Lost in the Drama Triangle

A friend waphotos describing a situation that was causing great distress to someone in her life.  It was a story of two women who had once been very close, but whose relationship had deteriorated to the extent that each was seeking police protection from the other.  As this sorry tale unfolded, I realised that there was something familiar about it.  “Could this be the drama triangle playing out?” I asked.  “Tell me more!” said my friend.

Some of you will be familiar with Stephen Karpman’s concept of the Drama Triangle.  It’s an idea originating in Transactional Analysis, or TA, and I suggest that it’s one of the most potent models available for us to understand the dynamics of encounters, relationships, and what’s going on under the surface when things go wrong.  Not only is it played out with horrible regularity, but it’s embedded in our psyches.  When we’re working with people, whether as coaches or in some other capacity, it’s vital to understand how the Drama Triangle works, to be able to spot it, and to know how to stop it playing out to what can often be a very messy end.

The word drama suggests that there are roles to be filled.  Karpman observed that there were three roles: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor.  You don’t need more than two players to act out the drama, although there may be a whole cast of characters.  People  move between roles.  You may make your opening speech as a Victim, and wind up as a Persecutor.  That switch between roles is what creates the drama, and the quicker the switches, the more heightened the drama.

Karpman’s first paper on his observations used fairy tales to explain the Drama Triangle.  Here’s what was going on in Hamlyn – a town plagues with rats, you’ll remember, with the Pied Piper:

  • Hamlyn’s people are plagued with rats.  Children are dying of disease.  Mayor calls in rat exterminator in a bid to Rescue the town.
  • Colourfully dressed and musical man breezes into town to Rescue the city and Persecute the rats.
  • Pied piper then becomes Victim as Persecuting mayor cheats him and refuses to pay him his fee.
  • Pied piper switches roles to become Persecutor of the town’s children, leading them towards death.
  • The mayor starts out as a Victim of the rats; then moves into Rescuer of the town; then Persecutor of the pied piper; and the Victim of the pied piper, who kills his children.
  • The children start out as persecuted Victims of the rats; then rescued Victims, and finally Victims persecuted by their Rescuer.[i]

Watch any soap opera and you’ll see multiple Drama Triangles played out.  Notice how the roles switch, and how that creates drama.  Remember how hero Othello, who had been the great general, Rescuer of Cyprus, became Victim to Iago’s thirst for power, but then turned into the ultimate Persecutor when he killed Desdemona.  A bit closer to home, and you’re probably already gaining some insight into your most recent argument with your partner, boss, or mother.  It’s all about power, blame, and taking responsibility.

Here’s a modern day story:

Althea and Brenda meet at a support group for people who are caring for elderly relatives.  Althea’s looking after her frail mother, and Brenda’s there for her father in law, whom she and her husband jointly care for.  They’ve chatted over coffee a few times, and Brenda’s invited Althea for lunch at her house.

A: It’s so nice to get out of the house for a few minutes.  I feel  really trapped most of the time.  And Mum doesn’t appreciate me – she says such awful things.  (Althea’s, Victim Mum’s Persecutor)

B: That’s awful!  You don’t deserve that.  Why don’t I come over and sit with your mum for an afternoon so that you can get out?  (Rescuer)

A: That would be wonderful!  Are you sure?

B: Anything I can do to help. (Rescuer)

Brenda goes to Althea’s house the following Tuesday.  Husband Colin is left looking after Colin’s Dad.  Brenda and Althea’s mum, Ethel, watch Countdown and have  tea and Jaffa Cakes.

E: it’s very kind of you to come, Brenda.  You seem like a very nice person.  To tell you the truth, Althea can be very nasty.  She wouldn’t have given me Jaffa Cakes.  (Victim)

B: That’s awful.  You’re such a sweet person.  Why don’t I come every week? (Rescuer)

Brenda starts to go to Althea’s house on a regular basis.  At first it starts as once a week, and Althea’s delighted to have a break.  Then Brenda makes it twice a week.  Soon she’s dropping in every day, and having tea and a cosy chat with Althea’s mum and bringing her little gifts: a home-made cake, other tasty treats.  Althea’s beginning to feel uncomfortable.  It’s as if Brenda’s taking over her mum.  And all Ethel does is say how lovely Brenda is.  One day Brenda arrives with a cottage pie.  Althea opens the door.

B: Hello Althea!  I’ve brought Ethel a cottage pie. (Rescuer)

A: But I’ve already cooked dinner.  I’ve spent a long time making her favourite . (Victim)

B: But I thought it’d be a help to you – I know you’re always so tired.  And she does love my cottage pie.

E:  Is that Brenda with my cottage pie?

A:  Yes Mum, but I’ve already cooked our dinner.  I’ve done you steak and kidney pudding.  Your favourite. (Rescuer)

E:  Well it was my favourite, but Brenda’s cottage pie is much nicer (Persecutor)

A: Well I’m just about sick of bloody Brenda!  She can take her cottage pie and shove it up her bum! (Persecutor)

Althea takes the dish out of Brenda’s hands and smashes it on the floor.

