‘Whether we know it, or not, most of us react to life as victims. Whenever we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we are unconsciously choosing to react as victim. This inevitably creates feelings of anger, fear, guilt or inadequacy and leaves us feeling betrayed, or taken advantage of by others. I refer to the “Drama Triangle,” as the victim triangle. I’ve sometimes referred to the victim triangle as a “shame generator” because through it we unconsciously re-enact painful life themes that create shame. This has the effect of reinforcing old, painful beliefs that keep us stuck in a limited version of reality. I believe that every dysfunctional interaction, in relationship with other or self, takes place on the victim triangle. We move around the triangle as rapidly inside our own minds as we do out in the world.. inner drama of any kind perpetuates a vicious cycle of shame and self loathing. Moving around the triangle keeps the self-disparaging messages running.The victim triangle becomes our very own shame-making machine. It’s up to us to learn how to turn this noisy mental machine off.
Placing the three positions on a straight line with Victim in the middle, is a way of demonstrating that Persecutor and Rescuer are simply the two extremes, or shadow aspects, of victim-hood.
Persecutor —— VICTIM —— Rescuer’
The drama triangle is a social model of human interaction – It was conceived by Stephen Karpman, a student studying under Eric Berne, the father of transactional analysis. Karpman, who had interests in acting and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, chose the term “drama triangle” rather than the term “conflict triangle” as the Victim in his model is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like a victim. It defines the unconscious roles people take on (and can switch between) in stressful, emotional or high conflict situations. It is what it sounds like – creating drama, creating stress, conflict or rescuing people from their own responsibility of looking after themselves. Being in the drama triangle, can also prevent people from creating and leading their own lives (i.e. a life they love.)
So to sum up, for a simple concept, the Drama Triangle can get bloody confusing. Maybe this is because it is so easy to move around a Triangle when nobody can ever really be a winner. We’re all too busy blaming and shaming each other to notice that all of the roles available are distinctly unhealthy.
The Winner’s Triangle was published by Acey Choy in 1990 as a therapeutic model for showing people how to alter social transactions when entering a triangle at any of the three entry points.
The Power of TED, first published in 2009, recommends that the “victim” adopt the alternative role of creator, view the persecutor as a challenger, and enlist a coach instead of a rescuer
All of the positions in the Winner’s Triangle can be seen to be positive and valuable: Assertiveness is not about domination, abusing power, or being better than others; Caring is being supportive without discounting the attributes or abilities of the Vulnerable; and Vulnerability is not about being powerless or laying blame. Nobody steps on the other person, no one is one-down. The only way to move into this Triangle is to commit to positive change, self-responsibility, learning and growth; and leave behind those who refuse to do so. Now is the time to extract ourselves from the toxic drama and move into the Winner’s Triangle.
The role of Starting Gate Victim is also a shadow aspect. It is the wounded shadow of our inner child; that part of us that is innocent, vulnerable AND needy. This child-self does need support on occasion – that’s natural. It’s only when we become convinced that we can’t take care of ourselves, that we move into Victim. Believing that we are frail, powerless or defective keeps us needing rescue. This relegates us to a lifetime of crippling dependency on our primary relationships.
The very thing a Rescuer seeks (validation and appreciation) is the thing Victims most resent giving because it is a reminder to them of their own deficiencies. Instead they resent the help that is given. SGV’s eventually get tired of being in the one-down position and begin to find ways to feel equal. Unfortunately this usually involves some form of “getting even” and can quickly move to a persecutor. For a SGV, a move to persecutor on the triangle usually means sabotaging the efforts made to rescue them, often through passive-aggressive behaviour.
In terms of derailing resilience, victims have real difficulties making decisions, solving problems, finding much pleasure in life, or understanding their self-perpetuating behaviours.
The Rescuer might be described as a shadow aspect of the mother principle. Theirs is a misguided understanding of what it is to encourage, empower and protect. In terms of derailing resilience, rescuers are frequently harried, overworked, tired, caught in a martyr style while resentment festers underneath. A Starting Gate Rescuer is the classic, co-dependent. The SGR tends be enabling, overly protective – the one who wants to “fix it.” Rescuing is an addiction that comes from an unconscious need to feel valued. There’s no better way to feel important than to be a savior! Taking care of others may be the Rescuers best game plan for getting to feel worthwhile.
