Do you wonder what’s at play when you, or others around you, get stuck in conflict or in wonky relationship dynamics? Perhaps you feel pulled into a caretaker role, or feel helpless? Here’s a brief article taken from my latest SoulSoil newsletter. To subscribe, click here.

The Karpman drama triangle (aka “drama triangle” or “victim triangle”) models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts, and the destructive and shifting roles people play. It was developed by Stephen Karpman in 1968 and is still widely used.

He defined three roles in the conflict; Persecutor, Rescuer (the one up positions) and Victim (one down position). Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and referred to them as being the three aspects, or faces of drama. We start in one position based on our core beliefs and then rotate through the roles.

The roles:

  1. The Victim: The Victim’s stance is “Poor me!” The Victim feels helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight. The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will save the day but also perpetuate the Victim’s negative feelings.
  2. The Rescuer: Rescuers see themselves as “helpers” and “caretakers.” They need someone to rescue (victim) in order to feel vital and important. The Rescuer feels guilty if he/she doesn’t go to the rescue. Yet his/her rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail.
  3. The Persecutor: Persecutors identify themselves primarily as victims. They are usually in complete denial about their blaming tactics. When it is pointed out to them, they argue that attack is warranted and necessary for self protection.

In each position we are getting unspoken / unconscious needs met without having to address the underlying issues (e.g. own anxiety, own responsibility). 

In this triangle everyone becomes a victim at one point: e.g. someone starting as a Rescuer “becomes a martyr, complaining loudly, After all I’ve done for you … this is the thanks I get!” “Forrest.

Persecutors, on the other hand, see themselves as victims in need of protection. This is how they so easily justify their vengeful behaviour.

We “do” these roles to ourselves internally too. For example, we may harshly criticise ourselves (P), creating anger and self-worthlessness. “Inwardly, we cower to this persecutory voice, fearing it may be right (V). Finally when we can’t bear it anymore, we take ourselves off the hook by justifying, minimizing or indulging in some form of escape. This is how we rescue ourselves. This could go on for minutes, hours or days.” Forrest

How do I get off the triangle?

  • Get curious. Observe how you get hooked.
  • Explore the different “lives” of the different roles – how each feels, thinks and acts.
  • Look at the costs and trade-offs of each.
  • Often to get off, we may be seen by others as a Persecutor, e.g. “How can you do this to me?”

For more on the Karpman triangle please see the excellent article by Lynne Forrest: The Faces of Victim.  There is also a decent overview on wikipedia. (Both are my sources for the above info). I like this youtube video by Lauren Kress too.

My article on attachment patterns plays into the roles we take. As well, my latest article on the challenges of relationships for those growing up in dysfunctional families (e.g. children of alcoholics) affects the roles we take too.