By Elisabetta Franzoso, Life Coach, Counsellor, Speaker, Trainer, Author & Social Activist at InsideOutYou Coaching & Training.
When we talk about The Cursed Triangle, our mind easily goes to the Bermuda Triangle in the Pacific Ocean. But there is another dangerous triangle constantly present in our lives – it involves our body, our words, our voice, our thoughts, and our emotions.
I am talking about The Drama Triangle, a dynamic model of social human interaction and a useful way of looking at relationships. I use it in my work with couples, family relationships, and teams as a way of understanding where they are right now and where they need to go.
The Drama Triangle represents the relationship between people. The Persecutor (The Villain), the Rescuer (The Hero), and the Victim are different roles that people play along with their whole existence. Before we go into more details, it is worth highlighting that these terms do not relate to the person but rather to their role in specific relationships.
These roles are interchangeable and not set. In every relationship, it is possible to identify someone who has more power over the other person or people in that relationship. Often, this dynamic is subconscious and can also shift regularly. What is the Drama Triangle?
Stephen Karpman, M.D., developed the ‘Drama Triangle’, describing the three roles of Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor almost 40 years ago in 1961, when he was a student of Eric Berne, M.D. (the father of Transactional Analysis).
A few years ago, Don Phin and Loy Young wrote an interesting book about the Triangle using slightly different names for some of the roles. The terminology, possibly inspired by popular archetypes, sees the Victim turn into the Persecutor and the Rescuer turn into the Hero (while the Villain retains the terminology from Karpman). For the purpose of this article, I will use both the Karpman and Phin & Young terminology.
As a fervent believer in the value of ‘authentic and healthy communication’, I have spent many years studying and analysing what I have come to call ‘The Cursed Triangle in Relationships’. I find this model just as relevant today (and just as new to too many people) as it was 40 years ago.
Karpman points out that Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim refer to roles that people subconsciously play or try to manipulate others to play and not the actual circumstances of someone’s life.
The Drama Triangle is used in psychology to describe the insidious way in which we present ourselves as Victims, Persecutors, or Rescuers. Although these are roles and not a reflection of who we are as people, the labels can make us get caught up in a toxic cycle that is hard to escape.
Even when we do not play any of these three roles, we probably deal with people who do on a daily basis. Therefore, building awareness is the first step we need to take if we want to get out of these sabotaging roles and nurture more mature communication in our relationships.
In her article; The Three Faces of Victim – An Overview of the Drama Triangle, Lynne Forrest describes the roles in this way:
“The three roles on the victim triangle are Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim. Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and described them as being the three aspects, or faces of victim. No matter where we start out on the triangle, the victim is always where we end up. Therefore, no matter what role we’re in on the triangle, we’re in victimhood. If we’re on the triangle, we’re living as victims – plain and simple!”
My personal interest in this model surfaced in 2007 when I was still living in Singapore and working as a coach, counsellor, and trainer. Ruth La Choi, head of the HR Department of NUS (National University of Singapore), commissioned me to run a workshop on harassment and bullying. It was at that point that I started to investigate the model in-depth, and more recently, I even decided to interview clients and friends.
My interest in this model and its conscious and subconscious use has expanded over the years as I deepened my interest and practice of two basic relationship values – love and responsibility. What follows are my conclusions on the topic resulting from years of study and research. The importance of self-awareness.
Are you a Victim, a Persecutor, or a Rescuer? If you’re human, chances are there will be different situations where you may view yourself (or may be seen by others) as all three. As a coach with years of experience who works with different types of clients on a regular basis, I still find it hard to pinpoint which role clients find more exhausting.
Here are some interesting questions that might be worth asking ourselves:
- How often do we attract individuals or situations as Villains-Persecutors in our lives?
- How often do we become victims of Villain-Persecutors and Rescuers-Heroes?
- But also, how often do we play the role of the Persecutors and Hero ourselves?
