Detach from holiday stress: recognizing the Drama Triangle

It’s holiday time — which means it’s a very good time to revisit our understanding of the Drama Triangle.

What’s the Drama Triangle? It’s a concept that reveals the roles we can get into when in conflict. I often find it helpful to share with clients when we work on issues around self-care. The Drama Triangle was developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman in 1968 (it’s also known as the Karpman Drama Triangle).

Picture a triangle with the roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer at the three points. Then imagine arrows that move from one role to the next and go around the triangle.

These roles are connected and reflexive — when we’re acting out one of these roles, we’re also setting the stage for the others. (Note that these roles are simply energies we can identify with — they’re not meant to be “labels” we give to ourselves or others. I’m not a fan of labeling people “victims” or anything else.)

For example, someone who strongly identifies with being a “rescuer” is going to see people that she is sure “need rescuing” all over the place. She’ll tend to “call in” people who often identify with “victim” energy.

Someone who enacts the “persecutor” (sometimes called “bully”) role tends to be critical and punishing, and can bring out the victim in others, and also trigger the rescuer who steps in to protect the victim.

And when we’re in a “victim” place, we tend to seek out people with rescuer energy.

Most people who hang out on the triangle actually shift between all three roles on a regular basis. And we can experience these roles not just in our relationships with others, but within ourselves.

Here’s an example of how I have experienced this dynamic within myself: I used to identify with a “victim” role quite a bit, and in order to get out of it, I had a “rescuer” or “hero” part of me that would step up and “save” the victim.

This seemed like a good thing for a while, but what I noticed eventually (and yes, getting off the Drama Triangle requires observing our behaviors!) was that the rescuer part of me was not healthy, either. It just wanted to save me and everyone else!

Also, if the rescuer didn’t rescue quite “right” or well enough, I noticed the victim part of me could actually shift over to the persecutor role and criticize the rescuer; similarly, if the rescuer’s “rescue” didn’t turn the victim around, the rescuer part of me could start attacking the victim part of me for being too slow or stubborn or aimless or whatever.

What was much more helpful was for me to observe the victim part of me and connect with it compassionately — not jump in to “save” it.

This is equally true in our relationships with others. When we can take an observing role (presence) and access compassion for ourselves and others, we detach from the Triangle.

Many of us have experienced life on the Drama Triangle in our families of origin at least some of the time. The main “benefit” of the Drama Triangle, for those who spend a lot of time there, is that the roles on the triangle are externally-focused ones.

When we fear looking inward, we may hang out on the triangle as a way of life. Staying externally-focused helps us maintain a sense of control. Our discomfort with self-connection is kept unconscious and directed outwards — we need to “fix” situations by taking up a role on the triangle and trying to control others.

The key to self-connection and calm is to stay off the Drama Triangle — or (more realistically!) to notice when we’re on it, and swiftly step off.

While the concept is fairly simple, it can feel like it’s not at all easy to take care of ourselves when we’re around people who live on the triangle.

This is why during the holidays we can sometimes find ourselves feeling “caught up” — and if we can recognize, “oh, I’m just back on the Drama Triangle, let me step off now,” we can return to presence and self-connection. It takes this recognition that we’re on it to step off, though.

So how do we know we’re back on the Triangle? By how we feel. If our mood takes a nose-dive, or we experience a more subtle sense of “being out of sorts”, we can check in. Have we stepped into any of the roles on the triangle? Are we reacting to someone who is playing one of those roles?

Now, sometimes stress can cause us to go “on autopilot” emotionally — we may not know what the heck we’re feeling. In these cases, we can take a look at our behaviors.

Are we arguing? Withdrawing? Defending ourselves? Trying excessively to make a point with someone else? These may be clues that we’ve stepped onto the Triangle.

Note that even if we haven’t gotten “sucked in” and are not actively playing one of the triangle roles, it can feel really uncomfortable to be around someone who is.

I’ve found that just acknowledging to myself, “Okay, this person is on the triangle and is trying to drag me onto it, too” can help me to return to presence and self-connection. This is the power of naming what is happening. It’s far less confusing when we recognize it and take steps to detach from it.

I’ve also found that honoring my needs as an introvert (and particularly my need for downtime — so important to remember at holiday time!) is truly helpful in keeping me off the triangle. It allows me replenish and I am so much less likely to get “sucked in” when I am rested and aware of my own boundaries.

We can bring in lots of compassion here — for ourselves and others. (I love this piece, Compassion for the Drama Triangle, by Sonia Connolly. And here’s an in-depth piece on how the Drama Triangle plays out and how we can disengage that I found very helpful.)

Here are some posts I’ve written in previous years that you may find helpful when holiday stress arises:

You only ever need to do one thing

There’s no “right way” to be social during the holidays

Your self-care bottom line

Ways to shift your energy when you’re stuck or overwhelmed

What are your experiences with the Drama Triangle? What helps you notice you’re “on the triangle”? I’d love to hear from you!

Wishing you holidays filled with peace and presence! (My holiday focus is presence more than presents these days. 🙂 )

Want to stay connected? You can sign up for my monthly-ish Artist’s Nest Newsletter, here

Above cat and dog images by Jessica LewisMaria Teneva and Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash, respectively

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