The wrong kind of 'drama' in your life

Tolstoy began his epic novel Anna Karenina with the famous line "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".

Is this true?

Well, not quite. In 1968, Stephen Karpman came up with a model of how unhappy families typically relate to one another; he called it the ‘drama triangle’.

How does it work?

Since it is a triangle, it consists of three roles:

  • victim
  • rescuer
  • persecutor.

Each of these roles are interdependent, as each needs the other; a victim could not be a victim without an oppressor (the persecutor); the persecutor could not be who he/she is without someone to blame (the victim); and lastly, the rescuer could not be a saviour without someone to save (the victim).

The reason why this is called a ‘drama’ interaction is that these three roles are interchangeable and everybody wants to be ultimately cast as the victim. 

Why is this an unhappy way of relating?

The clue as to why this is an unhelpful and unhappy way of relating is in the fact that each member consciously or unconsciously seeks to adopt the victim role. The seeming value of being a victim is that you can blame your circumstances, you do not have to adapt to the adult world with its responsibilities, and consequently, you do not have to undertake difficult and challenging actions (please note, the victim is not someone who is the victim of some tragic event; rather, they are someone acting out a role of helplessness). Yet the downside of the victim - and of the other two actors that ‘aspire’ to that position - is that the eschewal of responsibility comes with the price that it is difficult to lead an autonomous life defined by your own choices and so it is hard to be happy and fulfilled.

With regards to the others two roles, here are the specific difficulties associated with them:

  • Rescuer: As saviour, you are complicit in keeping the victim feel helpless; in fact, he/she needs to be helpless for you to remain in your role. The problem for you is that your focus on the emotional needs of another may be a wily way of avoiding examining your own difficulties and needs. Furthermore, it also keeps you in a subtle state of dependency, because without the victim you may fear that you will be alone and helpless (and therefore morphing into a potential victim).
  • Persecutor: You are someone that feels enlivened by your sense of wrongness, but it is not a genuine and enabling feeling of injustice. This is because you do not want to deal with the so called problem and move forward; rather, you want to maintain the blame and the sense of injustice, as that leaves open the possibility of becoming victim and getting your needs attended to without putting in much effort.

How to get ‘out’ of the triangle?

In order for the triangle to exist, three people must be willing to play the required roles and so the simplest, albeit least effective, way of dissolving the triangle is for at least one player to refuse playing. This is not, however, an ideal resolution, because each remaining party can always find other substitutes.

If you tend to play one role in particular, below are useful ways of thinking about the wrongness of the part that should help you to disengage from it:

  • Victim: Do you want to cheat yourself from becoming an adult? The reason I ask is that this is essentially what playing the victim role involves, as it is an acting as if you are helpless, as if you were still a child (and the acting may become so good that you start to believe it yourself). While rejecting adult responsibilities and avoiding challenges might make you feel comfortable over the short-term, over the longer term there are harmful consequences: it is hard to trust and believe in yourself when you have acted as if you are helpless, since self-belief comes mainly from overcoming difficulties (or at least trying your hardest to overcome them); just as harmful is the fact that if you are a victim, your life goals are negative in character (not to do certain things) and so it is pretty hard to move toward what is genuinely fulfilling, since this requires independent (i.e. non-helpless) actions on your part.
  • Rescuer: Do you really want to cheat another from learning how to become the best version of themselves? Of course it is right to lend a helping hand, but to act always as a saviour is to show a display of strength that can make the other feel weaker. And above all else, this strength and resourcefulness is not ultimately that genuine, because your need to keep the other bound to you betrays feelings of helplessness. Like the victim, you too need to define yourself as an individual and to try and stand on your own two feet, otherwise you will find it hard to choose what you really want. Above all else, recognise that your altruism is ultimately self-interest and recognise too that your self-interest is better served by not trying to bind another to you and making them feel helpless, as neither benefits over the longer term.
  • Persecutor: It can be a real temptation to hold onto your sense of being wronged. Yet while wrongs should be addressed, remaining as a persecutor keeps you trapped from really living your life, because embalmed in your sense of righteousness, you are not focused on following your own desires and dreams; also, being critical towards others might keep you feeling that you are right, but it is never a great strategy for getting on well with others and helping them change (assuming that you have a point). It is much better trying to constructively rectify a wrong and move forward with your life than to remain in the ‘righteous trap’.   

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

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