Having relationship difficulties? Watch out for these dynamics
Mental health is about growth, taking responsibility for how you affect others, recognizing choices, and being willing to risk mistakes. The Karpman Drama Triangle is a game which is frequently played (unconsciously) in relationships, often with painful consequences.
Each person on the Drama Triangle has a primary or most familiar role — their starting gate position. This is the place from which we generally get hooked onto the triangle. We first learn our starting gate position in our family of origin. Once we’re on the triangle, we automatically rotate through all the positions, going completely around the triangle, sometimes in a matter of minutes, or even seconds, many times every day.
Whatever your starting gate position, living on the Drama Triangle creates misery and suffering. The cost is tremendous for all three roles and leads to emotional, mental and even physical pain. Efforts to avoid pain, by blaming or looking for someone to take care of us, only ends up generating greater pain in the end. When we try to shield others from the truth, (rescue) we discount their abilities and this creates more pain. Everyone involved in triangular dynamics ends up hurt and angry at some point. No one wins.
Here are the characteristics of each starting gate position:
Starting gate Rescuers need someone to rescue (the victim) in order to feel vital and important. It’s difficult for Rescuers to recognize themselves as ever being in a victim position. They see themselves as good and caring, and are unaware of how they smother, control and manipulate others (believing that their actions are for the good of the other). They have a misguided understanding of what it is to encourage, empower and protect; they tend to be overly protective — the one who wants to “fix it”. Rescuing is an addiction that comes from an unconscious need to feel valued. Taking care of others is the Rescuer’s way of feeling worthwhile.
Starting gate Rescuers usually grow up in families where their dependency needs are not acknowledged. As human beings, we tend to treat ourselves the way we were treated as children. A Rescuer learns to suppress their own unmet needs and turn instead to caring for others. The caring behaviour often brings a great deal of satisfaction and reward for the Rescuer; however, the underlying belief is: “if I take care of them long enough, sooner or later they will take care of me too.”
However, this rarely happens, as the needy are not in a position to take care of themselves, never mind be there for anyone else! The resulting disappointment can send the Rescuer spiraling into the victim position of martyr: “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get?” or “No matter how much I do, it’s never enough”; or, “If you loved me, you wouldn’t treat me like this!”
The Rescuer’s greatest fear is that they will end up alone. They believe that their total value comes from how much they do for others. It is difficult for them to see their worth beyond what they do. To avoid abandonment, they strive to make themselves indispensable, unaware of the dependency they are creating in the other person; the more they rescue, the less responsibility the other person takes, so the Rescuer increases the rescuing, resulting in a downward spiral towards the victim position.
Starting gate Persecutors identify themselves primarily as victims. They are usually in complete denial about their blaming tactics. When it is pointed out to them, they argue that attack is warranted and necessary for self protection.
The role of starting gate Persecutor is most often assumed by someone who was physically or emotionally abused in childhood. In order to survive, they repress deep-seated feelings of worthlessness and hide their pain behind a façade of indignant wrath and uncaring detachment. They may emulate their primary childhood abuser(s), preferring to identify with those they see as having power and strength, rather than become the “loser” at the bottom of life’s pile. Persecutors tend to adopt an attitude that says; “It’s a dog eat dog world out there…only the ruthless survive. I’ll be one of those”. In other words, they become perpetrators. They “protect” themselves using authoritarian, controlling and punishing methods.
The Persecutor overcomes feelings of helplessness and shame by bullying, preaching, threatening, blaming, lecturing and interrogating others. They believe in getting even, very often through aggressive acts. Just like the Rescuer needs someone to fix, the Persecutor needs someone to blame.
The Persecutor’s greatest fear is powerlessness. Because they judge and deny their own inadequacy, fear and vulnerability, they project these disowned feelings onto someone they perceive as weak (the victim). Like Rescuers, Persecutors unconsciously “need” a Victim in order to maintain their idea of who they are and what the world is like.
Starting gate Persecutors also tend to compensate for inner feelings of worthlessness by covering their deep sense of inferiority with grandiose airs. Superiority is the attempt to swing hard to the other side of “less than” in order to come across as “better than”. It is very hard for a Persecutor to take responsibility for the way they hurt others. In their mind, others deserve what they get. These warring individuals tend to see themselves as having to constantly fight for survival. Theirs is a constant struggle to protect themselves in what they perceive as a hostile world.
It is easier for a Persecutor to justify the necessity for persecution (thereby identifying with victim) than to own the oppressor role: “I was just trying to help (Rescuer), and they turned on me (Victim), so I had to defend myself by striking back (Persecutor).”
It can feel very threatening for someone in a Persecutor mindset to get really honest with themselves. To do so feels like blaming themselves, which only intensifies their internal condemnation. Starting-gate Persecutors need to have a situation or person they can blame so they can stay angry. Anger may be the only way they have of dealing with chronic depression.
As with the other roles, the only way off the victim triangle is to get honest and take responsibility. There has to be some kind of breakthrough for them to own their part. Unfortunately, because of their great reluctance to do so, it may have to come in the form of crisis.
Starting gate Victims believe they cannot take care of themselves. They see themselves as consistently unable to handle life. They even rescue from a one-down position, saying things to their potential rescuer like “You’re the only one who can help me.” These are words that any starting-gate Rescuer longs to hear!
The role of starting gate Victim is the wounded shadow of our inner child; that part of us that is innocent, vulnerable AND needy. This child-self does need support on occasion — that’s natural. It’s only when we become convinced that we can’t take care of ourselves that we move into Victim. Believing that we are frail, powerless or defective keeps us dependent.
Starting gate Victims define themselves as intrinsically defective or “wrong” and incapable. They project an attitude of being weak, fragile and incapable. They deny both their problem solving abilities and their potential for self-generated power, and see themselves as inept at handling life. Their greatest fear is that they won’t make it, so they are constantly on the lookout for someone stronger or more capable to take care of them. However, they often feel highly resentful towards those on who they depend. As much as they insist on being taken care of by their primary rescuers, they do not like to be reminded of their inadequacy.
The very thing a Rescuer seeks (validation and appreciation) is the thing Victims most resent giving because it is a reminder to them of their own deficiencies. Instead they resent the help that is given. Starting gate Victims eventually get tired of being in the one-down position and begin to find ways to feel equal. Unfortunately this usually involves moving to the Persecutor position on the triangle. This often comes in the form of sabotaging the efforts made to rescue them, often through passive-aggressive behavior or by playing the “Yes, but…” game. The way this works is that the Rescuer offers a solution to a problem, and the Starting Gate Victim responds with “Yes, but that won’t work because…”. The Victim then proceeds to “yes, but” all suggestions, as the Rescuer tries, in vain, to come up with a solution. They are determined to prove that their problem is unsolvable, thus stumping the Rescuer, leaving them to feel as impotent as the Victim innately feels. They may also resort to the persecutor role as a way to blame or manipulate others into taking care of them.
Starting gate Victims live in a perpetual shame spiral, often leading to self abuse. Abuse of drugs, alcohol and food, as well as gambling and out of control spending are just a few of the self defeating behaviors practiced by Victims. Victims live in a vortex of shame of their own making. This cloud of defectiveness becomes their total identity.
To get off the Drama Triangle, the Starting gate Victim has to learn to assume responsibility and initiate self-care, rather than look outside themselves for a saviour. They must challenge the ingrained belief that they can’t take care of themselves if they are to escape the triangle. Instead of seeing themselves as powerless, they must acknowledge their problem solving and leadership capabilities.