In this article, we’re going to introduce a very important tool to understanding conflict and how to decrease the drama both in your life and in your circles.
It’s called the Karpman Drama Triangle, named after Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis who created this social model of human interaction. He first published his work in 1968 and won a Scientific Award for it in 1972.
The Karpman drama triangle is a social model to help us understand conflict and uses the three points of an inverted triangle to represent three roles.
These three roles are the victim (the position on the bottom of the triangle), the rescuer, and the persecutor (the two positions on the top).
Understanding how these roles work can help us to identify potentially destructive interactions and get out of the pattern.
The Karpman drama triangle models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts and how our roles shift. One note to remember is that the victim in these conflicts is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like the victim.
The victim role is played when a person feels helpless and powerless like they can never cut a break or they can never get ahead in life. The victim thinks things like “why does this always happen to me?” and “no one else understands what this is like.”
The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will save the day while simultaneously perpetuating the Victim’s negative feelings.
The rescuer role is played when a person takes responsibility for another person’s problem and makes it her own problem. She is enabling the victim. At the same time, she doesn’t really look at her own life (which could be a complete mess!) but instead focuses on “rescuing” the victim.
The rescuer thinks things like “I’m a good person so I’m going to save that poor soul!”
The rescuer’s line is “Let me help you.”
A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if she doesn’t go to the rescue. Yet her rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail.
This rescuer role is also pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs. When they focus their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues.
The persecutor role is played when a person is frustrated and self-righteous. She is the bully who thinks she knows how to fix someone else’s problem and might think things like “They’re wrong and I’m right, they need to do what I say” and “That person will get what’s coming to them if they don’t listen to me.”
The Persecutor is also known as the Villain and insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior.
Once in the drama triangle, people move between roles – the rescuer can become the persecutor or the persecutor can become the victim or the victim can become the persecutor. Despite this, there is usually one role that we most often and naturally enter – this is called our starting gate.
One person might often start out in the victim role where others jump into playing the rescuer or the persecutor. Where she starts has to do with how she sees herself and what she identifies with. Regardless of how many times she goes around the triangle, she inevitably ends up in the victim role, feeling powerless and helpless and unable to do anything. So it’s really important to adopt strategies to get out of the drama triangle.
How do we stop the drama triangle and get out?
If you are the victim, become a survivor.
What this means is asking yourself: how can I solve this problem? What do I need to empower myself? What steps can I take to get what I want?
If you are the rescuer, become a teacher.
What this means is to empower and encourage someone to identify and solve her own problems. Do not commiserate or try to jump in and fix, but instead ask questions like “what is it that you want to see happen in this situation?” or “what do you think you can do to change this?”
It is also important to set healthy boundaries, especially around time limits of when you are available to support others. As with a rescuer it’s important to remember and recognise that someone else’s problem isn’t yours to solve. This is huge for us when we are leading circle.
If you are the persecutor, become a challenger.
What this means is to be firm but fair in your approach with people. Don’t insist they are wrong, instead help the person recognize the consequences of their own actions and take responsibility for themselves.
By freeing ourselves from the drama triangle, we are able to have healthier relationships with people and won’t feel so drained and powerless when conflict situations arise in circle.