- And, do Rescuers-Heroes need Persecutors-Villains around?
But here is the most important question of all.
- Which one are you?
If we carefully look inwards, we realise we probably are or have taken on all of these roles in our relationships at some point in our lives – no matter our age, sex, culture, and status. In fact, none of these roles can stand alone. They are completely dependent on a relationship dynamic.
For example, when we look at the relationships we have with others, we can all think of Persecutors-Villains (in various forms) existing in our lives. This might be an ex-lover, a co-worker, a boss, a mom or a dad, a brother or a sister, and even a son or a daughter. And what about a political leader that makes life miserable for us all? At some point in our lives, we all experience the state and role of the victim. And sooner or later, thanks to different inner motives (either known or unknown) we then transform into rescuers-heroes.
The switch happens and the script is re-written when we become conscious of what we attract and create with our own free choice.
Jacob Devaney explains this concept in a wonderful way in his article; Villains, Victims, and Heroes: Which One are You?
“Ever since we first understood words and heard our first stories, these characters were with us. We identify with them, we aspire to be like them or struggle to avoid becoming them. We usually end up playing all the roles in our own lives and in other people’s stories. The ability to witness these character roles playing out without becoming over-identified is a core teaching in many spiritual traditions. We are in the story but not of the story. We can be trapped in a role or liberated by it. The ability to witness, without attachment, may be the best tool we have to navigate consciously, as we surf the drama of life.”
At some point in our personal healing journey, self-awareness is what allows us to see beyond the roles we have been placed in and witnessed. Awareness is what makes the difference between being stuck in a behavioural pattern and having the power to free ourselves.
Also, once we understand and fully accept that we are the source of many of our problems, we become empowered to become the very rescuer-hero we need in order to become free from our Persecutors-Villains. As long as we learn and accept that we can shift roles – and start actively doing it – we can transform what is or has been a struggle into a dance. This is what I call The Dance of Responsibility.
But before we get into that, let’s go into the three roles in more detail.
The Persecutor – Villain role (mentality)
On top of the triangle, we have the Persecutor and the Rescuer. Let’s start by exploring the Persecutor-Villain. This image can be found in Linda Graham’s article here.
A Persecutor assumes ways and behaviours through which they can control and protect themselves. Persecutors are usually people with an underlying fear of being victimised, In fact, before assuming the role of Persecutors, they were victims themselves.
The behaviour of the Persecutor is shame-based, which is why, often, this role is taken on by someone who received overt mental and/or physical abuse during their childhood. As a result, this person is secretly seething inside from shame-based wrath that ends up running their lives.
As David Emerald Womeldorff states in his article; The Persecutor Role.
“Persecutor represents the ‘fighter’ in the fight, flight, freeze, or please reactive mechanism. They focus on a sense of personal survival and worth by using their power to control and dominate a situation.”
The general stance of the Persecutor is ‘it’s all your fault!’. This is because Persecutors overcome feelings of helplessness and shame by over-powering others. Domination becomes their most prevalent style of interaction. This means they always need to be right! They criticise, lecture, preach and blame the Victim. They set strict limits, they can be controlling, rigid, authoritative, angry, and unpleasant. They keep the Victim feeling oppressed through threats and bullying. Persecutors cannot ‘bend’ – they cannot be flexible, vulnerable, or humane. And most of all, they fear the risk of turning into a Victim themselves.
Being my own Persecutor
In her article, The Triangle of Victim, Rescuer, Persecutor, Lynne Forest states:
“It is most difficult for someone in the persecutor role to take responsibility for the way they hurt others. In their mind, others deserve what they get. These warring individuals tend to see themselves as having to constantly fight for survival. Theirs is a constant struggle to protect themselves in what they perceive as a hostile world.”
Through my own experience of observing having been a Persecutor in some of my relationships, I learnt that Persecutors always need someone to blame. They also have a highly narcissistic nature.
