“You are unimaginably cruel. I could never
have done something like that to you.”
One of my clients—we’ll call her Sara—received
that in a nasty text from her ex-husband, who was angry because their daughter,
a young adult, had excluded him from a milestone event. Instead of confronting
their daughter, the ex-husband was pinning his daughter’s
actions on Sara.
Understandably, the accusation consumed Sara.
Even when we aren’t provoked by such
high-emotion personal conflict, these days it’s hard to escape the daily dramas
playing out all around us. Personal dramas are served to us via text and
email—and if our own lives are peaceful, we need look no further than Twitter
for President Trump’s conflicts, or our smartphones for the latest metaphorical
(or literal) trainwreck.
Most of us are, at the very least, distracted
by drama. Despite our best intentions, we have trouble looking away.
Biologically, we are hardwired to love the novelty, stimulation, and social
information that a constant feed of drama provides.
But the 24/7 drama isn’t pointing us towards
meaningful lives. And it keeps us from the stillness and reflection and deep
conversation that make our lives meaningful.
There is another problem with drama. Having a
constant source of it leads us, unknowingly, to take on disempowering roles in
our own lives, roles that hurt our relationships and foster feelings of
powerlessness, shame, and superiority.
How does that happen? In 1968, a psychologist
named Stephen Karpman developed a social model, the “Karpman
Drama Triangle,” to map the dysfunctional behavior we predictably display when
we get sucked into interpersonal drama. Karpman recognized how entertaining and
addictive our relationship conflicts could be—despite being psychologically
Karpman teaches that there tend to be three
roles in a conflict, hence the formation of a triangle:
1. The first and most familiar role is
the victim. This is not an actual victim, mind you; it’s
just someone who feels like they are being
victimized, or someone who is actinglike they are
being persecuted. Victims often feel oppressed and helpless. Deep down, they
tend to feel shame. They are often self-pitying. They act as though they are
powerless, and as such are often our neediest (and most toxic and draining)
friends and relatives.
2. Victims typically identify a persecutor, someone whom they believe is victimizing
them. Persecutors are made out to be controlling and critical. When we take on
the role of persecutor ourselves, often we act angry, rigid, and superior.
3. Every victim has a rescuer who works diligently to save them from
mistreatment. Although it can feel good to play a rescuing role—because
attempting to help others can make us feel good—rescuers don’t really help.
Although their intentions may be good, they are the ultimate enablers, keeping
victims stuck in their roles as victims.
All of these roles are tempting because they
give us a sense of power (even if it is falsepower). Victims
get to claim innocence, they gain the doting attention of their rescuer, and they
avoid taking responsibility for their own lives and their own outcomes.
Persecutors get to sit in the power seat, feeling superior.
Rescuers feel righteous anger and empathy, and
so they also get to feel superior to both the victim and the persecutor. And
while rescuers avoid the negative shadow that hangs over victims and
persecutors, the rescuer role is not healthy, either, because focusing on
someone else’s conflicts is usually an excuse to ignore their own problems.
Rescuers usually have a stake in keeping the victim feeling
helpless and weak. In the end, the rescuer keeps the victim
feeling like a victim by giving them permission to avoid changing or taking
responsibility for their own lives.
These roles are so ingrained in our cultural
milieu that we don’t even see them; we just seamlessly (and unconsciously) step
into them. But they are like junk food, providing only temporary stimulation
and a quick shot in the arm of power, leaving us weaker in the long run.
So, what can we do instead of taking on these
1. Don’t engage
When Sara got that nasty text from her
ex-husband, he was playing a victim role, while making Sara the persecutor. (He
had engaged a mutual friend as a rescuer, who was also texting Sara,
encouraging her to help her ex repair his relationship with his daughter).
Sara needed reminding that getting involved in
a drama like this is always a choice. One option was to just ignore her
ex-husband’s nasty text, or opt to send her ex-husband straight to the source,
telling him to please talk to their daughter directly. And then Sara could
silence the text conversation on her phone.
2. Question the
Having been pinned as a villain, Sara
understandably had a hard time not engaging. She felt that ignoring the
texts coming in by the dozen would only make her ex-husband more justified in
his anger. She wanted to defend herself against his unfair accusations.
More than that, though, Sara felt truly sad
for her ex-husband, even though she understood (and supported) her daughter’s
actions. Sara really felt her ex-husband’s hurt, and she wanted to help him, or
at least soothe his pain. She wanted to intervene, even though she’d never been
successful in doing so in the past.
Perhaps the most important stress-reduction
tactic that anyone has ever taught me is not to believe everything I
think. For Sara to stay out of the Karpman Drama Triangle, she would
have to question her belief that things would get better if she
tried to fix the situation—if she swapped her persecutor role for a
rescuing one. I find The Work of Byron Katie, whose simple strategies are similar to
cognitive behavioral therapy, works well when we need to question our thoughts
In this case, Sara was a lot less tempted to
engage in the conflict when she questioned the assumption that her involvement
would actually help. She came to see that her involvement would actually create
more distance between her ex and their daughter.
3. Take on a different
role in the conflict
We can also always shift the role we are
playing in a conflict from a dysfunctional one to a constructive one.
Victims can become creators. Instead of succumbing to the temptation to wallow
in the unfairness of it all, we can go from problem-oriented to
outcome-oriented. What is it that we want to gain in this situation or
relationship? When we take responsibility for the role we play in challenging
situations, and for our lives, we trade the false power of victimhood for
the real power that comes from creating the life we want.
Persecutors can become, or be seen as, challengers. Persecutors are people (or situations) that force
the victim (now a creator) to clarify their needs, and focus on their own
learning and personal growth. Challengers always tell the truth, even when
it is painful.
Rescuers can become coaches. The key difference between a rescuer and a coach
is that the coach sees the creator as capable of making choices and of
solving their own problems. A coach asks questions that help the creator
to see the possibilities for positive action, and to focus on what
they do want instead of what
they do not want.
Sara ultimately decided not to try to protect
her ex-husband from the truth by making excuses for their daughter, nor did she
try to placate him with pictures from the event. By telling the truth, she’d
become a challenger instead of a persecutor. And by refusing to soothe and
placate, she declined to be a rescuer, even though this made her ex very angry.
She did offer to take on a coaching role, by
asking her ex what type of relationship he wanted with their daughter, and then
asking him how he might take steps to get there—but he wasn’t actually looking
for coaching or to create a new relationship with their daughter. In the end,
because he wasn’t getting what he wanted out of Sara, he kicked her out of his
drama triangle, leaving her alone in peaceful silence.
For Sara, that silence was a blissful ending
to a painful conflict.