What is a “Drama Triangle“, aka “Karpman Triangle“, and how to get out of it ?

Let me make it clear right away: this is not a ménage à trois. Although… maybe you’ve played it before ?

This is a situation often described in my coaching sessions: a three-way game in which communication is biased by the position adopted by each participant.

The actors ? A Victim, a Persecutor and a Rescuer. We are not describing people here, but roles that each of us can take on at some point… or not.
The basic principles ? Experience an intense satisfaction in the role you play.

An example ?

Victim :I can’t organize the project meeting. I took it upon myself and my time to do it – when I’m already overloaded, tired and should be away – but no one is interested and no one keeps me informed. That’s not fair. I feel like a loser and exploited.

Persecutor :You do not volunteer to perform a task when you are unable to do so. Now you have to handle it. Start by attending meetings, this is a minimum if you don’t want to be excluded from the project.

Rescuer :It’s not fair what happens to you. P. is really exaggerating and you’re not that bad. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it for you.

Who is the winner ? No one, of course. Everyone is slipping into their own role and the situation can only move in circles, at best.

This “game”, called the Drama Triangle or Karpman Triangle, named after Dr. Stephen B. Karpman who described it in 1968, is a figure of psychological manipulation that involves 3 actors who seek to satisfy their own interests and that can be summarized as follows :

illustration of Karpman's triangle representing a triangle on its point with on each tip the Persecutor, the Savior and the Victim.
drawing of a sheep representing the Victim of the Drama Triangle

The Victim

  • is in a state of pain, or presents itself as such
  • acts as if it has no way out
  • seeks to attract the attention of a Savior who will justify his or her seeming incompetence and will avoid him from taking his responsibilities
  • seeks to attract the attention of a Persecutor who will justify his or her status as a victim and thus allow him to complain
His favorite phrases :

    • “I always do everything right, even more, and nobody’s ever happy.”
    • “it’s not fair, I’m never lucky”
    • “no one understands my situation”
    • “no one loves me”
drawing of an evil wolf wearing a helmet representing The Persecutor of the Drama Triangle

The Persecutor

  • imposes his or her will, in part through punishment
  • needs a victim, whom he or she will not respect, to feel strong
  • is not necessarily a person, but may possibly be an element that justifies the Victim’s role : illness, alcohol, drugs…

His favorite phrases :

    • “you never do anything right, thank God I’m here !”
    • “you still haven’t learned to … !”
    • “you’ll go home when you’re done doing your job !”
    • “if you are too weak to work, you should not have come!”
drawing of Archangel Michael representing the Savior of Karpman's Triangle

The Rescuer

  • values the Victim’s dependent relationship, because without it he or she does not exist
  • relieves the Victim of his or her responsibility by taking on the task of thinking and acting in his or her place
  • has no real interest in the Victim getting out of it on her own

His favorite phrases :

  • “don’t worry, I’ll take care of it, even if I don’t have that much time”
  • “I’ll help you : I’ll do it”

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drawing of the Colosseum representing the Public of the Drama Triangle

The Audience

Often forgotten, the Audience can also play an important role, as each of the actors may feel the need for public recognition of their respective roles.

The Victim may need it to show that it can do nothing about the situation, that it is forced to play this game, and thus gain the support from other potential rescuers.

The Persecutor to demonstrate that he or she is the strong man / strong woman of the situation

and the Rescuer because he/she is convinced to play the gentle role and wants us to know it.

drawing of a character wearing a hoodie representing the Game Master of Karpman's Triangle

The Master of the game

So everyone needs the other to exist in this game. But there is one role that predominates, the one that plays the role of the Game Master.

Do you have any idea who it might be ?

Let’s return to the Triangle diagram (Stephen Karpman’s original presented here). The Persecutor and the Rescuer are in a higher position and dominate the Victim whom they consider inferior. But at the base of the Triangle, where the base of the game is located, is the Victim. Without it the Persecutor and the Savior have no role to play and the game does not exist or no longer exists.

drawing of Karpman's triangle on its tip

The Victim is the true Master of the game !

*    *    *

It is noteworthy that the roles are interchangeable over time. A Victim can become the Persecutor of a Rescuer if he / she does not feel she has been properly saved, and the Rescuer will become a Victim himself and therefore the new master of the game. And so on and so forth.

Not entering a Karpman’s Triangle ?

The Drama Triangle draws actors into an infernal spiral.

A few simple questions, among many others, can help you avoid rushing into it.

drawing of an empty triangle
The Victim : Do I really need help ? How can I make my request rationally and without denigrating myself ? Who is the best person to contact ?

The Rescuer : Did I really receive a clearly formulated request for help ? Am I the best person to answer it ? How can I respond to the request without denigrating the requester ?

The Persecutor : Have I really been given the authority to act in this matter ? Do I actually have to act in an authoritative manner ? Will I receive appropriate recognition for my action

How to get out of a Drama Triangle ?

Awareness of what is going on inside you is essential to avoid being sucked into a Drama Triangle and especially if you wish to get out of it.

This is easier said than done, of course. However, there are techniques, some of which come from Positive Thinking and its Mental Fitness, which mainly involves understanding the mechanisms, the neural pathways – that we have all built throughout our life – and how to alter them.

    • understand how our strengths can, in time, become our weaknesses
    • Understand how what helped us survive for a while in a hostile environment, a disease for example, can become a handicap
    • Understand how we act, and how our environment reacts in response
    • Understand how to master our Saboteurs and release who we really are

 *    *    *

In any case, the main point is to be aware of what is happening and to avoid already experienced situations.

A dose of shared humor is also a good way to relax the situation.

And if there is an Audience, the best is to find a way to exclude it from the game. Having a private conversation with the other players often effectively defuses the spiral.

Career coaching for leaders, managers and self-employed. Career development. Certified International Coaching Federation coach, Mental Fitness coach, InterQualia Flow assessment, ACC ICF coach. Online coaching sessions and offices in Switzerland – Geneva, Lausanne and Yverdon-les-Bains. France & Canada © 2018 – 2024 – Design and production Alternatives et Transitions Coaching

Illustrations credits: personal compositions and pixabay.com