The Drama Triangle: When Groups Go Wrong
Getting Back to Heart Connections
Sometimes we shy away from group settings because they can be quite messy. Who hasn’t sat in a group and experienced it devolving into something painful? We’d like to believe that spiritual groups devoted to love and prayer don’t have this problem, but we all know that isn’t the case.
This quite often comes from a drama with three different roles that we and others tend to play. This is called the Drama Triangle which reveals dysfunctional interaction originally described by Stephen Karpman. I learned this from him in a workshop forty years ago. It has served me greatly to explain the cycles and patterns of behavior I saw unfold in so many groups and conversations. It also indicated what we should do to get off the Drama Triangle! There are more nuanced approaches for the professional, but I will give the basics here.
The Rescuer Role
Here you are, gallantly helping another person, offering the best advice they are ever going to get. You find yourself getting a little ticked off. Or surprisingly, very ticked off. You feel like you want to clobber the resistant, ungrateful slob you are just trying to help.
On the drama triangle this is called the Rescuer. This is an all-time Christian favorite role since we are supposed to “help one another.”
Here’s how it often goes if we are a rescuer. We start at Rescuer with our unasked-for advice. We get resistance from other person to our suggestions. When other person rejects the unasked-for advice, we move to the victim role, ‘I’m only trying to help.” We simmer there for a minute and then move to the persecutor role. “If you would just grow up you wouldn’t have this problem.”
The rescuer's motto is "Let me help you." The Rescuer feels guilty if they don't go to the rescue. Yet when they try to help, they often end up feeling frustrated and angry. This is because they have broken one or more of the following three rules for healthy helping.
1. Tries to help when it is not asked for or wanted.
2. Helps when they are empty and don’t have it to give — or want to give it.
3. Helps someone by doing more than half the work.
Rescuing is an addiction that comes from an unconscious need to feel valued. There’s no better way to feel important than to be a savior! Taking care of others can be the way Rescuers feel worthwhile. Or, we can feel responsible for making a situation better so we will feel secure, especially if that was our role in growing up in our family.
The only time it is okay to rescue someone is if they are unconscious!
The healthy helper:
1. Does not offer advice without seeing if it is wanted.
2. Does not help while running on empty.
3. Is careful to help — but not take over.
Redeemed rescuers turn into supportive coaches, who encourage, empower and protect. They do what they can do to help the person solve their problem rather than rushing in to announce the supposed solution themselves.
The Victim Role
Or maybe you’re being “helped.” You shared a problem and now others are sincerely trying to help you with their best advice. The more they help, the more uncomfortable you feel. On the Drama Triangle this is called the VICTIM. The Victim's stance is "Poor me!"
Everyone has problems in their lives, but the victim takes on this role as an identity. They think they can’t really change things themselves and end up dependent in any number of ways. “I can’t do it myself, so help me please!” But quite often they feel quite resentful, guilty, or shameful when people do seek to help them, as it is a constant reminder of their feelings of inadequacy—which they both hate and, in some ways, depend on. They can sometimes turn manipulative or “Yes, but…” the help offered to them. And they often unconsciously seek out persecutors as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
1. Feels victimized, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed
2. Looks for a Rescuer that will perpetuate their negative feelings.
3. Blocks self from making decisions, solving problems, and feeling good.
4. "Dejected" stance.
The Redeemed Victim can become a survivor, taking charge of their problems, solving them, and, in the meantime, still be able to reflect on good things in the situation.
The Persecutor Role
Let’s say you have just shared some struggle or what’s been happening with you. You then find yourself getting annoyed with the responses of others who want to give you advice, rather than just listen to you. It quickly moves to an argument with you wanting to clobber the rescuer with put downs and sarcasm. On the Drama Triangle this is called the Persecutor. The Persecutor insists, "It's all your fault." The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior.
Some people in traditional Christianity have a persecuting God
3. Is energized by being angry
4. “Shoulds” all over you
This “reforming” instinct can also come across more subtly—especially in “nice” Christian groups. It might just seem like a need to always “feel better than” or “above” the situation. These persecutors my lecture or continuously correct the mistakes made by the less-informed. It might take the guise of “fighting for justice” in an overly defensive way, stemming from personal wounds. Their trying to create “safety” is coming from an inner chaos.
The Redeemed Persecutor becomes a challenger who, when appropriate, gently challenges others to be all they can be. They lightheartedly, not heavy handed, address the consequences of others’ actions rather than their angry feelings. Others’ problems are not yours to solve.
Bad or negative feelings are the one sure sign you have hopped onto the Drama Triangle. Playing any or all of these parts results in destructive interactions and negative feelings. We all have a favorite role, our starting role, and often play several roles in the little drama played out in a few minutes.
The Starting Gate
Each person has a primary or most familiar role – what I call their “starting gate” position. This is the place from which we generally enter, or “get hooked” onto, the triangle. We first learn our starting gate position in our family of origin. Although we each have a role with which we most identify, once we’re on the triangle, we automatically rotate through all the positions, going completely around the triangle, sometimes in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, many times every day.
You may notice that both the Persecutor and Rescuer are on the upper end of the triangle. These roles assume a “one-up” position over others, meaning they relate as though they are better, stronger, smarter, or more-together than the victim. Sooner or later the victim, who is in the one-down position at the bottom of the triangle, develops a metaphorical “crick in the neck” from always looking up. Feeling “looked down upon” or “worth-less than” the others, the vanquished Victim builds resentment and sooner or later, retaliation follows. The victim then becomes the persecutor!
Where are you?
What’s tends to be your favorite position or drama role in life? This is the one with which you often enter a conversation. How can you be more aware of the drama and how it affects you? Are you excited and feeling great? Or are you exhausted, drained, and spent of energy trying to get off the Triangle. The more you are aware of drama, the more you can recognize it and leave your drama behind.
Some people think they can choose to just avoid the drama altogether and adopt a withdrawing stance, leaving the group/relationship altogether or simply detaching. But this approach is isolating and unhealthy, and also not really possible. We need relationships and groups in our lives to counter our individualism and reflect the truer reality that we are not separate from one another. If we withdraw whenever there is conflict, we will only hop around in the shallow depths of relationship. If this has been you, maybe it’s time to jump back in and find healthy connection once again.
Getting off the Dreaded Drama Triangle
No matter what role you begin with, you can get out of the Drama Triangle by identifying what you are feeling, and expressing that responsibly.
Being responsible, whatever your role, means taking ownership of your feelings and expressing them in the moment. This requires a willingness to be vulnerable.
“I am hurt right now.”
“I am frustrated.”
“I am upset.”
Jumping off at the Starting Gate
If you are a confirmed Rescuer and want to change, you will probably need to accept feeling like a Persecutor for a while until you leave your rescuing tendencies and turn into a supporter and encourager.
If you are a bonafide Persecutor and want to change, you will need to set healthy boundaries for yourself rather than for others, and own your own feelings rather than projecting them onto others or the situation.
If you are a poor Victim and want to change, you will need to accept responsibility for yourself and most likely cut ties in some way with the rescuers in your life or situation.
You may also find it helpful to see the triangle when you are not directly involved in it. It can be interesting when watching a movie or TV drama to name the roles. Who’s the victim? Who’s the persecutor? Who’s the Rescuer?
You can also learn about the Drama Triangle by sharing it with others. Studies show that when you teach or explain something, you improve your understanding of it.
In the meantime, may you stay off the Drama Triangle so you can heart connect with your friends—and have fun!