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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.

The Three Kings in a Man's Life

Brian Smith


There are three kings in every man’s life. This is a theme that has been traced through myths, traditions, and religions worldwide. This concept was brought forward in modern times through the work of Robert Bly and his translations and interpretations of Germanic myths.

The Three Kings

First King

The first king in a man’s life is his father. The father is in complete control over a young boy’s life. If a father chooses to ostracize his son from the family, leave him on the side of the trail, or physically harm him, there is little that a young boy can do to defend himself from his father. This is some of the first control and dominance that we learn as boys. Because of the control our fathers have over us as children, nearly everything that we do is in service of winning our fathers’ approval or making them proud. We wish for them to approve of us, accept us, and, ideally, love us. Age alone does not graduate a boy from this first kinghood. There are many men who live their entire lives still firmly rooted in first kinghood. These men live striving to make their fathers proud even decades after their father has died.

Second King

The second king in a man’s life can take many forms. Historically, the second king position may have been a village elder or a man under whom is the boy is apprenticing. Today the second king can take many different forms. It may be a football coach, a boss, a teacher, a friend, or someone whom they interacted with, even briefly. The second king can also take the form of something that represents a person or an idea, such as Facebook likes or the amount of money in his bank account.

Often, we find that we serve different people as kings in different areas of our lives. For example, your athletic ambitions may be driven by the influence of the coach you had when you were in high school. Upon deep reflection, you may recognize that the energy and effort you put into your athletic training is in hopes of making this coach, with whom you no longer have any contact, proud. You may find that the way you dress, or the cocktail you choose to drink, or the cars you choose to drive are influenced by a desire to be accepted by a person or group. The influences can appear in all sorts of ways. In my case, I found that the way that I smile for photos is influenced by somebody in my past with whom I no longer have any contact whatsoever. In any event, no matter who or what you’re serving, you are not in control. You’ve given control up to the second king.

Third King

The third king in a man’s life, is himself. This is one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts in masculine development. Up to this stage, a man has been serving others, whether his father, someone else in his life, or representation of others. Following this natural progression, most men assume that they will be in command and will be served by others when they themselves become king in this third stage. These are erroneous assumptions. To address this disconnect, let us first to examine the role of the king.

Kings reign. They do not toil, they do not work. They make difficult decisions for the benefit of their kingdom. Kings harmonize their kingdom, unite opposites, and maintain order. The king acts as the connection between his subjects and a higher power. Through the king, his subjects access something greater as a group and within themselves.

The Tao Te Ching describes it well:

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

-Tao Te Ching, Verse 17, as translated by John C. H. Wu, Shambhala Pocket Classics, 1990

To achieve this third stage kinghood, which is the “highest type of ruler” described by the Tao, we must be acting in service of a higher power. Our kingdoms may be as large as the English empire, or as small as just a few people. No matter how large your kingdom is, our role as king is to serve our subjects and act as the conduit to a higher power.

Kinghood takes many different forms. Kinghood for you may be as a football coach serving high school students and their families. Or as a vintage vacuum repairman who can fix even the most obscure machine. You may even find your kinghood as CEO of a company - but don’t be fooled. Just because you have a company of people following your orders does not mean you’ve reached third kinghood, no matter how successful your organization may be at making money. In my experience, those who believe they are in the third stage - especially those who have assembled an organization or group around themselves - are most often locked in the first or second stage.

To ascertain where you may be in the progression, ask yourself “Who am I serving? From where do I derive my power?” Be honest with your answer. Ask others to answer these questions for you. You may be surprised to learn who or what you serve.

If you’re interested in learning how you can take control of your own pathway into kinghood and experience life more fully than ever before, consider joining one of my upcoming mens groups.

Pick Your Pain

Brian Smith


Training for a race next month that you hope to win?
Pick your pain: the pain of sprints today or face the pain of losing next month.

Building a business and hate selling?
Pick your pain: suck it up and risk the pain of rejection today or face the pain of shutting down a failed business tomorrow.

Want to lose weight for that Tulum trip?
Pick your pain: suffer through a few salads and exercise classes or face the pain of trying to hide your gut at the pool and in every photo.

Dealing with a challenging relationship?
Pick your pain: have a hard, honest, and painful discussion today on your terms or face a devastating blow-up in the future.

Humans are creatures of comfort. We naturally pick the path of least resistance. Let’s rename the “path of least resistance” to something more illustrative: “the path of least pain.“

We set goals and hold ourselves to ideals because they are, by their very nature, challenging.  We must push ourselves and grow - we must face pain - in order to accomplish the things that matter to us in our lives and to become the people we hope to become.

Facing pain is one of the fastest paths to learning. Even our aphorisms tell us so: “once bitten, twice shy.” Not all pain is physical, of course.

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.”

-Thomas Szasz

Facing the immediate pain greatly reduces the future pain of unmet goals, expectations, hopes, and dreams. Whenever you’re facing a challenging decision, ask yourself what pain you’re picking: near-term pain in pursuit of growth, or long-term pain in pursuit of comfort.

“Success is the result of hard decisions, not hard work.”

{Image source.}