The Drama Triangle - Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer and You

The Drama Triangle - Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer and You


9 minute read

The drama triangle has become a crucial part of my coaching and leadership model, and I look at problems and relationships through the lens of it. The Drama Triangle is often at play when dealing with conflict, and we need to figure out how to break out of it to move forward truly.

What is the Drama Triangle?

The Drama Triangle was introduced in 1968 by Stephen B Karpman and was based on Transactional Analysis. Transactional analysis is a framework used in therapy where social interactions are analyzed to determine whether the communicator's ego state is in the ego state of Parent, child, or Adult-Like as a basis for understanding behavior.

Three points make the Drama Triangle:

  1. The Victim
  2. The Persecutor
  3. The Rescuer

Ah, but the Rescuer doesn't sound like a bad thing. It is, and as a leader, it can be one of the worst states to be in.

Let's call being in one of those modes an Ego State (or just state for short).

The Victim

Let's ensure we start by knowing that this does not represent an Actual Victim; instead, it is a state of feeling or acting like a victim. This is the "Poor me!" State. Where we are trying to convince others and ourselves that we are unable to do anything. That others are causing the problem for us, are the blockers, are the reason we cannot do something successfully. No matter how hard we try, we can't be successful. Persecutors can create victims, and victims can enable Rescuers.

The Persecutor

When we are in the state of the Persecutor, we often hear ourselves or others say, "It's all their fault!". In this state, we often are controlling or critical; we may become blaming, angry, critical, or feel superior. When challenged, we can become defensive and easily switch into the Victim state. (This creates an interesting dynamic in that if a Persecutor and Victim interact, they can continue to switch roles during a conversation.)

The Rescuer

When we are in the Rescuer state, we are the ones stepping in and helping others. The problem is we do it constantly, sometimes without permission, and we are not developing those we are "helping." We become classic enablers and feel guilty if we don't help. My experience with this state is it often comes down to trust. We don't trust them to do it or think we are better than them and should do it ourselves.

Why do we slip into these Ego States?

We, as individuals, tend to default into a single state, and you likely can quickly identify which state you tend to default to. (Surprise, I tend to default into a Rescuer, as such do most managers and leaders out there.)

But why? Why do we slip into these states?

The Drama Triangle States allows us to trade long-term upside for short-term upside. 

It's easier to slip into the ego state of the triangle than to deal with the long-term challenges. It's easier to make it out of our control than to look at ourselves and try to understand what WE CAN DO now.

Every state comes with its upsides and downsides.

The Victim - Ups and Downs

Upsides Include:

  • We instantly get sympathy from others.
  • We don't have to take ownership of the situation; we get to put that on someone else.
  • We avoid responsibility.
  • We are able to blame others for the situation, and thus, we don't believe that it is our fault.
  • We get to be rescued (By the rescuer).
  • We get to choose to be powerless instead of trying to fix it.
  • We don't have to change, avoiding the anxiety and risk of real change.

Downsides Include:

  • We Are:
    • Stuck
    • Powerless
    • Whiny
    • Sad
    • Angry
  • We Feel:
    • Persecuted
    • Oppressed
    • Helpless
    • Powerless
    • Ashamed
  • We are building a reputation that hinders us in the long run.
  • We seem unable to make decisions.
  • We are viewed as problem bringers, not problem solvers.
  • We are not able to find the pleasures in life.

The Persecutor - Ups and Downs

Upsides Include:

  • We are able to blame others for things going wrong.
  • We have a sense of being superior to the others we work with.
  • We get to maintain the illusion of control.
  • When angry, we get to do it “righteously.”
  • We have a sense of power.
  • We don’t have to look at our shortcomings since it is other’s perceived weaknesses we get to focus on.
  • Our problems become others' problems.

Downsides Include:

  • We are:
    • Defensive
    • Controlling
    • Blaming
    • Oppressive
    • Angry
  • We Feel:
    • Frustrated
    • Angry
    • Shouty
    • Lonely
    • Exhausted
    • Overwhelmed
  • We easily create more victims, which, in turn, creates more rescuers.
  • We resort to being defensive when challenged.
  • We destroy relationships.
  • We become known as the “Not a Team Player.”
  • We become known as full of Pride or lacking Humility.

