Newsletter: The Triangle of Victim, Rescuer, Persecutor – What It Is and How to Get Out.

Photo Credit Lynne Forrest

Stephen Karpman, M.D., developed his “drama triangle” – victim, rescuer, persecutor – almost 40 years ago, and I find it’s just as relevant – and just as new to many people – as it was 40 years ago.

Even if you don’t spend much time yourself playing any of these three roles – you probably deal on a daily basis with people who do.

Knowing how to put our “big girl” or “big boy” pants on and get out of the triangle is essential when dealing with people who want to pull us in. Using our own wise mind to recognize when we’ve regressed into one of these roles ourselves (usually because of the usual culprit, needing to play those roles early in our family of origin conditioning) is also essential to make wise conscious choices in our intimate and social interactions with others.

May the reflections and exercises offered below save you much grief and help you enjoy healthy, game-free relationships.

REFLECTIONS

The drama triangle is a dynamic model of social interaction and conflict developed by Dr. Karpman when he was a student of Eric Berne, M.D. father of transactional analysis.

[Karpman and other clinicians point out that “victim, rescuer, and persecutor” refer to roles people unconsciously play, or try to manipulate other people to play, not the actual circumstances in someone’s life. There can be real victims of crime or racism or abuse, etc.]

The three roles of the drama triangle are archetypal and easily recognizable in their extreme versions.

Victims

The stance of the victim is “poor me!” Victims see themselves as victimized, oppressed, powerless, helpless, hopeless, dejected, and ashamed, and come across as “super-sensitive,” wanting kid glove treatment from others. They can deny any responsibility for their negative circumstances and deny possession of the power to change those circumstances.

A person in the victim role will look for a rescuer, a savior, to save them (and if someone refuses or fails to do that, can quickly perceive them now as a persecutor.)

In terms of derailing resilience, victims have real difficulties making decisions, solving problems, finding much pleasure in life, or understanding their self-perpetuating behaviors.

Rescuers

The stance of the rescuer is “Let me help you!” Rescuers work hard to help and caretake other people, and even need to help other people to feel good about themselves, while neglecting their own needs or not taking responsibility for meeting their own needs.

Rescuers are classically co-dependent and enablers. They need victims to help and often can’t allow the victim to succeed or get better. They can use guilt o keep their victims dependent and feel guilty themselves if they are not rescuing somebody.

In terms of derailing resilience, rescuers are frequently harried, overworked, tired, caught in a martyr style while resentment festers underneath.

Persecutors

The stance of the persecutor is “It’s all your fault!” Persecutors criticize and blame the victim, set strict limits, can be controlling, rigid, authoritative, angry and unpleasant. They keep the victim feeling oppressed through threats and bullying.

In terms of resilience, persecutors can’t bend, can’t be flexible, can’t be vulnerable, can’t be human; they fear the risk of being a victim themselves. Persecutors yell and criticize but they don’t actually solve any problems or help anyone else solve the problem.

These are the most extreme versions of these three roles, but we can encounter people playing milder versions of these roles on a pretty regular basis.

Because Dr. Karpman was a student of transactional analysis at the time he identified these three roles on the drama triangle, there is a resemblance to the critical parent (persecutor) marshmallow parent (rescuers) and the wounded inner child (victim) Eric Berne described in Games People Play.

What gives the drama triangle much of its power and significance is the recognition that people will switch roles and cycle through all three roles without ever getting out of the triangle. Victims depend on a savior; rescuers yearn for a basket case; persecutors need a scapegoat.

The trap is, people are acting out these roles to meet personal (often unconscious) needs rather than being able to see the picture as a whole and take responsibility for their part in keeping the triangle going.

An example from “The Three Faces of Victim – An Overview of the Drama Triangle” by Lynne Forrest:

Dad comes home from work to find Mom and Junior engaged in a battle. “Clean up your room or else,” (persecutor) Mom threatens. Dad immediately comes to Junior’s rescue. “Mom,” he might say, “give the boy a break. He’s been at school all day.”

Any one of several possibilities might follow. Perhaps (persecutor) Mom, feeling victimized by Dad, will turn her wrath on him. In that case, she moves Dad from rescuer to victim. They then might do a few quick trips around the triangle with Junior on the sidelines.

Or maybe Junior joins Dad in a persecutory “Let’s gang up on Mom” approach, or then again, maybe Junior will turn on Dad, rescuing Mom with “Mind your own business, Dad. I don’t need your help!” So it goes, with endless variations, but nonetheless, pinging from corner to corner on the triangle. For many families, it’s the only way they know to interact.

