Living in a relationship with others can be tricky. Not only are you figuring out how to deal with other people, but you’re also thinking about how to handle yourself. If you’ve ever felt stuck in a relationship role and wished you knew how to change, then I have two insightful models that may be able to help.
The Drama Triangle illustrates three problematic roles that people often assume in their relationships with others: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. The Empowerment Dynamic flips the triangle on its head and presents three productive alternatives: Creator, Challenger, and Coach.
You’ll find that these two triangles are useful not just for relationship dynamics but for understanding all sorts of life situations.
The Drama Triangle
The Drama Triangle is the brainchild of Stephen Karpman, MD. He came up with this model in the late 1960s as a way to explain the roles that we often take on in our relationships. We may find ourselves in these positions, or we may see other people in our lives as filling these roles.
Before you take a look at the three Drama Triangle roles, it’s worth noting that Dr. Karpman isn’t advocating for any of these positions. He doesn’t set this up as a model for healthy relationships.
Rather, the value of learning about the Drama Triangle is that you’ll start to see how each role has its own experience of pain and suffering. You’ll also discover how easily you can become trapped in the triangle as you shift from one position to the next.
As you read through the descriptions, please know that this is a no-judgment space. If you’re currently stuck in a Drama Triangle of your own, it’s okay for you to be exactly where you are. Right now, what you’re doing may be serving a purpose for you. I hope that you’ll soon see the opportunity for new, more empowering ways of thinking about things, but for now, this is where you are. There’s no judgment here.
Picture a triangle in your mind. Situate it so that the triangle is pointing down. Now, you’re going to label the bottom point “Victim.”
In the Drama Triangle, the Victim is the person who feels truly at the mercy of a situation or another person.
Victims believe lines like:
- Things are happening to me.
- This person is doing this thing to me.
- It’s all their fault.
Victims might also tell themselves, “It’s all my fault.” It’s not that they don’t point any fingers at themselves. Rather, it’s that they feel persecuted by some sort of situation and unable to get themselves out of it.
They don’t think there’s anything they can do to switch the circumstances on their own. Instead, they believe that the answer is for a hero or a savior — someone outside of themselves — to come in and provide the answer that they need.
The Victim is the linchpin of the Drama Triangle. That’s because the Victim role is what actually creates the other two positions. A Victim sees the world in a binary way; there are situations that threaten or persecute them, and there are also people or things with the power to save them.
For the Victim, that sense of persecution could come from a person or a circumstance. For instance, someone might blame childhood events, a lack of money, or being single for the struggles they’re experiencing in life.
But Persecutor, or Villain, can also be a role that you find yourself playing. The Persecutor is assigned the top right corner of the Drama Triangle.
This role involves a “You’re not okay” attitude toward the Victim. Persecutors think they know what the problem is: There’s something wrong with the Victim. They also claim to know what the Victim needs to do to fix it.
Persecutors often rely on techniques like blaming and trying to control others. They may choose a defensive posture and tend to see situations in black-and-white terms.
The Rescuer, or the Hero, takes the opposite line of thinking. In the Drama Triangle, the Rescuer is given the top left spot.
Rescuers absolve a Victim of responsibility: “No, no, it’s not your fault.” They take on tasks to enable the Victim, too.
Rescuers take the work and responsibility off someone else’s plate, and they try to scoop up the pain and the suffering too. That reinforces the powerlessness of the Victim.
It also leaves the Rescuer expecting attention and appreciation. Rescuers tend to take on this role in hopes of feeling valued and important.
The Empowerment Triangle
The three roles in the Drama Triangle may sound awfully familiar. You’ve probably seen them at work in your own relationships. There’s a good chance that you’ve played each of the roles yourself at one time or another.
But maybe you’d rather not fess up to some of those instances. There can be a lot of toxicity present in the dynamics at play between Victims, Persecutors, and Rescuers. It’s a trap we want to escape from, not a comfortable place where we want to dwell. That’s why David Emerald calls it the Dreaded Drama Triangle.
Emerald decided to flip the triangle on its head. He developed a new triangle instead: The Empowerment Dynamic (TED). He outlines it in his book The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic), but let’s take a quick look at its three roles here.
Take the triangle that you imagined earlier and flip it upside-down so that the point is at the top. That top point is for the Creator role.
The Creator in the TED model takes the place of the Drama Triangle’s Victim role. The difference is that a Creator doesn’t come at life from a place of blame but a place of truly recognizing that they are the architect of their experience. They’re the common denominator across all of the unwanted experiences that they’re having.
By stepping into that realization, Creators also discover that they can be the dismantler of those unwanted experiences. Creators can ask, “How am I creating this current circumstance? What is my contribution to this Dreaded Drama Triangle that I am in? Now, what is it that I want — what do I want to create?”
When you choose to operate as a Creator, you allow yourself to get out of a place of powerlessness. You can start to ask life-changing questions and create healthy dynamics that are born from a place of intention, love, freedom, and clarity.
In the bottom left corner of the TED model, you’ll find the role of the Challenger. This is the positive alternative to the Drama Triangle’s Persecutor role.
The Challenger is someone who approaches a situation from the perspective of “I know that you’re okay. I’m not assuming that you’re not okay.”
Challengers relate to Creators in a way that acknowledges that they’re creating their own reality. They don’t suggest that there’s anything that the Creator needs to do.
Instead, a Challenger might offer invitations or opportunities for the Creator to take a look at. The Challenger invites the Creator into an excavation of learning. Those invitations may push the Creator forward and encourage them to reach for greater things.
Unlike a Persecutor, a Challenger trusts in the Creator’s wholeness and completeness. The dynamic isn’t “I need you to do this so that I will be okay.” It’s more like “Here’s an opportunity for learning and expansion and growth, and I’m encouraging you to take it.”
Finally, there’s the spot for the Coach. This is the positive alternative to the Drama Triangle’s Rescuer. The Coach is assigned the bottom right position in the TED triangle.
The Rescuer treats the Victim as just that, a victim. On the other hand, the Coach believes that the Creator has all the answers inside of them. Coaches know that Creators are whole and complete, and they want to help them get in touch with their own resourcefulness.
They do this through questions and inquiry. The idea is to help people get in touch with what they want to create and how they want to orient their lives. Through their involvement, they allow others to operate from a place of intentionality rather than victimhood.
Coaches aren’t attached to the outcomes for the Creator. They support and encourage but, unlike Rescuers, they don’t tie their own value and sense of worth to the results.
Do you see how this new triangle offers empowerment instead of powerlessness? By adopting The Empowerment Dynamic model, you are allowing yourself to move into a place where you can start to ask the questions that are going to fundamentally change your experience.
Ready to take the next steps? Head over to the article “Apply the Empowerment Triangle to Your Life” to learn more about how you can move from a Victim to a Creator. Also, make sure to tune into Episode 29 of The Shift to Freedom Podcast for a discussion with Clayton Olson about these two triangles.