The Drama Triangle: Part 1
Updated: Mar 18
Do you find yourself getting frustrated with others at times?
Or feeling resentful about the things you feel obliged to do?
Perhaps there have been situations where you’ve reacted in a way that you later regretted?
These are, no doubt, experiences that we can all identify with.
It is likely that in each of these situations ‘drama’ was lurking just beneath the surface. I am referring here to the Drama Triangle created by Stephen Karpman – a means of identifying the kind of thinking we are doing when things aren’t working well for us. Since our thoughts drive our behaviours, having a greater awareness of our thinking helps us to understand why we might be reacting to a situation in a particular way.
Because of its beautiful simplicity, many people find the Drama Triangle a very useful tool for self-understanding. Children as young as seven or eight years old can use it to help them better understand some of the difficulties they may be experiencing.
Karpman suggested that in situations where we experience difficulty with others, we tend to adopt one or more of the following drama roles: Persecutor; Victim; and/or Rescuer.
Let me introduce you to each of these roles:
The Persecutor believes that someone else or something else is at fault. They blame others, make them feel guilty, and point out that they are wrong and need to change.
The Victim believes that either they aren’t good enough or the situation they are in is hopeless. They believe they are powerless and are quick to point out that nothing can be done.
The Rescuer believes that others can’t manage without them and they need help in some way. They train victims to become more disempowered, and appease persecutors whilst building up resentment towards them.
Rescuing Versus Helping
There are many situations, both in our personal and our professional lives, where helping others is an important part of what we do.
However, I see a distinction between helping and rescuing.
Helping is a ‘choice-full’ act – both on behalf of the person helping and the person being helped. The person being helped is empowered to make decisions about the kind of help they would like to receive. The person offering help is able to say ‘I choose to’, rather than ‘I have to/ ought to’.
Being ‘in drama’
This diagram shows the kind of things that we might find ourselves saying (inwardly or out loud) when we are ‘in drama’. Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?
Perhaps you have found yourself playing one or more of these roles at work or in your personal life? Personally, I’m a bit of an expert Rescuer! But I’m also an accomplished Persecutor and Victim. In fact, you can even become Persecutor of yourself (you can give yourself a hard time).
We don’t necessarily play the same role every time and it is quite possible to play more than one role in relation to the same scenario. Let me give you an example. A friend told me that his mother recently made this comment to him: ‘I just want you to be successful.’ There was something about this seemingly supportive comment that made him feel uncomfortable and when he unpicked his thoughts he noticed an element of each of the drama roles in his thinking:
Victim: She thinks I’m not successful and that makes me feel inadequate.
Persecutor: Why can’t she accept me for who I am? She’s so judgemental.
Rescuer: If I put everything into making this project a success then I can make her happy.
We all enter into drama from time to time – it is part of being human and is impossible to avoid entirely. However, there are some simple steps we can take to help us manage our inner dramas.
What are the signs of drama?
When we are ‘in drama’, our limbic system gets activated. This is the part of our brain that is involved in meeting our basic survival needs. It is shown in red below.
When we feel under threat, the limbic system activates a fight, flight or freeze response to varying degrees. When this happens we can find ourselves (or others) reacting in a variety of ways:
In fight mode we might;
Have quick flashes of anger or frustration that are disproportionate to the situation.
Become defensive and feel we have to justify our actions.
Find it difficult to admit fault.
Become argumentative and raise our voice.
In flight mode we might:
Want to get away from the situation.
Ignore the situation or pretend it hasn’t happened.
Become busy to avoid the situation in the hope that it will just go away.
In freeze mode we might:
Go blank and find that we can’t express ourselves.
Hope that a problem will go away on its own if we just keep quiet.
Have little desire to engage with others.
Each of these behaviours suggest that there is underlying drama that needs our care and attention.
Where does ‘drama’ come from?
Drama arises from our innate desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings (which can refer to both our bodily sensations and/or our emotions). If we look to the source of this discomfort, we often find expectations that have not been met - expectations that we hold about ourselves, about others, or about a situation. We doubt ourselves. We blame others. We experience feelings of shame and uncertainty.
As we seek to regain some sense of control in these situations, we might find ourselves:
rescuing others because we don't like seeing them in difficulty;
persecuting ourselves with feelings of shame and self-blame;
persecuting others so we can hand our feelings of discomfort over to them; or
drawing others in to rescue us when we are feeling disempowered.
All of this usually happens below conscious awareness. And ironically, in trying to avoid these uncomfortable feelings we can find ourselves trapped in a cycle of drama that brings its own feelings of discomfort.
Being 'dramatic' versus being ‘in drama’
It’s worth mentioning that being ‘in drama’ is not necessarily the same as being ‘dramatic’. Whilst we are likely to feel discomfort in our body when we are 'in drama', this isn’t always accompanied by flamboyant displays of emotion. Changes in our body language can be subtle and not always noticeable to others.
The cost of being ‘in drama’
Being ‘in drama’ comes at a cost. It consumes time and energy – with conversations that go round in circles without reaching a resolution, or long emotionally-charged email trails that draw people in unnecessarily. It drives disconnection between friends, family members and colleagues.
Drama is stressful. It has a habit of contaminating other areas of our life as we bring the uncomfortable feelings with us from one situation to another. We can be left feeling disempowered, and over time the drama takes its toll on our physical and emotional wellbeing.
Awareness is key
No one drama role is better or worse than the other. Bringing awareness to the thoughts and feelings that we are experiencing when we are ‘in drama’ can provide us with a valuable early warning system.
The key is to notice when we are in drama, to own and accept our responses, and to realise that we can choose not to act on them. Instead, we can bring curiosity to the situation and consider the choices available to us. We can remind ourselves that being 'in drama' is an inevitable part of life.
Gaining awareness and bringing compassion to ourselves for the dramas we are experiencing is an essential first step to getting out of drama.
Over the next few months I will be sharing:
A mindful activity that invites you to notice your own inner drama and become curious about your experience.
Some simple steps you can take to get out of drama.
Until then, perhaps you might want to pay some attention to any ‘drama’ reactions that arise for you, and notice which role, or roles, you tend to go to naturally.
(illustrations by Lucy Monkman - www.lucymonkman.com)