There is a reason why ‘drama’ is the most hyped and the most used word in the TV industry. It is not the same as your everyday conflict. Drama occurs when a usual conflict becomes toxic.
A simple conflict can turn into a long-term unhealthy drama when others get involved. The drama triangle, or the ‘Karpman drama triangle,’ was first published in 1968 by Dr. Stephen Karpman.
What is Karpman Drama Triangle?
The drama triangle proposed by Stephen Karpman has three main characters. They are – the Victim, Persecutor, and the Rescuer.
According to Stephen Karpman MD, a drama triangle is a model that is the foundation for all human social interactions. Karpman published the article when he was studying under Eric Berne. Berne is known as the father of transactional analysis.
Karpman says that there are three characters in the drama triangle:
- The Victim – The Victim plays the most significant role in the drama triangle. It is because of this character that the other two characters stay in existence. A victim always needs to feel victimized, powerless, oppressed, and helpless.
- The Persecutor – A role precisely opposite to that of the Victim, Persecutor tends to blame the Victim for everything. They are very stern, authoritative, unpleasant, angry, and dominating. They pay no attention to how the Victim feels and believe in showing a superior status.
- The Rescuer – The third character, the Rescuer, is always willing to help the Victim. They feel bad if they are unable to help the Victim, which can be extremely harmful and detrimental to the Victim. This tendency to help makes the Victim dependent on them for every bad situation. Some people also have the habit of playing the Rescuer to avoid their feelings or concerns.
What Are the Three Types of Conflict?
According to the Karpman Drama Triangle, there are three distinct styles of conflict. The Victim’s character acts by showing helplessness or incompetence. The Prosecutor is dominant and shames other people. Lastly, Rescuer has martyrdom issues and tries to help others regularly.
We have established that there are three characters in the Karpman Drama Triangle – the Victim, Persecutor, and the Rescuer. As we are discussing this, we must know that every human being is capable of adapting to more than one character. Depending on the situation, one could play either one, two, or all three roles on different levels.
Thus, to distinguish the three styles of conflict, we must understand them in detail.
- Message – ‘I need your help. I can’t do this on my own.’
- Behavior – Cribbing, acting helpless, showing (or pretending) incompetence
- Pay-off – I don’t have to care about tough situations
- Problem – People eventually get tired of helping them
- Message – ‘I am superior, and I am always right. It is all your fault.’
- Behavior – Dominant, looking down on people, shaming others
- Pay-off – I always get what I want
- Problem – People distance themselves from them. Victims aren’t able to achieve their full potential around the persecutors
- Message – ‘Don’t worry about it. I am way better at solving your problem than you are.’
- Behavior – the need to fix something, taking over, always ready with a solution, martyrdom, escaping own problems
- Pay-off – I am the center of attention. I am wanted. Everybody needs me.
- Problem – Often ends up as a victim to the Victim without realizing it.
To be able to escape the drama triangle or to help someone avoid it, it is vital to acknowledge the role you or they play in the triangle. Only then, you or they could take measures to break away.
Beliefs That Kickstart Karpman Drama Triangle
Each person in the victim triangle has a script or role to play. These scripts are formed by their core beliefs. These beliefs are influenced by how they see themselves and the world around them.
The role of rescuer
Rescuers have the firm belief that his own needs are not important or relevant. They feel that the only way for them to connect with other people is by taking care of them. They tend to ignore their issues and they punish themselves and feel guilty when they are not taking care of others.
Rescuers feel that the only way for them to feel good and love is to solve the problems of victims. They feel angry and shamed when they are not taking care of someone.
Unfortunately, since they tend to be involved with people who play the victim role their entire lives, it reinforces their idea that they should not be needy.
This vicious cycle results in rescuers becoming victims dependent, in the same way as the victims are depending on them.
The role of victim
Just like the rescuer, guilt and shame are also the driving forces of the victim. Victims often use guilt to manipulate their Rescuers for taking care of them. “If you don’t care about me, who will?” – this is the core motivation behind their actions.
Feeling victimized by everyone around them, believing that they cannot make it in the world on their own. By participating in the Victim Triangle, they prove it to themselves over and over. They genuinely think that they are defective in some way. They believe that they are simply incapable of living their life without someone saving them.
This is the key difference between a rescuer and a victim – while the former believe their needs are unimportant, the latter believe their needs cannot be met unless they have someone to save them. It should be noted that despite these feelings, the victims also tend to feel angry towards their rescuers because they feel like they are seen as inferior by them.
