The Drama Triangle is the work of Stephen Karpman, M.D. It gives a concise explanation for when communication fails and why it does. If your interactions with someone (or many someones) tend to be difficult, full of conflict, and rarely resolved, you may be caught in the drama triangle.
Conflict, by nature, is not bad. Conflict is simply the initial stage of change. Contention, on the other hand, never leads anywhere good. Where conflict inspires good communication, growth, and change, contention inspires pride and hardheartedness, and makes communication impossible. When we have an issue that needs addressed, what is the difference between a conflict that we grow from as it gets resolved healthily and contention that we grow apart throughout as it deteriorates our foundation? Psychologist Margalis Fjelstad, PhD, author of Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist, says that we'll often find ourselves in roles of conflict that decrease our ability to live a stable, joyful, stress-free life. In other words, during a discussion, we will take on roles that increase contention. These roles are described in The Drama Triangle.
Persecutor: -Doesn't take responsibility -Seeks to point out others' weaknesses -Is controlling, blaming, and critical -"I am right"
Victim: -Acts powerless and ashamed -Complains about others' achievements -Seems unable to make decisions, take control or solve problems -Doesn't take responsibility for their feelings -"I couldn't because..."
Rescuer: -Feels guilty if they don't step in to solve the problem -Doesn't realize they're enabling poor behaviors -Wishes people would just follow their instructions because that would solve everything -"Don't worry about it - I'll help"
Why Do We Engage in the Drama Triangle?
Although, it is most likely that everyone plays each role at some point, it is also true that everyone has one role which is our typical role - the one we gravitate toward by habit. These roles are often a result of the role we played in our family of origin and the communication style that tended to get our needs filled growing up. We continue in these patterns because they have provided results for us in the past. In the midst of conflict, these roles fill a need we have for ourselves.
Why is The Drama Triangle a Problem?
Because these roles are largely self-focused, they do not allow us to hear or understand the other person's perspective; nor do they create an environment for us to healthily express our own perspective. Karpman titled his triangle The "Drama' Triangle instead of the "Conflict" triangle because the people involved in this line of communication are playing parts - not authentically communicating. This habitual role playing to serve individualistic needs does not accurately express where and individual is coming for or what we are needing. It's all just drama for the sake of drama. If we hope to genuinely communicate, if we hope to get out of the endless drama, we've got to get out of the triangle.
How do I get out of the drama?
The first step is to view yourself and the person you're communicating with as two equal people on equal grounds. You'll notice the triangle has two corners that are above the other. This is purposeful. When playing the persecutor and individual believes they are right and the victim is wrong. When playing the rescuer, an individual believes they know better than the victim and the victim should just listen. As a victim and individual purposefully sees all the ways they are lower than the others. To have a level conversation you've got to view the other people on the same level playing field. Everyone is just trying to solve a problem, equally.
The second step is to be aware of the roles and when they come out. If the other person suddenly jumps into persecutor, "well all of this is your fault - you've been doing everything wrong" you recognize they are playing a role and refuse to join them in the drama. "Regardless of fault, we need to solve this problem." If they're a victim, "I couldn't wake up with the baby because I'm the one at work all day," refuse to join them in the drama, "Let's see what adjustments we can make to solve the problem together." Be careful that you don't find yourself in the rescuer role, "It's true that I do everything wrong" or "Don't worry about it, I'll carry the load of a new baby on my own so you don't have to be tired," as you navigate your way through it.
For more ideas on how to get out of the Triangle once you're there and prevent yourself from getting into it in future conversations see the Empowerment Triangle and the Caring Triangle. Both will be discussed in a future post. But, for now, you can learn more about this topic from the incredible people over at BPDFamily.