Inside (and out) of the drama triangle

Why its a foundational map everyone should know

I’m often surprised how easy it is to slip into the drama triangle. The allure of the victim, the sudden pull of the villain or the griping impulse to be the hero. Each comes with it’s appeal, and gives a feeling of identity. I am this person who was wronged, or  I am the one who has to save the situation.  The problem isn’t  that we play these characters, its when we don’t know we do.

We’ve all been there – stuck in a cycle of drama, finger-pointing and disempowerment. Whether it’s with a partner, coworker or friend, you may find yourself slipping into one of three toxic roles: the Victim, Persecutor (Villain)  or Rescuer (Hero). This is the drama triangle (first described by Stephen Karpman in the 1960s), and it keeps us trapped in repeating patterns. We can become totally lost in these  behaviours that ultimately drain vital life energy.

How it works: The Victim feels powerless, blameless and at the mercy of circumstances. “Poor me, nothing’s my fault”, or it can be a lot subtler than this. The Villain points fingers, blames, criticises and puts others down.  “You did it!” And the Hero tries to “save the day” or fix the other two, while disempowering them further.

Even if you have an awareness of how these play out in you, to me it’s a never ending job that doesn’t  not need to be fun or at the least entertaining.  Even in the most serious  moments we can still access some humour. Start by noticing when you slip into one of these roles. Is the helpless, helpless Victim voice taking over? “I just can’t do this, it’s impossible!” Or the bullying, blaming Persecutor? “This is a disaster because of your incompetence!” If so, pause. Breathe. Slow it down and bring some awareness to this part of you. Try be curious about it.

You’re also acknowledging that its just a part of you. Its not out there, we do a U-turn and and see it  in ourselves. We can be interested in what’s actually happening. How are your actions (or inactions) contributing to the situation? Often there are valid fears, old wounds or unmet needs driving these roles. 

Here’s an example: Sam erupted at his wife for leaving dishes in the sink. Villain, pointing fingers and making her wrong. But upon reflection, Sam realised he was defensive because he felt unappreciated and disrespected by her lack of effort (unmet need). His outburst was a cry for more consideration.

Once you have that self-awareness, you can communicate your experience more clearly. Sam could say: “Dear, I get triggered when I see dishes piling up because it makes me feel disrespected and like my efforts don’t matter..”

This is the antidote to the triangle: being vulnerable, sharing your perspective with “I” statements, and making requests for what you need. No Persecutors, no Victims. Just two humans working through life together.

Of course, old habits die hard. Sam may still slip into drama roles. But with practice, he can catch himself sooner. “Ah, there’s that blaming Persecutor voice again. What’s really going on here?” Staying present with your experience.

The triangle is seductive because it lets us think we’re justified in feeling powerless or lashing out. But it’s ultimately a distraction – an avoidance of taking responsibility or getting our real needs met. As we exit the triangle, we also see what changes are needed in us to create better outcomes ?

In addition to the story in the mind, each role also has a somatic pattern. Bringing attention to the body is key. We notice what happens in the body as we play different parts. Where do you feel contractions or tension ? What is it like to stay a few moments with those sensations? and keep noticing …

The Victim

Energetically, playing the archetypal Victim feels defeated, collapsed and hopeless. There’s a sunken chest, slumped shoulders and lack of vital life force. You may notice shallow breathing, lack of grounding and feeling cut off from your centre.

To work with this pattern somatically, start by consciously breathing into your body. Notice any held areas and breathe into them with curiosity. Gently engage your core by laying one hand on your belly. 

As your breath deepens, you may feel a sense of being anchored in yourself, embodied rather than spaced out or overwhelmed. Stay present with physical sensations, letting the story in the mind fall away.

The Villain

When the Villain takes over, feel the tension and stuckness. There might be a tightness in the jaw, chest and shoulders as you prepare for battle. The body is braced, heart rate elevated and breath constricted. You’re flooded with stress hormones, ready to fight.

One way to shift this pattern, is to slow your breath down and exhale longer than you inhale. Let your belly fully release with each out-breath. Unclench your hands and relax your face and tongue. Feel your jaw softening. Shake out any residual muscular armouring.  Alternatively,  let it get stronger, exaggerate the sensations and allow yourself to explore what movement wants to come here.

As you stay present with the physical experience, you’ll notice in time things start to settle.

The Hero (rescuer)

Playing the Rescuer can keep one stuck in a kind of anxious overdrive. There’s a buzzing, hyper-aroused quality as you try to fix and save everyone else. You may be speaking quickly, mentally spinning and engaging in shallow chest breathing.  Many of these sensations may also overlap with the other roles.

To ground and reorient, bring focus to the base of your spine and imagine sending roots deep into the earth below you. Breathe slowly into your low belly. Relax your shoulders and sense the earth beneath your feet. Peta Levine also suggests the “Voo” sound as way to regulate.  

From this embodied state we can feel into and become aware of the  right amount of help needed for the situation. Also noting that the hero can also show up  as a distracting force,  rescuing us from uncomfortable emotions. Like being on social media too long, or watching endless TV series etc.

The key is using the breath and body awareness as an anchor to what’s really  happening, we begin to see through the drama to reality as it is.

The drama triangle is one of life’s most ubiquitous traps. But we all have the power to step out of the cycle into awareness. Its the game of being able to be in beginners mind, which always notices with curiosity as we’re in the patterns we don’t like to see.