The root of the problem is that they keep denying their vulnerability in the same way Rescuers deny their needs. Their deepest fear is losing control and being unable to exercise their power. Because they are stuck in denial and judge and deny their own inadequacy and fragility, Persecutors normally need someplace else to project these disowned feelings and shadows. In other words, they need a Victim.
To me, the most crucial part is when we become our own Persecutors. Is it even possible, you may wonder?
Of course, but it is a subtle and dangerous process denied by many.
We become our own Persecutors when a part of ourselves ends up victimising another. This happens through a game of domination and submission. We all have an inner critic-judge and an inner child within us, and each of them can take on the role of a (self-)Persecutor.
I remember when as a little girl I had a favourite doll that I used to call Elisabetta (just like me) while everyone was calling me by my nickname – Betty. In hindsight, I can now tell a part of me had projected the hate I had towards myself outwards – towards my doll. Elisabetta the doll was me, and I had become my own Persecutor. What freed me from my own Persecutor is that I had transferred all that hate onto something outside of me – something I ended up destroying with my own hands.
This is very common. When you think about it, how many of us (during childhood and adolescence) nurture self-loathe, shame, and guilt and end up persecuting ourselves?
Could you be one of them? Perhaps it is time to check.
Becoming the ‘Responsible Assertive ME’
In the Drama Triangle, the Persecutor may be also represented by a disease or a circumstance. But when a Persecutor is a person, they are symbiotically linked to the Victim and seek to dominate (overtly or covertly), to sustain a ‘one-up’ position through a variety of aggressive and/or manipulative means.
But I believe we have a choice. Always. With awareness, we also gain responsibility. The responsibility to let go of the Persecutor role and transition towards the ‘Responsible Assertive ME’.
David Emerald Womeldorff, author of The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)® refers to this role as the Challenger:
“The Challenger has many faces. The most common one is the one who provokes others to take action. The Challenger may be compassionate or confrontational, or both. […] A Challenger is a kind of teacher who points towards life’s lessons, toward opportunities for growth embedded in the living of life.”
The Responsible Assertive ME is conscious and constructive. It serves as a catalyst for change and growth and may create opportunities for thoughtful action for people who are trapped in the Victim and Rescuer roles. When we take on this role, we start approaching relationships with a learning intent and aim to ‘build-up’ rather than ‘put down’.
The Rescuer – Hero Role (Mentality)
The second role on the top of the Drama Triangle is the Rescuer or Hero, this image can be found in Linda Graham’s article here. Rescuers always think of ways to make everyone happy. They are perceived and perceive themselves as very generous.
But somehow they can victimise people as much as Persecutors do. They look for Victims to save so they can feel good with themselves. They are often quick to jump in and ‘save the day’. But while this may not look like a dominant move (unlike what Persecutors do), it is a manipulative move. By fixing and saving others, Rescuers believe they will gain appreciation and value for their good deeds. They believe their worth results from how much they do for others.
Therefore, in relationships, Rescuers often attract men and women who seem incapable of helping themselves. Rescuers have a sixth sense when it comes to who needs help. If there is a needy person in the room or on the team, the Rescuer will set their attention on them and focus on what they can do to assist. But their concern is never unconditional.
Because the Rescuer is always subconsciously on the lookout for someone in a crisis who needs their help, in order to feel indispensable, they may come across as arrogant. Despite their good intentions, they tend to dis-empower people around them and end up taking control.
On top of this, Rescuers typically neglect their own needs or deny responsibility for meeting them. This often makes them co-dependent and ‘enablers’. As enablers, Rescuers can be seen to allow the other person to continue acting as they please, without ever setting strong boundaries. A Rescuer in a relationship with a Victim or a Persecutor will effectively enable that person to stay in that role.
Codependency also comes into play because Rescuers often cannot allow their Victim (the person or people they feel need them) to move forward in life and succeed. The minute the object of their help and support no longer needs them, their sense of self-worth is affected. So they (either consciously or subconsciously) use guilt and shame to keep others dependent on them.
