Cycles can be found in every corner and dark nook of social interaction and human experience. Conflict easily spins out of control, refusing resolution or self awareness, as participants fall into a specific cycle of roles. A system known as the ‘drama triangle’ by Stephen Karpman has been used with me in therapy numerous times to identify how people in conflict take upon and switch roles in their contribution to the continuation. Even a single person can experience this cycle within themselves in their internal conflicts. This drama triangle depicts behaviour, acting.
I believe the system to lack some nuance but as a generalization of behaviour it’s accurate and I’m going to explain it in context of people with trauma.
Each of the three labels is intentionally superficial and describes a dichotomy of action and intention, both aligned and misaligned. First I’ll explain each position in the triangle, then I’ll give some examples of the system in action with one, two, or three people and how one can step out of the cycle.
Each one of these roles can act as a starting point. In my experience, often the persecutor role initiates conflict. The persecutor assigns blame in a situation— in a misaligned fashion this comes across as angry, accusatory, and critical. When behaviour and intention align, the would-be persecutor presents their concerns with empathy and tact. When emotions or trauma contribute to the source of the conflict each role becomes extremely difficult to step out of in alignment with our goals. Hurt, betrayed, a traumatized person will attempt to avoid falling into the ‘victim’ role by becoming the persecutor so that they don’t feel walked over or powerless. Just as the victim is not truly a victim, the persecutor only acting out a role which initially seems to best express intention. ‘I’m hurt’ comes out as ‘you hurt me’ to avoid owning their feelings.
The victim claims to have no power. Often feelings of shame create a need to avoid blame by assigning power to everyone but themselves. They feel they have no options and will either deflect criticism or catastrophize. Rather than take responsibility for their actions or try to find a solution, they surrender to the ease of believing there’s nothing they can do. A traumatized person who has in the past been an actual victim, in terms of trauma, might feel a heightened senses of defensiveness and will fall into this role because of familiarity with feeling powerless and perceived inability to have control over their own life.
The third role is the rescuer and they will attempt to step between the persecutor and the victim. This role is the enabler, the saviour complex, the need to be needed. The rescuer feels guilty if they don’t enact their role and they keep the victim dependent, give them permission to continue to be the victim. Rather than focusing on their own life, the rescuer gives themselves to other people. A traumatized person often feels they must heal and help as they know the pain of suffering, will feel compelled to mediate to supposedly avoid conflict, or be of use in crisis.
I experience this triangle of behaviour internally both small scale and large. When struggling to get chores done, I might shame myself with ruminations about being worthless and useless. The victim complex jumps out and says, ‘it’s not my fault, I’m fucked up and everything is falling apart around me’. Then I’ll enable myself by deciding the chores aren’t that big of a deal and therefore I can ignore them. As the cycle continues, me not doing the chores leads to a bigger pile of mess and chaos and the prosecutor within me gets worse, causing each other of roles to rise to the same intensity.
Another example of the internal triangle is the struggle of addiction. Replace getting the dishes done with getting sober and you can see how easy it is for the triangle to enable worsening addictions. A person might be unhealthy and out of money and think, ‘I need to get sober.’ The second that critical word ‘need’ comes up, the victim cries out. Instead, ‘I don’t feel good. I’m not happy. I want to feel better, how can I move forward?’ would avoid placing the pressure and blame directly on the sensitive spot. Focusing on choices helps remind the internal victim that there are choices, that they aren’t powerless. The rescuer inside themself learns that there are other options than pacifying the victim and enabling the behaviours that rile up the persecutor.
In the dynamic of two people in conflict, they will actively force each other into different roles. Someone may present themselves as a victim and then be persecuted or vice versa, then the roles must switch. Feelings get hurt and when brought to attention, the instigator feels attacked. This is the cycle, perhaps the roles reverse and the persecutor becomes the victim and the former victim becomes the rescuer, or the initial victim may force the initial persecutor into a rescuer role. Either way, change must happen to feed the cycle, often manipulative. These superficial labels are manifestations of selfishness and insecurity, and the psyche’s desperate attempt to keep from taking responsibility for itself.
A: You hurt my feelings (persecutor not using ‘I statements’ as in ‘I’m hurt’)
B: I’m going through a lot, you’re not being fair (victim not taking responsibility)
A: Sorry, I won’t bring it up again (persecutor becomes rescuer)
A: Everyone is always ganging up one me (victim overgeneralizing and catastrophizing, leaning into persecuting)
B: I don’t do that, I only brought up something that hurt me (recognizing oncoming persecutor, takes up victim role)
A: Don’t make everything about you and your issues! You always do this (persecutor, overgeneralization)
B: I can’t help it, you back me into a corner (victim feels powerless)
A: Maybe we just shouldn’t be friends then (creates crisis to shift triangle alignment)
B: No, it’s ok, I understand where you’re coming from, we can fix this, I can help you (panic manifests as a rescuer)
Crisis in conflict is often used unwittingly to manipulate the other party. Recognizing these patterns of shifting roles through the cycle can help someone step out and away from these toxic dynamics.
Finally to best summarize the triangle we can look at three people. Not always, but often, three parties will take up each of the roles but you also find people will go everywhere on the triangle throughout the course of a conflict.
A: My life is out of control, I don’t know what to do (victim)
B: We’ve given lots of advice but you don’t listen to us (persecutor)
C: Don’t get mad, ‘A’ can’t help it, and they’re trying their best (rescuer)
B: But I feel unheard and used, do I and my opinions not matter (persecutor becomes victim)
A: I’m not using you! How dare you guys accuse me? ‘C’, do you think I’m an idiot? (Victim becomes persecutor)
C: ‘A’, we do try to help you, and you’re currently taking me for granted (rescuer becomes prosecutor)
B: ‘C’ defended you and you still attacked them (feeds into the conflict and becomes the third persecutor)
With everyone now defensive and offensive, all that can be achieved is hurling accusations to avoid taking any form of responsibility.
Three people aren’t needed to manifest the triangle, any number of participants in a conflict will shift in and out of various roles. Only recognizing these hindering, toxic, and cyclical symptoms will help end the conflict. Practicing empathy, self awareness, conflict resolution, and self respect is the cure to being a contributor.
We must know when to walk away to take the time to understand ourselves and our feelings. Be aware of sabotage and self sabotage, understand with compassion, and communicate effectively. These are all buzzwords but they’re truly important. They guide us through difficult times so that we may become stronger, more loving, and more at peace.