As humans, we all love the Drama Triangle. It’s the reason we love movies so much. They are a big screen portrayal of the drama that is so pervasive in our minds. Even in our own persona lives, we’re often right in the midst of the Drama Triangle without even realizing it.
Why is that?
Our brains love patterns.
In the absence of all the available data points, the brain will take what it knows, the new data and information already in the brain, and connect the dots to create a story that makes sense.
This connection allows us to make a prediction about our environment that will help us with survival and reproduction. It’s how our brain simplifies the complex reality that surrounds us and prioritizes our survival.
The problem is that pattern recognition can keep us safe, but it doesn’t prioritize our happiness and joy.
In fact, research has shown that while we have between 12,000 – 60,000 thoughts per day, upwards of 80% of those thoughts are negative! And 95% of those thoughts are repeated day after day after day.
It’s no wonder so many of us are stuck in this negative loop that we can’t seem to get out of it! But it doesn’t have to be this way! You can consciously choose to step out of the Drama Triangle.
What is the Drama Triangle?
The Drama Triangle was developed in the 1960’s by Dr. Stephen Karpman as a social model. The framework represents the roles we adopt during conflict to meet our higher needs like belonging, acceptance, and growth.
When one of these higher needs is challenged during conflict, we unconsciously assume one of three roles: Victim, Rescuer (or Hero), or Persecutor (or Villain). Stepping into these roles is a way we try to escape and hide from our underlying emotions.
Oftentimes, we have a go-to role, but we do switch roles in different conflicts and even within the same conflict.
The Victim Role: “Things happen to me and I’m helpless”.
Few people enjoy being called a victim. I’m resistant to it too. However, change is only possible if you are open to recognizing and acknowledging your own patterns, even the ones you might not like. So I invite you to absorb the Victim Role description and be open to the possibility that you might step into this role from time to time.
People in the Victim Role believe they are “at the effect of” a person or circumstance. They feel powerless, helpless and afraid and believe that life is happening “to them”. This belief prevents them from owning responsibility for their circumstance and taking control of their own life. A victim thinks there is nothing in their power to change their situation. Instead, they rely on external variables to solve their issues.
What someone in the Victim Role might sound like:
- Why is this happening to me?
- I can’t do anything about it
- If only others would help me
- It’s too hard
- I don’t have a choice
- Poor me
- She/He did this to me
- It’s not fair
The Rescuer (or Hero) Role: “I need to save others”.
People in the Rescuer or Hero role believe they need to save others and prioritize others’ needs and wants at the cost of their own. Their desire for helping others is to fulfill their own need to “be needed” and they tend to expect a reward like recognition or appreciation.
Those in this role often place a Band-Aid over the problem rather than coming up with a real solution. For example, they might save those in the Victim Role by validating their beliefs about their circumstance, which leads to dependency on the Rescuer for emotional support instead of empowering the Victim Role to take charge of their own life.
What someone in the Rescuer or Hero Role might sound like:
- Poor you
- I can make you feel better
- I’ll help you
- I can take care of this
- I’ll protect you
- I agree with you
- You are right
- Don’t worry, I’m here to fix things
The Persecutor (or Villain) Role: “It’s your fault”.
People in the Villain or Persecutor Role believe that someone is to blame for the current circumstance. They point fingers at others to criticize, threaten and control. Underneath the guise of superiority is a deep fear of failure. Hence the need to defend themselves when things go awry.
The primary goal is to identify fault and those in this role will search for evidence to justify their claim. At times, the blame and criticism will land on themselves.
What someone in the Persecutor or Villain Role might sound like:
- If you only…
- It’s your fault
- I should have known better
- She/He/I messed this up
- This wouldn’t have happened if you had…
- I’m not enough
- You’re doing it all wrong
- I shouldn’t have trusted you
Being stuck in the Drama Triangle is draining, yet many of us continue to step into it.
When we’re in the Drama Triangle, we expend our emotional resources feeling guilt-ridden, anxious, stressed, and unsafe. Ultimately, participating in the drama prevents us from truly resolving conflicts and having healthy relationships with ourselves and others.
Three steps to getting out of the Drama Triangle patterns.
Step #1: Recognize what role you typically play.
The first step to any change is to be aware of the Drama Triangle and what role(s) you tend to play.
Are you a chronic Victim seeking to have others come and save you? Or are you the Hero always wanting to save others? Do you find yourself constantly in the Villain Role masking your fear of failure by blaming others?
It might feel hard to admit you’re in certain roles, particularly the Victim or Villain Role, but recognition and acceptance of your own patterns is what will allow you to step out of the drama.
Step #2: Question your beliefs and thoughts while in these roles.
As you notice yourself taking on one of these roles, ask yourself:
- What am I getting out of this? What needs is it serving?
- What is being in this role costing me?
- What if the reverse of my beliefs and thoughts are true?
- How do I want things to be different?
Step #3: Choose to take a different action.
You have the choice to do something different when you become aware of your thought and action patterns. Some ideas to get you started:
If your primary role is Victim
Shift from seeking help to taking ownership of your circumstance and solving issues yourself.
- Write down your desired outcomes. Be as clear as possible on the ultimate results.
- Identify all your strengths that can help you achieve these results.
- Identify all the roadblocks and obstacles that hold you back. For each, think about ways you can overcome the roadblock or obstacle.
- Start taking small steps before you even feel ready.
If your primary role is Rescuer / Hero
Shift from people-pleasing to prioritizing your own needs with stronger boundaries.
- Identify what energizes you and drains you. This might be people, activities, or circumstances.
- Go on a ‘no’ diet where your default is saying ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’ to all requests, particularly towards people and activities that drain you.
- If saying no feels uncomfortable try something like:
- “Let me look at my schedule and get back to you.”
- “I’d like to sleep on it and give you an answer in the morning.”
- “I’d like to say no for now and I’ll get back to you if I change my mind.”
- “I’ve got other plans (which might include resting) and won’t be able to.”
- “It sounds like a great opportunity and I don’t like saying no, but I’m going to prioritize handling what I already have on my plate.”
If your primary role is Prosecutor / Villain
Shift from pointing fingers to owning your emotions and your role in the situation.
- Pause in moments before you blame or criticize others.
- Identify your emotions.*
- Ponder your role in the situation or circumstance.
- Express what you’ve identified to the other person in a non-accusatory way. Example
- Instead of this: “You never call! You always forget to be more responsible!”
- Say this: “When you didn’t call, I was afraid something happened.”
*Note: Oftentimes we use words to express our emotions and feelings that are not truly emotions. For example, you might say something like “I feel judged.” Judged is not an emotion or feeling. It’s a way of telling the other person that you are blaming them for judging you. A valuable exercise is to work on expanding your vocabulary of emotions. Here’s a great list to get you started.
Remember to stay kind and patient with yourself throughout this process.
Change takes time. If you find yourself in the Drama Triangle, that’s ok. Notice you’re in it then choose to step out. I promise that getting out of the Drama Triangle and onto the other side is so much more nourishing and less dramatic!