The flip side to this is that Rescuers are frequently overworked, tired, and caught up in a martyr attitude. It’s no surprise that deep resentment for neglecting their own needs then festers and bubbles under the surface and can sometimes be verbalised towards the Victim, thus inducing feelings of guilt and shame.
Being my own Rescuer
Can we be our own Rescuers? I believe so, but in order to be our own Rescuers, we need to be fuelled by authentic love. We need to focus time and energy to rescue ourselves first – by loving ourselves and taking care of our lives before anyone else’s. It means being responsible.
So the way to rescue ourselves is not by excusing or justifying behaviours (such as confronting others and addiction) and choices that we, as Rescuers, neglect to take which would contribute to our own health and well-being. Quite the opposite, in fact. The real Rescuer is someone who is objective. Someone who helps us, rather than sabotage us.
This makes me think of a popular Mariah Carey song which introduces the Hero we all have within us. It is not a chance that the Hero is also one of the 12 Archetypes by Carl Jung.
But how does the Hero come into play when thinking about being our own Rescuers?
Since childhood, human beings are conditioned to look for someone to rescue. As young children, we learn to be Mum and Dad’s first rescuers, we feel we have the duty to save them from their own destiny and help them to be happy when we perceive they are not.
As we grow older, we start identifying ourselves with the Rescuers of the World. But we are not. We are only human. Unfortunately, the more we take on the role of Rescuers, the more we struggle to step out of it, even as we grow older and into adults. We learn to be Rescuers as children, so why do we forget to rescue ourselves later on in life? We should use this innate talent to rescue ourselves first, not to meet the needs of the outside world. Because in doing so we forget about ourselves.
And it is not only that, when we only focus on saving the world, we end up damaging others too because we fail to facilitate social responsibility. When we feel the compulsive need to rescue others in order to feel good about ourselves, we are doing it to fill up a sense of emptiness that we cannot sustain alone. And this does not help us, just like it does not help others.
Does this mean we should not rescue others?
Personally, I believe we can only rescue ourselves. As far as others are concerned, we can certainly guide them, but only when they ask for help. We may be asked to point out something we see and they might be interested to discover too. But at the same time, we should also set clear boundaries when delivering our message or providing that help.
With awareness comes responsibility, and we can choose to let go of the Rescuer role, transforming it in the ‘Responsible ME Guide.’
While the Rescuer helps the Victim to numb out and is any person or activity (such as an addiction) that serves to help the Victim relieve the ‘pain’ of Victimhood, the ‘Responsible ME Guide’ views others as resourceful and capable beings. It is a positive alternative to the Drama Triangle role of the Rescuer?
David Emerald Womeldorff, author of The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)® refers to this role as the Coach:
“Despite having helpful intentions, the Rescuer as a person reinforces the Victim’s ‘poor me’ self-identity and reinforces the Victim’s sense of powerlessness. This renders the Victim dependent upon the Rescuer for a sense of safety – a bond forged by the Victim’s shame for needing to be rescued and cemented by the Rescuer’s own fear of abandonment or loss of purpose. A Coach on the contrary supports, yet keeps, the ‘power’ with the other and encourages independence and interdependence on those they serve. A Coach sees each person as a Creator in their own right, and seeks to support them in the process of creating outcomes.”
The Victim Role (mentality)
The third and final role in the Drama Triangle is the Victim.
Victims generally feel powerless and at the mercy of life’s events and may avoid taking responsibility for their actions. They also find it easier and actually enjoy blaming others or the circumstances they find themselves in for their misfortunes.
Victims have difficulty answering the question, ‘What is that I really want?’. They often feel their only option is to sit on the sideline of life, criticising and complaining. The main focus for someone operating from a Victim point of view is on what they do not want or like. Their attention is on what isn’t, rather than what is.
