Subscribe To My Newsletter

The 3 Drama Roles We All Play (And How To Stop)

organization and culture stress management

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. 

And I’m not talking about the “Which teammate did they turn into jerky when they were stranded in the wilderness for 19 months?” Yellowjackets kind of drama.

Are you watching that show yet?! Because I can wait if you want to quick watch the whole season and then finish reading this. 

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 that people take on (and can switch between) when we’re in stressful, emotional or high-conflict situations. 

The three drama personas are 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. 

A quick way to sum up these three personas are:

  • 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!” 

Once we’re hooked into the DDT we end up playing all three of these positions whether we like it or not, because that’s the nature of the triangle.

Here’s an example of how we can move around the different positions on the DDT:

“I was just trying to be helpful when I offered up that advice (Rescuer), but they got irritated with me for no reason (Victim), so I told them point blank they were doing it wrong and needed to listen to me (Persecutor), and then they complained to my boss, so now I’m in trouble. Why does this stuff always happen to me? (Victim).”

Here’s the nutty part: Rescuers and Persecutors don’t even have to be people.

They can also be a situation or condition like illness, being short-staffed, or even ways we numb out aka rescuing ourselves by using food or Netflix. 

And get this, we can be all three personas in conversations with ourselves. 

If you’ve ever been super critical of yourself (“I’m such an idiot!”) then you’ve met your inner Persecutor. 

There’s nothing wrong with you if you experience these three drama personas. We all do, myself included!

And the Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor 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 payoff for 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 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 DDT 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 akaTED* created by David Emerald comes into play.

In this alternate model, there are 3 new empowered personas we can shift to: 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
  • Coaches ask meaningful questions, develop and honor healthy boundaries, and encourage others
  • Challengers become catalysts for growth by compassionately holding others and themselves accountable in order to support learning

If you want to start using the DDT and TED* as a tool in your own life, begin by noticing when you may be playing the role of Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor.

Pay attention to what triggers you and how those triggers put you on the DDT with people you work with or your family.

Just noticing that you’re on the DDT is a powerful place to start. You can’t change what you don’t notice!

And you may want to check out David Emerald’s book: The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)

This has been such a helpful framework for me that I just did an intensive training with David and became a Certified 3 Vital Questions Trainer so that I can use the DDT and TED* tools more effectively with my clients.



Let's Stay Connected.

Sign up for ideas, updates, and your free copy of The ABCs of Self Care Workbook!

I heart boundaries and will never sell your email address. Unsubscribe at any time.