The Drama Triangle

Ever reflect back on an argument with a loved one and wonder what the heck you were actually arguing about? Somewhere the conversation must have derailed. In any conversation there are two important elements at play -- the actual content of the conversation and the emotional subtext below the content of the conversation. When arguments derail, it’s often because we are getting stuck in the content without paying attention to the emotional process underneath. This leads to feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and feeling unresolved.

The Drama Triangle is a helpful way to recognize when your conversation has jumped on the crazy train. The Drama Triangle (or Karpman Triangle) was developed by Stephen Karpman as a way to understand the social dynamics and roles played out in dysfunction. He describes the following 3 roles:

The Victim is characterized by learned helplessness (“woe is me!”), feeling ashamed & powerless, difficulty making decisions, and negative view of self. Victim behaviors are often intended to prompt the other person to either affirm their helplessness or rescue them, reinforcing the victim’s neediness.

The Persecutor takes an aggressive, prosecutorial, blaming approach. This role is characterized by a superior “I’m better than you” attitude that belittles and criticizes the other person.

The Rescuer is just as it sounds, the role of taking power over another person by rescuing them, being in charge, and being morally or emotionally superior to others. This is a classic fixer or helper role that can enable helpless behavior of the victim to continue and can aid the rescuer in avoiding their own issues by focusing on helping others.

Each of these three roles needs someone to fulfill another aspect of the drama triangle to continue - i.e. the rescuer needs a victim, the victim needs a persecutor or rescuer, and the persecutor needs a victim. It’s not uncommon to shift roles within the span of a conflict, for example the rescuer being tired of fixing and becoming the persecutor, or the victim and persecutor flip flopping roles. And the drama continues.

In dysfunctional conflict we tend to favor one role over the others. What role do you resonate with? In a future blog we’ll talk about how to step out of the drama triangle and into healthy interactions.

Do I have to lie on the couch? And other questions you have about therapy

Therapy is so much part of my world that I sometimes forget how mysterious the concept is to many people. When I first started seeing clients, I heard the same joke over and over: "Do your clients come in and lie on your couch?". A very Freudian comic book-esque scene popped in my head, with a distressed client lying on a long, red velvet couch and a quiet therapist wearing oversized glasses studiously taking notes and nodding behind him. The question reveals the many myths and questions that still float around what it means to go to therapy.

1. Do I have to lie on the couch?

You can sit wherever and however you are most comfortable in the room. Most people sit comfortably in a chair or a couch, depending on the furniture of your therapist’s office. The room will probably feel like a cozy living room, with chairs, a desk, bookshelves, and art on the wall.

2. How long will I have to be in counseling?

The length of therapy depends on a variety of factors, including the client’s goals, the needs of the clients, the model of therapy, and resources available. Most clients are in therapy for anywhere between 2-6 months, though many stay for longer.

3. If I go to therapy, does that mean I'm crazy?

Therapists see people from all walks of life; we all need support from time to time. Therapy is a great resource for everyone, particularly for people processing through a new transition, grieving, wanting relational help, having family struggles, personal growth, seeking help for anxiety, depression, anger, addiction, parenting, etc. Every day I get to see tremendously brave people walk through the doors and make changes leading to freedom in their life.

4. Will you make me talk about my childhood?

The content of sessions will depend largely on your specific goals and the theoretical orientation of your therapist. Our past experiences shape us in huge ways, so most therapists will want a brief history on your life, including your childhood, to get a fuller picture of who you are.

5. Will a therapist fix all my problems?

There is no magic wand in therapy. What you put into therapy, you’ll get out of it. My job is to partner with you to help you make changes in your life. Deciding to go to therapy takes a lot of courage, and requires a lot of work! If you want to build new muscles, you need the discipline of going to the gym regularly, experiencing the strain of tearing down old muscles in order to form new stronger ones. Similarly, going to therapy is like tearing down old emotional muscles, breaking through knots & tension, and rebuilding new patterns and emotional strength.

6. Aren’t all therapists are the same?

Therapists operate under different modalities, different techniques, and different personalities. Research indicates that the relationship between a client and therapist accounts for 30% of the success of therapy! It is crucial to find a good fit for you, so make sure you feel connected!


If you are ready to take the leap to try therapy for the first time (or ready for a refresher), reach out today and I'd be happy to answer any more of your questions!