(See Stories to Learn From below for more examples]

What’s needed is for anyone on the triangle to “wake up” to the roles they are playing repeatedly. One person shifting out of role can catalyze the others to shift out of roles and behaviors. What’s especially helpful is for the victim to begin to “grow up” and take responsibility for their own empowerment and resourcing themselves to meet their own needs.

[See Exercises to Practice below]

Each role on the drama triangle has its own payoffs. Victims get to be take care of. Rescuers get to feel good by caretaking. Persecutors get to remain feeling superior to both victim and rescuer.

But the cost is to perpetuate a dysfunctional social dynamic and to miss out on the possibilities (and responsibilities) of healthy, resonant, resilient relationships.

POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE

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 needing rescue. Anxiety forces us to be always on the lookout for someone stronger or more capable to take care of us. This relegates us to a lifetime of crippling dependency on our primary relationships.

Victims deny both their problems solving abilities and their potential for self-generated power. This doesn’t prevent them from feeling highly resentful towards those on whom they depend. As much as they insist on being taken care of by their primary rescuers, they nonetheless do not appreciate being reminded of their inadequacy.
– Lynne Forrest

* * * * *

The rescuer is the classic co-dependent, enabling, overly protective – the one who wants to “fix it.” Taking care of others may be the rescuer’s best game plan for getting to feel worthwhile. There’s no better way to feel important than to be a savior!

Rescuers often gain satisfaction by identifying with their care-taking role. They are generally proud of what “helpers” and “fixers” they are. Often they are socially acclaimed, even rewarded, for what can be seen as “selfless acts” of caring. They believe in their goodness as chief caretakers and see themselves as heroes.

Behind it all is a magical belief, “If I take care of them long enough, then, sooner or later, they will take care of me, too.” Common phrases for the martyred rescuer are, “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!”

A 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’s difficult for them to see their worth beyond what they have to offer in the way of “stuff” or “service.” They believe, “If you need me, you won’t leave me.” They scramble to make themselves indispensable in order to avoid abandonment.
– Lynne Forrest

* * * * *

The persecutor is actually shame based. This role is most often taken on by someone who received overt mental and/or physical abuse during their childhood. As a result, they are often secretly seething inside form a shame-based wrath that ends up running their lives.

They may choose to emulate their primary childhood abuser(s), preferring to identify with those they see as having power and strength – rather than become the “picked on loser” at the bottom of life’s pile. Persecutors tend to adopt an attitude that says, “The world is hard and mean; only the ruthless survive. I’ll be one of those.”

The persecutor overcomes feelings of helplessness and shame by over-powering others. Domination becomes their most prevalent style of interaction. This means they must always be right! Their methods include bullying, preaching, threatening, blaming, lecturing, interrogating, and outright attack.

The persecutor needs someone to blame. They deny their vulnerability in the same way rescuers deny their needs. Their greatest fear is powerlessness. Because they judge and deny their own inadequacy, fear and vulnerability, they will need some place else to project these disowned feelings. In other words, they need a victim.

It is most difficult for someone in the persecutor role to take responsibility for the way they hurt others. In their mind, others deserve what they get. These warring individuals tent 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.
– Lynne Forrest

* * * * *

[Out of the triangle….]

The only way to “escape” the drama triangle is to function as an “adult” and not participate in the game.
– John Goulet, MFT, Breaking the Drama Triangle

* * * * *

Those in victim roles must learn to assume responsibility for themselves and initiate self-care, rather than look outside themselves for a savior. 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 as well as their leadership capabilities. There is no escape except to take total responsibility for their own feelings, thoughts, and reactions.

It is certainly possible to be helpful and supportive without being a rescuer. There is a distinct difference between being truly helpful and rescuing. Authentic helpers act without expectations for reciprocation. They empower rather than disable those they serve. What they do will be done to encourage self-responsibility rather than promote dependency. True supporters believe that the other can handle their own business. They believe that everyone has the right to make mistakes and learn through sometimes hard consequences. They trust the other has what it takes to see themselves through times of difficulty without rescuers needing to “save” them.

Self-accountability is the only way off the grid for the persecutor. There has to be some kind of breakthrough to them to own their part. Unfortunately, because of their great reluctance to do so, it may have to come in the form of crisis.
– Lynne Forrest

STORIES TO LEARN FROM

During the time my daughter and I were staying with my girlfriend and her daughter, I was missing a very expensive pair of earrings – over $200 worth, and announced to everyone what they looked like and asked had they seen them. Nope, no one had seen them.

Finally, one day, suspicious of my girlfriend’s daughter, I went into her room and looked into her jewelry box and there we my earrings! I snatched them back. When everyone was home later that night, I told everyone where I had found my earrings.

