Persecutor, Rescuer or Victim? Are you stuck in the Drama Triangle? Relationship roles you can slip into without realising and how you can change them to live in harmony!
Have you noticed that sometimes you can be a different person in certain situations or with different people? Some friends you might laugh with continually, others you could have deep, meaningful conversations about the purpose of life. Other people can rub you up the wrong way for no apparent reason - they trigger you just by being in the same room as you!
Whatever the situation, we often slip into a role and behave accordingly. There are lots of theories describing this phenomenon, today we are looking at the Drama Triangle. It’s a scenario I see regularly when working with clients which has inspired me to write this post and explain what’s going on.
What is the Drama Triangle?
Written by Stephen Karpman in 1968, the Drama Triangle describes three roles people take on when in relationship and shows the power and conflict struggles that are underlying the situation.
You can probably recognise yourself in each of these roles:
- The Persecutor/Bully: Is critical, blaming, righteous, oppressive, authoritative and superior. “It’s all your fault” and “I’m ok, you’re not ok” is their perception.
- The Rescuer looks, from the outside, like they are trying to help, which they may well be. However, they feel guilty if they don’t assist the victim in the scenario and helping actually enables them to avoid their own issues. “Let me help you” is their viewpoint.
- The Victim feels powerless and finds it difficult to make decisions or solve problems. They often seek out rescuers and persecutors to reinforce their beliefs so that they are still right. “Poor me!” is the victim’s belief.
We can all slip into these roles at different points. Maybe you can spot which one you favour? But why does this happen?
Each of us holds a number of unresolved memories from our childhood. These can be big seemingly obvious life-changing events such as family break up and accidents or (and these can be more damaging) smaller traumas such as being criticised or told off every day or feeling unimportant or unsupported.
We are constantly trying to resolve these unfinished moments from our past and are triggered by people and situations in the present day. If you find yourself in a situation with other people, take a moment and notice how you feel. Do you identify with any of the descriptions above?
If you’re feeling outraged that other people have behaved so badly then you are probably blaming, if you’re feel stuck in the middle and like the peacemaker, then you are rescuing. If you feel like the world is against you, you’re playing the victim.
Being in one of these roles will leave you feeling disempowered and if you’re in them once, you will be in them again - until you catch the pattern and shift out of it.
It will be almost impossible to create effective resolution when operating from one of these roles. So what’s the answer?
The other side of the coin
Whichever role you fall into there is a more positive side that you can assume; there are two sides to every coin.
Here’s what happens when the Drama Triangle is flipped on it’s head:
- Persecutor becomes Challenger - They hold boundaries, state expectations clearly and actively listen to what’s needed.
- Rescuer becomes Coach - They offer support without taking over, enabling the victim to help themselves.
- Victim becomes Survivor/Thriver - They recognise that they can make change and take action,they can acknowledge their strengths and abilities.
As you can see these positive roles are for more productive for each person. Everyone feels a sense of achievement and empowerment. Resolution happens much more easily because the lines of communication are kept open. Each person can listen, be heard and has the time and space to be understood.
How do you shift out of the old pattern?
Here’s a step by step guide to see you out of the old pattern and into a more effective one:
1. Awareness. As with most situations in life, noticing there is a problem is half the battle. Be honest with yourself and identify how you feel about the situation and the other people. If it’s difficult to communicate and you feel frustrated then you are probably stuck in the triangle.
2. Identify where you are in the triangle: victim, rescuer or persecutor. Notice what language you are using and how you are complaining about the others. How do you feel about them? Once you’ve identified your role, then congratulate yourself on noticing! You can start to change your position now you know where you are.
3. Take responsibility for playing your part. This can be a tough step, particularly if you feel like the victim. Don’t judge yourself. Each role is trying to protect you from being hurt in some way. It’s a learned behaviour that you can change once you own it.
4. Re-write your story from the negative to the positive slant. If you’re the persecutor and saying something like, “You’re not doing enough!” turn this into something more positive such as “I believe you can do more”. The rescuer language can change from ”I’ll take care of this for you” to “How can I help you to take care of yourself”. The victim can turn from “I can’t do it!” to “I want things to change, I need help but I know I can do this”
5. Take time to identify with the other people in the situation and find compassion for each point of view. Everyone involved is doing their best, given their experiences and circumstances. When you keep this in mind it’s much easier to take a step back and be less reactive. The calmer you can be, without blaming, the easier it is for others to follow suit.
6. Be prepared to have as many conversations as it takes to create resolution. This can be difficult too, particularly with long standing relationships that have well established patterns. Stick with it and work through your tension and thoughts as much as you can. Use EFT, breathing, walking, keep stepping back - whatever it takes to stay balanced.
Like any habit, changing this pattern takes practice!
Sometimes you will get it right, other times it will backfire. This is all great information. You are learning every step of the way. Keep checking in with yourself and be honest. Are you slipping into a role? Don’t beat yourself up if you are. Take a deep breath and ask yourself ‘How can I improve this situation?’ and you will get an answer.. Try it and see!
I would love to hear your experiences of the Drama Triangle. When have you been a victim or a bully?
Please email me with your stories, successes and failures! Please leave a comment below, or drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep an eye out for my future blogs where I will go into more detail of each of the roles and how they are created..