Like the other roles, the Starting Gate Persecutor is shame based. This role is most often taken on by someone who perceived mental and/or physical abuse during their childhood. As a result they are often secretly seething inside from a shame based wrath that ends up running their lives. SGP’s tend to adopt an attitude that says; “The world is hard and mean … only the ruthless survive. I’ll be one of those.” In other words, they become perpetrators. They “protect” themselves using authoritarian, controlling and downright punishing methods. Their greatest fear is powerlessness. Because they judge and deny their own inadequacy, fear and vulnerability, they will need some place else to project these disowned feelings. In other words, they need a victim. SGP’s also tend to compensate for inner feelings of worthlessness by putting on grandiose airs. Grandiosity inevitably comes from shame. It is a compensation and cover-up for deep inferiority. Superiority is the attempt to swing hard to the other side of “less than” in order to come across as “better than.”
Ironically, a main exit way off the triangle is through the persecutor position. This does not mean we become persecutors. It does mean however, that once we decide to get off the triangle, there most likely will be those who see us as persecutors. (”How can you do this to me?”) Once we decide to take self-responsibility and tell our truth, those still on the triangle are likely to accuse us of victimising them. “How dare you refuse to take care of me,” a Victim might cry. Or “What do you mean you don’t need my help?” a primary enabler storms when their victim decides to become accountable. In other words, to escape the victim grid, we must be willing to be perceived as the “bad guy.” This doesn’t make it so, but we must be willing to sit with the discomfort of being perceived as such.
These are the most extreme versions of these three roles, but we can encounter people playing milder versions of these roles on a pretty regular basis.
|The Victim Triangle||The Winner’s Triangle||Skills to learn|
|Rescuer||Caring||Listening and self awareness|
|Victim||Vulnerable||Problem solving and self awareness|
Obviously, these three roles need each other. If you function in one of these roles, you’ll try to draw someone into a corresponding role on the Drama Triangle. Or if you’re not in one of these roles, you may find someone else is trying to pull you into one of them.
The Drama Triangle Creates Pain and Misery
Most people operate from one primary or habitual role when they’re involved in a Drama Triangle. They typically embrace this role as their identity in life.
But we also move between roles. For example, a victim can become a persecutor or a rescuer can move into the victim role. You might even move between roles in a single conversation.
When you interact from a position on the Drama Triangle, you re-enact and reinforce painful beliefs and patterns that keep you from living a conscious, authentic, and fulfilled life.
So how do you move out of the Drama Triangle? Let’s take a look at the Empowerment Dynamic.
How to Get Out of The Drama Triangle
The Empowerment Dynamic was developed by David Emerald to help people move out of the Drama Triangle. It identifies three empowered roles: Creator, Coach, and Challenger.
Below are some of the actions you can take to move from a dysfunctional role in the Drama Triangle into an empowered one. You’ll have to take these actions again and again to create new modes of healthy interaction.
Victim -> Creator
To move from victim to creator take these steps:
- Take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- Think like a problem solver and use your creative imagination.
- Take actions that will achieve your desires outcomes.
- Instead of looking for someone to save you, learn to take care of yourself.
- Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want.
- Ask empowering questions like: “What do I want?” and “What steps can I take to get what I want?”
- Look at what’s going right in your life. You can do this by practicing gratitude each day, reviewing your accomplishments often, and appreciating the goodness in life.
Rescuer -> Coach
To move from rescuer to coach, take these steps:
- Be helpful and supportive by acting like a teacher or a coach instead of a rescuer or a fixer.
- Help people learn to solve their own problems instead of solving problems for them.
- Encourage self-responsibility rather than dependency.
- Set boundaries on the amount of time you’ll listen and provide support.
- Ask empowering questions like: “What would you like to see happen in this situation?” or “What can you do to change this?”
- Trust that the other person can solve their own problems.
Persecutor -> Challenger
To move from persecutor to challenger, take these steps:
- Challenge people but don’t blame, criticize, or oppress them.
- Be firm but fair in your interactions.
- Ask for what you want, be clear but not punishing.
