Recall one bad situation you were in.
Cannot think of anything? Ok, here is a suggestion. Consider the worst pandemic month in your country where things were spiraling out of control.
Now, in the next 30 seconds to 1 minute, think of the names of individuals or groups responsible for the situation. If required, write them down on paper or your phone/computer.
So, what names did you write down? If you took the pandemic as the reference, did you write down the names of politicians, health officials, the Government, and so on?
Was your name on the list? If it was, did you consider yourself among the top 3? If you did not hold yourself accountable, you viewed yourself as a victim of other people’s mistakes.
In this article, we’ll discuss what the drama triangle is, the 3 major roles it entails, real-life examples of how we get caught in it, and ways to avoid it.
- What is the drama triangle?
- The three roles of the drama triangle:
- How to escape the drama triangle:
What is the drama triangle?
The drama triangle is a model in psychology which describes how people perceive a difficult situation.
When faced with trouble, human beings tend to look at themselves and others in one of the three roles:
- Victims: The innocents facing the consequences
- Persecutors: The culprits responsible for the situation
- Rescuers: The heroes who solve the problem
In most cases, we look at ourselves in one of these 3 roles, but sometimes we can also believe we take two, or even all three of the roles. Interestingly, reality won’t have a clear definition for any of the roles. You and your friend might consider the same person to play different roles for the same situation. These roles entirely depend upon each person’s perception and in real life, none of those beliefs might be true.
You might consider yourself a victim, but another person might look at you as the persecutor. For example, you assume the Government was the persecutor for the spread of Covid-19, whereas a health-conscious citizen will consider a person who steps outdoors as the persecutor while looking at themselves as the victim.
The roles in the drama triangle are defined by what people believe and are often restricted to each person’s thoughts.
The three roles of the drama triangle:
When you’re caught in the drama triangle, you believe you’re playing one of the 3 roles. I will explain each of them with an example.
Situation: It’s the time of annual salary hikes at the organization BlimZen. Compared to the previous years, the increase in salaries this time is lesser. Employees had raised questions for the last 3 years that the pay did not meet the market standards, and the numbers for the current year have aggravated the problem.
1. Victim – The “Why Me” Attitude
In our example, the victims are employees who believe they’re not being paid for what they deserve. In small groups, they whine about the company paying them peanuts despite working long hours. They believe the managers are useless and that leadership thinks only about profits. They’re looking for a savior who can help them get better hikes.
Victims feel helpless and trapped. They believe the cause of the situation is an external factor or another person or a group of people.
In any difficult situation, the victims believe that they’re on the receiving end of the negative consequences and that solving the problem is beyond their capacity or control.
Victims blame persecutors for their misfortune and hope for a rescuer to show up and save the day. It’s not the laziness that prevents them from solving the problem, but the mindset of helplessness. Therefore, they root for the rescuers and hope that an external entity finds a solution for them.
2. Persecutors – “It’s your fault” attitude
Persecutors are the villains whom victims hold responsible for the problem. Though persecutors don’t always cause the problem, their tendency to criticize and blame people during a negative situation coupled with a lack of empathy makes them unpleasant to deal with. They come across as authoritarian and rarely solve the problem or help people.
In our example, the managers are considered villains. The managers tell their employees, “The raises this year were lower because we did not deliver enough profits. Compared to our previous years, our performance was subpar across all departments.”
Even if that statement is truthful, employees fail to look at the reality. They emphasize only the fact that the hikes were lower without taking accountability for their own performance. Also, the managers might only be passing a message from the leadership team. The victims look at the managers as persecutors even though it is hard to pinpoint who’s the villain here. In cases like these, sometimes a persecutor exists only in people’s perceptions, not in reality.
Many a time, the persecutor’s behavior makes the problem appear larger than it is thereby making the victim believe that he/she is suffering from a major catastrophe when in reality it is only a simple problem.
In our example, the managers could have communicated the reason for the drop in hikes with more empathy. Blaming lack of revenue on company-wide poor performance rubs people off the wrong way and aggravates the problem.
3. Rescuer – The “Let me help you” attitude
In the example, an employee named Bradford steps up. He starts a petition form, speaks to the angered employees about the numbers, and gets their signature. He plans to raise this to the leadership and HR team to force a salary rebalance.
In a difficult situation, the rescuer takes the role of the hero and acts as the solution providing force that victims are looking for. Rescuers, as the name suggests are inclined to rescue and help the victims.
At first glance, the behavior of the rescuer appears selfless, like a good samaritan who wants nothing but the betterment of the world.
But deep underneath the surface, the rescuers have more than one reason to help the victims, such as:
- Resolving one’s own internal insecurity by making themselves worthwhile
- An escape hatch from their personal problems
- Keeping the victims under their control and good influence to reap benefits in the future
- Serving their own vested interest
When the rescuers solve the victims’ problems, they act as enablers of victim behavior. It passes an unconscious message that says, “Yes, you were right in feeling helpless about your situation. You need a hero like me to get you out of it.”
The rescuer prevents the victims from learning to solve their own problems and encourages more victim behavior from the same people and the others in the future. Even if the rescuer doesn’t utter it explicitly, the victims believe that the next time they face a similar problem, they can run to the rescuer and seek help. As a result, the victims make no effort to avoid such situations because they believe they can rely on a rescuer again to bail them out.
On the other side, rescuer behavior is rarely selfless.
In our example, it appears as if Bradford wants all employees to get what they deserve. Partly, yes, he does want everyone to get higher numbers. But he has other underlying catalysts that he doesn’t mention in public. For example:
- He primarily wants an increase for himself and bringing up the larger concern of all employees makes his case stronger
- He wants to showcase his leadership ability so that he receives positive 360 degree feedback in the future
- He wants to capture the limelight so that he is the front runner for future growth opportunities
For the underpaid employees, Bradford is a hero, but he has a secret vested interest no one knows about.