The role of persecutor
Persecutors tend to view the world as a dangerous place, and often use fear and intimidation as their tools for keeping other people in their lives in their place. They are also used to feeling superior to those around them because they think that only they can see the truth.
What the persecutors don’t realize is this attitude is exactly what ends up making their life “dangerous”. They believe that they are innocent victims in a world that is out to hurt them, but it is their own actions that hurt them and others around them.
Persecutors believe that the only way to survive is to always be in defense or offense mode.
The Victim Triangle – Shadows of Victimhood
Although the three players in the Karpman Drama Triangle seem different, they are essentially the same shades of victimhood. These shadows or extremes of the victim are easily explained by carefully examining the roles and beliefs they demonstrate.
All three roles in the triangle are a distortion of the positive values that human beings possess. When these values are expressed in a way that is repressive or when they are denied for a long time, we become entangled in the drama triangle.
Identifying our position in the triangle can help us recognize and correct this misrepresentation. It can also help us identify the part of us that we tend to deny.
Here are some example of the distorted shadows that result in persecutors and rescuers expressions:
For example, when you learn to identify yourself as the rescuer, you can teach yourself how to set up the appropriate boundaries. Rescuers have an unparalleled capacity to nurture others. But when they deny this nurturing nature or do not set any boundaries for themselves, they start interfering in other people’s lives, often in an unhealthy manner.
These values are often seen as feminine characteristics. Thus, it can be concluded that the rescuer is a distorted way of the female aspect of human behavior.
In the case of the persecutor, there is a deep sense of justice. They think that by using their power and assertiveness, they can correct the wrongs that have been done to them. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the qualities they possess, but the use of these qualities is incorrect.
The male qualities of guidance, boundaries, and protection become distorted because they are not fully accepted and acknowledged. For a persecutor, the attack becomes the only way to defend themselves. They see themselves as the innocent victim that has to retaliate to survive.
Persecutors see their hurtful behavior towards others as an expression of their defense mechanism. They feel like they have ‘good reasons’ for hurting others, and that they ‘had to do it’, because the others did something to them. They believe that not only is this the only way to retaliate but that it is also justified and correct to do so.
The typical persecutor will suppress their nurturing and caring qualities and try to solve all their problems using controlling tactics, anger, and abuse.
When a person suppresses both their masculine and feminine sides, he ends up as the victim. They start relying on others to take care of them, denying their natural ability to draw healthy boundaries and take action in their own lie. They fail to make assertive decisions and end up feeling helpless.
In fact, the accurate way to describe a victim maybe
What Are Consequences of the Karpman Drama Triangle?
Life on the drama triangle creates suffering and problems for everyone involved, undoubtedly. Whatever the position or role you may be playing in the triangle, it ultimately leads to emotional, physical, and mental pain. The cost of staying in the drama is high for everyone involved.
This is why it is important to break out of the drama triangle. Everyone involved is losing in this game because at some point or the other, you are ending up angry and hurt. Let us explore the multi-faceted consequences of living within the triangle:
1. Lack of personal responsibility
The most common reason why people end up on the triangle is that they fail to take responsibility for their actions. Rescuers tend to take responsibility for everyone else, but not for themselves, and persecutors blame other people for their sadness and misery. Victims, on the other hand, depend on rescuers to take responsibility for them.
Hence, none of the people take responsibility for themselves. And as long as they keep blaming others for their misery, they will stay unhappy. The drama triangle forces one to settle for a painful, sad life, because we tend to stay under the illusion that we are dependent on others for everything, in one way or another.
2. Rigidity towards toxic beliefs
When our family of origin lives in the drama triangle, we grow up with beliefs that are toxic and harmful to our mental well-being. Family values such as, “ do not talk about it” or “do not share your feelings” or “you are selfish if you care for yourself” become ingrained in our brains.
As a result, we suppress our uncomfortable feelings when they come, and find a negative outlet for them. This results in a vicious cycle and the drama continues, in one way or another.
We need to find ways to deal with these uncomfortable feelings so that we do not express them negatively. Sitting with pain and misery, without acting out, is extremely important for growing and developing as a person.
3. False empowerment
The gateway to the victim triangle is pain. And it is the pain that we let rule us while we are in the triangle. We have a thought or fearful feeling and react in response to it, which puts on the triangle again, starting the vicious circle all over.
