When we continue to enable dysfunctional behavior, we fall prey to the Drama Triangle. Developed by Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UC, San Francisco Stephen Karman, the Drama Triangle consists of three roles, Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. While you might see yourself and your loved ones as a specific role, in truth, each person in a dysfunctional relationship plays every role at various times. This article explains the roles we play in the Drama Triangle and offers tips to get out of this toxic rut and make your relationships healthier.
The victim needs to be taken care of. Victims see themselves as powerless in their own lives. In addition, they do not take responsibility for their problems and blame other people or outside circumstances for their situation. Victims look for someone to help them out of their plight and they do so by using charm, naivete, and helplessness.
The rescuer may start out trying to aid the victim out of a desire to be helpful; that is the reasonable thing to do. However, when someone always rushes in to help others or continues to help someone even when it doesn’t make things better over time, the rescuer is likely serving their own needs. The rescuer may want to alleviate guilt about the victim’s problems. Rescuers often believe it is wrong to let the victim experience painful consequences for their behavior. Sometimes rescuers rush to the aid of a victim to be the hero and increase their own sense of self-worth.
The persecutor is considered the “mean” person in the triangle. The persecutor often attacks with shame and blame (“You’re the problem!” or “It’s all your fault!”). Many times, the persecutor is experiencing their own fear and insecurity and use accusations and blame to protect themselves from their own vulnerability.
How the Drama Triangle Works
Here’s an example of how we get caught up in the Drama Triangle and how we shift from role to role. One of my former clients, Nancy, a 35 year-old married woman, was a compulsive spender and constantly overdrew her checking account. She blames her overspending on her husband’s failure to get a better job and her children for preventing her from getting a job. She says she buys nice things to feel better about her stressful life. Clearly, she ses herself as a victim, powerless to control her spending by living within her budget or doing something to increase the family’s income.
Nancy’s mother, wanting to help, covers Nancy’s bounced checks. Mom hopes Nancy will start feeling better about herself and get her spending under control. Mom feels helpless that Nancy continues to overspend and worries about her diminshing savings account, making Mom also a victim. When Nancy asks for help, Mom covers her own worry and helplessness with anger, berating Nancy, becoming persecutor.
Nancy retaliates, accusing Mom of favoring her siblings, making Mom feel guilty. Sometimes, Nancy threatens to stop allowing Mom to see her or the grandchildren. When this happens, Nancy becomes the persecutor. Mom (victim) relents, gives Nancy the money. Nancy then rescues Mom by reassuring her of her love and affection and helps Mom feel, again, like the hero.
Where Do You Fit in the Drama Triangle
Honestly, it is easy to see how every role in the Drama Triangle is partially a victim. It goes without saying, the victim is a victim. The rescuer falls victim to their own sense of responsibility and guilt, or their lack of self-esteem that can only be assuaged by helping others. The persecutor is also a victim of their own vulnerable feelings about the situation and their own retaliatory behaviors.
Breaking Free of the Drama Triangle
There is a way out.
Become aware of the pattern.
Consider the last situation in which you and a loved one engaged in the Triangle and write about it. Consider, what was the triggering situation? In Nancy’s case, the bank notifies Nancy (and her Mom – another murky boundary) that Nancy’s checking account was overdrawn.
Find everyone’s entry point in the Drama Triangle and note when you shift positions.
In this case, Nancy entered as victim. Mom entered as rescuer. But at the next family gathering, Mom makes wise-cracks about Nancy’s spending. Mom shifts to the persecutor role. Nancy is still the victim. But Nancy gets angry and refuses to bring the children over for a planned visit. Nancy is a passive-aggressive persecutor; Mom becomes the victim.
Continue this process until you’ve played out the sitation in its entirety.
Focus on your part in the Drama Triangle.
- Notice your starting position. Is this the most comfortable role for you? Why do you suppose that is? How often do you find yourself in that role? Is this a long-standing role? Did someone model this to you in childhood? Or did you assume this role as a child? Ask yourself, how does that role serve you in this specific situation and other areas of your life?
- Imagine several buckets laid out in front of you, one for every person involved in the situation.
- As you review the situation again, ask yourself at each interaction, for each feeling, for each response, “Whose bucket does this belong in?” Mom sees the email from the bank and feels fear and anger. The bounced checks and relationship to creditors and the bank go in Nancy’s bucket. Mom’s worry and fear belong in Mom’s bucket. Mom’s hurtful comments at the family gathering goes in Mom’s bucket; Nancy’s embarrassment and anger go in Nancy’s bucket.
- Take care of your bucket. That might look like this:
- Mom: When I saw the email from the bank, I was disappointed that it happened again. I was worried about taking more money out of my checking account and fighting with my husband over it. I blamed Nancy and became angry with her for putting us in this situation.
- Nancy: When I saw the email from the bank, I felt panic and guilt. I knew that I was going to be overdrawn but I spent the money anyway. I want to blame my husband for not having a better job and I want to blame the kids for being demanding. But I could have told my children no and I did not because I did not want to deal with them being disappointed.
- Let your loved one take care of their own buckets.
Think of alternate ways to manage the items in your bucket.
- Looking into your bucket, identify new ways to respond to each interaction and feeling. For example:
- As Nancy looks into her bucket, she admits she has to find ways to manage stress without shopping. One of the first things we worked on in therapy was setting limits with her children without feeling guilty. We also worked on healthier ways to manage stress.
- As Mom looks into her bucket, she realizes while she may not like seeing Nancy struggle, only she, not Nancy, is responsible for the choice of depleting her retirement account to bail out Nancy.
Respond differently the next time a situation arises.
- Mom and Nancy made a plan to give Nancy a small allowance for a few months and after that, Mom stopped bailing out Nancy.
- Nancy created a workable, if not ideal, budget and started saying no to her children and herself about unnecessary purchases.
- Nancy continues in therapy to learn healthier ways to respond to stress and to assert herself in her relationships.
These steps take some work. You may need to give yourself time and plenty of patience to go through this exercise and even longer to successfully let other people be responsible for themselves. If you need assistance, you can contact our office today.