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.

Externalizing the Problem

Our language is important in how we conceptualize our life, our identity, our struggles, and our successes. Often we can join ourselves with our struggles in our language, enveloping those issues into our identity. This happens subtly, like saying “I am depressed” versus “I’m struggling with depression” or “I’m feeling depressed today.” Language can reveal if we are operating in guilt (I did something bad) or shame (I am bad). These subtle shifts in how we narrate our story can help us externalize our problems, thereby highlighting our strengths, resilience, and ability to write a new story.

Beginning to externalize the problem is all about separating ourselves from the issue. Externalizing language asks questions of the problem like, in what context does that _____ usually occur? What types of things happen right before _____ takes over? What does _______ tell you to do? For example, rather than saying “I’m depressed,” you may say “Depression really got me today,” or “I really gave into Depression’s tricks last week.”

Externalizing problems is not about abdicating responsibility, instead it’s about becoming responsible agents of our own narratives. This process of shifting our language helps us move back into the driver’s seat. Instead of things happening to us, we become active agents in our own story, accountable for our responses to events that happen. We can move from a problem-saturated narrative where we feel powerless, to a story that we choose to rewrite, highlighting our ability to resist our problem areas, celebrating our growth, and noticing our competencies.

What does your language indicate about how you conceptualize your struggles? How may it help to externalize issues to get back into the driver’s seat? What struggle can you externalize in your life now? How would you like to rewrite your story?

The Power of Affirmations


We are often our worst critics, judging ourselves more harshly than we would others. It is often easier to extend grace and compassion to friends and family than it is to ourselves. The messages we tell ourselves often perpetuate lies that root from shame, our negative core beliefs. Things like “I’m not good enough. No one loves me. Everyone leaves. I can’t rely on other people.”, etc. Healing these negative core beliefs takes great intentionality. One great way is to practice affirmations.

Affirmations are simply positive truths about ourselves. An affirmation concisely speaks truth about who we are, challenging the negative core beliefs that may be loud in our head. These affirmations can cross out the messy first draft left behind by shame & replace it with a more true, more helpful draft.

Sometimes affirmations can be general, like “I am loved” or can be more specific to a situation, like “I can handle this”. Write your affirmations specifically to areas of yourself and your life that need that extra support and tune-up. Find yourself beating yourself up over small mistakes you make socially? Write affirmations about your belovedness, connectedness, support from others, etc. Working toward a big test? Write affirmations toward your preparation, your ability, your strength, your confidence. Struggling to hold onto hope in a difficult season? Write your affirmations about your confidence that you will be okay, you can handle this, you will get your happy ending.

I encourage you to give it a shot - even this weekend. Think about a difficult spot in your life now, it may be self-esteem, family, relationships, infertility, grief, loss, fear, lack of hope, a trial, etc.. Now challenge yourself to write 25 positive affirmations. Here are a few to get you started:

  • I am strong.
  • I am loved.
  • I am doing the best I can with the tools I have today.
  • I can handle this.
  • I can trust myself.
  • I am resilient.
  • I choose hope.
  • I will be okay.

When you have your affirmation list, commit to reading your affirmations out loud over yourself daily. You may even record yourself speaking these affirmations slowly, then listen to the recording as you fall asleep each night. Practicing affirmations may feel strange at first. We are often not used to speaking kindly to ourselves. Negative shame messages are usually deeply ingrained and can feel much louder than the soft whisper of a positive affirmation. Keep at it consistently, with practice and discipline the affirmations will eventually start to feel more true and take up more space in your head.

Self-Care, Self-care, Self-care

Self-care, self-care, self-care. A mantra I heard over and over again during my grad school training years. It’s a mantra I find myself passing onto my clients on a regular basis, something that is integral to the healing process: “What are you going to do to take care of yourself this week?”

Sometimes “self-care” conjures images of extravagant self-pampering, a la Parks and Recreation’s “Treat Yo Self” day, filled with shopping and massages and fancy food. In reality, self-care may be much less exciting, but much more important.

Self-care is taking the time to pour into your tank so that you can continue to function well physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally. You may have heard the metaphor that in the event of an emergency, airlines require you to put your own mask on before assisting others. Self-care is the oxygen mask that keeps you running, allowing you care for others well too. These activities recharge you, help you wind down, recenter you, and allow you to release the build up of life stressors without blowing up.

Intentionally creating routines and rhythms that sustain you, bring you life, work through feelings, center you, keep you healthy, bring peace, laughter, and joy are essential to your well-being. We are embodied people, so using our bodies in all the senses is a great way to engage in regular self-care.

Here are some great regular self-care options you can weave into your regular routines:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Sit outside in the sunshine
  • Take a walk
  • Journal regularly
  • Talk with a close friend
  • Shower regularly
  • Cook
  • Color or draw
  • Paint your nails
  • Exercise
  • Read a book
  • Laugh
  • Cuddle with a pet
  • Play a game
  • Make something with your hands
  • Take a technology time-out
  • Hike
  • Go to the beach or lake
  • Spend time in the forest or mountains
  • Listen to music
  • Breathe mindfully
  • Light a candle
  • Pray or meditate
  • Enjoy family time
  • Have coffee with a friend
  • Ride a bike
  • Yoga
  • Get some fresh air

What are you going to do to take care of yourself this week?

The Defining Decade

I recently finished reading The Defining Decade by Meg Jay, PhD. The book is geared toward Millennials, dispelling the notion from extended adolescence that says “30 is the new 20”. She argues that far from being a throwaway season, your 20’s are perhaps the most formative of your adult life. It is a season in which personality and brain growth peak, and the ability to change may be the easiest it will be. There is no magic transformation that happens on your 30th birthday -- the life that you create in your 20’s is the one you will build upon in your 30’s.

As a late-twenty-something myself, I was intrigued as to what Jay would say to my generation. More than ever before, the life stage of my peers varies all over the map: I have friends my age who have advanced degrees, live abroad, married with children, and are rooted in their career and friends who have struggled to launch, uncertain about their career path, engaging in a string of meaningless relationships, or living at home with parents. And perhaps more common, I have friends who have a combination of the above, living on a solid foundation in one domain while figuring out the ropes in another. It’s a life stage unlike any others so far, exchanging the timeframe and achievement markers provided by academic calendars with the more ambiguous process of personal, relational, and career development. I have heard both friends and clients say that they feel behind, comparing their lives to their peers and wondering if they are measuring up.

After working with many young adults in her private practice, Jay aims at encouraging twenty-somethings to make intentional choices about 3 areas: career, relationships, and their bodies. She challenges her readers to make choices that are consistent with their values for their future. In careers, this may mean ditching the part-time barista gig and putting in the grunt work for the career that you hope to have in 10 years. For relationships, this may mean dating compatible people that you would consider marrying rather than hooking up with people you meet at a party. For your body this means taking care of yourself in ways that prepare you for the life you dream of, whether that be in fertility, self-care, or physical well being.

Millennials certainly get a bad rep in culture, pegged as the trophy generation, entitled, or lazy. And yet millennials also are the first generation in recent history to be unlikely to pass our parents’ earning potential. We are a generation weighed by student debt, high cost of living, and emerging into the workforce during the great recession. We are a generation willing to challenge the status quo of “success”, accompanied by great risk and great gains. And yet we are also a generation who is postponing major life milestones unlike any generation that preceded us. Maybe Jay’s advice sounds simple: build the life you want to have. And yet few people, twenty-something’s or not, live intentionally creating the life they desire, but rather hoping that life will fall in their lap. Adulting can be hard work. Working toward health, in whatever context, is a message we all can use in every decade.