The Drama Triangle is at its core a socially dysfunctional power game between three entities: Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer. Interestingly, we each play different roles, sometimes even within short interactions.
The Drama Triangle was first described by Dr. Stephen Karpman in the 1960s and is still as relevant today as it was then. Here’s how the roles play out:
Victim: Victims tend to feel trapped, helpless, and hopeless. Nothing is their fault; everyone and everything is against them, life has not dealt them a fair hand. Victims deny their strength and power. Victims seek Rescuers to bail them out.
Rescuer: The Rescuer feels needed, meaningful, and in charge. Rescuers fancy themselves as the knight on the white horse coming to save the day. Rescuers thrive in the caretaker role. Rescuers thrive on protecting Victims or perceived Victims.
Persecutor: Persecutors are quick to blame but generally don’t solve problems. This is a very shame-based role. Instead, persecutors keep Victims in their place and criticize Rescuers for enabling.
The below example from Leadership Tribe succinctly shows each of the roles in action. I love this example because individuals can shift roles quickly within very short conversations.
Mark (P): Alex, the Programme Status Report is due at noon today. Could you please send it over to me as soon as possible?
Alex (V): Doh! I haven’t done it yet, I wasn’t sure what is required, and I have been overwhelmed with the other priorities for my programme.
Mark (P): The request and report template were sent to you last week. If you were not sure about the requirement, why didn’t you ask?
Alex (V): I was overwhelmed and didn’t have the capacity. (V)
Mark (P): It is already 10 am now, can you pull something up for your programme quickly?
Kate (R): Mark, what information do you need from our programme?
Mark (R): The standard – programme RAG status, programme highlights, key risks and issues, milestones and dependencies.
Kate (P): We produce quite a few programme reports for the portfolio already. Can’t you just tweak the information to get what you need?
Mark (V): Do you know how many programme updates I have to collate for the portfolio updates?
Alex (P): Honestly, I think the status report is an overkill! (P)
Kate (R): Never mind, give me half an hour. I will update the status report and send it over.
Now that you’ve seen it in action, what are the next steps?
I’m a self-identified Rescuer. Before I started my coaching practice, my go-to role was to solve other people’s “problem.” I didn’t seem myself as a Rescuer, and I certainly didn’t see anyone around me as Victims, but it felt so good to be able to help people out, even though they probably didn’t need my help in any way, shape, or form. The funny thing was that I had a catch phrase “Here, let me solve a problem you didn’t even know you had.” As you might guess, this was generally not well-received. And, frankly, being the Rescuer was exhausting!
Although the client may not name them, the Persecutor, Victim, and Rescuer roles show up regularly. Many of my clients show up for appointments very much in the Victim role, and it’s my job to help them see themselves otherwise.
Here’s how the International Coaching Federation defines coaching: Coaches honor the client as the expert in his or her life and work and believe every client is creative, resourceful, and whole.
If you see yourself in any of these roles, now may be the time to step back and become aware of how each of these roles shows up for you. Awareness, understanding, and reframing as it pertains to the Drama Triangle could very well improve your relationship with others and dramatically reduce your stress. I know it did mine.
Cindy Jobs, PCAC, ACC
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