A: Just get out of my house, Brenda, and stop interfering in my life. (Persecutor)

B: You ungrateful cow!  After all I’ve done for you!  Wait until I tell Colin. (Victim)

Brenda storms off home and tells Colin all about it.

B:….and then she smashed my dish!  You need to go round there and sort her out. (Victim)

C: No Brenda, I’m not getting involved.  To be honest, I could do with some help from you with looking after Dad.  I’m sorry you’re upset, but you’ll just have to sort it out yourself.  (Adult, not playing)

Colin could have responded differently and the game could have got more explosive:

C: Right!  I’ll go round there and show her what’s what! (Rescuer of B, Persecutor of A)

Or he could have said:

C: But what about me?  I’m stuck here day after day while you go and do your good deeds.  I haven’t had a day off to play golf for weeks!  And where’s my dinner?? (Victim)

Luckily, he responded as an adult, and took the heat out by refusing to play the game.

The story could end in a number of ways.  Brenda could go into full blown Persecutor and complain to Social Services that Althea was abusing her mother.  Or they could avoid each other and decide not to speak.  Each will perceive the other as their Persecutor, and each will feel that they’re the Victim.  Everybody loses.  Althea’s mum loses a new friend, Althea and Brenda both lose friends and support, Colin finds the tension at home very trying. They could, of course, decide to apologise for speaking out of turn and being insensitive about boundaries, and they could negotiate a new way of being.  That would require them to engage their Adult selves, as Colin did in refusing to play the game.

As I thought about writing this blog, I reflected upon times in my own life when I’ve got caught up in the Drama Triangle.  It’s affected close relationships, friendships, and family dynamics.  We learn to play the game very early on in our lives.  We observe it in our families.  We learn that playing the Victim gets us attention and gives us power once we’ve found a willing Rescuer.  We learn that in order to stay safe in our families we need to adopt a Rescuer role with Mum or Dad.  We learn that being the one that takes care of everyone gives us a certain amount of power – until they all turn on us and we become the Victim!  And in families where there is addiction such as alcoholism, the Drama Triangle is clearly in evidence.  Awareness of how it works – and how to stop it – and the roles individuals tend to play can help to break a cycle of dependency and abuse.

I have seen how the Drama Triangle gets played out in dysfunctional work situations.  Have you been part of an organisation where there’s a gulf between management and frontline staff?  Where “they” always feel persecuted by “them”?  Where you’re either a goodie or a baddie or the person who gets brought in to sort it all out?  Where there’s conflict, it’s always worth looking to see if the Drama Triangle is in play.  And the only way to stop it is to not play.  That means taking personal responsibility for your feelings and your actions, and we don’t always find that easy.

Others have written very eloquently about the Drama Triangle, and it’s worth reading on a bit more.  Here’s a very succinct and clear account:  http://www.tobilytle.com/drama.html  and there’s a very good description here: http://coachingsupervisionacademy.com/thought-leadership/the-karpman-drama-triangle/ .  Relationships are explored here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fixing-families/201106/the-relationship-triangle .

I’d love to know your thoughts!  And if this chimes for you, please pass on to others.


[i] Karpman, S. (1968). Fairy tales and script drama analysis. Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7(26), 39-43

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Frazzled? Take ten….

I’ve been feeling frazzled.  My life feels like a never ending task list.  I’m juggling lots of complicated things, am lucky enough to have work that I love, but like most of us, face challenges that are made more stressful in a recession.  My particular challenges include growing SHARE and making it sustainable, finding new work for Beanstalk, and finding markets for my fiction.  Oh, and there’s my partner’s big birthday to organise, too… It’s all good, this is not a moan, but there’s a toll in terms of keeping my energy high.  How do people cope with small children or frail elderly relatives?  Anyway, while I was looking something up on the internet for a client, I stumbled upon a page on ayurveda, and realised that my vata was all out of balance.  I ticked all the boxes.  So I decided to pop into the little health shop in Streatham to pick up some herbal remedies as a starter.  The man who runs the shop is called Mahesh, and he’s always very helpful.  I told him my symptoms and he recommended some pills, and then he asked if I had ten minutes.  “I’d like to give you a mantra and show you some breathing,” he said.  “Just ten minutes”.  Part of me wanted to say no, I need to be at work.  That was my should/must/ought-spouting Parent.  But the Child in me said yes.  Yes, I have ten minutes.  I followed Mahesh into his basement where there’s a tiny consultation room.  We sat opposite each other, and he took me through yogic breathing exercises which were familiar, but which I hadn’t thought, in my frazzledness, to use.  I started to feel calmer.  And then we chanted.  There’s something wonderfully freeing about chanting with and in response to another.  He wrote it all down for me to do at home, and when I went to give him some money, declared he’d only take a donation for the temple and that the sum I was offering was way too much.  Smiling, he encouraged me to come again, and I left feeling blessed.  He’d put me back in touch with what really matters, helped me to get things in perspective.

