Conflict is an inherent part of the human experience…
It’s how we handle those inevitable conflicts that helps us to define who we are and our relationships to others.
There are healthy and unhealthy ways to handle drama, conflict, and the problems that arise in life.
People who do not have healthy coping mechanisms or an ability to engage in conflict are more likely to suffer long-term mental health repercussions, stresses, and tumultuous relationships.
In 1968, Dr. Stephen Karpman created the Karpman Drama Triangle to model social interactions that could happen in excessive, destructive conflicts between people. The distinction of “excessive, destructive” is key.
Dr. Karpman chose “drama triangle” over “conflict triangle” because the model was not meant to define a literal, actual victim.
Rather, it’s meant to model the behavior of a person who feels or perceives themselves to be a victim.
The Karpman Drama Triangle is also not meant to encompass healthy disagreements or arguments, only excessive, destructive behavior that is harmful to the participants.
Karpman’s Triangle is composed of three points with three respective actors: The Persecutor, the Victim, and the Rescuer.
The Persecutor is the person who is believed to be the villain.
This person may be perceived to be shoving blame onto the Victim. They may be angry and oppressive, controlling, rigid, overly critical, pessimistic, or rigid.
They may be self-important, feel they are superior to the Victim, or work to make the Victim feel as though they are less than the Persecutor.
Their motivations may or may not be clear. It can be as simple as taking advantage of and using another person or it may be some other deeper issue at work.
The Victim perceives themselves to be hopelessly and helplessly lost, completely powerless to enact any meaningful change for themselves on their own accord.
They wallow in self-pity and refuse any attempts to help lift themselves up or make decisions. They often run from their problems instead of looking for ways to address them.
They may feel ashamed and powerless, convincing themselves that they do not have the means or ability to solve their problems, while simultaneously doing nothing to even try.
The Victim who is not currently being persecuted may seek out a Persecutor and a Rescuer to continue their own wallowing cycle of self-pity.
The Rescuer is not a good or noble person in the Karpman Triangle. The Rescuer is an enabler.
They offer the perception of wanting to help by saving the Victim from their own bad choices or inaction.
This is often a self-defense mechanism that allows them to avoid their own problems while convincing themselves they are making progress by saving the Victim from the Persecutor.
They may also be angling for social credit by being a Rescuer and helper. This is disguised as concern for the well-being of the Victim, but serves to enable their self-pitying behavior, as it gives the Victim permission to fail and fails to hold them accountable for their own choices and life.
The Karpman Triangle In Action
Not every conflict will result in the formation of a Drama Triangle, but a triangle may develop when someone steps into the role of the Victim or the Persecutor.
The Victim or the Persecutor will then try to pull other people into the conflict. If a Persecutor, they will look for a Victim. If a Victim, they may look for a Persecutor (if one is not present) and a Rescuer.
These roles are not static and will change throughout the course of the drama.
It’s not unusual for the Victim to turn on the Rescuer, which allows the Victim to perceive the Rescuer as another Persecutor and perpetuate their cycle of self-victimization.
The different participants most often cycle from role to role, though each person will typically have a predominant role they often find themselves in.
Dr. Karpman believed that this role is formulated in early childhood development within the family dynamic.
Each person in the Drama Triangle is deriving some sort of unhealthy fulfillment out of their interaction.
At times, codependency may play a role between Rescuer and Victim.
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Breaking Free From The Drama Triangle
A person can break free from the cycle of the Drama Triangle by understanding that they are getting involved, what role they fit into, why they are participating, and what steps they can take to change their perception and actions in this dynamic.
Not all conflicts are harmful and unhealthy. People are going to have disagreements, argue, need help, and need to be a helper from time to time.
Problems arise when these things are done at an unhealthy or destructive level.
Do you find yourself involved in drama regularly? Consider the conflicts that you’ve been involved in with other people or life situations.
There are times when the Persecutor is actually an external circumstance rather than a person.
As an example, a person might lose their job, for whatever reason, and slip into a Victim role as though the universe is aligned against him, giving himself permission to wallow in self-pity.
They may blame their boss for getting fired when it was their own mistakes that resulted in them being fired.
