Dr. Stephen Karpman, a pioneer in transactional analysis who studied with Eric Berne, famous for the book “The Games People Play,” developed a fun and handy model (and tool) for identifying when people play out unhealthy roles in difficult situations rather than committing to solution-oriented problem solving.
These roles include: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. When playing these roles, people get caught up in the game. They are left feeling hurt and anger and do not move toward resolution.
Karpman named this model The Drama Triangle.
Once you understand how this particular “game” works, you quickly become aware of why it is not worth playing. The unsatisfactory, mostly unconscious goal is to win by being emotionally competitive except that since the players change roles frequently (victims persecute to sustain their victimhood, rescuers persecute when they are not able to successfully rescue, etc.), no one ever really wins. Instead, the players continually spin in chaos!
Consider the following family scenario:
A teenage daughter goes out for the evening on a Friday and does not come home until Sunday afternoon. She does not call to let her parents and family know that she would not be returning home. As expected, parents were left worried, concerned, and upset. She walks through the door on Sunday afternoon, and the following ensues:
- Father (raised voice): “Where were you?”
- Daughter: “I was at Shannon’s house.”
- Father (now yelling): “No you weren’t. We called Shannon when we were looking for you and she said you had not been in touch with her for months!”
- Daughter (crying)… “Why do you need to know? It’s none of your business.”
- Father (visibly upset): “You’re lying. Where were you?”
- Daughter: “None of your business!”
- Father: “None of my business? You’re my daughter and my responsibility and you were driving my car!”
- Father (yelling): “And it is completely unacceptable for you to be gone for two days and two nights and not call us. Why didn’t you call to let us know you were O.K.?”
- Daughter: “Well, I did not have any cell service and didn’t know what to do.”
- Mother (also yelling): “Yes, you did…you called my sister because she told me you called her to ask her how to talk to us about the fact that you were gone for the weekend with no communication.”
- Daughter (crying and sobbing even harder): “Well I knew you were going to yell at me and punish me, so I didn’t want to call you.”
- Mother: “It’s O.K. we’re just glad you are alive and well and have returned home in one piece.”
- Father (yelling): “No it is not O.K.! You are grounded and you’re not taking the car EVER AGAIN!!!!
- Daughter (screaming): “I hate you…I’m moving out.”
- Mother: (addressing Father): “Oh you’re always screaming and over-reacting. Stop being so controlling.”
- Father: “Excuse me? You’re making this about me when she goes missing for two days and didn’t even have the decency and respect to call us!”
- Mother: “Well maybe she didn’t want to be here with you!”
- Daughter: “Yea…I hate you Dad! I didn’t call because I knew you’d tell me I had to come home…and I didn’t want to hear you screaming when I finally did come home.”
- Mother: (addressing Daughter) “oh…so you could have called? Does this mean you did have cell service?”
- Father (addressing Mother): “Why do you care? You are protecting her anyway and making it seem like it is my fault.”
- Daughter: “Yeah Mom. Dad’s right. Why do you care?”
- Mother: “To hell with all of you. I’m going out!”
Mother slams the door and leaves. Daughter goes to her room and slams the door and Father retreats to his recliner and turns on the television.
Do you see how the game players continually switch roles, avoiding personal responsibility?
With observation and intentional practice, you will begin to recognize when you are in a drama triangle. Knowing that a whirlwind spinning marathon is about to begin, you will want to quickly shift from a drama triangle role to accepting responsibility and expecting the other game players to do the same. And you can! Taking responsibility in relationships is you stepping away from the game and the role that you usually play, then setting boundaries, and being kind and firm.
Check out Michael J. Speakman’s free worksheet on Dr. Karpman’s website, karpmandramatriangle.com, which summarizes each unhealthy role and then describes what type of healthy action to take to get you out of that role.
Persecutor position: “It’s all your fault.”
- Steps to remove yourself from the triangle: affirm, and set healthy, realistic boundaries and agreements that can be referenced.
Victim: “Poor me.”
- Steps to remove yourself from the triangle: seek some support with the task of problem solving in general and the choices you make prior to being in a situation that requires problem solving.
Rescuer: “Let me help you.”
- Steps to remove yourself from the triangle: listen supportively and express empathy, and then ask questions which lead the other person to take responsibility to move toward a solution of her choosing.
Let’s reconsider the previous scenario. Instead of the banter of anger, blame and shame, STOP THE DRAMA!
Father (Mother standing next to him): “Oh my goodness, you are home! Thank God! What happened? You didn’t call, we were worried sick!”
(sharing feelings and asking questions)
Daughter: “Why should I have to call you? I’m old enough to take care of myself and I don’t really feel like I should have to check in.”
Mother: “I hear you, and we all agreed on curfews and communication outside of that! If you ever feel that you are in a situation where you are not able to honor those agreements, we expect to be contacted and informed of what is going on. At this point, we may need to schedule a family meeting to revisit these agreements and be on the same page, before the car is taken out again.”
(makes a reference to an agreement and sets the boundary)
Daughter: “I HATE YOU.”
(still playing the victim)
Mother: “I hear that you are angry with us and see that you are crying. I would like to hear more about that when you are calmer. AND, until we revisit our agreements, and everyone agrees to be on the same page, the keys will stay with me.”
(mother acknowledges and affirms and sets the boundary)
Father (and Mother agreeing): “I, too, would love to hear about how you are feeling about all of this when we have all had some time to calm down. I am going for a run and will see both of you later.”
(Affirms the boundary set by mother and removes himself from drama).
Mother: “I will put this on the agenda for this week’s family meeting.”
Daughter: “Whatever…” sullenly walks to her room and closes the door.
Mother: regroups, secures the car keys, adds the item to the agenda, and changes so she can take a walk as soon as Dad gets home!
In this situation, the daughter attempts to play the victim and the persecutor. The parents, instead of participating in the game, acknowledge and affirm her feelings and then set the boundary. They also reference past agreements which they are all expected to follow. When the daughter persecutes them with a threat of hate, they retreat, set the boundary again and avoid her attempts at deflection.
The daughter now has the choice to accept the boundary or attend the family meeting to revisit the boundary set. Mom and Dad will be happy to talk to her about the situation but will not rescue her.
Everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging and significance, and sometimes we unconsciously play these roles to feel powerful, valuable or to get attention. However, there is no need to rescue, persecute or play the role of a victim, because we are all “O.K.” Thomas Harris writes about this in his book, “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” – another practical and fun resource to reference to avoid engagement in the drama triangle.
Stay tuned for more drama triangle information relevant to classrooms, schools, and the workplace. Until then…focus on the family, the roles that each member plays, what they are getting from it, and how each one can move past drama and toward authenticity.