Many of us struggle with difficult relationships at home, at work, or in our communities. The Drama Triangle model can help clarify an interpersonal situation when:
- You find yourself thinking that there’s no right answer.
- People consistently misinterpret what you’re saying.
- It feels like your role is pre-scripted.
- There’s a lot of shame and blame.
- The same words and scenes are repeated often.
Dr. Stephen Karpman developed the Drama Triangle as a part of Transactional Analysis in 1968, and it has been applied and adapted in many directions since then.
The Drama Triangle model includes three interlocked roles: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. As the arrows in the diagram indicate, people can shift roles at any time. The perceived roles often depend on who is telling the story. One person can also occupy all three roles, in the case of an internal conflict.
- The Victim passively receives the actions of the Persecutor and Rescuer.
- The Rescuer takes care of the Victim.
- The Persecutor attacks the Victim.
Benefits of the roles
All three roles carry the benefit of maintaining an external focus, instead of addressing internal pain, needs, and truths. The roles may also be comfortably familiar, even though the drama itself is uncomfortable. The Victim benefits by avoiding conflict and responsibility. The Rescuer can feel needed, and the Persecutor can feel powerful.
Janine is late, again
For example, Janine often comes home late from work. She casts herself as the Victim, and her boss as the Persecutor. Her partner Antonia rearranges her own schedule to compensate, as Rescuer. Sometimes Antonia sees herself as a Victim of Janine’s inability to set boundaries with her boss. When she loses her patience, she yells at Janine about it, shifting into Persecutor. Janine may shift into Rescuer in response and agree to make changes, but her resentment will continue to fuel the drama.
Exit the Drama Triangle
The key to interrupting a Drama Triangle is to witness it with compassion and curiosity. You can practice on past situations, or even imaginary ones, since dramas tend to recur over and over.
- A witness brings awareness. Notice how your body feels when you are embroiled in drama. When you’re feeling frustrated or stuck about an interaction, ask yourself if a Drama Triangle might be operating, and who is playing which roles.
- Compassion sees that all of the participants are meeting their needs as best they can with the skills and resources available to them in the moment. Bring compassion to yourself most of all, as you look at roles you may have played, and truths you may have avoided.
- Curiosity opens the door to self-examination and honesty, as well as listening for others’ truths. New information eventually ends the drama.
Janine gets curious
Janine notices that she feels resentful and trapped after her latest promise to set limits with her boss. She takes a long solo walk, and gently inquires into the struggle. She and Antonia have been repeating the same argument, a clear sign of a Drama Triangle.
Focusing on the bigger picture rather than recent details, she honors both herself and Antonia for doing their best. With compassion, she sees Antonia’s “unwarranted attack” (Persecutor role) as part of her ongoing frustration with their schedules.
Janine also brings compassionate curiosity to her own avoidance of responsibility for her choices (Victim role). This job is important to her career, and she notices fear that Antonia will ridicule her priorities. With this new understanding, she returns home. Her internal shift will allow the couple to have a different conversation, even if Antonia continues in a drama role.
Resistance to change
Sometimes, one person’s honesty will dissolve a conflict. Other times, bringing compassion and curiosity to an ongoing drama can be seen as Persecution by participants who are unready for change. When a past Victim takes concrete action, or a past Rescuer says, “This isn’t my problem,” or a past Persecutor makes genuine amends, they may receive intense pressure to continue their roles. It can take many small steps to disengage from a long-standing Drama Triangle.
With time and practice, you’ll recognize the signs of drama more quickly and spend less time entangled in the three roles. Celebrate each time you become more compassionate and honest with yourself and others, even if it doesn’t lead to a harmonious resolution in every situation.