Every great story needs a Victim – Oliver Twist, the Princess in the tower, little Red Riding Hood. If you’ve ever connected with the wounded child in you who feels powerless and blames others, you’re familiar with this role.
A gripping tale also needs a Villain or Persecutor – the Evil Stepsisters, the Joker, Bill Sykes. If you recognize the judgmental parent within you who shames and blames others, chances are you’ve played this role.
And, of course, a compelling narrative always requires a Hero or Rescuer – Wonder woman, Nancy in Oliver Twist, the handsome Prince. If you’ve ever stepped in, unasked, to help someone who you believed could not sort things out themselves, you know what I’m talking about.
As with our dreams, every character within us is the author. The Victim, The Persecutor and the Rescuer all represent different parts of you. And we need all three of these archetypes in order to tell interesting, meaningful, dramatic stories.
The real drama comes about when a Victim becomes a Hero, or a Persecutor becomes a Rescuer. In Cinderella and Oliver Twist, we meet the Hero as the Victim. And Little Red Riding Hood was originally the Rescuer to her grandmother and later became the Persecutor.
In the Pied Piper, the Hero begins as the Rescuer of the city and Persecutor of the rats, then becomes Victim of the Persecutor-mayor’s double-cross, and in revenge switches to the Persecutor of the city’s children.
So too, in real life, there will be different situations where you may cast yourself (or are seen by others) variously as all three – Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. When no one appreciates or reciprocates their attempts to fix everything, the exhausted Rescuer often sees themself as the Victim. Often the Victim will seek retribution by becoming a persecutor, blaming and victimizing others, or coming to the side of others as a Rescuer.
But, most of us find ourselves drawn, time and again, to just one of these roles.
It’s called The Drama Triangle – the destructive cycle of human interaction named in the 1960s by a psychologist, Dr. Stephen Karpman, who just happened to also be a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Karpman specifically distinguished the playing of roles. The Victim is someone who is “playing” the Victim, not someone who has literally been wounded or oppressed by another; The Rescuer is not someone such as a firefighter, who is dealing with a real emergency in an honest way.
Although all three are ‘roles’ and none may be true to who we really are, we can all get caught in this cycle that is hard to escape
The Victim: “You always blame me. It’s so unfair.”
In the Drama Triangle, the Victim sees life as happening to them and feels powerless to change their circumstances. Hopeless, downtrodden, and stuck, Victims place blame on a Persecutor who can be a person or a situation. Being powerless, the victim ostensibly seeks a rescuer to solve the problem for them. Victims also have a sneaky interest in invalidating their problem as being unsolvable.
The Victim discounts their own ability to solve a problem or initiate change.
The Persecutor: You are to blame for this going wrong”
Judgmental and critical, a Persecutor’s role is to keep the Victim being a victim, usually through domineering words and behavior which seeks to control.
Remember, if the victim no longer feels oppressed they can rise up and leave the triangle – and then the persecutor (and the Rescuer) has no role.
The Persecutor Discounts the value and integrity, and feelings of others.
The Rescuer: “Poor you. I’ll make everything OK.’
Over-helpful, self-sacrificing, and needing to be needed, the Rescuer in turn seems to want to help the victim but in fact acts in a way that is geared to the rescuer’s own need to be validated for rescuing. Very often Rescuers are unwittingly trying to help the abandoned child within themselves – “saving” others in the hope that others will come to their rescue.
The definition of a Rescuer in the Drama Triangle is someone who seems to be striving to solve a victim’s problems but in fact does so in ways that result in the victim having less power, with the rescuer benefiting more than the victim.
The Rescuer discounts the ability of others to act on their own initiative and solve problems for themselves.
There is a way out of the Drama Triangle
Do you recognize this form of mind game that is anxiety-based and focused on problems? It’s self-perpetuating and designed to keep the victim powerless in a dynamic that creates a roller coaster of tension and relief.
For years, it was generally accepted that the only way to deal with the ‘Dreaded Drama Triangle’ was simply to be aware of it and to exert a huge amount of willpower over the roles one played. Then, in 2005, a fellow Coach, David Emerald Womeldorff -don’t you love that name- published a new model which is now starting to become widely used to facilitate teamwork and productivity in organizations around the world.
Unlike The Dreaded Drama Triangle, which is problem-focused, TED (The Empowerment Dynamic) is oriented towards your passions. It’s very focused on goals and outcomes. TED is a teaching story about self-leadership whose principles and frameworks are based on Wolmerdorff’s own studies on collaboration with a wide range of individuals and organizations. In short, it offers up a much-needed antidote to the drama triangle.
Womeldorff creates a new triangle in which:
- The Victim transmogrifies into Creator
- The Persecutor takes on the role of Challenger
- The Rescuer assumes the dynamic new role of Coach
Of course, each of these shifts requires a huge amount of imagination and courage. For someone who has always seen themselves as the victim, it can be an enormous stretch to get creative and consider, perhaps for the first time, what their long-term goal or vision is.
Creators are focused on outcomes, rather than on problems. Yes, of course, problems will always occur, but TED encourages us to see these obstacles as challenges that force us to clarify our goals.By taking what Womeldorff calls “baby steps,” as creators, we get clearer about the outcomes we are trying to create in our lives.
The final role of the triangle is that of coach. Instead of seeing their duty as being to rescue someone, a coach asks questions intended to help the individual make informed choices. The key difference between a rescuer and a coach is that the coach sees the individual as capable of making choices and solving their own problems. For the rescuer, the victim is broken. For the coach the client is creative, resourceful, and whole.
The key, days Wolmdorff, is to recognize the roles we play are not real – it’s a choice.
If you’re slipping into a Victim role: Ask yourself, what’s one thing that you say or can do, right now, that will help.
If you’re slipping into a Persecutor role, ask yourself: “What are you doing, that may be contributing to this problem?”
If you’re slipping into a Rescuer role: Ask, “How can you empower this individual, and coach them to find the answers for themselves?
Whether you currently find yourself most often playing the role of victim, rescuer or oppressor, I’d love to invite you to pivot into the more empowering, passion-based roles of challenger, coach or creator.
As a reformed rescuer who is now a professional coach, I see all Victims, Persecutors and Rescuers as creators waiting to emerge.