In some cases, the rescuers truly think about the betterment of others alone, ignore their own needs, and get stressed and anxious in the process. But, even when rescuers go a long distance to help others, almost always they’re satisfying a deep-rooted internal reason(which can even be unknown to them). It can be something as simple as a psychological moral responsibility they feel they carry on their shoulders to aid others or the discomfort associated with saying no when someone asks for help.
People may also switch roles in a given situation itself:
The roles in a given situation aren’t fixed. Each person can switch from one role to another within a short time.
Let’s tweak the salary hikes situation to illustrate.
Manager: “This year, we’ll have lesser hikes because we did not deliver enough profits. Compared to our previous years, our performance was subpar across all departments. (Persecutor)
Employee: “But our salaries were already below market standard. Who will resolve this?” (Victim)
Bradford: “I will collect feedback from all disgruntled employees and bring it to you. Let us use real numbers and make an informed decision” (Rescuer)
Manager: “Unless the profits increase, any analysis is futile. There is nothing we can do. To provide higher salaries we need more money flowing in.” (Victim)
Bradford: “Don’t you think you should have informed people about the need to step up performance at the beginning of the year and not at the end during the time of appraisals?” (Persecutor)
Notice how the manager and Bradford switched roles based on context. When the conversation proceeds further, each person can take up a different position within the drama circle.
How to escape the drama triangle:
The drama triangle does not help any of its participants. The victims assume they’re trapped and do nothing to solve their problems. The persecutors blame others and fail to take accountability for their own mistakes. The rescuers satisfy their own motive by offering a solution and also encourage the victims to wait for others to solve their problems.
So, if you’re caught up in the drama triangle, here is how you can escape it:
Now that you know how the drama triangle works, you have a better chance of avoiding it. But, knowledge alone isn’t sufficient. Be observant of your behavior and thoughts.
When you’re stuck in a difficult situation ask yourself:
- Am I complaining about my situation without making any attempt to change it?
- Is there a way I can solve this problem?
- How long have I had this problem? What have I done to fix it since I first encountered it?
- What’s the one thing that I can do to change the situation I’m in?
You can add your own questions to the mix based on the problem to help you understand yourself better. In short, the more self-awareness you possess, the lesser the chances that you’ll take up any role in the drama triangle.
Awareness of your behavior alone isn’t enough to escape the drama triangle. If you’re in denial of your mistakes or unwilling to step out of your comfort zone to find a solution, you’ll still consider yourself as the victim.
Therefore, acknowledge the problem and take responsibility. When I was running my first business, I thought we were failing due to market conditions, investors, a shift in technology, and whatnot. I believed I was the victim. In the hindsight, I realize that I wasn’t accepting my shortcomings and poor skills.
Acceptance appears simple, but it isn’t. Once you change your mindset, you’ll notice a drastic change in your reality too.
If you don’t accept that you have the ability to change the situation, you’ll remain stuck in the drama triangle.
3. Look for people who face similar challenges:
When you face a difficult situation and feel helpless, take a moment to think if you’re the only one facing the problem or if other people have similar challenges. Almost always, they do.
If you’re in a grave long-term problem, talk to people who have gone through similar hurdles before. For example, if you’re:
- In a relationship with an abusive partner
- Harassed by your boss
- Addicted to specific habits
You might believe you’re a victim and that you’re helpless and trapped, but other people who went through similar challenges can guide you on ideas to solve the problem. These days, you can find groups on social media where you can share your difficulties and find a channel of people to talk to.
4. Seek professional help
Not every problem needs you to think hard, break a sweat and come up with the eureka moment with the solution. Reach out to an expert to help you solve the problem when appropriate.
“But how is seeking professional help different from hoping for a rescuer?” Good question. The right professional will guide you to solve the problem yourself from its root cause, unlike the rescuer who’ll spoon feed the resolution for you. A professional will explain the background and help you realize your mistake, while the rescuer will make you feel like you were the victim.
5. Use the empowerment triangle
In this book, The Power of TED, David Emerald talks about transforming the drama triangle into an empowerment triangle. The concept recommends minor changes in the mindset of the victim, persecutor, and rescuer.
From victim to creator:
Instead of thinking, “I need someone to rescue me”, change your mindset to “I’ll solve my own problem”
From rescuer to coach:
Instead of approaching a difficult situation with, “I’ll solve your problem” mindset, change your procedure to, “I’ll mentor you to solve your problem.” Empower people instead of tossing the solution into the victim’s lap.
From persecutor to challenger:
Instead of blaming people in difficult situations, look at what you could do better. If you notice that other people need to step up their effort, give directions instead of criticizing them. Be assertive, be clear and drive action.
The drama triangle is a phenomenon that occurs around you without your knowledge. Among your friends, coworkers, or family you’ll find the victim, rescuer, and persecutor behavior exhibited all the time.
Now that you’re aware how the drama triangle works, stay away from it. Many a time, you’ll get pulled into it despite your disinterest. If you get sucked in, your only motive should be to get out of it. Don’t take sides with any roles or look down upon others even if you intend to escape the drama triangle right away. Don’t validate the victim mindset by consoling them about their situation, and don’t hail the rescuers for their altruism. Maintain a neutral position, and offer an honest opinion that highlights the pros and cons of all perspectives.
When you don’t validate what the victims, persecutors, and rescuers believe, they’ll rethink their own position and belief. If not everyone, some will.
Irrespective of what others do, take the necessary action to exit the drama triangle as soon as possible. The longer you stay, the deeper you’ll sink into a specific mindset and the harder it will get to break free.
Have you been in the drama triangle? What role were you exhibiting? Leave a comment.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.