They are unhappy with life’s circumstances and, because they feel powerless, they are often full of self-pity. Hopelessness is their constant inner state. The default stance of the Victim is ‘poor me!’ Because of their views of themselves and the world, they can deny any responsibility for their negative circumstances. And more than anything, they do not believe they have the power to change their life.
As well as powerless and hopeless, Victims see themselves as oppressed, helpless, rejected, and ashamed. They can come across as ‘super-sensitive’ – needy of a kind and loving treatment from others. And when their criticism of others turns inward, they can become their own worst Persecutors too.
Being my own Victim
It is important to highlight at this point that victimhood and victimisation are not the same.
Victims have real difficulties with making decisions, solving problems, understanding their self-perpetuating behaviours, and even finding pleasure in life. They often exhaust themselves by focusing on helping others and eventually become Victims of themselves. They completely and fully take on board the Victim identity (victimhood). But identifying as a Victim and becoming a Victim (victimisation) are not the same thing. From time-to-time, we all experience victimisation, and that is okay. It is part and parcel of being human.
Sometimes being in the wrong place at the wrong time is enough to make any strong, confident individual become a Victim. And certainly, after a trauma like abuse, rape, sudden abandonment and rejection, it is easy to get caught in the perpetuating emotional cycle of ‘victim consciousness’.
Understanding our roles in life situations is the only way to transcend all forms of blame, including self-blame. And anyone who has had to undergo the process of healing from trauma will know that overcoming self-blame is a real challenge. Oftentimes, the pain is so great that we choose escapism or numbness over mindful presence and acceptance of all the emotions and hurt involved. When life crisis hits, we often combine the need to become Rescuers-Heroes or, rather, indulge wounds that keep us stuck in the Victim role, thus deepening our own self-sabotage.
As Jacob Devaneys states in his article; Villains, Victims, and Heroes: Which One are You?,
“It is always easier to notice this in others but we must have the courage to hold the mirror up to ourselves on occasion. When times are tough it is always easier to blame the external world, to find demons to project the hurt onto, to create toxic situations that make our internal pain feel less overwhelming. When distracting ourselves with delusions, or rationalizations, or compulsions, we can easily fall into the blame-shame-denial cycle.”
According to my experience in my family of origin, assuming the Victim attitude in life or work can be one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome. It requires enormous inner emotional, intellectual, and spiritual strength. We need a strong willingness to simultaneously be present with our own wounds while also finding the ability to distance ourselves rather than over-identifying. When we remain stuck in the role, we can become our worst enemies.
But we always have a choice. And, as I mentioned earlier, with awareness comes responsibility. We can let go of the Victim role and transform into the ‘Responsible Fragile ME’.
The ‘Responsible Fragile ME’
A Victim is someone who feels they have no power of choice. Victims have experienced crucial loss, thwarted longings and aspirations, and are unable to believe in dreams. According to David Emerald Womeldorff, author of The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)®, the Creator is the positive alternative to the powerless Victim, the central figure in Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle.
Differently from the Victim, the ‘Responsible Fragile ME’ or Creator, knows they have a choice. And that means they have power – something the Victim does not believe they have. Because of this, the Creator responds rather than reacts to situations, people, and conflicts. They are able to evaluate a situation, consider a desired outcome or dream and take steps towards it.
The real issue: lack of personal responsibility and inability to ‘embrace our own shadow’s’ inability of taking responsibility and the reluctance to embrace our own ‘shadow side’ are what stops us from recognising when we are playing one of the three roles. In other words, there is a part of us that we either remove from consciousness or that we know is there but fail to accept an outright reject. Carl Jung calls this the ‘shadow’.
When we are able to embrace our shadow, we recognise and accept the roles of the triangle we assume in our relationships – be it Persecutor, Rescuer, or Victim. Only then, we can take things a step further and transform into each alternative role (the equivalent Responsible ME role). But we cannot make that transition until we first embrace the part of us that needs to change. Not even Rescuers, who pride themselves on being responsible, take responsibility for themselves. Actually, they are as irresponsible as the Persecutors and the Victims. Because their attention is focussed on the outside, they have no idea that taking care of themselves should be a priority.
