The 3 Drama Roles We All Play (And How To Stop)
If I know one thing to be true, it’s that a lot of us are struggling with unwanted DRAMA in our lives right now.
I’m talking about the kind of DRAMA that pops off every day when you work in emotionally-charged environments, populated by overwhelmed employees, stressed animals, and agitated members of the public, like veterinary clinics and animal shelters.
So I wanted to share something called the Dreaded Drama Triangle (DDT), a tool developed by psychiatrist Stephen Karpman, because it helps me a lot.
The DDT consists of 3 main drama personas.
These personas or roles are called the Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor.*
* In this model we’re talking about victimhood and rescuing as a form of identity, not situations in which someone is the real victim of crime, racism, abuse, etc. or when we rescue an animal in need. To be clear, this model is never about victim-blaming.
You can also use the names Victim, Hero, and Villain if that works better for you.
When in conflict people step into three primary “roles” or patterns of destructive and reactive behavior.
A quick way to sum up the vibe of each role is:
- The Victim: “Poor me, it’s not my fault!”
- The Rescuer: “Poor you, let me help!”
- The Persecutor: “You’re a poor excuse for a human!”
Conflict drama starts when each side sees themselves as the blameless Victim in the situation (which means both parties see the other side as the Persecutor). Then the Rescuer tries to fix things and wants to avoid conflict.
Each party winds up playing all three of these positions, because that’s the nature of the drama triangle.
Let's take a closer look at each role:
Based on David Emerald's work, The primary role on the DDT is the Victim, who feels powerless over the situation and often gives up on what they want. They may step back, disengage, complain, or say, consciously or unconsciously, “poor me."
It's never their fault, it's always someone else's fault.
The second role is of that of a Persecutor which, while often a person, it can be a condition (e.g. health) or a situation (e.g. a natural disaster)—anyone or anything that the Victim perceives as causing them to feel powerless or hopeless.
A person who “plays” the role of Persecutor blames the Victim and tries to control and manage the situation. They absolutely know they're right and you're wrong.
When in the Persecuting role one points a finger and says (or yells), “Who's to blame?”
When this conflict occurs, the Rescuer emerges, which is the third role in the DDT.
The Rescuer tries to repair the conflict, by being helpful and pleasing, hoping to avoid conflict and alleviate the suffering of the Victim by either “fixing” them or the situation.
When in the Rescuer role, one thinks they are helping the situation when they are, unintentionally, adding energy to the dance of the drama.
By focusing on the pain of others, Rescuers avoid their own feelings...By fixing and saving others, a Rescuer believes others will appreciate and value them for their good deeds.
The Rescuer loves being the heroic problem solver and caretaker, until no one appreciates them or take their advice...and then they become the Persecutor (blaming) and the Victim (complaining).
Here’s an example of how we - just one person - can move into all 3 roles during a conflict:
“I was just trying to be helpful when I offered them advice (Rescuer), but they got irritated with me for no reason (Victim), so I told them point blank they were doing it wrong (Persecutor), and then they complained to my boss that I was rude, so now I’m in trouble. Why does this stuff always happen to me? (Victim).”
Once you start looking for it, you'll find the 3 roles in all kinds of relationships, even with ourselves!
Rescuers can show up as ways we numb ourselves. For example: we might use food, Netflix, or wine to rescue us from what we're feeling.
Persecutors can show up internally when we're super critical of ourself (“I’m such an idiot!”).
There’s nothing wrong with you if you experience these three drama personas. We all do, myself included! And the Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor aren't all bad. Each one can be very appropriate in certain situations.
But fundamentally these drama personas function as a way to help us temporarily cope with our fears and anxieties.
There’s a short term reward for playing each position on the DDT:
- Victims get to be taken care of and avoid responsibility
- Rescuers get to feel important for being the hero
- Persecutors get to feel powerful and in control
But the long-term cost is that we perpetuate dysfunctional social dynamics and stay stuck in drama.
We miss out on the chance to create healthy relationships and sustained positive change in our organizations and our lives.
We keep wasting our energy reacting to the drama, instead of truly solving the problems.
So what do we do about it?
We get off the drama triangle when we calm ourselves down enough to witness these patterns, without reacting to them, and then choose to shift our focus.
That’s where The Empowerment Dynamic aka TED* comes into play.
In this alternate model, there are 3 new empowered roles we can choose shift to when we notice we're on the drama triangle called Creator, Coach, and Challenger:
Source: David Emerald, The Center for Empowerment Dynamic
- Creators take responsibility for their thoughts and actions and focus on creating desired outcomes (the opposite of Victim). The look for what they can do and what is in their control: "I can do it!"
- Coaches ask meaningful questions, develop and honor healthy boundaries, and encourage others (the opposite of Rescuer). "How will you do it?"
- Challengers become catalysts for growth by compassionately holding others and themselves accountable in order to support learning (the opposite of Persecutor) "You can do it, go for it!"
How can you use this tool?
Start by noticing when you may be playing the role of Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor.
Here are some things to look for:
- If you're attacking, blaming, feel you're absolutely correct, or trying to control others you might be in Persecutor mode.
- If you're feeling powerless to effect change, convinced it's not your fault, complaining, and hoping someone will fix the problem for you, you might be Victim mode.
- If you're jumping into to fix it, focusing on solving the problem so you won't have to feel your feelings, and expecting others to appreciate you for it, you might be Rescuer mode.
So next time you're in some conflict or drama at work, just ask yourself, how might I be feeding the drama and keeping it going?
Simply noticing that you’re on the DDT is a powerful place to start.
Then we can bring some awareness to how we're relating to the problem and have the chance to make a different choice!
Interested in learning more? You may want to check out David Emerald’s book: The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) and the helpful downloads here.
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