Recognising yourself in the Drama Triangle

Have you ever found yourself in an interaction with someone thinking, “Oh no, here we go again…”?  Often this happens just before plunging into a conflict that is so predictable it’s almost like you’re reading it from a script.

When this happens, you might be participating in the Drama Triangle, also known as the Karpman Triangle for psychologist Stephen Karpman who developed this model in the 1970s.

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Karpman’s Drama Triangle, image by Caitlin.

The triangle represents the roles people can play in an interaction they’re having with each other–it doesn’t represent the people themselves, but the role they are enacting in a relationship where power is not equal.  People’s roles can change through time.  Even within the same interaction, people can find themselves moving in and out of different roles as they struggle to find a power balance.  This can take minutes or it can take years.  It’s also worth pointing out that this happens in normal people who are having normal relationship conflict–the labels sound like they’re specific to abusive relationships, but in fact all of us will find ourselves in the drama triangle at some point in our lives.

I recognised myself circling around the drama triangle recently at work: someone who I normally have an equitable working relationship came to me with a problem and I found myself rushing into Rescuer Mode, wanting to fix the situation and save the day.  But even as I was doing that, I already felt the resentment building up that I was being asked to do something that was this person’s responsibility.  That they weren’t living up to their side of the bargain.  That I could do it so much better, but why should I have to do it at all?  Already, even in the middle of my rescuer instincts, the Persecutor role was starting to come out.  I found myself picturing a dramatic showdown like one of those old-timey westerns where the two combatants face each other at high noon.  Or a costume drama where someone in a very fancy dress flounces out in a fit of self-righteousness after giving the other party the comeuppance they deserved.

Fortunately, when you recognise yourself in the Drama Triangle, you have the power to choose!  You can get out of the drama and move into the Winner’s Triangle, developed by Acey Choy in the 1990s.

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Acey Choy’s Winner’s Triangle. Image by Caitlin.

When you find yourself having that “Oh no, here we go again…” feeling, it’s time to rebalance responsibility in your relationship.  Voice your concerns.  Be transparent.  Notice your own vulnerability and that of others.  Be Empowering: notice your own power.  In a coaching situation, notice the potential and the capabilities of the client/coachee.  Work from facts; notice where beliefs or assumptions are distorting the situation.  Notice the resourcefulness that you and others have in the relationship.  Consider whose responsibility it is: if it isn’t yours, let go of it and allow the other person to step into their full power.

Though it was challenging to give up my Rescuer role, I was able to step back and allow my colleague to move into her full potential.  A big learning for me in this was that giving up my Rescuer role didn’t make me less capable or resourceful.  But it did mean that I could direct all that energy to other pursuits, making a win for both me and my colleague.

Further reading on the Drama Triangle:

The New Drama TrianglesStephen Karpman, USATAA/ITAA conference lecture 11 August 2007.


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