BPD and the Drama Triangle

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The Karpman Drama Triangle is a model of social human interaction which maps out a destructive pattern of social behavior. Each point of the triangle defines a cyclical and dysfunctional role: the Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim. The Drama Triangle is commonly exhibited by sufferers of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

BPD is typically characterized by the intense emotional turmoil experienced by the individual and those around them. BPD causes the sufferer to experience extreme highs and lows, black and white thinking, and an inability to move on from or process their emotions. This group has an elevated risk of suicide, self-injurious behaviors, and self-destructive tendencies, such as sexual promiscuity, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Conflict is a recurring pattern for those with BPD as they attempt to meet other people’s needs, express empathy, manage their emotions and reactions, and mitigate their tendency to become aggressive and/or challenging in communication style.

The most common signs and symptoms of BPD include:

  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Isolation
  • Poor coping skills
  • Aggressive behavior when stressed or under pressure
  • Difficulty communicating
  • Challenges in expressing empathy
  • Unstable relationships
  • Behavioral minimization
  • Secrecy
  • Intense mood swings from ecstasy to hopelessness
  • Impulsivity
  • Hypersexuality
  • Splitting behaviors of family, friends, and coworkers
  • Black and white thinking
  • Tendency to view people as “all good” or “all bad”
  • Difficulty maintaining consistent employment.

In last week’s blog, I explored BPD and how it affects the entire family system. This week I will discuss Karpman’s Drama Triangle and why it is so relevant to those struggling with BPD.

The Drama Triangle

The Drama Triangle was first devised in the late 1960s by Dr. Stephen Karpman to explain the different roles people assume in interpersonal relationships, particularly within areas of dispute, conflict, or “drama.”[1] The model graphically maps the complex interaction that occurs among people ensnared in pathological conflicts. The three roles, Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer are driven by anxiety and keep the individual absorbed in the drama rather than allowing for personal growth and flourishing of relationships.

[2]

The Victim

The Victim is not an actual victim but is a person who is identifying with the characteristics of that role in a drama. Individuals with BPD often feel helpless, hopeless, powerless, and ashamed. When in this state of mind, they may adopt a passive role and draw in others to make decisions for them and support them.

Someone with BPD may struggle to take an active role even in simple tasks or enjoyable activities without the assistance of another. In this instance, the person with BPD will seek out a persecutor or rescuer to validate their experience of victimization.

If this role is tested, they may react with hypersensitive feelings of shock, rage, anger, and mistrust.

The Persecutor

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the Persecutor is “controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid, and superior.”[3]

It is common for someone with BPD to embrace this role to avoid accepting responsibility for detrimental actions, impulsive behavior, or poor judgment.

People with BPD are hypersensitive to criticism and are likely to deflect any negative behavior by moving blame to someone else. Additionally, due to the black and white thinking typical of those with BPD, anyone who expresses a different opinion, varying thought process, or a deviation in perceived loyalty can be automatically moved into the role of “enemy.”

The Rescuer

The Rescuer is the classic definition of an enabler as this role keeps the Victim in a dependent position. Rescuer’s roles are two-fold, because although they usually have an altruistic motive (of varying degrees) they receive secondary gains from playing this part in the drama. People with BPD seek out ways to feel needed and validated as their own feelings of self-worth and self-esteem are often low.  Therefore, this role can give them a sense of purpose and power.

Taking on the rescuer role additionally enables the BPD sufferer to focus their energy on someone else, removing attention from their own dysfunctional behavior.

The APA states that the rescuer role highlights the person’s primary interest as that of avoidance of his or her own behaviors that are disguised as concern for the victim’s needs.[4]

It can be tempting for families to want to “save” or “fix” the person who is struggling with BPD. However, this can lead to co-dependency, guilt, resentment, and a need to control. BPD is a highly complex mental health condition which requires clinical treatment.

Overcoming the Drama Triangle

Dr. Karpman devised this model along with clear steps to overcome it. The ultimate goal, he proposed, was to overcome self.  This concept is a transformation of the Adult-Ego state where the person in question is able to become independent, autonomous, and responsible for their interactions with others.[5]

In order to accomplish this change, the individual must understand their relationships, personality traits, conditioning, personal history, and attachment styles that have contributed to their participation in the Drama Triangle.

This is a significant challenge for someone with BPD, as the key symptom of the disorder is two-fold emotional dysregulation:

  • Increased emotional sensitivity
  • Affective intensity or emotional vulnerability

Engaging in psychotherapy to help the individual explore their actions, thought processes, behaviors, and emotions is essential to untangling the cyclical and toxic perpetuation of the drama triangle.

Through therapy, the individual will be able to start the following transformation:

  • The Victim to the Creator – The person becomes responsible, problem-solving, confident, and empowered.
  • The Persecutor to the Challenger – The person focuses on altruistic motives to provide meaning to and compassion in their interactions.
  • The Rescuer to the Coach: The person concentrates on teaching, encouraging, and motivating others rather than on coercion or control.[6]

Through therapy, it is possible to learn the necessary tools to respond calmly, apply awareness, and hold ourselves accountable. Overcoming the Drama Triangle will enable those with BPD to forge intimate, supportive, and positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and the wider community.

 If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


Sources:

[1] Lac, Andrew, and Candice D. Donaldson. “Development and Validation of the Drama Triangle Scale: Are You a Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor?”. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2020, p. 088626052095769. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/0886260520957696. Accessed 1 June 2021.

[2] Lamm, Dr. Joanna. “Use the Karpman Drama Triangle to Solve Conflicts”. Themindfool – Perfect Medium for Self-Development & Mental Health. Explorer of Lifestyle Choices & Seeker of the Spiritual Journey, 2021, https://themindfool.com/use-the-karpman-drama-triangle-to-solve-conflicts/.

[3] Lockhart, Lisa et al. Help for Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder. 2017.

[4] Lockhart, Lisa et al. Help for Patients with Borderline Personality Disorder. 2017.

[5] Shmelev, I.M. “Beyond the Drama Triangle: Overcoming Self”. Psy-Journal.Hse.Ru, 2015, https://psy-journal.hse.ru/data/2015/11/16/1081314107/PJHSE_2_2015_133_149.pdf.

[6] Lac, Andrew, and Candice D. Donaldson. “Development and Validation of the Drama Triangle Scale: Are You a Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor?”. Journal oInterpersonal Violence, 2020, p. 088626052095769. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/0886260520957696. Accessed 1 June 2021.

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