Have you ever been involved in some sort of drama? At some stage, most of us have. Often unwittingly and usually with positive intent, we get involved in somebody else’s difficult issue. Has a colleague ever confided in you that another colleague or their line manager is making life difficult? Did you get drawn in to the situation? Offering advice, moral support, or even intervening? Then you too have been involved in a classic Drama Triangle, as modelled by Stephen Karpman in the 1960s.
The basic concept of the Karpman* Drama Triangle is the connection between responsibility and power and their relationship to boundaries. People’s behaviours are based on their learned behaviours, from what they have modelled from (usually three significant) adults by the age of 7/8, and so how they interpret and react to external stimuli from their own internal frame of reference.
Quite often, a Triangle can be quite simple. One person has an issue with another person and shares it with a third person to get their support. The Rescuer is being really helpful, right? Beware. The Drama Triangle examines the moves people make in their interactions between two or more people.
A Victim is someone who usually feels overwhelmed by their own sense of vulnerability, inadequacy or powerlessness, and does not take responsibility for themselves or their own power, and therefore looks for a Rescuer to take care of them. At some point the Victim may feel let down by their Rescuer, or perhaps overwhelmed or even persecuted by them. At this stage the Victim will move to the Persecutor position, and persecute, what was previously, their Rescuer. They may even enlist another Rescuer to persecute the previous Rescuer. However, the Victim will still experience themselves internally as being the Victim.
The traits of a Rescuer are that they often do more than 50% of the work, they may offer “help” unasked for, rather than find out if and how the other person wants to be supported, and what the Rescuer agrees to do may in actual fact not be what they really want to do. This means that the Rescuer may then often end up feeling “hard done by” or resentful, used or unappreciated in some way. The Rescuer will always end up feeling the Victim, but sometimes may be perceived by others, who are on the outside looking in, as being the Persecutor.
Here’s a real life case study. A senior manager (let’s call her Sue) was given the task of supporting a member of the management team (let’s call him Bob) through some performance management issues. Sue is really keen to turn Bob’s work around and ‘help’ him. She talks through all the areas of perceived weakness in Bob’s work. He counters “but I’ve never been taken through that before, why am I in here? All I ever do is my best. This has never been brought up before. I feel I’m being scapegoated by management for some other reason.” [Victim] Sue is not sure of the background to the issues and initially feels sorry for Bob. She assures him that she will help him through the situation and that he should come to her if ever he feels unhappy about what is happening [Rescuer]. Over the weeks she more than hand holds him through his work, impacting the time she has to complete her own work, as he increasing refers to her for support.
At each weekly meeting, Sue explicitly outlines what needs to be done in minute detail, but Bob just doesn’t understand the strategic context and eventually turns on Sue. “Why aren’t you explaining what you want clearly? You keep changing the requirements. So do you get this right, every time?” and he starts making a log of her performance [Persecutor] Sue goes to a colleague, Gary, to explain that Bob is making her life hell [Victim]. Gary says he’ll support her by attending meetings with her [Rescuer, soon to become Persecutor]. And so the beat went on and on, until Bob was eventually managed out of the organisation after many months of chest beating and self flagellation by and eventually coaching of all parties.
As you can see, the Drama Triangle works at both the social level (observable behaviour) and at the internal dynamic level (what a player feels inside). It is therefore quite possible to feel a Victim and be seen by others as a Persecutor yourself the following questions.
- What do I not/need to do? – Have I agreed to do more than I want to do?
- Am I allowing the other person to take responsibility for themselves and their own behaviour?
- What boundaries do I need to set up?
- If I do need to take action, what action do I need to take to make sure that I deal with this in the best possible way so that it has the best possible outcome?
- What am I feeling about this situation? What would I like to feel?
* The Karpman Drama Triangle was originally published by Steven Karpman in 1968, based on the Transactional Analysis (TA) model