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The Drama Triangle: A Primer

Brian Smith


Few concepts have challenged my understanding of human interactions more than the Drama Triangle. Stephen Karpman, a psychologist and student of transactional analysis, discovered the Drama Triangle by analyzing fairy tales to determine the source of dramatic tension. This beautifully simple framework can be used to identify situations where you’re either giving up control to others (as a Victim) or attempting to exert undue control over others (as a Persecutor or Rescuer). In any of these cases, the Drama Triangle helps to identify when you’re wasting physical, emotional, and social energy.

Within the Drama Triangle there are, you guessed it, three roles:

  • Victim

  • Persecutor

  • Rescuer

The Victim

The Victim plays the central role in the Drama Triangle. They feel that other people or circumstances are acting upon them and they are powerless to do anything about it. They may feel attacked, worthless, out of control, or mistreated. The consummate Victim always has a problem, no matter what happens, someone, something, or some situation has adversely impacted this person.

Words of the Victim

  • That’s just who I am…

  • I’m not good at…

  • Poor me!

The Persecutor

Every Victim requires a Persecutor, as the Persecutor is the perceived source of the Victim’s problems. Persecutors aren’t always people. They can come in the form of a condition, such as a disease, or as a circumstance, such as a natural disaster or recession.

Words of the Persecutor

When the Persecutor is self:

  • I shouldn’t have…

  • I messed up…

  • I should have done...

When the Persecutor is others:

  • It’s your fault

  • You didn’t give your best effort

When the Persecutor is a group:

  • You messed it up for all of us

  • They just don’t get it

The Rescuer

The Rescuer is what places itself between the Persecutor and Victim. This can often be a person, but many times it’s not. Rescuers can also take the form of addictions or things we use to numb ourselves: alcohol, drugs, workaholism (I see this one most commonly amongst founders), etc. Two behaviors that nearly always identify the Rescuer: 1. the need to have the last word and 2. a belief that they are always correct.

The Rescuer doesn’t want himself or others to feel bad, and so they seek temporary relief for themselves and others. This is the proverbial ‘giving a man fish rather than teaching him to fish,’ approach. The immediate pain has been removed (hunger), but the core problem (inability to feed oneself) is never addressed. Rescuers find validation in being needed by others.

Words of the rescuer:

  • Poor you! Let me help you.

  • I’ve got the solution/answer.

  • I can do that for you.

We can see these dynamics play out in nearly every area of our lives. It’s a core concept in advertising. Advertisers seek to magnify the pain (Persecutor) that the customer experiences and then provide the customer with a product that removes their pain (Rescuer). This AXE Body Spray commercial perfectly captures the Drama Triangle dynamic at work. The protagonist in the commercial is the Victim of feeling alone and without a female companion. Enter AXE Body Spray and immediately he’s rescued from his fate of loneliness. If only he had found AXE earlier!

The same dynamics happen throughout our lives. Susan has an underperforming salesperson named Tony on his team. Because Susan dislikes confrontation (“I just don’t do well confronting people,” says Susan), she doesn’t address the salesperson’s shortcomings. Instead, Susan meets friends at the bar a few times each week and complains that her team will miss sales targets because of Tony’s poor performance. Susan feels victimized by Tony’s low numbers (the Persecutor in this scenario) and seeks the comfort of two Rescuers: alcohol which reduces the stress created by Tony and her friends who provide her validation that Tony is the problem, not her.

The Rescuer Creates the Victim

What’s seldom understood is that it’s the introduction of a Rescuer that creates the Victim. Let’s view this from the perspective of another example:

Ben is a terrible free-throw shooter. At practice, Ben’s coach wants him to not feel embarrassed by his lack of free-throw abilities. So whenever it’s Ben’s turn to make a free-throw in practice, the coach takes the ball from Ben and shoots the free-throw himself or allows Ben to skip the free-throw altogether. This transaction saves Ben from embarrassment in front of his teammates, but does nothing to improve his ability to shoot a free-throw.

In this scenario:

  • Victim = Ben

  • Persecutor = lack of free-throw abilities

  • Rescuer = Ben’s coach

What do you think happens when Ben is awarded a free-throw in a game? Because he’s never practiced his free-throws, he misses every game-time free-throw opportunity he’s given.

Without the coach’s intervention, Ben would have had two options: practice to improve his free-throws or give up and accept he’ll never be good at free-throws. Without the coach, Ben would be in control and empowered to make his own decisions. When the coach stepped in to save Ben from embarrassment in practice, he disempowered Ben and, though his actions were well-intentioned, he revoked from Ben the opportunity to learn to throw a free-throw.

What to do when you identify the Drama Triangle in your life

All three roles within the Drama Triangle are self-serving and counterproductive. The Victim gives up control to the Persecutor and Rescuer. The Persecutor exerts control over the Victim, while the Rescuer attempts to exert control over both the Victim and Persecutor.

Rule of thumb: If you can identify two elements of the Drama Triangle, but can’t determine the third, it’s likely you! For example, if you can easily identify the Victim and Rescuer, but you can’t identify the Persecutor… chances are that it’s you!

A number of frameworks have been offered to navigate the Drama Triangle, but there is only one sure-fire approach to eliminating the drama created by this dynamic. When you find yourself engaged in a Drama Triangle, remove yourself completely. Step outside of the dramatic entanglement, cut engagement with the people who are insisting on engaging in drama. Sometimes just a “time out” from the dramatic dynamic is enough to put an end to the damaging energy created in these transactions. In other cases, people are too ingrained in their dramatic tendencies to change their behavior. In any event, it’s best to simply remove yourself from these dynamics.

In any Drama Triangle, you’re only playing one role. To completely eliminate the Drama Triangle, you’d need to manipulate the behavior and perceptions of two other people. This type of self-control and leadership takes time to develop and refine.

This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you’re interested in learning more about how drama is creeping into your world and tactics to conquer the Drama Triangle, stay tuned for upcoming posts, or contact me for individualized coaching to begin annihilating drama in your life.