How the Drama Triangle Relates to Inner Healing Work
Stephen Karpman – a well-respected psychiatrist and teacher of Transactional Analysis – first introduced The Drama Triangle to the general consciousness. The basis of the Drama Triangle is that there are three different people involved in any dramatic experience. These people are called The Rescuer, The Persecutor, and The Victim.
Rescuers see themselves as “helpers” and “caretakers.” They are always on the lookout for someone to rescue – a victim. They do this to feel important or have a sense of belonging. They are the ones who will save others when the going gets tough. They like being the strong one.
The Rescuer often shows up as the dark side of a mother. Instead of mothering others with an appropriate expression of support and nurturing, the Rescuer tends to “smother,” control and manipulate others. They disguise this smothering as “helping” and get offended if their help is not appreciated and accepted.
A Rescuer is the classic, co-dependent, enabling “friend.” Rescuing is an addiction that comes from an unconscious need to feel valued. After all, society always celebrates the Savior!
Persecutors, on the other hand, identify themselves primarily as the person who will stand up to the pain caused by others. In order to survive, Persecutors repress deep-seated feelings of worthlessness and attack others with aggressive detachment and loathing. They “protect” themselves using authority, control and punishment against anyone they perceive has the power to hurt them or anyone they care about.
The Persecutor often shows up as a dark side of a father. A healthy father’s job is to protect and provide for his family, but a Persecutor attempts to “reform” and discipline those around him using manipulation or even brute force.
Persecutors must always be right! They will do anything from bullying, preaching, threatening, blaming, lecturing, and interrogating to outright attack to get their way. They believe in getting even, very often through aggressive acts.
Just like the Rescuer needs someone to fix, the Persecutor needs someone to blame. Persecutors deny their vulnerability in the same way Rescuers deny their own needs. The Persecutor’s greatest fear is being powerless, which is why they judge and deny their inadequacy, fear, and vulnerability. To do that consistently, they need a victim over whom they can impose their power. Both Rescuers and Persecutors unconsciously “need” a Victim to sustain the image of who they are and what the world is like: Something to be fixed.
The Victim is the one who brings the Drama Triangle together. Without the Victim, there can’t be a Persecutor, or indeed a Rescuer. For one to feel victimized, he or she needs a person who will blame them or a person who will save them. The Victim usually feels like they are at the receiving end of the world, and they feel powerless and unable to change the situation. To feel better about themselves, the victim either takes on a role of a Persecutor (blaming others for their pain) or the Rescuer (replacing the uncomfortable sensation of pain with the diverting need to help others).
The Victim is also a shadow aspect of who we are, just like the Rescuer and the Persecutor. The victim is usually our Inner Child, or both our Inner Children, who are feeling completely powerless and like they have no way out. The victim, as the Inner Child, is innocent, vulnerable and needy. This wounded Inner Child needs the support of our grown up processes. More often than not, though, we don’t attend to these children’s pain and instead, live our grown up lives acting and reacting to different situations from the triggering place of the Inner Child. An example of this pain and how it manifests in our grown up lives is an inability to share intimacy or trust your partner to stay loyal, which can leave us with no other choice than living a lifetime of crippling dependency on our primary relationships.
Victims deny both their problem-solving abilities and their potential for self-generated power. Feeling at the mercy of circumstances, they often perceive themselves to be broken, unfixable and mistreated. When a Rescuer or a Persecutor relates to the Victim and offers her support and advice on how to get out of the victimhood, the Victim soon begins to feel highly resentful towards those on whom they depend. As much as they insist on being taken care of by their primary rescuers, they see every effort to help them as a reflection of their inner sense of inadequacy.
How We Get Hooked Into The Drama Triangle
Each of us has a familiar role or a go-to place from which we enter, or “get hooked” into, the Drama Triangle. Something happens, and we get triggered. Our initial emotional response to the triggering is what “hooks” us in. So, when triggered do you: try to find someone to rescue, do you get angry, or do you feel powerless?
It is most common to establish our entry point to the Drama Triangle in our family of origin. Observing the patterns from our birth family gives us our point of entry into the drama triangle – be it Victim, Persecutor or Rescuer.
- Did you always feel like the victim in your family growing up?
- Did you feel like a Persecutor?
- Were you the Rescuer in your family?
The role you most relate to from childhood tends to be your point of entry to the Drama Triangle. Although we each have a role we most identify with, once within the Triangle we tend to visit each position, depending on our conditioning, coping mechanisms or internal dialogue. But we all have a primary role, which we use as a point of entry, and if you can identify which one it is for YOU, you can begin to step outside of the Drama Triangle before it starts gathering too much negative momentum.
- Acknowledging how you enter the drama triangle is Step One.
- Step Two is understanding your familial conditioning and moving past it.
- Step Three is all about unlearning coping mechanisms and choosing a new way of being.
How We Can Escape the Drama Triangle
Inner Parenting is the most powerful conscious tool I have come across in decades of personal development. Inner Parenting is based on the concept that there are parts of you that are still acting out, not because they are bad, or because there’s something wrong with you, but because those parts of you have not had a chance to heal yet.
Inside of each of us, there are four people:
- The Adult Self (your driver process),
- The Inner Parent (your co-pilot),
- And two Inner Children, 10yo and 3yo (your tertiary and inferior processes).
