The drama triangle (also known as the Dreaded Drama Triangle - DDT) is a theoretical model designed by Stephen B. Karpman M.D. to help people understand how different roles are assumed.
We choose different roles all the time in our relationships and often these are unconscious choices, they are simply played out in a situation. In leadership coaching, we will often pause and analyse the unconscious behaviours and this can be an enlightening area for a leader as they recognise patterns at play in their peer-to-peer, line management and even in their personal relationships.
It is called the drama triangle because people often move around the triangle from Persecutor to Victim to Rescuer, etc. At the end of this post we'll explore how to step out of the triangle using a perspective-shifting technique by David Emerald.
Take a closer look at each role.
A Victim feels like they are being 'done to' and that they have little or no control over a situation.
It’s common for Victims to complain about their plight and label the Persecutor as the cause of their plight e.g. the company (Persecutor) is making me redundant, or that person (Persecutor) doesn’t listen to my perspective or the train (Persecutor) has made me late. The Victim feels a lack of control and will look elsewhere to feel better. A Victim tends to seek a Rescuer – someone who will sympathise with them and care for their needs.
What is the benefit to the Victim to remain in Victim role?
· So they can be rescued by others
· So they can feel sympathy from others
· So they can choose to remain powerless in their situation rather than trying to solve the problem.
In some situations this may be an acceptable short-term role, for example, if someone tells you that they have just lost a parent, you could assert that moving into a Victim role for a short period of time and accepting tea and sympathy from a Rescuer would, of course, be appropriate.
Sometimes, people choose to apply the Victim role persistently and it then become a self-fulfilling prophecy; a Victim seeks both a Persecutor and a Rescuer and can often feel like there is no way out of the triangle. At other times they will shift roles, for example, if their Rescuer stops helping them, then the Victim may change to a Persecutor and the Rescuer then becomes the Victim. This is why it's called the drama triangle - people often move around the triangle taking on each role dependent on the situation.
A Persecutor looks for someone to blame and exert their power over. They want to assert their stance through rigid, controlling behaviour. A Persecutor puts others down and finds ways, either overtly or covertly, to belittle or attack their Victim.
It’s common for Persecutors to complain that others are not meeting their standards, expectations, or needs. The Persecutor comes across as critical and judgemental.
What is the benefit to the Persecutor of remaining a Persecutor?
· So they feel a sense of power
· So they don't have to address their own shortcomings; after all, they are busy focussing on the other person's perceived weakness
· So they can ensure other people are made to feel it's their problem
A Rescuer looks for someone they can help (a Victim) and will seek out those who are vulnerable or try to make them vulnerable and in need of their help, either overtly or covertly. The Rescuer wants to show their help by doing more than is required by the situation and even bringing help when help is not needed. The Rescuer brings their view of "you couldn't cope without me" to help rescue their Victim and a dependent relationship can stem from a Rescuer-Victim game.
The rescuer comes across as the knight in shining armour; here to save the day.
What is the benefit to the Rescuer of remaining in a Rescuer role?
· So they feel a sense of purpose in helping others
· So they can feel good about themselves for being 'helpful'
· So they can feel needed and feel a sense of achievement when their Victim shows appreciation
How To Escape The Drama Triangle
Another fantastic piece of work is The Power of TED, a book by David Emerald
David talks about how to switch out of these roles by moving from:
Victim to Creator
Persecutor to Challenger
Rescuer to Coach
By changing roles you can shift your perspective, this is very empowering and you perhaps won't be surprised to learn that the TED in the title of the book, stands for The Empowerment Dynamic!
Consider those you lead, what sort of patterns do you notice in your relationships? What would those around you say if they were asked to share where they see you on the drama triangle? It might be easier to focus on a couple of recent challenges as you review this.
Is there an opportunity to consider David Emerald's work in any of your relationships? What would need to happen for a shift to creator, challenged or coach?