Leave Your Drama Triangle
And step into the Winners Triangle
Marty de Jonge
The Notorious Drama Triangle
You probably know and recognize this; A conversation in which you mean well, but it doesn’t make you feel good. If this happens, chances are you are trapped in the drama triangle. For example, it goes like this:
- I feel so bad; I just don’t dare to speak my mind. (victim).
- Well, you have to say this or that (persecutor).
- Yes, but I just can’t (or I’m not like that) (victim).
- Just try it, man! You can do this! (persecutor, rescuer)
- I’m going to do something for myself right now.
- Oh? OK. Too bad you did not align with us on this earlier. (persecutor)
- Aligning? I don’t have to coordinate everything with you, do I? (persecutor)
- You also only think of yourself (persecutor/victim)
- Well, I’m going to do it anyway, but you gave me a bad feeling about it. (victim /persecutor)
The drama triangle (Karpman) consists of three roles that bring little good. The cause is that we focus on approval or understanding from the other person instead of responding from a positive self-image.
This can be due to stored childhood fears and frustrations in which we did not feel recognized or due to previous negative experiences. And there is a good chance that you regularly have to deal with the drama triangle. Yet, television and radio programs benefit from it!
The Three Roles in the Drama Triangle
The persecutor wants to be understood. S/he starts from the principle: I’m OK, and you’re not OK (perpetrator), and I’m going to make that clear to you. If I can not do this the easy way, then it will be the hard way.
The rescuer is based on the principle: I am not OK (but I often don’t realize that), and you are not OK too (victim). So when I help you, that makes me feel meaningful and better about myself.
Finally, the victim assumes, “I‘m not OK, you are a perpetrator or victim. ‘They’re all after me”, I cannot help it. I am powerless.
If the pressure in the conversation increases, the persecutor usually starts accusing and becomes a victim or rescuer him/herself.
“I get so tired of this, always these kinds of conversations” (victim)
“You don’t understand it, look, just do it as I do. Never mind, I’ll do it myself” (rescuer, victim).
The rescuer in his/her place can become arrogant or pedantic, and with it, a persecutor. Or they become victims themselves by taking over the responsibility of the victim.
“Those kinds of people are only focussed on material stuff and don’t understand that love is the most important thing in life. I’ll have to make that clear to them” (persecutor)
“Oh no … just let me do it for you because I’m better at handling that manager. I can better take the blame if things go South (victim)
Finally, the victim can start to accuse and take the role of the persecutor or slides into the rescuer role by manipulating.
Look. I’m new here so you can’t blame me for not knowing. You are the senior here, Right? (persecutor)
I’m really happy to have you as my guide in this, If you can show me how it is done one more time, I will learn from it, and people will see your expertise. (rescuer)
Why is it so hard to step out of the drama triangle?
The solution seems simple. If we are looking for a practical win-win situation, we step out of the drama triangle. The persecutor becomes an assertive counselor. (I mean to understand that you want to become a better public speaker, would it help if we do a dry run together beforehand?).
The rescuer becomes a caring friend or partner who leaves the responsibility with you (have you ever considered this or that?),
Or the victim is vulnerable and shows that he or she takes responsibility for not being a victim (I think it is difficult, but I want to try it).
We also call it “stepping into the winner’s triangle.” If you are familiar with “core quadrants,” you will see that the drama triangle roles are pitfall behaviors. From feelings and repressed emotions, we jump into behavior that does not help us.
The challenge is not to put the ball in the other person’s corner but keep it to yourself. You now realize that you have landed in one of the three corners of the drama triangle.
However, this is easier said than done and can be quite a challenge because once we end up in the drama triangle, it is often difficult to connect to our rationale (logical thinking). This is because we are easily caught up in our (misunderstood) feelings and emotions. In brain terms: our limbic or even reptilian brain has got us in its grip, and logical reasoning from our neo-cortex is hardly possible for a moment.
How to get out of the Drama Triangle and into the Winner’s Triangle?
The challenge is to recognize THAT you are out of your comfort zone. You are stuck in uncertain or frustrated feelings. Those feelings and emotions indicate that you can’t reach those tricks to get out in your brain.
Realizing you are not able to do something gives you a bad feeling. It will be hard to acknowledge this to yourself, and it certainly is a challenge to turn this towards positive self-esteem. It takes much self-confidence to change from the role of the ‘know-it-all’ (persecutor or rescuer) or the ‘powerless or misunderstood’ (victim) before you respond to others.
However, there are a few steps to help you and turn this into the Winner’s Triangle:
Step 1: Consciously experiencing that you or your conversation partner are in the drama triangle.
Acknowledge and especially feel that you have ended up in the drama triangle. In particular, that means recognizing the feeling that something is going on. Be assertive and caring on this towards yourself or the other person. (“I’m not comfortable with this, it’s not ok, I have thoughts that are not going to help me. I’m in the drama triangle, and I want to get out of there.”)
Step 2: Time out.
As soon as you acknowledge, take a moment to respond from rest (and your neocortex). It takes time before your limbic and reptilian brain calms down a bit, and you can start thinking again. So, don’t send that text immediately via phone or respond to the person in front of you right there in the meeting, but take a short time out. (“Wait, let me get a cup of coffee first.” Count to 10.
Or just take a little longer to let what is happening sink in”.) This prevents us, too often, from sending messages or saying things that we regret later. This requires to become more vulnerable and show you care about a good relationship. ( a good way to do so is the Click, Unclick Rewind technique)
Step 3: Find a win-win situation.
Realize that you are both equally responsible. You are no better or less than another. Now look for a win-win situation for both. What would the other like, or what does the other needs fit your needs? Assertively search and find a win-win situation and formulate it positively. E.g.
“I know that you often come up with practical solutions. Thank you. I’ll include them in my considerations”.
“Before we come up with solutions, can we also think about my feelings? Then I feel heard.”
(Nonviolent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg) is a great help in this step)
Step 4: Actively evaluate your feelings of motivation and/or self-esteem.
Check for yourself whether you are doing or proposing something because you want to get something done by someone else. Or you need it from him/her because of your uncertainty. Be caring for yourself in this and dare to be vulnerable enough to express your evaluation.
Step 5: Be realistic.
Don’t expect miracles from yourself or others. Allow yourself and the other person time and effort to learn and grow and not “punish” yourself or the other person emotionally if things don’t work out.
It’s quite straightforward that, if you never take others into account, the more often people will not take you into account. And realize that most people want to change but don’t want to be changed. So the other way around, realize that you are worthy of being known in your feelings and that you do not always have to adapt.
What if the other person cannot step out of the drama triangle?
If the other person always steps into a victim, persecutor, or rescuer role, and nothing is negotiable, realize that this will ultimately have a ‘toxic’ effect on you. In that case, find an environment and friends/partners who respect and appreciate you for whom you are. This may sound a bit harsh, but it is healthier for both you and the other. In addition, it prevents push-and-pull behavior and annoying discussions.
You can also ask others how they view your situation from their (more independent position). You don’t have to follow their ideas and advice, but you can include them in your considerations.
And realize: improve the world, start with yourself. If you are already able to step out of your emotion and actively search for win-win situations. Beautiful! This is the first step. See it as a meaningful learning moment, and don’t expect others to be as good in this as yourself.
Let it be a comforting thought that people tend to mirror the behavior they see, so by setting the example yourself, you help the other making a step toward his/her’s Winner’s Triangle.
Marty de Jonge
As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.