the Triangle

Not only do we enter the triangle with people but in our minds too. We move around the triangle continually in our heads. Consider this example:

You miss the deadline for a project. Tell yourself off for being lazy & incompetent – the Persecutor. You tell yourself that you are only human & you did your best – the Rescuer. And you tell yourself that you are overworked by the company & they should be more supportive – the Victim.

The programme that continually plays in our heads perpetuates the drama triangle and becomes our very own shame-making machine. Unhealthy and in a world where mindfulness and mental health are ever more in need, this triangle is an uncaring and destructive force that we must be aware of.

What Causes the ‘Trauma Triangle’? (This is Another Name for the Drama triangle)

A drama triangle happens when a situation calls for someone to feel like a victim or a persecutor. They then take on one of these roles. This person then enlists the rescuer into the situation. Each role is acting selfishly to fulfil their needs, e.g. for the persecutor to blame someone.

How Do You Break the Karpman Drama Triangle?

Breaking out of the dreaded drama triangle is about ‘putting your big boy pants on’. Acting like a grown-up. Setting an example as a leader. It’s neither the flight nor fight but that middle route where doing the right thing feels uncomfortable, yet better for everyone involved. A realisation that you are playing one of these roles takes great self-awareness. Moving to the ‘Empowerment Triangle’ is the key. The Drama Triangle is where the ‘drama’ happens, and the Empowerment Triangle is where empowerment happens. From being caught up in it all to taking responsibility for your role in it.

Empowerment triangle with 3 cartoon examples
The empowerment triangle is the healthy transition from the drama triangle

 

If anyone one person ‘wakes up’ from the triangle it can support all 3 roles moving out of the triangle. Particularly if the victim wakes up because that is the one down role and arguably the toughest role to break out of. The reason that one person can shatter the triangle is that it is a little like Batman and the Joker. Batman needs the Joker so that he can be a superhero. Without him, he has no role – they are codependent on each other.

Knowing You’re in it

The first step to breaking out of the drama triangle is to know that you are in it.

Admitting that you have adopted one of the three roles is hard but critical to moving forward. Train your internal observer to recognise the signs that you are becoming one of the three PRV.

The second step is to ask yourself, ‘What do I really want?’ – Do I want to move from reactive relationships to feeling empowered in your relationships?

The third step requires changes in your mindset and then your behaviours. From reacting to choosing. Tearing down to building up. From telling to asking. Focusing less on what you don’t want and more on what you do want.

Which role are you? A Prosecutor like the Wolf? A Rescuer like Jack? Or a Victim like Mr Trump?

We are Never Victims But By Choice

Once you know your default role read about what your role can do to break away from the empowerment triangle:

I am a Persecutor But I want to be a Challenger

Icon of two boxers labelled The Challenger
Moving from the persecutor to the challenger

 

Accept that you are the ‘bad guy’. You have blamed. Kept a victim as a victim. This is your first step and it is a critical step and a hard step. Remaining where you are is easier, breaking out is hard.

Your next step is to remain firm and yet fair. Assertive – Not aggressive. See the victim as a person, and challenge them – don’t blame them. Hold people to account. For example, ‘If you hold up your end of the bargain, I’ll do the same’. You can do this. Ask yourself – who has been challenging and yet fair in your life? Use them as a role model. Be proud to help the victim learn and grow, with your support.

I am a Rescuer But I want to be a Coach

Icon of a woman blowing a whistle labelled The Coach
Moving from the rescuer to the coach is a healthy transition to make

This phrase is most useful for breaking out of the Rescuer role:

Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.

Help the victims to help themselves. Teach them. Coach them, and still care for them, but with agreement on boundaries of how much teaching and coaching you will do to help them. After all, they need to help themselves. Learning the GROW model will help you to begin. The very first step is to ask open questions and a good first question is to ask them, ‘What do you really want?’.

I am a Victim But I want to be a Creator

 

Icon of a man with a lightbulb labelled The Creator
The creator is great for moving out of the victim role

 

Accept your vulnerability and become a problem solver and a survivor. Learn problem-solving techniques, meditate, and ask yourself ‘what can you do?’. Be more outcome orientated and less problem orientated. Create a gratitude list of things that are good in your life – ‘I can do this’. The first step is to identify one practical and easy step you can take towards the outcome you want.

Rocketman – The Film – Elton and Bernie

The film about Elton John’s life tells of the wonderful partnership between Elton and Bernie. Bernie writes the lyrics and Elton sings them. Many times in Elton’s rollercoaster life of sex, drugs and rock & roll, he tries to make Bernie the persecutor or the rescuer. Each time Bernie supports, guides, and resists entering into the drama triangle with Elton by encouraging him to solve his own problems. Always done with compassion, and empathy and always with Elton’s best interests at heart. A great example of not getting into the triangle of drama.

Further Understanding

Eric Berne, the psychiatrist, wrote a book in 1964 called, ‘The Games People Play‘. It has since sold over 5 million copies and describes both functional and dysfunctional social interactions. In essence, it was the start of the concept we know as the 3 ego states of parent, child, and adult.

The first half of the book sees Berne introduce transactional analysis, which is means of interpreting social interactions or understanding people’s behaviours. In the second half, Eric talks that many negative behaviours can be traced to switching or confusion of these roles. This book is very worthwhile reading.

Variations of the Triangle

Karpman wrote many variations to his original theory and they can be found here. We have summarised some of them below and you can read further directly from Karpman in the link. In this writer’s opinion, don’t mess with the original – it is the best version!

The ‘OK’ or 10% Triangle

Stephen included this, particularly for couples’ therapy. This triangle offers that:

  • There are at least 10% ok reasons in each of the roles.
  • Every idea spoken has at least 10% truth in it.
  • 10% of the population would react the same way.
  • 10% of what you are saying is not true anyway.

The Question Mark Triangle

This triangle offers three motives behind any unexplained action.

The False Perception Triangles

This triangle is about the confusions of false perception in the reading of a situation perhaps as one wants it to be, rather than the way it is.

The Double Bind Triangles

Karpmans’ example is: A partner in a custody battle had a periodic substance abuse problem. If he voluntarily (R) admitted he had the problem, it would be used against him in court, and he’d lose. If he lied (P) and denied any problem, they would say he was in denial, and he’d lose. He was in a double bind. Either way, he would lose. The third point (V) of a classic double bind is that there is no way of talking about it.

Other Triangles from Karpman’s Research Paper

Indecision triangles, vicious cycle triangles, trapping triangles, escape triangles, triangles of oppression & liberation, switching in the triangle, compassion triangle, liars triangle, PTSD defensiveness triangle, inner drama triangle, two-level drama triangle, wisdom triangle, script triangle, inner re-decision triangle, outer transference triangle, two-level drama triangle, three-level drama triangle, and biochemical triangle.

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