Keep Calm and Carry On

The picture at the top of the page is the Karpman Drama Triangle. You may have seen it if you’re familiar with transactional analysis.

I first saw it in training for a job working with adjudicated youth. At first, I didn’t think anything so simple could be very useful. But a hammer is a simple tool, and so is a scalpel, and over time this triangle and the wisdom behind it became very useful for framing group interactions and helping to resolve conflicts within our counseling groups.

Recently I thought this might be a good time to retrieve this tool from the shelf and dust it off. Used properly it enhances our ability to keep calm and carry on amid the sound and fury of  our times. Never in my life did I imagine that the word “victim” could appear as many times in as many headlines and conversations as it has over the last year.

Let’s be honest now. When the word “victim” first appeared, you immediately shifted toward your default political opinion on this fiercely prosecuted but somewhat loosely defined word. Me too. We are conditioned for this response. But you can relax. The drama triangle is not a commentary on real life victims of malevolence or how we choose to support them. It is a tool for understanding how we subconsciously relate to each other as we play out these roles on the triangle, moving from one to the other, sometimes in a single conversation.

Persecutor, rescuer and victim are archetypes of human experience. We play all of these roles, but we usually stand more often on a particular corner of the triangle based on our early experiences growing up. Sometimes a traumatic experience can leave us stuck on one of those corners for the balance of a lifetime until and unless some internal notion or external force causes us to shift. The goal for anyone who uses the drama triangle – is to get off the triangle.

Habitual persecutors are bullies, and many of these were once victims themselves. Rescuers are the classic co-dependents whose self-esteem is tied to helping (or controlling) someone else.  Victims do not know how, or they have chosen not to be accountable for the choices they make.

The positions just described are our “go to” positions when we engage in drama, but day to day and moment to moment, we can play all the roles on the drama triangle. Here’s a classic example:  Junior comes home from school, drops his books on the sofa and proceeds to head out the door. Dad gets angry and tells him to do his homework first. He persecutes Junior by yelling at him, and Junior plays the victim. Mom attempts to rescue Junior by telling Dad that the boy has been at school all day and needs a break. Junior gets mad at Mom and yells at her to say that this is between him and Dad. Junior is now the persecutor and Mom is the victim. Dad intervenes to rescue Mom, telling Junior that he shouldn’t speak to his mother like that.

When you’re working with angry and dysfunctional people it’s easy to get “hooked” into playing one of the three roles, and so discussions turn into arguments and arguments into fights.  During group sessions  with the kids if we realized that one of our co-counselors was losing objectivity, we had a hand signal like a fishhook to let each other know to take a step back. It helped avoid much frustration and made us more effective in dealing with conflict.

On the larger stage, communication technology has become pervasive, but running counter to its many benefits is the ability now for the whole country, or at least the media consuming part of it, to all be on the drama triangle at the same time. Think of the many ways this plays out in media, as one political party or another strikes out in anger to rescue a diversity of victims. If we’re positioned as victims of the right, or we want to rescue their victims, we attack the right, thus becoming persecutors. If we stand as victims of the left, we do exactly the same.

Another word we see frequently in the news is “protest.” Let’s consider the phenomenon independent of whatever merit or sincerely held belief may be behind it. Protests, especially the ones that take place in the light of  television cameras, when we view them from the perspective of the drama triangle, are often occupied by victims and rescuers who can quickly become persecutors, especially when the counterprotestors appear. Social media is crowded with protesters  who persecute other people verbally because, if we give them the benefit of the doubt, they think they are rescuing someone else. Some are just bullies, and there are scores of victims.

No matter what our political beliefs are, using this simple tool can provide a better chance of communicating with someone who believes differently. It gives us an effective way of framing things that helps avoid unnecessary anger when we realize that we’ve been hooked.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the Karpman triangle can also help us to discover whether a strongly held opinion is something we truly wish to keep, or just a temporary role we’re playing.  It works because in pausing to think about the three archetypes, we are holding up a mirror to reflect our current state of mind. Sometimes all we need to change our minds is a different point of view.

It would be difficult for the nation to “get off the triangle.” Drama causes us to consume media. Billions of dollars in revenue and our entire political system depends on us staying hooked, moving endlessly through our roles.

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