Living Whole & Free, Untangling The Karpman Drama Triangle

The drama triangle is a social model that was conceived by Stephen Karpman, a student studying under Eric Berne, the father of transactional analysis. Berne encouraged Karpman to publish what Berne referred to as "Karpman's triangle"

Karpman used triangles to map conflicted or drama-intense relationship transactions. The Karpman Drama Triangle models the connection between personal responsibility and power dynamics, it depicts the destructive and shifting roles people play. He defined three roles in the conflict; Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim. Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and referred to them as being the three aspects, or faces of drama.

The Victim: The Victim's stance is "Poor me!" The Victim feels victimized, oppressed, 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.

The Rescuer: The rescuer's line is "Let me help you." A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if they don't go to the rescue. Yet their rescuing has negative effects: It keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the rescuer. When they focus their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the victim’s needs.
The Persecutor: (a.k.a. Villain) The Persecutor insists, "It's all your fault." The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior. 

The old nice girl me used to be a chronic rescuer, I used the words nice girl instead of nice woman because it was healing my inner wounded child (girl) that set me free from my pain. A part of us remained stuck at the time of pain, replaying this dynamic with various people in an attempt to address our pain, unable to feel good enough, deserving of joy, peace, success and affection, I was subconsciously living in fear for 36 years.

I was also driven by fear to become an overachiever perfectionist who cannot relax, this meant I was a go getter, who picked myself up and soldiered on, I was also using my fear to make life work and that can only last so long. 

This dynamic usually start within families, a common one is dad being the persecutor, mom being the victim and child being the rescuer, usually a daughter.

This is how patriarchal thinking harm generations of women, by automatically seeing women as second class, that women are suppose to submit to men, problems within the family end up being women's burdens, women's pain and women's demise, moms and daughters try to uplift each other while being under siege themselves, finding not enough to go around, when the root cause is an irresponsible man or more of them. 

When unresolved conflict between parents prove too draining for daughter, the mistreated child tries to please them, then the child ends up being their scapegoat/rescuer, learning to shove her discomfort aside and jumping in to rescue. This childhood survival method then becomes an unconscious habit that is brought into adulthood, so deeply embedded in the psyche that unless consciously overridden, it cannot be eradicated.

The old CPTSD me felt subconsciously afraid

Activism driven by sincere intentions also usually comes with a portion of escapism, it's important to self examine during the course of activism, know that sustainable activism requires healing as well, not see healing as a frivolous option but a need, a duty to oneself. 

These roles are fluid and do change around, mom can rescue daughter, dad can play the victim, daughter can persecute mom. All these three roles are fear driven, there is tension in all these relationships, all struggle to bond securely while yearning to have deeper meaningful relationships. The result is mutual alienation, unable to feel the warmth of a family unit, it is pain that people grief for a long time to come, sometimes for a lifetime. 

Like many rescuers, I mindlessly swopped in to help, taking responsibility for all three kinds of people, it's no wonder I was exhausted, my mental health was whack. I had chronic fatigue, I was too tired to exercise, eat well, explore my creativity, my inner child died, I neglected myself in many ways. 

I was so conditioned, it didn't matter if it was a stranger, a family member, a partner or a friend, I kept on rescuing on auto pilot. The worst part is people saw it as me being kind, by them praising me, I felt distress instead, I was unable to see myself that way.

I had difficulty maintaining relationships, I felt like a failure instead. Somehow I thought kind people should have meaningful relationships, people like kind people, right?

Well not exactly, persecutors like doormats, victims like being rescued and rescuers like feeling needed, higher consciousness is not driven by fear but from an authentic place of genuine unconditional love. 

via GIPHY

I treasure relationships so much, I always enmeshed with of many of these three pre 2017, suffered a ton of personal disappointment, became disillusioned, had pockets of despair, experienced depression lasting years. 

The kind of people who use to frighten me the most are persecutors, I had much more empathy for victims because they're constantly deflated. Unfortunately I had to come to the realisation that it's because they didn't have the energy to be punishing so they came across as safer people to help, when being around them wasn't safe at all. The more I help, the more they became increasingly embolden, using me as a crutch while still hanging onto their victim status, overshadowing me instead. 

