The Dreaded Drama Triangle

In my most recent post I delved into the some of the ways a trauma survivor might interact with the others that could potentially set the stage for relationship troubles. This post was a simplification of the complexities and frustration experienced on both sides of the relationship. I want to take time now to explain this more in depth.

Karpman’s drama triangle (yes, it really is called that) outlines three roles that individuals have when there is a breakdown of boundaries. The drama triangle is often used to describe codependency in domestic violence or addiction. This breakdown of boundaries is relevant in the life of a trauma survivor. After all, the origin of trauma is often in the violation, disappearance, or altogether absence of a safe boundary. The roles are: Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim.

The persecutor is someone who holds the belief that “I must hurt you before you hurt me” or “I have to control your boundaries to protect my own”. The rescuer (or enabler as it is called) believes “I need you to need me. My worth comes from what I am to you”. The persecutor and rescuer retain the power in the relationship. The victim generally believes “I am powerless to effect change. It is not about what I do but what others do to me”. In my last post I talked about how a trauma survivor will often feel both powerlessness and shame as a result of his or her experience. Powerlessness is devastating. Held onto in the present day, powerlessness leads to depression or a lack of movement. The individual feels nothing he or she does matters and may avoid responsibility as a result. Shame, however, tends to view the self as bad or worthless. Shame stands in contrast to powerlessness by suggesting the individual did something to deserve the trauma, thus at the very least creating a sense of responsibility and control.

None of the roles mentioned above are healthy but they each exist for a reason and they serve a valuable purpose. The persecutor stays safe, the rescuer stays connected, and the victim receives care. We may default to one role but often we change roles depending on our needs at the moment.

So how do we break this cycle?

We need to relate in the present moment

All roles make an assumption about what it takes to be safe (control and/or compliance) or loved (enabling and/or needy). But these assumptions are based on past experiences. These assumptions were most likely true at one time. I am firm believer that we do the best we can, and if we learned to survive through these means then we did a good job—we did what was best at the time. We made it. However, change requires bringing the self into the present moment; acknowledging that what was true then is not true now. What was once essential and adaptive is now maladaptive.

We need new skills

The survival skills that once served us well are no longer appropriate. We must learn and utilize new skills. This is hard to do, and it almost always requires risk. If an individual has experienced boundary violations in the past, learning to set boundaries my feel scary or pointless. But to break free from these maladaptive roles we must develop new skills to set boundaries and create safety. To be different we must live different.

We need to break free from the expectations of others

Just because we live different and set boundaries does not mean that we will receive the response we want from others. We are hurt people and we all have stuff. If you set a boundary only for it to be trampled—take a deep breath and walk away. It is not your work. You are not responsible for making anyone see the value in your change. This may cause conflict or at the very least tension in relationship—especially if the other is caught up in the drama triangle. They may choose to follow your lead or they may try to sabotage your efforts. Ultimately, getting out of the drama triangle might mean you sacrifice a relationship that is fundamentally unhealthy.

At the foundation of all of this: you retain your power and responsibility and let others have what is theirs. Take care of you.

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