For example, sometimes rescuers feel the need to save other people in order to stop themselves from feeling any pain, as well as preventing those around them from feeling bad. They tend to say things like, “he cannot handle it,” or “it will hurt her feelings,” so that they can handle them for others.
We often tend to feel better when we help others, and that can result in us forgetting our own feelings and problems. Additionally, it gives us a feeling of false control, which can give you temporary empowerment.
But ultimately, what we fail to see is that this sense of power is at the expense of our own well-being. Additionally, it leaves other people disempowered and helpless.
4. Denial resulting in impulsive behavior
People in the drama triangle tend to deny their feelings. They believe that feelings are unacceptable and forever live in guilt over feeling things. Parents who have such beliefs tend to pass them on to their children. And when this is done, the children grow up to adults who end up being overtaken by their emotions and becoming impulsive.
Thus, these emotions keep driving their actions from behind the scenes, creating toxic relations and impossible situations. These children also learn to associate shame and guilt with their feelings, because their parents have told them that it is wrong to feel these things. This results in separation and alienation from others, and force them to spend their life on the triangle.
Denying our feelings is also an attempt to avoid feeling any bad things. Victims living in the drama triangle often tell themselves that they cannot handle their emotions and need the support of others, that is, rescuers to get a grip on their emotions.
On the other hand, rescuers who feel this way use others as a clutch to avoid their own negative feelings. Helping victims and solving their problems leaves them with no energy to deal with their own demons. And they think if they can ignore and stay away from these feelings and circumstances, they won’t have to deal with them.
Ultimately though, the demons will catch up. Ignoring uncomfortable feelings does not make them go away, it only leads to a build-up that will ultimately lead to misery and more suffering.
Being honest will require courage and bravery. It is the first condition that needs to be fulfilled if someone wants to escape the victim triangle. Honesty is not possible when people ignore their feelings, which is the hallmark of all the roles in the drama triangle. Radical self-acceptance and the ability to be true to oneself need to be practiced.
For instance, a rescuer must acknowledge that they have the unconscious desire to keep other people dependent on themselves. Only by doing this can they learn to let it go and focus on their own self-worth. As long as the people in this rule continue to see victims and helpless and weak, they will keep helping them and being dishonest with themselves.
Denying feelings is the hallmark of the triangle, as mentioned previously. But there is another aspect of it that is not considered often. When our feelings are denied for the long term, we start projecting them on the people around us.
What projection means is that if someone finds a particular feeling in their mind as unacceptable, they will look for it in other people and hate them for it. This habit of projection also ensures that the victim triangle continues, by enveloping more and more people in it.
7. Lack of intimacy
When you have not accepted yourself fully, and are trapped in the drama triangle, you cannot expect anyone else to accept you either. This is the basis of failed intimacy amongst those who feature in the drama triangle.
When we find the need to hide because of our own perceived inadequacies, we fail to develop intimacy without a partner. This is especially true for rescuers and victims, who end up ultimately isolating themselves from their partners due to their dishonesty with their own self.
How to Break the Karpman Drama Triangle?
The Drama Triangle demonstrates that everyone tends to adopt one or the other role at some point. It does not implicate a single person but is only a means to break out of the vicious cycle of toxic and exhausting situations.
It is critical to understand that not every conflict results in a drama triangle. The ‘triangle’ in his article doesn’t refer to a specific victim. Instead, it shows the behavior of those who portray themselves as one of the three characters.
For example, a mother orders the son to ‘clean the room’ right after he finishes his homework. The father jumps in and asks the mother to give the son ‘a break because he is exhausted.’ The son feels that his father is right, and his mother is being too harsh.
In the above example, the mother is the Persecutor. And, the son takes the role of the Victim. Finally, the father plays the Rescuer who intervenes and saves him from cleaning his room. Sometimes, people victimize themselves and see others as a villain or a rescuer. To break this unhealthy triangle, it is important that all three characters look at their roles with a different perspective.
‘Drama’ feels exhausting and toxic because a lot of energy is used in establishing the roles people play in the drama triangle. The Victim wants to act innocent and feels powerless, the Persecutor wants to get things done and steer clear of any negative image, and the Rescuer only wants to be righteous.
It may seem very tempting to act as the ‘rescuer’ whenever a friend or a family member is in need. But, before you do that, you must always observe whether the person is actually in trouble.
