The Drama Triangle
Introduction by Lynne Forrest
Most of us unconsciously react to life from a position of victim-hood. Anytime we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we are opting to play victim. This leaves us feeling at the mercy of, done in by and un-faired against; no matter what our situation might be.
Victim-hood consists of three positions outlined by Stephen Karpman, a teacher of Transactional Analysis, on what he called the “Drama Triangle”. Having learned of it some thirty years ago, it has been one of the most important tools in my personal, as well as professional life. As my understanding of the Drama Triangle has expanded, so has my appreciation for this simple, but powerfully accurate instrument. I call it the “shame machine” because through it we unconsciously re-enact our vicious cycles, thereby creating shame. Every dysfunctional interaction takes place on the Drama Triangle! Until we make these dynamics conscious, we cannot transform them. Unless we transform them, we cannot move forward on our journey towards re-claiming our spiritual heritage.
Karpman named the three roles on the Drama Triangle Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim and placed them on an upside down triangle representing the three faces of victim. Even though only one is called Victim, all three originate out of and end up back there. Therefore they are all stopping places on the road to victim-hood. We each have a most familiar, or what I call, starting gate position.
We first learn our primary position from within our family. Although we each have a role we most identify with, we will also rotate through the other positions, going completely around the triangle, sometimes in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, many times every day.
It’s difficult to see ourselves (or others) as victims when we are in a care-taking or blaming role. Nonetheless these two, Rescuer and Persecutor, are the two opposite extremes of Victim. This is simply because all roles eventually lead back to victim. It’s inevitable.
You might notice that both the Persecutor and Rescuer are on the upper end of the triangle. Whenever we assume either of those stances, we come across as one-up. From either position we are relating as though we are better, stronger, smarter, or more-together than the victim. Sooner or later the victim, who is in a one-down position, develops a metaphorical “crick in the neck” from looking up. Feeling”looked down upon”, resentment builds and some form of retaliation inevitably follows. At that point the victim moves into a persecutor role. Reminiscent of a not-so-musical game of musical chairs, all players sooner or later rotate positions.
Here’s an example. Dad comes home from work to find mom coming down hard on Junior with, “Clean up your room or else” threats. He immediately comes to the rescue,”Mom” he might say,”give the boy a break”. Any one of several possibilities might occur next. Perhaps Mom, feeling victimized by dad, turns on him, automatically moving him into a victim position. They might do a few quick trips around the triangle with Junior on the sidelines. Or maybe Junior joins dad in a persecutory “Let’s gang up on mom” approach, and they could play it from that angle. Or Junior could turn-coat on dad, rescuing mom, with; “Mind your own business, dad . . . I don’t need your help!” So it goes, with endless variations perhaps, but nonetheless, round and round the triangle. For many families, it’s the only way they know how to communicate.
Everyone has a starting-gate position on the Drama Triangle. This is not only the place we most often get hooked, but also the role through which we actually define ourselves; a strong part of our identity. Each starting-gate position has its own particular way of seeing and reacting to the world. Each primary position originates out of a particular life theme and moves around the triangle in its own distinct way.
For instance, although we all eventually end up in the victim position on the triangle, the starting-gate position of Rescuer (*from here forward Starting-gate positions will be capitalized to differentiate them from the movement through a particular role) moves through victim and persecutor in a very different way than do either a primary Persecutor or Victim.
The Rescuer moves into victim wearing the cloak of martyrdom(“After all I’ve done for you …”), whereas a Persecutor claims victim as a way to justify vengeance(If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have had to ….”). Whereas a Rescuer may persecute by withdrawing their care-taking, a Persecutor’s rescuing is liable to be almost as painful as when they are in attack-mode. And a starting-gate Victim is perpetually pitiful and incapable. They even rescue from a one-down position! (“You’re the only one who can help me, because you’re so talented, or smart, or whatever!”)
Our primary positions are generally set-up in childhood. For instance, if a parent is overly protective, doing everything for a child, then that child may grow up to feel incapable of taking care of themselves. This sets them up for a life-time role of Victim. Or, the opposite; they might come to feel angry and vindictive if others don’t take care of them, thereby adopting a primary Persecutor stance.
There are many variations, and each case needs to be individually considered.
We not only act out these triangular distortions in our everyday relations with others, but also internally. We move around the triangle as rapidly inside our minds as we do out in the world. We trap ourselves with dishonest and dysfunctional internal dialogue. For example, we may come down hard on ourselves for not completing a project. Perhaps we lambaste ourselves as being lazy, inadequate or defective, causing us to spiral into feelings of anger and self-worthlessness. Inwardly, we cow to this persecutory voice, fearing it may be right. Can you see the persecutor/victim exchange happening here? As soon as we begin to blame or insult, a victim is created. And in this case, we’re it! This could go on for minutes, hours or days, but sooner or later, there will be a voice in us that comes to the rescue. Because we’re feeling lousy and need relief, we start to make excuses, “Well, I would have finished that project if it hadn’t been for …”, we might say. Now we have moved into rescuer.
Sometimes we rescue ourselves (and others) by denying what we know, “If I look the other way and pretend not to notice, it will go away” sort of tactic. These inner dramas perpetuate a vicious cycle of shame spirals and self loathing.
Similar to the way a generator produces electricity, the Drama Triangle generates shame. Whether through internal interaction or external communication, moving around the triangle keeps the self-disparaging messages going. The Drama Triangle becomes our own personal shame machine. The good news is that we can do something about it. All we have to do is learn to turn off the shame machine in order to get off the triangle. It’s a simple, although not easy, remedy.
Before we can get off the triangle we have to recognize and be willing to let go of the drama produced therein. We must first become intimately acquainted with the costs and trade-offs of each stopping place on the path of victim-hood. This allows us not only to recognize the various roles, but to realistically evaluate the consequences of being there as well.
Identifying the language and moves of each role further helps us to apprehend when we are being invited by others to join them on the triangle. With this awareness, we can choose whether or not we want to dance to the shame generating tune of victim. With that end in mind, let’s examine each role carefully.
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