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Susan Dunlop: Lead Believe Create

Breaking Down the Karpman Drama Triangle

Imagine a social map that shows how people sometimes interact when they’re in stress. That’s the Karpman Drama Triangle by Dr. Stephen B. Karpman. It’s a tool you may hear of in therapy or leadership articles in Forbes Magazine. It helps us to understand how interpersonal relationships can get messy – in our private lives and in the workplace.

The Karpman Drama Triangle has three parts: the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer roles, yet these roles aren’t fixed. We can switch them around, play them all by ourselves or with others, and some of the roles don’t need to be played by human beings; they can be numbing habits we adopt—no wonder we sometimes feel so tangled up.

That introduction was how I was introduced to the Drama Triangle.

It was in a blog post (2005), and as I read about those three roles, it gave me goosebumps. Then as I read on I shifted through confusion to a realisation that I’d witnessed and participated in each of those roles as a child and into my adult life.

The following scenario I’m going to share is based on a recollection from almost 20 years ago. I don’t have the blog post or the name of the writer; however, it went something like this:

Imagine a family where the father drinks regularly and is often absent. The mother feels that she doesn’t have his attention, like she’s being treated like a doormat. The father is then seen as the persecutor, and the mother is the victim. The mother may then become resentful, and resort to berating and belittling the father in front of the children.

Now, the mother is the persecutor, and the father feels like the victim. The rest of the family don’t want to cause any further issues, and tiptoe around, making sure they either stay out of the way or act in certain ways to fix the situation. By pleasing and ‘being good’, or offering to help with the chores for example, they then become the rescuers. When the heat of the problem settles down, the father buys Mum flowers, and everything between the two of them might be happy for a time. However, later on, the mother might flip into a persecutor role, micromanaging the children in their efforts around the home, nagging and controlling them. As a result, the kids withdraw from their rescuer roles, thinking they can’t get anything right and feeling persecuted. They then become the victims. Over time, tension builds in the air, and the next thing you know, the father is back at the pub again—and the vicious cycle repeats.

Here is a diagram of the original Karpman Drama Triangle with the key role being that of the Victim.
Steven Karpman's Drama Triangle and its toxic roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer
Let’s start with the Victim.

This role isn’t about someone being a victim of trauma; it’s more about feeling or acting like one – the state of victimhood. This role of Victim often believes they can’t change anything, even if they try really hard. They say things like ‘Why does this always happen to me?’ ‘It’s not my fault.’ ‘I don’t have a choice.’ ‘Poor me.’ ‘Why me’ They might feel stuck, helpless, or powerless.

Just like any movie drama, where there is a Victim role, there will also be a Persecutor role.

You may also think of the Persecutor role as the Villain.

As I write this, my mind is visualising the villainous characters of any Batman movie! You know – the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin. They play the Persecutor role. This role uses blame and defensiveness to control others or the situation and must win at all costs. They say, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ ‘I know what’s right and we should do it my way.’ ‘It won’t work.’ ‘You’re doing it wrong.’ ‘It’s all your fault.’ They have little compassion for others and can be controlling or angry.

If someone is playing the persecutor role at you, what they say hurts, and will feel harsh.

The intention behind their words or actions is not to learn and grow together from the experience.

Interestingly, sometimes, they switch roles and become Victims themselves, and the one thing the Persecutor role fears is being powerless; they’ll do anything not to play the Victim role. It’s often at those times that they’ll desperately shift away from being the Persecutor role and try on the role of Rescuer.

Next is the Rescuer.

The Rescuer’s motto is ‘I will take care of it. It’s no bother.’ ”Don’t worry about me, I don’t need help.’ ‘Let me do this for you.’ They feel guilty if they don’t jump in to save the day. They might be helping because they want to be loved for being the ‘hero’.

Here’s the twist: When they’re rescuing the Victim, how do you think the Victim feels? Unfortunately, the Rescuer’s help doesn’t always work or may not be appreciated, making them slip into the role of victim or prosecutor.

The drama starts when someone takes on one of these roles and brings others into the conflict as the scenario of the family shows us.

What keeps this drama going is that each person gets something out of it without fixing the real problem. They’re focused on their own needs rather than solving things together.

Here’s the secret: each role has its own hidden benefit.

The Rescuer might feel good about themselves for helping, but they might also want to keep the Victim dependent on them. It’s like a codependent relationship where both sides need each other to keep the drama going.

Usually, people have a drama role they’re most comfortable with. Yet, when they’re anxious or stressed and are reacting to drama, they can switch between all three roles, and do so within seconds.

When you start to see yourself doing this and can name the roles, it’s an incredible revelation to accept. Then you’ll also see others in your life or at work playing them. They’re hard to unsee once you come to know them. As the saying goes, you need to name it before you can change it.

The key to breaking this drama cycle is to understand that each drama role has a payoff, and the trick is to stop that payoff from happening.

The roles are not something to be ashamed of, they are our default roles as human beings in times of stress. It is also never helpful to call others by these role names. We are not a Victim, Persecutor or Rescuer; they are roles. It’s not about blaming ourselves or others. Blame serves nobody.

All three roles result from a victim mentality that rests on a belief that life happens ‘to me’. 

Suppose you believe that life happens ‘to you’. In that caseit is easy to adopt the primary drama triangle role of Victim to get you through hard times, gradually becoming an exaggerated way of relating to yourself and others. If life feels like a constant cycle of drama, that’s where change needs to occur if we’re ready. Living out these toxic roles as the usual way of being in life is ultimately soul- and relationship-destroying.

So, next time you find yourself in a stress and going to react, pause for a count of three deep breaths. Then, try to see if your inner voice is casting you into one of these roles.

I find the best way to look at this kind of learning is with openness and curiosity. Understanding it can help you step out of the drama and find a better way to deal in any circumstance.

What I have come to understand is that these roles are there because, as children, we had to figure out how to survive and deal with scary experiences, and not necessarily abusive experiences. As infants and toddlers, we looked up to giant and powerful adults and applied our innate survival instincts to secure food, sleep, warmth, love and safety the best we knew how. That will be the topic of the blog post next week.

Already curious?
  • You know you’ve seen these roles in action?
  • Would you like to break the cycle for yourself or with others?

I’d highly recommend you start with a good read. That’s what I did.

Read The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) by best-selling author David Emerald. It’s a short read, or 3-hour audio-listen in a parable format. It is the foundational book I share with all my clients when facilitating programs on the dreaded drama triangle and its empowering alternative, TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic). You’ll find it on Amazon.

Then, if you’d like to access a short eight-unit online self-directed program about the Dreaded Drama Triangle and TED*, developed by David Emerald, contact me via the contact form on this website. I am a certified facilitator in TED* and can give you a trainer’s discounted price for those licences, so please don’t pay the full USD retail price!

This work is life-changing. It changed mine.

Take care,

Susan

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