The point of this blog is that if we’re open to it, help and kindness is there, waiting for us.  But we have to be willing to say yes to opportunities that lead to healing, and no to ever more tasks.  And we have to stop, even if just for ten minutes.  I’ve come to the end of coaching contracts with three lovely clients this week, and what they’ve all said is how valuable it’s been to take time out to think, to reflect, to explore.  So if you, like me, have been feeling a bit frazzled (not to mention sun-starved!), then stop, have a look around you, and look for where your Mahesh may be waiting.  And in being more open, you too may be an angel for someone in need.

Let’s connect with the kids and put the mobile phones away… (Connections 2)

The boy had a sharp haircut and wore a miniature bomber jacket.  He looked serious: his forehead was creased into a frown and it looked as if he’d had plenty of practice.  He reminded me of Muhammed Ali, the boxer, in his heyday.  He had that kind of  don’t- mess-with-me look.   He was chewing Juicy Fruit gum.  His mother also chewed gum.  She shoved his buggy into the buggy space so that he was facing the blank wall of the 250 bus.  He frowned some more.  His mother’s neck was bent towards her shoulder where she clasped her mobile phone.  She sat down next to me.  She was having a lively conversation with someone.  The boy didn’t get a look-in.

I wiggled my fingers at him and made eye contact.  I like kids, and this one was in need of some attention and entertainment.  His eyebrows lifted a little and there was almost a smile.  Then he resumed his frowning at the wall and chewed on the gum some more.  Every now and then, he glanced at me, but quickly looked away.  His mother finished her call and made another.  The boy stuck a grubby finger in his mouth and pulled out half the gum.  A wadge of it landed on the buggy’s canopy.  He was struggling to get the rest out, so I nudged his mother and pointed at her son.

“Gum,” I said.

She leant forward and yanked the rest of the gum out with her little finger, wrapping it in a tissue.  Without saying anything to him, she fished a Mickey Mouse dummy from somewhere in the buggy and pushed it in his mouth.  She went back to her conversation.  He sucked vigorously.

I rang the bell to stop the bus when it got close to my stop.  She moved to let me pass.

“He’s very serious,” I said.  “How old is he?”

“One,” she said.  “He’s just one.”

“Maybe a bit young for gum?” I ventured, but I’d got off before I could hear her reply.

I’ve been reading the excellent TA Today by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines.  I’ve found Transactional Analysis to be a useful way of understanding human psychology ever since I first came across it in my counselling training, more years ago than I’m prepared to admit in this blog.  It’s often been a helpful coaching tool.  TA thinking has evolved over time, and I’m finding that my reading is timely.  A key TA concept is that we learn “scripts” very early on, and that parents transmit messages to their children that shape how they see themselves in relation to the world.  It’s a complex area, and I’d encourage you to read the book.  But  my encounter with the serious little boy on the bus made me think of the section on injunctions  that I’d been studying that morning.  Bob and Mary Goulding, working as therapists, suggested that there are 12 injunctions that we unconsciously communicate to children that act “as the basis for people’s negative early decisions”.  These messages are often given non-verbally.  The mother of the little boy didn’t say a single word to him during the journey, but he would surely have been picking up some negative messages.  The two injunctions that struck a chord were firstly Don’t Be/Don’t Exist, in which one or other parent – sometimes both – communicate their resentment of the child.  Maybe a young woman got pregnant accidentally, and the baby’s arrival signalled the end of her dreams of a career, or just having fun as a young woman.  Maybe a new father resents that the baby is taking all the mother’s attention and there’s none left for him.  At an unconscious level, the baby is picking up the message that his parents would rather he wasn’t there.  The other one that jumped out at me was Don’t Be a Child.  The one year old on the bus was wearing a pseudo-leather bomber jacket and chewing gum.  His facial expression was that of a harried adult.  Was his mother still too much of a child herself to allow him to be a baby while she functioned as an adult parent?  I just hope he gets enough positive messages to counterbalance the negative ones, and that he grows up mentally healthy.  If this is sparking your interest, grab a copy of TA Today start at the beginning, and work through.

I was out for lunch with my friend Emma and her two year old daughter Charlotte a few weeks ago.  I noticed how gentle and affirming Emma was with Charlotte,  and how calm and comfortable Charlotte seemed.  There was an openess about the little girl, a clarity.  She laughed a lot.  She was curious about people and friendly towards them.  Maybe she was born with a sunny disposition, but I’d lay money on Emma’s constructive and loving approach and clear, positive communication as having a lot to do with it.   So let’s think about the children in our lives and make sure they’re getting the message that they’re ok and we love them for who they are loud and clear.  Let’s connect with the kids and put the mobile phones away.  And let’s not risk our babies choking on Juicy Fruit – or any other kind – of chewing gum.