Do you remember the last time you were caught in a conversation that caused you to feel angry and defeated? No matter what you said or did there was no resolution? Perhaps someone dealt you a low blow and you tried to get her to admit what she did and apologize.

Rather than listen to your concerns, the other person shifted the spotlight to what you did wrong. This caused you to question yourself or get defensive. Afterward you spent hours trying to figure out what happened. You talked with others, who agreed with your position. But you still feel angry.

Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer

Chances are when anger lasts and lasts you are playing one of the roles in The Drama Triangle: a term invented by psychologist Stephen Karpman to describe conflicted or drama-intense relationships.

Karpman used his interest in the performing arts (he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild) to show how we act as if we are a Victim, Persecutor or Rescuer in our relationships, often shifting roles in the same conversation. Since this movie is supposed to end badly, players take positions on the triangle to assure that outcome.

By contrast, the characters in a story that ends well evolve over time into more effective people. By the end of the story they make wise choices. The characters that remain the same repeat the same mistakes generation after generation.

Exiting The Drama Triangle requires Herculean effort because the roles we play are based on decisions we made about ourselves while growing up in disturbed family environments. We had no models for healthy relating, where people respect their own and other’s needs. In such relationships, arguments occurred, but the conflicts were resolved through effort and compromise.

Relationships that end in stalemate, on the other hand, are based on power struggles where someone wins or loses. The one-down position is “poor me”; the one-up positions are “it’s all your fault” and “let me help you.” Understanding the payoff for these roles will help you to reject them for behavior that works.

Poor Me

I am an actor who signs up for the role in a story where I am to feel victimized, oppressed, hopeless and ashamed. To make sure the audience believes me, I attract Persecutors and Rescuers to confirm my belief that I cannot solve my problems.

The Persecutor has to condemn me for every mistake I make. As a result of the constant criticism I lose my confidence. Seeing my predicament the Rescuer intervenes with solutions, signaling he believes I can’t come up with any. I feel inadequate compared to the Rescuer and the Persecutor. At the same time, I am angry with both of them for not fixing me.

Let Me Help You

To be effective in the Rescuer role in the Drama Triangle I have to feel guilty about being on the planet in the first place. I believe that whatever happens, it’s my fault. This draws Persecutors who agree with me.

I feel anxious when I don’t save friends and family members from the consequences of their poor choices. Rescuing them alleviates my fear the Persecutors will accuse me of being selfish, and that the Victims will say I lack compassion. Not only that, when I focus on their problems I don’t have to think about my problems.

Underneath my martyr façade I am resentful about not getting my needs met (Persecutor). If it weren’t for all these needy people I could do what I want to do (Victim). You see how I play all the roles at once? I could be up for an Academy Award.

As you may have surmised, the subscript to Let Me Help You is “I can’t be happy if they aren’t happy.” This belief is based on a decision I made in response to parents or other caretakers who never got it together. If they were in a bad mood, lost a job or relationship, or fought with each other and did not work through these conflicts, I decided it was my job to be the peacemaker. Then I could be happy (and noble).

Giving up the Rescuer role is difficult, since not rescuing forces me to confront the fear I’ll fail if I take the risk that scares me. This passivity infuriates my instinctual self, anger I displace into depression, chronic fatigue and ailments that mystify my doctors, who don’t ask what I’m angry about because I might give them a bad Yelp review.

It’s All Your Fault

I have to feel entitled to pull off the role of the Persecutor, since it is based on the belief that life should be easier for me than it is for everyone else. Here’s my back-story: I was a beautiful, charming, talented or petulant child who learned to manipulate the adults into cutting me slack. I came to see everyone as objects I could use to get my way.

While tantrums and other controlling techniques worked in the short run, they left me with a low tolerance for frustration: I expect to get what I want when I want it. When I don’t I get angry, abusive and difficult. Or I drink, drug or get sick to draw Rescuers and Victims into The Drama Triangle.

Since I feel superior to everyone I can’t admit I’m wrong. I also have trouble with authority figures, especially those who know what they are doing. If I’m in power I misuse it, treating everyone beneath me with contempt. I may even wind up in jail when authorities catch on to my desire to get something for nothing, unless I find a Rescuer judge who falls for my sad story.

Exiting The Drama Triangle

To be a balanced, effective individual I need to admit my ulterior motives, the shadow I project onto others. I have to give up the roles I play, and to hang in there with the anxiety healthy behavior provokes. Becoming conscious takes alertness; my old behavior is automatic, stimulus then response, stimulus then response.

For example, someone I care about has a habit of making poor choices and is about to make another mistake. Without thinking I offer a solution. The game begins. The other person appears to change so I feel hopeful (the hook). Then he (or she) does what he has always done and fails. Now I feel hopeless. The game ratchets up a notch.

When I say anything about the poor choice, the other person makes excuses, rationalizes with, “well, I’m getting better” or the conversation shifts to what I do wrong (gotcha!). Then I question myself, feel guilty, or I get angry, all of which ups the ante.

Then the other person gets defensive and the game escalates until the relationship stalemates or ends: game, set, and match. Remember the goal in this movie is for both of us to fail, not to evolve into mature individuals.

To keep the game going, I have to blind myself to the other person’s part of the problem. I have to continue in this denial so as not to threaten the relationship. To change I have to be willing to try what feels uncomfortable and wrong.

For instance, the same person complains about an ongoing problem and then asks me what to do. This time I say (and mean it), “What do you think will solve the problem?” If this person asks, I say what I think and leave it at that. I don’t check back to see how they are doing.

When I catch myself playing the role of the Victim I focus on the solution to the problem, instead of running away, complaining, or hoping someone will take care of me. This does not mean I deny my fears. I let then tell me their story. If I need help, I ask for it.

When I am tempted to play Rescuer I let the other person work through the difficulty; or not work through it. I nurture and encourage, but I don’t enable. Instead, I trust that people are capable of solving their problems, if they are willing to do the work.

As the poet Keats said when he heard about the misfortune of a friend: “he will have the pleasure of trying the resources of his spirit.”

Living Life Responsibly

At some level, we all prefer to live in a Garden of Eden, where food drops from the trees and an omniscient God takes care of our needs. But the truth is (and my view is that God knows this) we are never happy until we do what is difficult for us. What is difficult for you may not be difficult for me or anyone else. Only you know what you need to do to feel good about yourself.

When unrealistic expectations cause you to play the roles of Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer rise above the person you were who created the problem.

If you are involved with people who play any of the roles in the Drama Triangle, say to yourself, “this is a game that always ends in failure and I choose not to play.” This decision will put you in the role of the Victor, the person who solves problems.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is

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