Have you ever physically, or verbally, or both physically and verbally pointed the finger at someone? Well, if you are a human being, you will probably have pointed many fingers at various Others during your life. I know I have.

Unless you were trained as a psychologist or psychiatrist you were probably never made aware of the common social dynamics that people get entangled in which are not very helpful.

Stephen Karpman, in: The Transactional Analyst 2 (2012) 2, 1

Maybe you’ve never heard of the Drama Triangle, developed by the American psychologist Stephen Karpman in 1968.

I learned about him and his work last year. I have been hanging out with lots of life coaches, psychologists and mindfulness trainers and almost all of them are surprised by the… er… lack of competencies in terms of self-reflection they seem to observe in… yep… academics.

Let’s start with highlighting that academics have razor sharp minds however. Yes, we do! We are smart cookies. And okay: when it comes to self reflection, maybe… we could brush up on our skills.

No wonder, right? Were we trained in the classics of social dynamics? Usually, the answer is ‘no’.

So, let me quickly bring you up to speed with this Drama Triangle.

If only all academics knew about this triangle and it’s healthy alternative, we’d be working under much nicer conditions. The whole idea is to step out of the Drama Triangle and into the Growth Triangle.

You can imagine based solely on these awful names that we all would love to reside in the latter, not the former. The Drama Triangle very evocatively and succinctly posits the kinds of dynamics we either invite people into, or are invited into by Others.

Hero, Villain, Victim

As you’ll gather: we have to (want to) stop inviting Others into the Drama Triangle, and stop accepting invitations into it. The triangle consists of three positions:

  • the hero/rescuer
  • the villain/prosecutor
  • and the victim.

The villain/prosecutor and victim are primarily into the blame game, albeit in different ways. Pointing the finger at the Other, as we will see, is the core business of the villain/prosecutor.

Though we can all take up these three positions, we will have our default positions we slide into more easily than the others.

Frankly, it is so hard for me to choose one of these positions… I know all of them so well! Yep. I know: not pretty. But acknowledging is key. Nothing is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. To cite Johan Cruyff:

‘Every con has its pro’ (in his particular version of Dutch: ‘Ieder nadeel heb zijn voordeel’).

Wise words.

The Short Version of the Drama Triangle

The hero or rescuer is out there to save the day, solve someone’s problem. Why? Well, as long as the hero is taking care of Other people’s problems, the hero does not have address his/her/their own problems. In the short term this kind of behaviour can feel super satisfying. The hero feels worthy and needed. Still, in the long run this type of behaviour does not lead to satisfaction. Others are never as grateful as we would like them to be, and our personal problems just linger on beneath our own surfaces.

Just like the hero/rescuer, the villain/prosecutor is an ‘one-upper’. They are ‘better’ than the Others. Especially, the prosecutor. Her/his/their expertise? Complaining and explaining what is a better way to go. The quintessential thought a prosecutor has in social dynamics, whatever happens? ‘I told you so.’ Or: ‘They are so wrong. I am right. They should be listening to me.’

The ‘one-down’ role in the triangle is reserved for the victim. The victim feels powerless and thinks stuff like: ‘This always happens to me.’ Or: ‘I can’t get a break ever.’

As said, we can and do all take up these three roles throughout our lives, as long as we don’t raise our awareness in this respect. Plus: we all slip into one of these roles most easily. If you are into helpful matrixes, let’s recap and add the transformed and nurturing options while we’re at it.

Drama TriangleVictimRescuerPersecutor
‘Poor me!’‘Poor you!’‘It’s your fault!’
The ‘Okay-
You’re okay
I’m not okay
You’re not okay I’m okayI’m okay
You’re not okay
DiscountI can’t solve this.Poor you, you
can’t solve this.
I am not okay,
unless you get
CharacteristicsBelieves that s/he/they have no resources to
solve problems
Does more than her/his/their
share. Do things they don’t want to do.
Makes Others
suffer from her/his/their
Growth TriangleVulnerable
Caring coachAssertive
How Do We Get Out of the Drama?

Well, it is simply trying to be mindful to change from the victim role into the creator role. Just become aware that you are telling yourself you can’t do it. Whenever you catch yourself doing that, also allow the following thought:

I’ve never done this before, so I think I will manage.

Yes, paraphrasing Pippi Longstocking of course 😉

Instead of wanting to be the hero, become a nurturing coach. Facilitate clarity without taking over someone else’s steering wheel:

What a challenge, you’ve got going on. How will you go about this?

Instead of the prosecutor become the challenger, empathically provoking action. Now you’ll find yourself refraining from complaining about what you think should be different. You’re into supporting the Other to get moving.

I feel you are resourceful enough to tackle this issue. What are you going to do?

Staying Out of the Drama

Let’s just raise our awareness to the fact that every single time we say ‘They are the problem’ and every time our solution is ‘They need to change’: we are creating a problem instead of solving one.

Just to be sure: my point is not that we are not allowed to create problems. Of course we are allowed to create problems and noise and actions when we feel outraged! You can be as much of a nuisance for Others and yourself as you would like to be.

The Other as Our Mirror

I am merely bringing you up to speed with these classic social dynamics that we all easily slip into. Just pointing towards the manners in which we can work with our social challenges in a more healthy adult like manner. In general, it’s about stopping the judging, and getting sincerely curious about what is going on, why it triggers you the way it does.

As said: whenever you are triggered by the Other to such an extent that your finger starts pointing towards the Other, there is something inside of you, you can’t stand, can’t look at, can’t acknowledge yet… The Other is always just a mirror, and invitation to start seeing our reflections in it.

Once we stop pushing and shoving against Others and ourselves, a lot of space opens up for more healthy, playful and sincere behavior.

And wouldn’t we all like to see more of this…

… especially: in the Other 😉

Further information:

I really love the short video’s by the Conscious Leadership Group on this theme. Do see for yourself:

YouTube clip on ‘The Drama Triangle’ (5′)

YouTube clip on ‘Presence versus Drama Triangle’ (3′)

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