Ever feel that you’re stuck in a familiar pattern with people? Do you feel you’re often treated like a doormat, or certain people are always out to get you? If you find yourself exasperated with the same old arguments that end the same old way, chances are you could be stuck in a drama triangle. Read on to find out more about it, and how to step out of the triangle….
The drama triangle, (a social model of interaction proposed by Stephen Karpman in 1961) suggests that, in arguments, we often naturally take one of three positions – victim, persecutor and rescuer.
I think it’s fair to say it can be easy to spot when someone else has gone into “victim” mode. Look out for phrases like “why does this happen to me” and thoughts like “I’m helpless”.
But can you spot when you go into victim mode? This tends to harder as we get caught up in the emotion of it all. Maybe you get triggered by something that’s been said, or you are following old patterns of behaviour by retreating to the victim stance. Feeling helpless, like there’s nothing you can do. It’s not really surprising as it’s a way protecting yourself. By not taking the responsibility it can stop you feeling guilt or shame around a situation.
But not taking the responsibility can also be a trigger for others, leading them to take the persecutor role.
The persecutor role is one I think we can all identify with; when we’re angry with someone we often start blaming them for everything that’s happened. “If only you’d listened to me!” Again, it’s about not taking responsibility but instead of turning it inward and becoming the victim, the persecutor projects it all out and into the victim.
So, although not necessarily a healthy way to solve an argument, you can see how these two positions complement each other in some ways. Where the victim feels persecuted and the persecutor plays that part.
Now add in the rescuer. Rescuers can be anyone, a friend or a family member perhaps. Stepping in to rescue the victim maybe.
Whilst seemingly helpful, according to Karpman, this can actually exacerbate the situation and keep the triangle going. The problem with being a rescuer is that you aren’t empowering the victim, you’re creating a dependency in order to make yourself feel good. This then stops the victim from being able to resolve things themselves and continues the pattern.
Add to this the fact that we can all be in any one of these three roles at different times and it can feel like you’re in a vicious circle, or vicious triangle. Have you ever been moaning at someone and then they turn it round on you so you now feel the victim? They’ve now become your persecutor. That’s an example of how we can move easily between these three roles and keep the drama going.
When our needs are not being met we instinctively take up one of these positions. Not realising that, far from resolving the situation, it could be making things worse.
So what can you do to stop it?
Firstly, be aware of how easy it is to slip into these positions. Think about arguments you’ve had and see if you can work out when you were in victim, persecutor or rescuer. Recognising something is the first step to changing it.
Next you want to think about how you can change the pattern and step out of the triangle.
Or, as Choy suggested in 1990, try to create a different triangle, something he called the winner’s triangle.
The winner’s triangle replaces the persecutor, victim and rescuer roles with with Assertive, Vulnerable and Caring
So instead of persecuting, try to take the role of being assertive – ask for what you want but don’t blame others in the process.
Instead of being a helpless victim, accept your vulnerability.
And instead of rescuing, try to be caring and empowering without always problem solving for others.
Next time you have an argument, see if you can identify which position you naturally want to go to, and see if you can step out of the drama this time.
Amy is a qualified counsellor working online and in Kent with adults and adolescents. Amy works with a range of issues and specialises in working with neurodivergent individuals and their families.
Contact Amy here for more information.