I was clearly the victim, right? The persecutor was clearly my girlfriends’ daughter and either my girlfriend or my daughter, who was very young, could have been the rescuer.

Well…My girlfriend could not come out of denial that her daughter had taken the earrings, and her daughter denied taking them, stating she had no idea how they wound up in her jewelry box, so my girlfriend began to feel angry at me for blaming her daughter, persecuting me but making me the persecutor and her daughter the victim and my girlfriend the rescuer of her daughter.

My girlfriend and her daughter not taking responsibility keeps us all in the triangle.
– Patty Fleener, MSW

* * * * *

A good example of the game could be this fictitious argument between John and Mary, a married couple. V = victim, R = rescuer, P = persecutor

John: I can’t believe you burnt dinner! That’s the third time this month! (P)
Mary: Well, little Johnny fell and skinned his knee. Dinner burned while I was busy getting him a bandage. (R)
John: You baby that boy too much! (P)
Mary: You wouldn’t want him to get an infection, would you? I’d end up having to take care of him while he was sick. (V)
John: He’s big enough to get his own bandage. (R)
Mary: I just didn’t want him bleeding all over the carpet. (R)
John: You know, that’s the problem with these kids? They expect you to do everything (R)
Mary: That’s only natural honey, they are just young. (R)
John: I work like a dog all day at a job I hate…(V)
Mary: Yes, you do work very hard, dear. (R)
John: And I can’t even sit down to a good dinner! (V)
Mary: I can cook something else, it won’t take too long. (R)
John: A waste of an expensive steak! (P)
Mary: Well maybe if you could have hauled your ass out of your chair for a minute while I was busy, it wouldn’t have gotten burned! (P)
John: You didn’t say anything! How was I supposed to know? (P)
Mary: As if you couldn’t hear Johnny crying? You always ignore the kids! (P)
John: I do not. I just need time to sit and relax and unwind after working all day! You don’t know what it’s like…(V)
Mary: Sure, as if taking care of the house and kids isn’t work! (P)

This argument could continue indefinitely. What is of interest is how one can remove oneself from the triangle. The simplest method is the non-defensive response. This works at any point no matter what the role the other person is taking as it doesn’t give a cue as to the next response.

For instance:

Mary: Well maybe if you could have hauled your ass out of your chair for a minute while I was busy, it wouldn’t have gotten burned! (P
John: Yes, that’s true.

Although Mary may attempt to restart the cycle by continuing to scolded, if John continues in the same vein, Mary will eventually run out of things to say. John’s calm response invites discussion rather than continued wrangling. Mary might realize that she didn’t ask him for help, and they might well be a le to resolve the situation by planning on a course of action should something similar arise in the future.

It works just as well for the victim role:

John I do not. I just need time to sit and relax and unwind after working all day! You don’t know what it’s like…(V)
Mary: I’m sorry you’re feeling so tired.

This acknowledges any real problem the other person might have without continuing the dance. Again, the other person may attempt to restart the cycle by continuing to complain, but again, with continued non-defensive response, the other person will run out of things to say.

Even the rescuer role can be treated in the same manner.

Mary: That’s only natural honey, they are just young. (R)
John: Yes, they are young.

Other excellent non-defensive response:

“Oh.”
“I see.”
“You may be right.”
– John Goulet, MFT, Breaking the Drama Triangle

EXERCISES TO PRACTICE

Because we all have unconscious core beliefs about ourselves and how to interact with other acquired in the relational dynamics of our families of origin, getting out of the drama triangle requires conscious awareness of any roles, victim, rescuer, persecutor or any others that we identify with and might be playing out currently, the capacity to discern healthier non-defensive, non-shaming-blaming responses when we sense we’re getting sucked into the roles of the triangle, and a willingness to take responsibility for our perceptions, reactions and behaviors when we wake up and know we are in the triangle.

This is basic wiser self application of our mindfulness practice to notice, acknowledge patterns, stepping back to reflect on them and the consequences of the, then dis-identify with them, not perpetuating the cycle, choosing wiser responses or behaviors.

Not to duck out of offering relevant exercises here, but the exercises in Chapter 16: Using Reflection to Identify Options in my book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being are exactly the kinds of applications of your mindfulness practice that will help you get out of the triangle, or deal directly with anyone who is trying to pull you in.

RESOURCES

Karpman Drama Triangle the official website of Dr. Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle

A Game Free Life: the Drama Triangle and Compassion Triangle by Stephan Karpman, M.D. 2014.

Karpman Drama Triangle – Wikipedia

“The Three Faces of Victim – An Overview of the Drama Triangle” by Lynne Forrest.

Breaking the Drama Triangle by John Goulet, MFT