Breaking the chain reaction of reactions to reactions

Sometimes, in our day-to-day-interactions, communication becomes disruptive, resembling a chain of reactions to reactions to reactions. Sometimes we lose the capacity to express our ideas and feelings. Sometimes communication just gets stuck, maybe conflict breaks out. When we see these same patterns over and over again, this might be due to the ever same roles that we adopt and play. Learnt in childhood, these roles are deeply ingrained in our adult selves, and acted out as unconscious scripts. Until we notice and work on them.

This is a post inspired by contents from my mediation training.

In the 1960s, Stephen Karpman has thought of a model of human communication that maps the destructive interactions which occur between people. This map is known as the drama triangle.

Karpman defined three roles that interact with each other. We can play one role at work, and a different one at home, and another one with our children. Or we can switch from one role to the other in just one conversation. The three roles are:

  • The Persecutor. I'm right. It's all your fault. The Persecutor acts out criticism, accusation, and condemnation. Their behavior is controlling, blaming, shaming, oppressive, hurtful, angry, authoritarian, superior. They know everything better, they laugh about others, bully, shame, or belittle them. The Persecutor discounts others' value, looking down on them. Persecutor's thought: I'm okay, you're not okay.
  • The Victim. I'm blameless. Poor me. The Victim feels not accepted by others, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, inferior. The Victim thinks they are unable or not good enough to solve problems on their own. The Victim discounts themselves. Victim's thought: I'm not okay, you're okay.
  • The Rescuer. I'm good. Let me help you! The Rescuer is a person who has unsolicited and unlimited advice concerning the Victim's problems. They think for the Victim, and comfort them, generally without having been asked to do so. The Rescuer acts seemingly to help the Victim but rescuing mostly helps them to feel better themselves, as it allows them to ignore their own anxieties, worries, or shortcomings. The Rescuer needs a Victim to rescue, effectively keeping the Victim powerless. The Rescuer discounts others' abilities to think and act for themselves, looking down on them. Rescuer's thought: I'm okay, you're not okay.

Does this sound familiar?

"Involvement in an unhealthy drama triangle is not something another person is doing to you. It's something you are doing with another person or persons." Well, to be more precise, it's something that we are all doing to each other: "Drama triangles form when participants who are predispositioned to adopt the roles of a drama triangle come together over an issue." (quoted from: Escaping conflict and the Karpman Drama Triangle.)

People act out these roles to meet personal (often unconscious) needs. But each of these roles is toxic in that it sees others as problems to react to. In not being able to see that we take on these roles, we keep the triangle going, like in a dispute in which one word provokes another until someone leaves, slamming the door. This is drama. When we are stuck in the drama triangle, no one wins because all three roles "cause pain", "perpetuate shame [and] guilt", and "keep people caught in dysfunctional behavior" (quoted from Lynne Namka: The Drama Triangle, Three Roles of Victim-hood).

How to get out of the drama triangle

Awareness. To get out of the triangle, it is foremost suggested to be aware of its existence. I agree, it helps. I see it everywhere now.

Identifying one's role and starting to act differently. While we switch roles, we generally take on a preferred role that we act out most of the time, and that was learnt in childhood. (I found a test to identify one's common primary role — in German.)

But how do we act differently? We need to take another look at that uncanny triangle.

From the drama triangle to the winner triangle

I found it insightful to ask what benefit each role could potentially bring into the interaction.
Acey Choy has created the Winner triangle, in 1990, as an attempt to transform social interactions away from drama. Her winner triangle shifts our perceptions of the roles: the Victim becomes the Vulnerable, the Rescuer becomes the Caring, the Persecutor becomes the Assertive.

Persecutor            Rescuer       Assertive              Caring
I'm right.            I'm good.     I have needs.          I'm listening.
    ----------------------              ----------------------
    \                    /              \                    /
     \                  /                \                  /
      \                /                  \                /
       \              /                    \              /
        \            /                      \            /
         \          /                        \          /
          \        /                          \        /
           \      /                            \      /
            \    /                              \    /
             \  /                                \  /
              \/                                  \/
            Victim                            Vulnerable
            I'm blameless.                    I'm struggling.

Karpman Dreaded Drama Triangle            Choy's Winner Triangle

The Assertive "I have needs." has a calling, aims at change, initiates, and gives feedback. Skills to learn: The Assertive needs to learn to identify their needs, communicate them, and negotiate with others on eye level without shaming, punishing, or belittling them. The Assertive needs to learn to give constructive feedback, without dismissing others. (In the workplace, it could be helpful to have a space for this.) The Assertive could benefit from learning to use I-Statements.

The Caring "I'm listening." shows good will and sensitivity, cares, is empathic and supportive. Skills to learn: The Caring needs to learn to respect the boundaries of others: trusting their abilities to think, problem solve and talk for themselves. Therefore, the Caring could benefit from improving their active listening skills. Furthermore the Caring needs to learn to identify and respect their own boundaries and not to do things only because it makes them feel better about themselves.

The Vulnerable "I'm struggling." has the skill of seeing and naming problems. Skills to learn: The Vulnerable needs to learn to acknowledge their feelings and needs, practice self-awareness, and self-compassion. They need to untie their self-esteem from the validation of other people. They need to learn to take care of themselves, and to strengthen their problem solving and decision making skills.

What has this got to do with autonomy and power structures?

Each of these interactions is embedded in larger society, and, as said above, we learn these roles from childhood. Therefore, we perpetually reproduce power structures, and learnt behavior. I doubt that fixing this on an individual level is sufficient to transform our interactions outside of small groups, families or work places. Although that would be a good start.

We can see that the triangle holds together because the Victim, seemingly devoid of a way to handle their own needs, transfers care of their needs to the Rescuer, thereby giving up on their autonomy. The Rescuer is provided by the Victim with a sense of autonomy, knowledge, and power, that only works while denying the Victim their autonomy. At the same time, the Persecutor denies everyone else's needs and autonomy, and feels powerful by dismissing others. I've recently mentioned the importance of autonomy in order to avoid burnout, and as a means to control one's own life. If the Rescuer can acknowledge being in the triangle, and give the Victim autonomy, by supporting them with compassion, empathy, and guidance, and at the same time respecting their own boundaries, we could find even more ways to escape the drama triangle.


My description of the roles was heavily inspired by the article Escaping Conflict and the Karpman Drama Triangle that has a lot more detail on how to escape the triangle, and how to recognize when we're moving into one of the roles. While the article is informing families living with a person suffering from a spectrum of Borderline Personality Disorder, the content applies to any dysfunctional interaction.