The Drama Triangle
Updated: Jul 4, 2021
Who finds themselves piggy in the middle? Pick me!
Who finds themselves thinking “it’s not my fault, it's x's”? Pick me!
And who finds themselves wondering why someone is picking on them and feeling “poor me”? Guess what, pick me!
These three positions are known as the rescuer, the perpetrator and the victim in Karpman’s Drama Triangle (1968). Whilst the role names sound quite heavy going, these roles happen all the time in our daily lives – with friends, family, colleagues, on social media, on tele. They are everywhere!
I first heard about the #dramatriangle about 15 years ago when I attended some training on #conflictmanagement. It couldn’t have been more timely. Two of my colleagues, who considered each other friends, had just had a very difficult interaction at work. The situation escalated and one of them complained formally about the other. There I was, piggy in the middle.
I was so grateful for learning about this model – I realised that I often play the #rescuer role because I want everyone to get along and I want to feel needed. However, playing the rescuer role usually meant that I ended up being seen as a perpetrator of some kind. And therefore, I felt like a victim too. Is this confusing or is it crystal clear to you?
When this model was explained to me, I realised that if I tried to broker conversations between my two colleagues, neither of them would be able to #trust me. They would not know what I was actually saying about them with the other person. Being the go-between means things get lost in translation. Therefore the person playing the rescuer role also becomes both a perpetrator and a victim, all at the same time.
So my big question for the trainer was “how do you get out of a drama triangle?”. Her very simple answer was “don’t play the game”. Well what on earth does that mean?!
In essence, it means you don’t insert yourself as the rescuer. Or you don’t pull in someone else to be your rescuer. In both cases, you will have created a drama triangle. To avoid creating the triangle, a dear friend of mine always talks about “straight line conversations”. The victim and the perpetrator need to talk to each other directly, without someone being the go between.
Now all of this is easier said than done of course. It takes practice to notice drama triangles, but once you do you will start to see them all over the place. And not only that, you will also notice how they tessellate and get more complicated.
In extreme situations, mediation may be beneficial in a conflict relationship. It is important to know that this is different from rescuing – the mediator will facilitate straight line conversations between two people. For example, a mediator could be a psychotherapist or counsellor, a solicitor, an HR professional or a trained mediator.
So what did I do with my two colleagues? I explained to both of them that absolutely everything they said to me was confidential. Nothing would be repeated anywhere. Over the space of about two years, I kept their confidences which really helped my working relationships with both of them. I noticed other people taking sides and things getting more and more difficult at work for them. However I was able to navigate complicated situations by being trustworthy.
After I left that organisation however, things fell apart. One of those colleagues thought that I had spoken about them behind their back, which of course I didn’t. They accused me of telling the other something they had said in private. Except they hadn’t – they had told a car full of people. Here I was with the potential to enter another drama triangle - both of us feeling the victim, both of us accusing the other of being a perpetrator and at least one of us (me) wanting to pull someone else in to the protect them.
Instead, I chose not to play the game.
For more information on Karpman’s Drama Triangle, go to https://www.karpmandramatriangle.com/dt_article_only.html