Overcoming the Drama Triangle

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“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”

~ Henri Bergson

The Drama Triangle was first described in the 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 three roles, Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor, are driven by anxiety and keep the individual absorbed in the drama rather than allowing for personal growth and flourishing of relationships.

Dr. Karpman devised this framework and the steps to overcome it with the ultimate goal of Overcoming Self. The idea of Overcoming Self is a transformation within the Adult-Ego state where the individual becomes autonomous and responsible for their interactions with others.[2]

The Drama Triangle Explained

The Drama Triangle is a psychological model for explaining destructive inter-relational patterns and habits. Each position on the triangle, Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor, has identifiable characteristics. A person is likely to recognize themselves as one of the three types. However, it is important to recognize that we all move among the three roles and all of them have damaging elements.  The triangle is not static and will evolve and revolve depending on the particular situation and the dynamics of those involved. These roles can be understood as our “go to” stance during areas of conflict or a mode we enter where we find protection during times of stress.

For many people, these roles and the cyclic pattern of drama become not only habitual but also comforting. In some instances, people will “create” drama in order to be able to embody their role and achieve a notion of safety, even if false.

The Karpman Drama Triangle explains how people who perceive themselves to be Victims may react excessively and destructively in relationships and interpersonal disputes. Whether an individual is displaying characteristics of Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor, they are acting from a place of self-interest and self-defense.[3]

  • The Victim
    • Outline: The victim tends to exhibit expressions of neediness, low self-esteem, negativity, hopelessness, and fear. They will inevitably attract a Rescuer to come to their aid through their projection of vulnerability.
    • Victim Mindset: Tendency to wallow, indulge in self-pity, and may even manipulate others for assistance.
  • The Rescuer
    • Outline: The rescuer needs a Victim in order to feel meaningful and with purpose. They tend to focus on others’ needs above their own and experience feelings of inadequacy if they cannot sufficiently provide help to someone.
    • Victim Mindset: They are not a true “hero” but rather an enabler of others’ Victim behaviors. They also avoid their own issues by focusing on others.
  • The Persecutor:
    • Outline: The Persecutor tends to be aggressive, authoritative, and controlling. They usually perceive their environment as threatening and act out of a justification to defend themselves, or “win.”
    • Victim Mindset: The Persecutor needs a Victim in order to protect themselves from their own insecurities, past pain, or low self-worth.

These roles are not static, and in the course of a single conflict one individual could find themselves moving among all three roles. Self-victimization is perpetuated through one role turning on another. For example, the Victim may blame the Rescuer, the Rescuer then becomes the Persecutor, and the Victim once more feels justified in their belief of being attacked.

Each role benefits a person as it enables their unhealthy self-victimization and enables them to stay as they are.  In order to create fulfilling relationships, positive interactions, and instill healthy boundaries, we need to both understand and resolve our own dysfunctional Victim tendencies. 

Transcending the Drama Triangle

It is widely understood that our pre-disposition towards these roles is formulated during our childhood and through our interactions and attachment style with our primary caregiver.[4] This creates a construct of ourselves, central to which is our own self-belief about our identity and our role within the world. A 2020 study found that the individuals who find themselves enrobed within the Drama Triangle tended to “be associated with non-secure attachment styles and higher anxiety, stress, depression, and negative emotions.”[5]

It is only possible to transcend the Drama Triangle when an individual connects to their Adult-Ego state and understands the conditioning, personal history, past relationships, and attachment styles which have led to their involvement within the Drama Triangle. Karpman describes this process through a framework of transformation through creativity:[6]

  • The Victim must become the Creator: Becoming empowered, problem-solving, and responsible for self
  • The Persecutor shifts to the Challenger: Focusing on altruistic intentions provides meaning and motivation to their actions
  • The Rescuer becomes the Coach: Teaching, encouraging and motivating others rather than becoming embroiled or controlling

By taking responsibility for our involvement in the perpetuation of drama, we can accept and recognize our actions.  Through therapy we can learn the necessary tools to apply awareness, hold ourselves accountable, respond creatively, and allow healing to take place. Moving from our Child-Ego to our Adult-Ego with a trusted therapist enables us to have autonomy and mastery of our-selves, our notion of self, and our interactions with others.

This transcendence from the cyclic nature of the Drama Triangle will enable us to forge joyful, loving, and positive relationships at home, at work, and across social all varieties of social interactions.   

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.


[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] 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.

[3] “How to Escape the Karpman Drama Triangle”. A Conscious Rethink, 2021, https://www.aconsciousrethink.com/9667/karpman-drama-triangle/.

[4] Nielsen, Sara Kerstine Kaya et al. “Adult Attachment Style and Anxiety – The Mediating Role of Emotion Regulation”. Journal of Affective Disorders, vol 218, 2017, pp. 253-259. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.04.047. Accessed 2 June 2021.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

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