Getting out of a drama
Have you ever got caught up in someone else’s drama and found yourself thinking “How on earth did I get sucked into this?”. If you have, chances are that you have been drawn into a drama triangle.
I got geekily excited when I saw this being used to describe the conflict between characters in the BBC drama The Cry recently, although it occurred to me that many viewers might not understand why the main character, Joanna, was being asked about a triangle by a psychologist. Here I explain what that triangle is all about.
The Drama Triangle
The drama triangle is a social model that was conceived by Stephen Karpman. Karpman used triangles to show the roles people take up in conflict situations. He defined three roles in the conflict:
The Victim: The Victim feels victimised, oppressed and powerless (“Poor me!”). They believe they they are being prevented from making decisions or solving their own problems because others are preventing them.
The Rescuer: The rescuer is the classic enabler who swoops in to save the day (“Here, I’ll help you”). They enter the conflict to come to the aid of the victim.
The Persecutor: The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical and authoritative (“It’s all your fault”). The message from them is the victim is in the wrong and they are right (“I’m OK, you’re not OK”) .
Let the games begin!
Initially, a drama triangle arises when a person takes on one of the roles. This then draws other ‘players’ into the conflict. Often the other players are consciously ‘enlisted’.
Think about it:
What does someone who likes being the victim need in order to be a victim? A persecutor! Or a rescuer.
If you want to let the world know you are superior to other people what do you need? Someone inferior to pick fault with!
If you get a kick out of saving the day what are you looking for? Someone to save!
These roles do not remain static. As the ‘drama’ plays out our three players move around the triangle.
Round we go
Let’s say we have three people, Abby, Bob and Carl, in conversation in the office.
Abby “I see you’ve mucked the order up again” (Persecutor)
Bob “It wasn’t my fault. I have had a lot of things to deal with” (Victim)
Carl “Why are you always picking on him? Give him a break" (Rescuer)
From here the triangle can go any number of ways:
Bob could feel emboldened by Carl’s support and become the persecutor by attacking Abby (making Abby the victim) OR
Bob could tell Carl he can fight his own battle thank you very much, making Bob the new persecutor. If Abby then chimes in with criticism of Carl she moves to rescuer and poor Carl becomes the victim for his troubles. OR
If Abby attacks Carl for wading in, Bob could move to the rescuer position by sticking up for him.
And so on. It’s easy to see how people shift around the three positions over and over in the same argument. I don’t know about you, but I’m fairly sure I’ve been drawn into some drama hexagons before.
For fans of The Cry I’ve shown the positions that main Characters occupied at various points in the story. It’s hard to tell the exact order due to the time line jumps but you can see how they moved around the triangle.
When does it end?
The problem is that no one really wants it to. None of these three positions are the result of an adult response to a conflict, we take them up because they have huge emotional benefits.
The victim gets to be rescued and externally validated by someone else. If they enlist a rescuer they don’t need to fight their own battles. The downside of course, is that if we tell ourselves that we need someone to rescue us we give up our power. We can feel helpless in solving our own problems.
The rescuer gets to feel like the hero. They may get an ego boost from helping, they can shift focus away from dealing with their own shortcomings or maybe they get to feel justified in having a dig at someone else who they’ve always to attack. Their motivation is rarely to help the victim. In fact, whether they realise it or not they aren’t helping the victim at all because they are causing them to stay helpless.
The persecutor gets to feel superior and they can gloss over any faults of their own by blaming others. They may also get things done quicker by not having to concern themselves with details such as how other people might feel about a situation. The problem here is that they wont win many friends and may find themselves ganged up on when a rescuer arrives.
How do I get off this crazy triangle?
Recognise when you are in a drama triangle.
Step out of the triangle by not giving the other ‘players’ what they expect. Adopt a more adult to adult approach (win/win or I’m OK, you’re OK) by asking questions and making suggestions. Don’t get sucked back in!
Identify which position you have been drawn into. Do you often find yourself in this position? Use the tips below to take a different approach in future.
Victim: See the persecutor as a challenger, someone who presents you with an opportunity to clarify your own needs and develop your responses rather than a persecutor. Use the rescuer as a coach who can help you solve your problems. Don’t outsource your self-esteem by looking for others to help you. Focus on solutions rather than problems and be proactive in asserting what you want.
Rescuer: Show concern for others in need but don’t solve their problems for them. That might give you what you need but what they really need is for you to act as a coach or mentor who can help them find their own solutions.
Persecutor: Be assertive but not overpowering. Remember that putting out someone elses light doesn’t make yours shine any brighter. This might mean that dealing with others takes more time and skill but it’s worth the return in the long run.
So next time you find yourself sucked into a conflict, take a moment to spot if you’ve ended up in a drama triangle. You can avoid being used for other people’s purposes and it life feels a lot less stressful.