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Elaine Bond: Don’t get stuck in the ‘drama triangle’


We often hear people say that “history repeats itself”,  “I always pick the wrong man”, “I have to look after everyone else and make sure they are ok” or “I am the only one in my family who can organise things and get them done, the rest are useless”.

Maybe we wonder why they don’t do something different’ let people look after themselves or even stop being responsible for people.

It’s down to us getting stuck in what Stephen Karpman called the “Drama Triangle”, which is both an easy to understand and powerful way of looking at how we can get stuck in relationships, work and life in general. Each point on the triangle represents a common and ineffective response to conflict and relationships that will simply keep us in a miserable position. But even worse, it will make us feel ashamed at some level.

The Drama Triangle

Everyone has a favoured position on the triangle and when an issue arises we will start the ‘game’ from our favoured position. Why we have these favoured positions is down to what we learned in our family as a child. For example: I got most attention when I cared for, or looked after, others so I am a bit of a rescuer at times.

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Our starting position is always a hook from the other participant(s) or if someone else knows exactly what to say or do (consciously or unconsciously) to get us in to our favourite part of the triangle. However, as the ‘game’ continues we can move around the triangle taking up another position if our favoured position doesn’t get us what we want. I call the interactions ‘games’ as these interactions are being ‘played’ by the participants and aren’t from a ‘real‘ or “congruent” place.

Victims take up the helpless and hopeless role, by denying responsibility for what is happening in their lives or relationships, and they do less than their share and will not stand up for themselves. Life is against them, out to get them, they pretend to be incompetent and are hyper sensitive. – “it’s always me this happens to

Rescuers love a good victim; they want to help/take over the victim’s problems which is usually at the cost of their own needs. A rescuer will always have a slightly martyred attitude to life as they have ‘helped’ so many people. Rescuers will be tired, harried and often physically ill, unable to put their own needs first but able to get what they need on occasions by guilt – “after all I’ve done for you”

Finally, persecutors are the fault finders, who blame and criticize the victim and scoff at the ‘help’ provided by the rescuer.  They will not, however, offer any form of advice, guidance or support about the issues but just look for the blame or fault being someone else’s. Often persecutors are simply unpleasant nit-pickers who control wherever they can with rigidity, threats and need order to be able to survive. – “you never do anything right

Over all, victims need and depend on being saved, rescuers crave for a sad and lost soul and persecutors need a fall guy.

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How do we know when we are in this triangle? The victim normally starts off the drama triangle. The victim, when not being “persecuted”, will go and find both a persecutor and a rescuer who will “save” the day but even so, the victim still feels in a hopeless place. So, when we don’t take responsibility for our feelings and, therefore, make ourselves a victim, we are setting up and playing our way around the drama triangle.

A typical move round the triangle could look a bit like this where (P) is the persecutor, (V) is the victim and (R) is the rescuer –

Jeff: I can’t believe you are late again! We will let my brother down again! (P)

Clare: Well, Pete fell and cut himself, I was busy getting him a plaster. (R)

Jeff: You spoil and fuss over the kids! (P)

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Clare: You wouldn’t want him to get an infection, after all it would be me who had to take care of him wouldn’t it. (V)

Jeff: He’s old enough to get his own plaster. (R)

Clare: I just didn’t want him bleeding on everything. (R)

Jeff: You know, that’s the problem with kids! They think you do everything! (R)

Clare: That’s only natural, they are still little. (R)

Jeff: I work like a dog all day at a job I hate… (V)

Clare: Yes, you do work very hard. (R)

Jeff: And I can’t even go out in time to see my family (V)

Clare: Well maybe if you could have dragged yourself away from the computer for a few hours every now and then, I wouldn’t be late (P)

Clare: You didn’t say anything! How was I supposed to know? (P)

Clare: As if you couldn’t hear him crying? You just ignore the kids and think it’s my job! (P)

Jeff: I do not, I just need time to sit and relax and unwind. You don’t know what it’s like to do my job you know it’s… (V)

Clare: As if taking care of the house and kids and going work doesn’t count! WORK my…! (P)

We can see the roles being swapped all the way through that interaction and they all are forms of defence or attack, or a to and fro conversation where both are trying to manoeuvre the other in to a one down position.  No one actually says what they mean or how they feel so Jeff feels let down as Clare is late and Clare feels that she has to deal with the kids on her own. What we can also see is that no one gets their own needs met and all this results in is drama.

There are an awful lot of these triangles, not just in relationships, but in our lives if we choose to play them, some of the obvious ones are –

  • Work – my manager picks on me, I work too hard, I’ll bury you In paperwork
  • Alcohol – you’re no fun if you don’t drink, go ahead have another, I’ve been drinking all my life it’s not an issue
  • Money – If you loved me you’d lend me the cash, I lent him £500.00 and then he denied and said it was a present and I have no proof of the loan

So when we find ourselves in this triangle we need to change the roles we play. To stop being part of the drama triangle we have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge all of our feelings.  That means recognising even the painful ones. We also need to look at self-acceptance as part of the process.

Victims need to be honestly vulnerable and reach out for help if they need it, not in a dramatic way but in an authentic way. They need accept the situation they are in and to need accept  that it is down to themselves to get resolve it, with the help of others if necessary. Victims must look at why they want to stay childlike and needy, and why they want to be dependant and unable to take responsibility for themselves? Why do they need to manipulate others to take care of them?

Rescuers need to put boundaries in place and not let their fears, guilt, regrets or people pleasing turn them into a martyr. They need to stop doing the thinking, doing and leading for others and become empathic and caring in order to  ‘empower’ others to do what they need to.  They also need to stop viewing the victim in the one down position i.e. they can’t help themselves without them. Rescuers have to face up to a need to keep others dependant on them and why they feel others are so needy they have to be their ‘saviour’? They also find it even more difficult to admit that despite the fact that they moan about the role its where their self-worth comes from.

Persecutors need to stop blaming and manipulating and look at being assertive. They need to state their needs without aggression or threat, give constructive feedback and negotiate. Again they need to stop viewing the victim and rescuer in a one down position. Persecutors need to look at why they feel they have been treated unjustly and why that is down to others. Persecutors need to look at why they feel the need to be in a superior position and be blameless which can prove to be be even more difficult.

Some other things we need to think about are not going into a relationship or roles feeling superior or as an equal. Check out the patterns in life, are we always helping or protecting others and feeling like that’s our role in life? Is it guilt or is it feeling selfish that stops us from looking after ourselves?

If we deny our feelings they will eventually catch up with us and make us react impulsively, we will be driven by those feelings and if we have black and white beliefs like life is hard we will automatically look for other players in the drama triangle.

It’s not easy to be completely honest with yourself and where you are on this triangle. You need to look at childhood patterns within your family, your beliefs and your feelings. Then once you know who you are, you can move away from and recognise the drama triangle.

Need some help and most people do? –

Tel: 07769 152 951


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