In order for our Inner Children to have a safe space to heal, they need to be acknowledged and given a voice. Let’s assume that you are willing to do this. Now, it’s your Inner Parent’s job (or your Co-pilot process) to start creating a loving presence and rapport with your Inner Child.
Here’s where you can start this journey right now:
Rescuers usually grow up in families where their dependency needs are not acknowledged. As you know by now, your Inner Children feel the way you felt as a child. Many Rescuers went their whole childhood without permission to take care of themselves, and this is why self-care does not even occur to them. They measure their worth as a person according to how much care they give to others. If you identify as a Rescuer, learn to look after yourself proactively. I felt like a Rescuer for most of my childhood, and the hardest thing I had to learn is that I don’t have to earn the right to be looked after. I don’t have to perform in some way to get my needs met. As a grown up, I can choose to start looking after myself. When I made that choice, it was time for the inner parent to step in and implement proactive self-care. It can be anything from dry skin brushing to your favorite breakfast that you lovingly prepare for yourself. It can be walking, swimming, or any other type of gentle exercise that makes you feel good and forces you to focus on yourself. It can be napping or taking 10 minutes during the day to enjoy your favorite book. This is a SOLO exercise – and what that means is that you don’t distract yourself with other people. Remember, this is an exercise between yourself and your Inner Children.
This role is most often taken on by someone who received extreme mental and/or physical abuse during childhood. As a result, the Persecutors are secretly seething inside from the shame of not being good enough. If you identify yourself as a Persecutor, it’s important that you learn to truly respect yourself first, before others can respect you too. Look into the value that you have as the person that you are and begin to focus there. Your subconscious mind will always look for evidence of whatever your conscious mind is focusing on, so if you see yourself as someone who always has to be on the defense – guess what? You end up in situations where you have to defend yourself. Remember, this is one of your Inner Children speaking up! You are not broken, it’s just a part of you that has learned to attack when it feels threatened. Begin to talk to that part of yourself. When you have the urge to attack someone or something, ask your Inner Child a question: Hey sweetheart, what’s angering you right now? What’s happening for you right now? What needs are going unmet? Be kind to yourself. Persecuting the persecuted parts of you will not help. You have to show kindness to break the aggression cycle.
The Victim has accepted that they are intrinsically damaged and incapable. The Victim believes that they will not make it, that they are rotten at the core and that sooner or later someone will find out and abandon them. The anxiety arising from the fear of abandonment forces them to always be on the lookout for someone stronger or more capable of taking care of them, which, of course, leaves them feeling like they are weak and useless and only re-enforces the Victim’s go-to place of feeling damaged and incapable. If you identify as a Victim, it’s important to realize that it’s a 2-sided coin. Wherever there’s a Victim, on the other side of the same coin is a Creator. As an adult, you can understand freedom of choice. We allow others to treat us as good or as bad as we treat ourselves. If we can choose to take responsibility for how we feel about ourselves, and how we allow others to treat us, we can flip the coin and find the deeply satisfying Creator. Instead of the perpetually triggered reaction of the Victim, the Creator (with the guidance of your Inner Parent) responds with the ability to step outside the picture, evaluate the current position, and consciously choose to move toward a more creative space, instead of chronically reacting to everything. A Creator realizes that there’s a choice, and does not feel backed into a corner. While the Victim is obsessed with problems, the Creator looks for solutions. That’s why the first step is realizing that you have a choice. With that realization comes freedom.
All the best for your healing journey.
Discover Your Personal Genius
This is such a clear description of of the internal drama triangle. I am very much in the pattern of the victim. Your alternative view of being a creator is something I am going to embrace from now on. I keep making tiny steps forward and plummeting back into old patterns. I’m exhausted. Would love it if you could point me in the direction of more helpful strategies.
This is golden! Thank you!
I really love the way you put things into perspective for each role. Nicely put! 🙂 my role my whole life has been the rescuer. I used to be asked by my mother, “how many mothers are in this room?” I recently started dry brushing funny you mentioned that self-care tip. The thing is, I keep feeling guilty for not helping where I think there needs to be help. For example my sister, I believe, plays the role of the victim, financially, well I feel like I need to send her money because I have more than her but when I don’t I feel selfish. She mentions not having enough and then automatically I feel like I need to fix her problem. I am just now discovering the roles and how important it is to be selfish in the sense of taking care of Self. It’s crazy how I recently released my mom from the role of taking care of her financially and she started doing really well. I let her go, but replaced her with my sister. This was freeing to discover. I can’t wait to get to a point when I don’t feel guilty for not helping. Thank you so much for this article! Beautifully written 🙂
Hi Megan, thank YOU for your comment and reflections. It’s always such a pleasure to hear that our material has been helpful.
It’s good to remember, that as long as we enable (“rescue”, or “bail out”) people who are not empowered (in this case your sister with finances), that we prevent their personal growth, and keep them in the state of disempowerment they are in.
That’s why not only is it not good to rescue people, it’s keeping them in the place of victimhood. If you can, don’t feel guilty, instead, look forward to seeing your sister learning new skills that in turn will change her financial situation. And boy, will it feel good for her to be in charge of her finances. All because you said “no”.
All the best.