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Explorations and Reflections

on awakening the true self 

  • Writer's pictureMick Scott

Break Free from the Drama Triangle

Feeling stuck, frustrated, stressed, or trapped is an indication that we're playing a role that we don't want to play. Circumstances in life show up whether we pick them or not, and when we can't seem to find the power or creativity to play a new role that we'd really like to play, we're caught in the drama triangle.

In 1968, psychiatrist Stephen Karpman developed what he called the “Drama Triangle” model of human conflict. The idea of this triangle is that when conflict arises between people, we are always playing one of the following roles:

  • The Victim: the oppressed, the persecuted, the insulted, the unacknowledged

  • The Persecutor: the oppressor, the blamer, the judge, the critic

  • The Rescuer: the helper, the overly concerned, the knight in shining armor, the warrior defending the weak (source)

In conflicts with others, we’re playing one of these roles.

It was suggested to Karpman that the triangle be called the conflict triangle, but Karpman wanted it to be clear that there’s not actually a victim, a persecutor, or a rescuer in our everyday conflicts. They’re just roles we play.

Why do we play these roles? For the same reason most of our default, automatic, and instinctual reactions arise: to minimize danger or maximize reward. In other words, there’s a benefit to playing these roles.

If there were only benefits, I wouldn’t suggest that we reconsider them. However, these roles also have drawbacks. In other words, there are costs.

  • When we play the victim, we try to obtain sympathy and support (benefit) by sacrificing our creativity and well-being, giving away our power, and abdicating our innate ability to make a difference in the situation (cost).

  • When we play the persecutor, for the feeling of power and self-righteousness (benefit) we trade our experience of love, partnership, and community, and we demean others (cost).

  • When we play the rescuer, we obtain a bit of looking good (benefit) for the price of selling out on another’s strength, innate well-being, and capacity to stick up for themselves (cost).

Just for a couple days, see if you can find the drama triangle roles playing out in life. They’ll be there in small conflicts and big ones. You might see them in a minor quarrel with a spouse or sibling, you’ll likely see them in conflicts between others, and you could see them in how we think and talk about politics, which is often through the lens of oppression regardless of our political leaning: the oppressor (persecutor) taking advantage of the oppressed (victim).

How to break free from the constraints of the drama triangle:

  1. First, become aware of the automatic role you've been playing. When circumstances arise, we usually respond on autopilot by playing whichever role our safety-seeking brain picks on our behalf. Notice the autopilot kicking in.

  2. Second, take a different action, one that's out of character for the role you're in. Taking an action that doesn't fit the role we're playing will often shift us out of the role (like apologizing when you notice you're playing the victim).

Thanks for reading. ❤️


By the way, my workshop for teens and my workshop for adults are both beginning 2 1/2 weeks from today - consider joining me and share with someone who may be interested! In the workshop, we'll uncover the mechanism that pushes us into the drama triangle, and we'll get free from it forever.

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