It's also that someone playing the victim role doesn't mean they were really more victimised than I am, most of the time it was that they felt more entitled to feel their distress, work on their wellbeing and success, it isn't based on reality at all. 

When I drew boundaries with them, they started persecuting me and I had to process my regret at ever helping them. I believe this is also why many people have difficulty drawing boundaries, they get punished by everyone playing either of the three roles, they can lose their entire support system when they start to do so.

I know I felt lonely and disillusioned when I started doing it, people showed me how much they wanted to use me, how much they refuse to quit this triangle, it was gutting that I had no choice but to set limits so I can quit it myself. 

I'm still better for it, I changed them out for drama free people who refuse to enmesh with any of the three kinds and help from outside the triangle instead. I also finally had the bandwidth to find my path since they didn't drain me anymore.

Activists have to be especially careful not to fall into the rescuer role, driven by the idea of the greater good, it can become an unhealthy obsession. I know pre 2017, I over extended myself many times over, I constantly bit off way more than I can chew. I still find myself occasionally getting too excited and losing myself in activism. I have gotten much better at pacing myself in a sustainable fashion, addressing my distress as it comes, taking time to shamelessly process even when I'm pressured by disapproval to go back to my old habit of self neglect. 

Now me, much happier, still helping, without an inner critic 

Chronic rescuers need to understand their existence isn't about how much they help or not, no matter how much we help, some people will always think of us as not good enough, that no matter how good we're, some people are determined to not see it.

Helping isn't about taking over the driver's seat of someone's life, helping is about supporting them to take their own reins, this requires patience, investing in them to understand their limitations are genuine and loving them from the sidelines nonetheless. 

The hardest thing is to tolerate my distress at seeing someone head down the wrong path, to have them ignore my advice is painful not because they need my approval but because I worry about them experiencing consequences from situations out of my control. 

It felt cruel and unusual for me to let them travel along by themselves, they often also projected their resentment at me, even though I know full well many people will not even bother, they're unwilling to stick their necks out for them, they can't see it that way though. They saw it as me controlling them even though they kept struggling, it's always hard to see them drowning. 

By balancing my sense of self preservation with giving myself permission to address my discomfort without feeling it's an indulgence, my activism is far more sustainable. My mental health improved, my life satisfaction is way higher,  I experience more joy and peace as well. 

I believe people fall into these roles also because of their natural talents as well, so it's not 100% fear driven. Persecutors tend to be strong problem solvers, victims tend to be good at emotional expression and rescuers tend to be sincere loyal people.

Persecutors by balancing criticism with comfort is a much better devil's advocate, they no longer push people away, rescuers by balancing empathy with self preservation is a much better helper, they no longer feel overwhelmed, the victim by balancing ownership and accepting their limits will stop wallowing in self pity. 

You have a right to your wellbeing and if you meet either of these three who want to enmesh with you, refusing to get trapped in their drama doesn't make you an unkind person, it's that they have to find the courage to face their pain instead of you reverting to old habits that hold each other hostage, now that is unkind indeed. 

Eshet chayil, God is a She. 

Min 

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Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Beth says...

    This is a wonderful article. I have found myself in this unhealthy triangle as the “rescuer” most often. Now, because my friend, the “victim” is continuing to stay in an abusive marriage, but running to me to charge up only to go back in a few days- I have realized I have been enabling her to not make choices for herself and refuse to take charge of her own situation. I find myself getting angry and upset with her for making choices that I think are bad- which puts me in the persecutor role with her. I have decided that while I continue to care for my friend, the only way out is to step out of this triangle. She has to step out of her victim role, and I out of my rescuer role. In their triangle. We also have a separate triangle with just us two where she and I change roles, and most often I am found as rescuer then persecutor because she refuses to leave out of the victim role with her husband. It’s a crazy cycle and it hurts to step away, but it is best for my mental health. I only hope she can step out for herself in the one with her husband and ultimately find peace. I do not know if our friendship will survive me walking away from it, but I know that whatever happens is the will of my higher power. A gain, thanks for this amazing article!

    June 01, 2020

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