As The Persecutor
The Persecutor, as a person, is often looking to place blame on anyone and everything other than themselves for their misfortunes and problems.
There comes a time when one needs to stop and wonder if they are not, in fact, the reason for their own failures and misfortunes.
They will need to stop looking for someone else to blame for their unhappiness, misfortune, or problems and look for healthier ways of coping with their stresses.
As The Rescuer
The Rescuer is constantly looking to save other people at the cost of their mental health and well-being.
They may feel as though everything will go wrong if they are somehow not involved, completely ignoring the fact that things will go forward with or without them.
The Rescuer may sacrifice a lot, to the point where it causes them harm or problems in their life, to try to save the Victim from themselves.
The individual who finds themselves in a Rescuer role often needs to explore healthy boundary building and learn that they cannot save the world, and that martyring oneself is not a noble endeavor.
As The Victim
The Victim thrives on feeling as though they have no control in life. They thrive on feeling as though they are entirely out of control, that things just happen to them regardless of any actions they take.
Yes, there are certainly times when life will deal a bad hand and we just have to suffer through what comes to us.
But, more often than not, there are actions we can take to lessen the blows, take responsibility for our own life and happiness, and continue to build the type of life that we want.
A Transition To The Empowerment Dynamic (TED)
In 2009, David Emerald released a book titled, “The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic).”
Emerald’s book sought to empower people on escaping this cycle of negative conflict by shifting each role into a more positive direction with healthier ideas and behaviors attached to it.
The Victim shifts to the Creator, the Persecutor shifts to the Challenger, and the Rescuer shifts to the Coach.
From Victim To Creator
The shift from Victim to Creator relies on two key characteristics.
1. The Creator must be able to answer the question, “What do I want?” and improve on their ability to find a path to their ultimate goal.
The change in perspective allows the Creator to shift from a mindset of dwelling on the problem and how it affects them to an empowering role of being a solutions oriented thinker.
The focus on an outcome gives power back to the Creator, letting them find their footing and make progress against their problems.
2. The Creator must learn to choose their responses to the problems that life throws at them.
Everyone is going to face difficulties ranging from small to tragic. The only thing we truly have control over is how we choose to react to them.
Now that is not to disparage anyone that is a victim or a survivor of a traumatic situation. The goal is to not fall into the trap of Victimhood, where the person traps themselves into a negative cycle of how helpless and hopeless they are.
Victimhood is a mentality of continuous woe as me, which is not the same thing as someone who was harmed by another person or circumstance.
From Persecutor To Challenger
The Challenger is a person or situation who is imposing onto the Creator. This may not be a person. It could be a health problem or external circumstance that is imposing itself on the Creator regardless of their choices.
As a person, a Challenger can either be a negative or positive influence. The difference is going to be in the Challenger’s motivations.
A negative person in the Challenger role may seek to maintain and establish control over the Creator.
They are often doing so for selfish reasons, to avoid being a victim themselves, or because they are transposing their own problems onto the Creator.
A positive person in the Challenger role can help create new opportunities and foster growth in a Creator by challenging them in ways that are not destructive.
An altruistic person in a Challenger role can provide meaningful motivation that will inspire the Creator to greater heights.
From Rescuer To Coach
The difference between a Rescuer and a Coach is in their relationship to the Victim or Creator.
The Coach understands that they have no real power to fix anyone but themselves. They draw healthy boundaries, may provide motivation and guidance, but they do not strive to shoulder the emotional weight of the Creator’s battles.
They will maintain healthy boundaries and not allow themselves to be embroiled in the conflict that is going on between the Creator and Challenger.
Making Meaningful Changes In Personal Relationships
The ability to have and maintain healthy personal relationships with other people is rooted in an understanding of the self.
One must understand why they are doing the things they are doing, why they feel the things they are feeling, if they hope to unlock their potential and grow as people.
Most everyone wants a happy and peaceful life. To have a happy and peaceful life, one must be able to have healthy conflicts and resolutions.
Everyone will experience them – and everyone can improve on their ability to engage with the world and accomplish their personal goals.
Embracing the desire to better oneself and put in the work for self-improvement helps lead us to our happiness and peace of mind.