The Drama Triangle

I thought I would write another post about an aspect of TA theory I really like, that I use with my clients and they tell me they find really helpful..

Relationship Patterns

The Drama Triangle, originated by Steve Karpman, is a way of understanding the repeating patterns we can sometimes get into in our relationships, that result in uncomfortable feelings.  How often have you found yourself getting into a familiar discussion with your partner or a family member, where both of you end up feeling a bit rubbish?  Karpman’s idea suggests that this is because we often take up one of three roles in our interactions with people.  The roles are Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim, and the defining characteristic of each of these roles is the view of self in relation to others.  This draws on the idea of life positions, developed by Eric Berne.  He proposed 4 life positions, where people take up one of the four positions listed below and live their lives according to it.

I’m OK You’re Ok –  This is where I see both myself and others as OK with appropriate levels of self esteem, I am able to trust in others and the in world.

I’m OK, You’re not Ok – this is very often the position of the person who bullies, persecutes or rescues. Someone who sees themselves as OK, and others as not OK in some way, they operate from a one up position.

I’m not OK You’re Ok – this can often be the position of the Victim.  The person who has low self esteem and views others as having more power than them and consequently behaves towards them in that fashion, they operate from a one down position.

I’m not OK, You’re not Ok – this is a life position of futility as self and others are viewed as not being ok and able to get on with life.  It may be perceived as futile and full of despair.

Looking again at the roles of the Drama Triangle,  both the Rescuer and the Persecutor operate from a one up position, from the I’m OK You’re not OK life position and the Victim operates from one down.  Here’s an example to illustrate this more fully.

Your colleague is preparing some figures for her boss and she has looked pretty stressed all morning.  She heaves a huge sigh, pushes her chair away from her desk and puts her head in her hands, saying, “I’m never going to get this done in time, I hate excel, I just can’t make sense of this at all.”  Immediately you rush over and take a look at what she is doing.  You think you have spotted the mistake she is making and correct it for her.  Saying “there you are, that’s sorted now”.

She takes a look at what you have done and tells you that it wasn’t the problem at all and now she’s probably going to have to start all over again and she wishes you would mind your own damn business.

You go back to your desk feeling awful saying to yourself  – “But I was only trying to help.”

Uncomfortable Feelings

If we take a look at this little episode again, this time putting in the Drama triangle roles, some commentary and identifying that switch in roles which so often results in uncomfortable feelings.

Your colleague is preparing some figures for her boss and she has looked pretty stressed all morning.  She heaves a huge sigh, pushes her chair away from her desk and puts her head in her hands, saying. I’m never going to get this done in time, I hate excel, I just can’t make sense of this at all.”

Your colleague is probably in Victim, the words she is using and her body language are pretty big clues.  She is could be issuing an invitation to be Rescued or Persecuted.

 Immediately you rush over and take a look at what she is doing.  You think you have spotted the mistake she is making and correct it for her.  Saying “there you are, that’s sorted now”. 

Your response is definitely one of Rescuing. At this point you have not been asked to help and in fact are operating in the dark doing what you think is best, rather than what the other person wants.  Thinking that you know best for someone, whether it is how solve an excel problem or what might make them happy is very much part of the Rescuer role.

She takes a look at what you have done and tells you that it wasn’t the problem at all and now she’s probably going to have to start all over again and she wishes you would mind your own damn business for once.

Your colleague has moved roles into Persecutor.  Part of the way the Drama Triangle plays out is for the participants to switch roles.

You go back to your desk feeling awful saying to yourself – I was only trying to help.

And you have now moved into Victim feeling bad because of getting it wrong.

Any of this familiar?  The good news is that once identify what it is we are doing then we can, if we wish, change. And how do we change this?  Firstly be becoming aware of our own behaviours and the roles we might more often take up. Then by moving from one of the Drama Triangle roles where someone is always in a not OK life position to the I’m OK You’re OK life position.

Here’s an exercise you might find useful to do as a piece of persona reflection.

Can you recall a situation where you were caught in the Drama Triangle?  What role did you take on, what role did the person you were with take on, what occurred in this situation and what was the final outcome?  How might you have got a different result?

One Reply to “The Drama Triangle”

  1. Thank you Lin for this post and foralso posting the exercise both I of which I enjoyed and I am sure this will be used and found useful by many others.
    As a Counsellor myself I have found this situation occurring a few times with my clients in sessions.By talking to the client,discussing and reflecting on how the outcome can be changed,the outcome can be different and positive but only if the client is ready to move forward and look at a situation differently.
    The exercise can also not only be used in the session, but the client can take this exercise away with them and reflect on this in their own space and discuss the outcome in their next session if they wish,.Thus still keeping the sessions going at the clients own pace and keeping them in control (participating in the exercise if they wish), but also discussing that sometimes exercises may be necessary for therapy to be beneficial for the client.Thank you again and I look forward to reading more posts in the future.

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