It may be hard to believe but some people like playing the victim. This usually happens when something goes against their wishes.
And, they use their helplessness to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. More often than not, they also use the ‘vulnerability’ cloak to blame others. To get away from this, one must stop focusing on the characters of the conflict and start focusing on the actual conflict.
Ways to Break the Karpman Drama Triangle
The only way to get out of the Drama Triangle is to transform yourself. The Victim needs to learn how to take things into their hands, the Persecutor should learn to evolve and be honest, and the Rescuer helps others achieve their goals. Thus, they become Creator, Challenger, and Coach – respectively. This is called The Empowerment Dynamic.
In his book, ‘The Power of Ted,’ David Emerald talks about the ways to escape the DDT – dreaded drama triangle (aka Karpman triangle). According to him, the best to break away from the drama triangle is to transform the existing roles into three new characters.
Thus, in TED, The Empowerment Dynamic:
- The Victim turns into the Creator and takes the initiative to create a positive outcome for the conflict.
- The Persecutor acts as the Challenger. His role is to provide opportunities to the Creator to reflect and evolve. He must also always maintain honesty.
- The Rescuer takes the role of the Coach. He helps the Victim to discover and achieve their goals by questioning them.
In the TED model, the Rescuer and a coach still lend a helping hand but not by disabling the Victim. Instead of making the Victim dependent on them, they give the Creator a chance to realize their potential and accomplish their aim. They help the creator gain confidence and take ownership of their problem, solve, and decision-making.
The role of the Creator is also of equal importance in the empowerment dynamic, for it is they who take substantial steps in gaining positive or acceptable outcomes to the problematic situation.
Last but not least, the persecutor-turned-challenger sparks a challenging atmosphere for the Creator to evolve in. Though it could still be discomforting to a level, they maintain honest at all times. By enabling the Creator to face these tough situations, they ensure that they understand the importance of problem-solving at a deeper level.
The role of the Challenger involves brutal honesty. Although this could cause pain and create more conflicts, the Creator needs to understand its importance. Thus, as a challenger, you must never refrain from the truth if you wish to help the Victim transform into a creator and take the onus of their problems.
How To Escape The Karpman Drama Triangle?
Another way to break the drama is to use The Winner’s Triangle. It, too, involves the transformation of all three characters. It can help people change their social interactions and develop better interpersonal relationships.
The Empowerment Dynamic is only one of the therapeutic models that can be used to get rid of the drama triangle. TED was published in 2009, but there is another therapeutic model known as ‘The Winner’s Triangle,’ which was published in 1990 by Acey Choy.
The Winner’s Triangle is a model built for showing patients how to transform themselves when they are entering into any one of the points in the Drama Triangle. According to this model:
- The Victim/Creator has to own his vulnerability and be more self-aware.
- The Persecutor/Challenger must encourage the Victim by asking what they want. They shouldn’t try to punish or overpower them.
- The Rescuer/Coach should be caring and concerned. But he shouldn’t be resolving the victim’s issues.
The Winner’s Triangle is about building meaningful relationships by changing the way humans interact.
When figuring out the roles we play, it is better to slow down and document (in a diary or a laptop) our feelings and thoughts after a conflict. When the situation calms down a bit, go back and read the entry without judging yourself.
At the same time, try to observe your thoughts and any patterns that you may come across. Draw your awareness towards these patterns to be able to alter them
Conflicts are part and parcel of human life. Irrespective of how positive you and your surroundings are, it is impossible to ignore them. Sometimes, conflicts are not created by us but by situations around us.
While it is okay to face such conflicts, letting it change your personality is unhealthy. To avoid falling into the patterns of the Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer, you must be ready to transform. And, the transformation must take place at the earliest.
Both the social models that are known to have helped patients get out of the Karpman Drama Triangle. Remember, in the end, it is you who has the power over how you live your life.
Namrata is a Doctor i.e. dentist turned writer and a clinical researcher. Eager to learn about anything and everything, she is what you would call a jack of all trades and master of none. With a zeal for reading novels, books, and anything she could get her hands on ever since she was little, she embarked into a writing career purely out of luck. After indulging in a freelancing career for nearly two years, she can now write on anything - from dentistry to decor, travel to technology, medicine to management - but the psychology remains her first love. Having dealt with mental health issues in the past, she hopes to raise awareness for the same and help people with her work in association with The MindFool team