Persecutors, for their part, shift responsibility by blaming others for their misery. And Victims always look for someone else to take responsibility for them.
Rather than living a life based on self-responsibility and personal choice, we settle into dull and painful lives ruled by the agendas of others and by our own unconscious beliefs.
None of the roles of the Drama Triangle takes responsibility for themselves. And yet, if we want to experience a fulfilling life we need to develop an authentic willingness to ‘jump off the triangle’, embrace our shadow side (something we do not like acknowledging), and extend our compassion to those still encumbered by their own drama.
In the words of Lynne Forrest from the piece; The Triangle of Victim, Rescuer, Persecutor.
“Because Dr. Karpman was a student of transactional analysis at the time he identified these three roles on the drama triangle, there is a resemblance to the critical parent (persecutor) marshmallow parent (rescuers) and the wounded inner child (victim) Eric Berne described in Games People Play.”
What I believe gives the Drama Triangle much of its significance and value is the understanding that people will often switch roles and cycles and yet remain stuck in vicious cycles.
- Victims depend on Rescuers.
- Rescuers yearn for someone to ‘fix’ in order to feel generous and valued.
- Persecutors need a scapegoat.
The trap we fall into is that we all are acting out these roles to meet our personal (often subconscious) needs rather than being able to see the whole picture and assume responsibility for our part in keeping the triangle going.
So what can you do to increase your self-awareness of the roles you play?
Having a journal is a fantastic and inexpensive way to give yourself the opportunity to author your own story. A journal allows you to reflect and recognise, thus letting go of denial.
My suggestion is to ask yourself empowering questions that can unmask feelings you might have felt or still feel, for example:
Have I ever played the role of the Persecutor in life or at work? Do I have the ability to play the Persecutor role? When have I been the Persecutor in my own story?
Have I ever played the role of the Rescuer in life or at work? Do I have the ability to play the Rescuer role in order to gain value and control? When have I been the Rescuer or the Hero in my own story?
Have I ever entered the role of the Victim in life or at work? Do I have the ability to play the Victim role to manipulate situations and people? When have I been the Victim of myself in my own story?
If you recognise yourself in any of the behaviours described in this article, I recommend you see a Counsellor or Coach who specialises in relationships and codependency. Recognising and stepping out of a role can be hard, but with the support of a professional who can help you see within, you will achieve positive transformation.
If what I’ve written has resonated with you and you think I could be the right support for you, feel free to get in touch and schedule a Free 30 Minute Consultation by clicking the button below.
This blog post is categorised in both the Relational Dimension. To view blog posts based on the 4 dimensions click the links below:
► Elisabetta Franzoso is a multi continental Life and Wellness Coach practicing between Barcelona, London, Milan and Singapore where she has many loyal clients.
► Elisabetta empowers men and women to master their mind, body and personal relationships through renewing their confidence and building a sense of wellness. She does this through her unique Coaching In 4 Dimensions framework which takes into account the physical, emotional, intellectual and relational aspects of humanity.
► Elisabetta will inspire you to live the life you want to live, maximise your potential and achieve self mastery. Aside from coaching, Elisabetta is a passionate social activist and spokesperson against abuse.
► Elisabetta has been featured extensively across international and UK press including Thrive Global, Grazia Magazine, Breathe Magazine and Health & Wellbeing Magazine. Stay up to date with Elisabetta at instagram.com/elisabettafranzoso and www.elisabettafranzoso.com
If you are interested in further resources on the topic, I recommend the following:
- David Emerald Womeldorff, author of The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)®
- Lynne Forrest: The Three Faces of Victim – An Overview of the Drama Triangle”
- Jacob Devaney: Villains, Victims, and Heroes: Which One are You?
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