The Rescuer - Ups and Downs

Upsides Include:

  • As with the others, we get to redirect blame if situations don’t play out well.
  • We get to have a sense of being a noble sufferer.
  • It fills our sense of purpose for helping others.
  • We feel like the savior of the team, the person, the situation, the organization, or the world.
  • We get to enjoy meddling in other business.
  • We build up a sense of superiority.
  • We quickly rack up a bunch of “achievements.”

Downsides Include:

  • We are:
    • Exhausted
    • Overwhelmed
    • Lonely
  • We build a reputation of not trusting others.
  • We build a reputation that we are better than others.
  • We create more victims and feed off of existing victims.
  • Our teams become stuck and require us to operate.
  • We do not enable the best performance and effectiveness of our leaders and team members.
  • We disempower others.

How do we break free?

We have an idea of the Drama Triangle, and we can probably look at our past interactions and see it at play. Are we forever doomed to be stuck in the triangle?

No.

In general, to break out of the Drama Triangle, we need two things:

  1. For ourselves to be conscious of how we react to conflict.
  2. Position ourselves with amazing mentors and coaches who help us break out of the drama triangle. (Enter plug. If you would like to explore this, reach out to me for a confidential one-on-one to discuss.)

Part 1: Looking at ourselves

When we look at ourselves, we need to identify the most critical factor of the Drama Triangle…

No matter what Ego State we are in, we need to understand that Ego States are all about looking outward instead of inward. This means we must stop and ask ourselves, “What is the REAL challenge here for ME?.”

To ask that question, we must “Detach”. Detachment is purposely stepping back to look at a situation objectively instead of subjectively. Some call it emotional detachment; I like to call it simply to detach. (This will be useful in a future blog post on how to execute and plan effectively called “Detach. Prioritize. Execute”).

Looking at ourselves requires us to Take Ownership. Can we redirect from blaming others to ourselves and our role?

We can also Resolve Perspective by taking a look at what the other side of the challenge is seeing. Why did they do that? What is the underlying problem they are trying to solve? 

Ultimately, how will the challenge play out, and what impact and role do you have? Only by taking a moment and addressing the outward focused Ego States and redirecting them inward can we effectively break out of the Drama Triangle.

When we look at this in practice, we see that in something called the WInners Triangle (By Acey Choy):

  1. Victims become Creators 
    • They should become more vulnerable. Creating room for change, asking for help, and accepting when challenged to empower themselves. They know they have the abilities and skills to find a way and solve problems. They can be successful if applied and become outcome-oriented rather than problem-oriented.
  2. Persecutors become Challengers
    • They should become assertive. Becoming positive-minded challengers and resolving issues rather than blaming. They become our best problem solvers and find a way without shaming others.
  3. Rescuers become Coaches
    • Instead of coming to the table and throwing down solutions, rescuers can become coaches and ask how to help—empowering the vulnerable and enabling the persecutors. We can ask powerful questions as Coaches that help others get out of their own way and become more effective in their roles.
    •  

Part 2: Our Role as Leaders & Coaches

Outside of what individuals should do to help themselves break free of the Drama Triangle, we have a duty as leaders/mentors/coaches to help them do so.

We often default to the Rescuer mode and can switch to that subconsciously. To not get stuck, we should focus on asking open-ended questions, such as but not limited to:

  • What are the real challenges here for you?
  • How can I help?
  • What prevents you from doing XYZ?
  • If we successfully do what you say, what changes and outcomes do we see?

We want to help others see that they might be responsible for some of the conflicts/problems so they don’t rely on us to solve the issues and build misplaced responsibility/ownership.

We as leaders need to be aware, pay attention, and actively listen to others.

We must never weaponize the Drama Triangle either, as we should never take advantage of the knowledge of what Ego State someone is in.

With this, we can start taking steps to help others break out of the Drama Triangle.

Further Reading

Today, we talked through what the Drama Triangle is, why we do this, and how to break out of it. I would love to hear from you on what was most helpful for you in this article.

❓What did you find most beneficial for you in this article? Let me know in an email or a DM on LinkedIn.

If you’d like to do more reading, I’d love to recommend the following book.

  • The Coaching Habit - By Michael Bungay Stanier teaches us about being curious for longer and how to become a more "Coach-Like" leader, helping others break out of the drama triangle and moving them to find their most effective role.

And Finally,

📨 I help people and organizations be more effective in their roles. Is that something you'd like to do? Your first step is to schedule a confidential one-on-one with me via email [email protected] or DM on LinkedIn.

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Note: Almost all feature images on this blog are generated by AI, not my art.

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