- Address the consequences of their actions and set boundaries.
- Ask questions like, “What do you think you react so strongly in this situation?” or “What would happen if you challenged the belief you can’t take care of yourself?”
Another empowered model, the Winner’s Triangle, was developed by Acey Choy in 1990. It recommends alternative ways of being to counteract the roles on the Drama Triangle: vulnerable and outcome oriented instead of victim, caring instead of rescuer, and assertive instead of persecutor.
Are You Ready To Get Out of the Drama Triangle?
There are characteristics of and consequences to being on the triangle that all three roles bear in common. Let’s talk about a few of them.
Lack of Personal Responsibility
Whenever we fail to take responsibility for ourselves, we end up on the triangle. Not even Rescuers, who pride themselves on being responsible, take responsibility for themselves. They take care of everyone else, but have no idea of how to do it for themselves. Not taking responsibility is a key identifying factor in recognizing when we are on the triangle. Persecutors shift responsibility by blaming others for their misery. Victims look for someone else to take responsibility for them. Not one of the three roles take responsibility for themselves.
As long as we chase ourselves and others around the triangle, we relegate ourselves to living in reaction. Rather than living spontaneously and free through self-responsibility and personal choice, we settle into dull and painful lives ruled by the agendas of others and our own unconscious beliefs. To experience a fulfilling life requires a conscious willingness to get off the triangle and extend grace to those still encumbered by their drama.
It’s not necessarily easy because we’ve practice and reinforced these patterns so many times. You need to give it your all. Take time to study the Drama Triangle and the Empowerment Dynamic. Journal about your reactions and and the role you see yourself playing. Make your own program to practice the skills for your corresponding role in the Empowerment Dynamic, one at a time.
Painful Beliefs Rule
Sometimes we simply need to sit with an uncomfortable feeling – such as shame, without acting on it. Shame does not necessarily imply that we have behaved wrong or unethically. Shame is often a learned response.
Frequently we get on the triangle through the port of painful feelings. It seems that many of us tend to let painful feelings rule us. We think a thought and it triggers shame or fear, which prompts us to react in a way that puts us back on the triangle. Our reaction is usually a misguided attempt to control or get rid of the painful feeling so that we can “feel better.”
Anytime we deny our feelings we set ourselves up for a victim perspective. Feelings are real. They are “energy-in-motion.” When we discount or undermine our emotions we end up being overtaken by them, becoming impulsive reactors. We can’t take responsibility for ourselves when we refuse to acknowledge our feelings, which means that these disavowed “inner tyrants” will go on driving our behavior from behind the scenes.
Although it is true that our feelings are generated by what we believe, feelings are nonetheless important. They alert us when we are thinking unhappy thoughts; feeling “bad,” for instance, lets us know we are thinking a most unhappy, possibly distorted, belief. Instead of denying the feeling, we learn to follow the feeling in to the belief behind it. This is where true intervention is possible. The feeling dissipates once the belief behind it is made conscious and addressed. We learn to recognise that our feelings are what point us to the limiting beliefs that are keeping us stuck on the triangle. When suppressed, these denied emotions become secret pockets of shame within the psyche. They only serve to alienate us from others and sentence us to a life on the triangle.
We tend to deny feelings and beliefs that we have judged as negative or unacceptable. As previously mentioned, we rescue ourselves by pushing these unacceptable parts into the dark unconscious. They don’t necessarily stay there, however. Whatever thoughts and feelings we don’t own, i.e., take responsibility for, will end up being projected out into our world, usually on someone we “love.” As soon as we judge some thought or feeling within us as unacceptable, we will unconsciously look around and find someone who has these same traits and hate them for it. This is called projection and it is a propelling force on the triangle. Projection ensures that the victim dance continues.
Chances are, you’ll return to and play out your former role in the Drama Triangle again and again. But every time you act from an empowered place, you build your capacity to interact in healthier and happier ways. Gradually, your relationships will feel more satisfying, you won’t feel so powerless, and you’ll be able to avoid toxic relationships that would only draw you back into the Drama Triangle.Your Turn: Which role on the Drama Triangle feels most familiar to you? What emotions come up when you see this? How do you notice when you’re in a self-defeating role and how do you get out of it?