Breaking out of the dreaded drama triangle

Every once in a while, all of us find ourselves entangled in interactions that are negative and destructive. We refer to these kinds of conflicts as the Dreaded Drama Triangle. In any relationship conflict, there are three roles and each person involved dons one of these three roles, most of the time. You play one of these three roles: the persecutor, the victim or the rescuer. I am sure all parents can relate to the three roles from their parenting experience. Once you understand this triangle, you will immediately be able to relate most of the dramas in your personal and professional life to this model and that is the first step we need to take in order to resolve the dramas we unnecessarily get ourselves caught into in our day to day life. Like they say, to solve a problem, one must first understand it.

Steven Karpman placed these three roles at each of the three corners of an inverted triangle and called them the faces of drama.

What does narcissism have in common with Karpman's drama triangle ...
Steven Karpman’s Drama Triangle

Let us understand these roles better to start with:

  1. The Victim: The Victim is one who thinks “Poor me!” The Victim feels victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight. The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will save the day but also perpetuate the Victim’s negative feelings. Eg. A child being threatened or admonished by a parent may think ‘Why does it have to be me who compromises every time?” ‘Why is the world so unfair?’ ‘Why does it happen with only me?!’
  2. The Persecutor: (a.k.a. Villain) The Persecutor insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior. Eg: A parent telling the child that ‘You cannot go out to play or you cannot have Maggi today’ or ‘You do this every time! How many times do I have to teach you! Can you not follow such a simple instruction!’
  3. The Rescuer: The rescuer’s attitude is “Let me help you.” The Rescuer feels guilty if they don’t go to the rescue the victim. Yet their rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. This rescue 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. Eg. A most common example is one parent trying to come to the rescue of the child while being prosecuted by another, saying ‘Give the child a break! She has been busy with school for hours. She is tired.’

It’s not that when we are in conflict we just play one of these roles. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. In a drama, you don’t just don one of the three roles, but you also change roles going from Rescuer to a Prosecutor and from Victim to Rescuer and from Prosecutor to Victim.

So, a father trying to rescue a child from a prosecuting mother, may turn in the next moment into a prosecutor and make the mother into a victim and the child again goes clinging to her mother trying to rescue her. And the drama simply goes on and on. That is why it is a closed triangle- indicating that the actors keep shifting roles endlessly keeping the drama alive. As we all may already know, no one wins in a drama triangle. In fact, everyone is stuck, stressed and is a loser.

We can easily cite many more examples from personal and professional lives where this drama triangle is played out every day. Fortunately, there is a way to learn to break out or as I say ‘resolve’ the drama triangle. The first step we have already seen – is to understand the drama triangles and relate the drama in your life to the faces of the drama triangle.

In the next step, you have a choice between two possible methods to resolve the drama triangle:

The first approach is called the Winner’s triangle. In this approach, the victim should understand that he/she is vulnerable and caring, the prosecutor should adopt an assertive posture, and anyone recruited to be a rescuer should react by being “caring”.

Approach 1: Winner’s Triangle

Vulnerable – a victim should be encouraged to accept their vulnerability, problem solve and be more self-aware.
Assertive – a persecutor should be encouraged to ask for what they want, be assertive, but not be punishing.
Caring – a rescuer should be encouraged to show concern and be caring, but not over-reach and problem-solve for others.

The second method is called the power of TED. It recommends that the “victim” adopts the alternative role of creator, view the persecutor as a challenger, and enlist a coach instead of a rescuer.

Approach 2: The Power of TED

Creator – victims are encouraged to be outcome-oriented as opposed to problem-oriented and take responsibility for choosing their response to life challenges. They should focus on resolving “dynamic tension” (the difference between current reality and the envisioned goal or outcome) by taking incremental steps toward the outcomes he or she is trying to achieve. The victim must first acknowledge his or her strengths and capabilities. The victim should think I can function productively and get independent of the prosecutor. Eg. ‘I will simply complete my homework every day. It takes just a few minutes and I can easily do it. Then I am free to play.’

Challenger – a victim is encouraged to see a persecutor as a person (or situation) that forces the creator to clarify his or her needs and focus on their learning and growth. The prosecutor should first become a good listener- hear out the victim. He or she can then set clear expectations upfront like ‘you can have Maggi once a week, any day of your choice but not every day’ or ‘you can go play once you finish your homework.

Coach – a rescuer should be encouraged to ask questions that are intended to help the individual to make informed choices. His or her good intentions need to be channelised into the coach’s role. The key difference between a rescuer and a coach is that the coach sees the creator as capable of making choices and of solving his or her own problems. A coach asks questions that enable the creator to see the possibilities for positive action and to focus on what he or she does want instead of what he or she does not want. A coach can say’ I will hear you out or ‘ I can suggest possible solutions but will not engage with the prosecutor’.

We can adopt one or both of these approaches to solve the dreaded drama triangle. Having said that, I must also say that it is clearly a skill that one needs to practice and develop over time. Where living in a drama triangle comes naturally to us, breaking out is not easy. I am far from mastering it myself. It’s never late to start. At least let’s start by seeing the play of the drama triangle in our own lives and lives around us, then we can choose whether or not to try breaking out of it.

It’s a skill that deserves to be on our must learn life skills list and one that each parent should try to pass on to their children. This is real maturity.

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