There have been a few incidents this week in my world which have bought to mind the counselling strategy of the Karpman triangle. Have you heard of it? This diagram was developed by well-respected psychiatrist, and teacher of Transactional Analysis, named Dr Stephen Karpman. It is called the drama triangle because nearly every dysfunctional relationship can be placed on this triangle. It is a powerful tool for us to asses our behaviour and the behaviour of others.
Until we become conscious of these dynamics, we cannot transform them. And unless we transform them, we cannot move forward on our journey towards re-claiming emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. (Ref)
Karpman used triangles to map conflicted or drama-intense relationship transactions. The Karpman Drama Triangle models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts, and the destructive and shifting roles people play. He defined three roles in the conflict; Persecutor, Rescuer (the one up positions) and Victim (one down position). Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and referred to them as being the three aspects, or faces of drama.
All dysfunctional relationships happen on the victim or drama triangle. Each of us has a primary starting point which is usually learned in our family of origin. We are set up in our families to carry on these roles. We have a story that our family give us. It can be as simple as the birth order. Mine is the Rescuer. The fixer. The classic enabler. Lets just make everything okay. The rescuer has all the answers. There’s no better way to feel important than to be a saviour! Taking care of others may be the Rescuers best game plan for getting to feel worthwhile.
Even though participants each have a role with which they most identify, once on the triangle, participants rotate through all the positions, going completely around the triangle at any stage.
1: The Rescuer
The rescuer’s line is “Let me help you.” A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if he/she doesn’t go to the rescue. Yet his/her rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the rescuer. When he/she focuses their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also very pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs (Wiki).
‘Rescuers usually grow up in families where their dependency needs are not acknowledged. It’s a psychological fact that we treat ourselves the way we were treated as children. The budding Rescuer grows up in an environment where their needs are negated and so tend to treat themselves with the same degree of negligence that they experienced as children. Without permission to take care of themselves, their needs go underground and they turn instead to taking care of others‘ (Ref).
2: The Persecutor
The Persecutor insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior.
‘This role is most often taken on by someone who received overt mental and/or physical abuse during their childhood. As a result they are often secretly seething inside from a shame based wrath that ends up running their lives. Persecutors for survival sake, repress deep-seated feelings of worthlessness; they hide their pain behind a facade of indignant wrath and uncaring detachment. They may choose to emulate their primary childhood abuser(s), preferring to identify with those they see as having power and strength – rather than become the “picked on loser” at the bottom of life’s pile. They tend to adopt an attitude that says; “The world is hard and mean … only the ruthless survive. I’ll be one of those.” In other words, they become perpetrators. They “protect” themselves using authoritarian, controlling and downright punishing methods’ (Ref).
3: The Victim
The victim has accepted a definition of themselves that says they are intrinsically damaged and incapable. Their stance is ‘poor me’. They feel helpless and powerless. They project an attitude of being weak, fragile or not smart enough; basically, “I can’t do it by myself.” Their greatest fear is that they won’t make it. That anxiety forces them to be always on the lookout for someone stronger or more capable to take care of them. In relationships they look for the rescuer, someone who can save you.
Whenever we fail to take responsibility for ourselves, we end up on the triangle. Living and relating on the triangle is painful and has no positive outcomes. It is not until we recognise that we operate in this way can we get help to learn how to relate in a healthy manner. The characteristic traits of Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim are twisted and toxic. Its roots lie in shame and blame rather than accountability. It’s important that we see these toxic behaviours for what they are and instead lean into the positive aspects of their posture.
The Power of TED, a self-help book published in 2009, focuses on the victim. It recommends that the “victim” adopt the alternative role of creator, view the persecutor as a challenger, and enlist a coach instead of a rescuer.
So instead of a victim you become a creator, someone who is outcome oriented as opposed to problem oriented.
The persecutor learns how to focus on challenging and resolving dynamic tensions.
The rescuer should be encouraged to show concern and care but not by over-reaching or stepping over boundaries. Nor problem solve for others. They become a coach and see that others are able to problem solve for themselves.
Lynne Forest has written a brilliant article on this topic which I recommend you read if you would like to know more and would like to find out how to get off the drama triangle. The Three Faces of Victim – An Overview of the Drama Triangle
Lynne gives a brief introduction to the drama triangle here.
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