Escaping the Drama Triangle

Last week’s blog focused on the frustrating dynamic of Karpman’s Drama Triangle - the dance between the victim, persecutor, and rescuer. It’s a dance we may be all too familiar with and one that can happen subtly. But once we recognize it, how do we step out of it?

Like I mentioned previously, each of the three roles needs someone to fulfill one of the other roles in order for the dance to continue. So a huge part of stepping out of the drama is to become aware of which roles you play. These roles are often learned early on in our families but can become fluid in relationships. For example, if you notice you have a tendency to rescue, intentionally work toward expanding awareness of how, when, and where you tend to rescue others.

Once you have cultivated some awareness of your role, the next step is to stick to your side of the fence. Sticking to your side of the fence means using I-statements like “I’m feeling ____” or “I’m noticing ____.” At the core, all of the roles focus on the other person rather than yourself, essentially blame shifting and giving power away in three unique manifestations. By choosing to stick to your feelings, experiences & responsibilities only, you are practicing being accountable for your feelings and actions and allowing others to do the same.

Finally, expect the drama to continue for a little while. When you step out of the drama, the other person will likely still play their role for a bit, but abstaining from your role cuts off the fuel to the fire. Relationships are like baby mobiles, changing up one role disrupts the whole system, and often the system is eager to get back to the familiar status quo. It will take practice over time to notice the role, learn to step out of it, and allow your relationships to adjust accordingly. Like practicing any new skill, this often doesn’t happen seamlessly at first. Over time, I hope you will find more peace and clarity in yourself.

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.

Communicating to Connect

Ever been in a conversation with someone and walk away feeling frustrated and wondering how you could possibly view the same incident so very differently? I see this often when working with couples and families and in my own life. It is so easy to get tripped up on a word or phrase and completely miss the real message your loved one is trying to share.

Communicating to connect takes some intentional relearning of our speaking & listening skills. Rather than communicating to defend or prove your point as the end goal, imagine how powerful conversations could be if you listened with connection as the ultimate success? Connecting communication fosters healthy attachment, intimacy, trust, and builds stronger relationships. Here are a few guidelines that can move you toward connecting communication:

For the Speaker: Use I-messages. Speak from your experience, feelings, and thoughts. Share “I feel (feeling word) because (event).” rather than “you always…”. Make sure to use feeling words (sad, excited, disrespected, hurt, happy, mad, etc.) to describe your experience. Sometimes we say “I feel that you are…” which is using the I statement format but ultimately is not sharing your experience or feelings. Try to speak concisely so the listener can follow and reflect well.

For the Listener: Your job is a tough one, so get centered, calm, and prepared to listen. If you start to feel anything that gets in the way of listening well, call a time-out until you can listen fully. Mirror and reflect what your loved one is saying, like “You are feeling disappointed that I haven’t listened to you. You are frustrated that I missed what you are saying and you are feeling unheard.” Use lead in phrases like “What I hear you saying is..”. Check in to make sure you are getting the message right after reflecting with a simple phrase like, “Did I get that right?” Once you know you are hearing the message correctly, offer validation and empathy. Empathy & validation looks like “It makes sense to me that you feel that way because ____.” You can offer empathy & validation whether or not you agree with their perspective. Remember connecting communication is about hearing & seeing one another, not about proving why your perspective is superior.

Communicating to connect is hard work and can yield great results. Start practicing as a listener and notice how your conversations change!