Are you sometimes overwhelmed by the seemingly ongoing battles between different groups in the world, and perhaps between individuals in your own life? Do you often encounter conflicts in the workplace?
Say hello to the Karpman Drama Triangle, sometimes also called the Victim Triangle. It can empower you to maintain a cooler mind as you consider the issues, and to focus upon what is most important to you.
This triangle is often used to understand the dynamics of families impacted by addiction or abuse. It can also help you in your everyday interactions, as you learn to recognize when someone is attempting to pull you into a triangle. The emotional side of it can become an addictive cycle.
Because addiction and abuse are prevalent in our culture, these dynamics often show up in other places. If you’re a public or private sector leader, or a concerned citizen, the Drama Triangle can help you to understand social and organizational conflicts.
I believe that many of our internal and family-level dramas, when unaddressed, simply play out on a national level. Because of that, some of the systemic change we desire needs to start from within.
It’s important to draw a distinction before moving ahead: Victimization is a real thing in the world. Traumatic things happen to all of us, and some groups are more oppressed and victimized than others. I’m talking here about mental frameworks we sometimes overuse to explain our lives and the world. To borrow a phrase from Lynne Forrest, we can be in victim consciousness regardless of whether we or someone else is actually a victim.
What is the Drama Triangle? An Example from Addictive Family Systems
Often, the addict or abuser (the perpetrator) harms family and friends, while simultaneously viewing themselves as a victim. They then manipulate family and friends into believing that they are the ones who are actually responsible for the damage.
“You’re the one who made me use.”
“If you had been more supportive, I wouldn’t have felt driven to do this.”
“You asked for it.”
“You deserved it.”
And so on.
The perpetrator may then attempt to position themselves as a hero or savior, following an apology and a promise to change.
“I’m so sorry I hit you again. I’ll make up for it. I promise I won’t ever do it again.”
“I’m so sorry I used again, especially on our anniversary. Next year will be better.”
The victims, loving the person, manipulated into thinking they’re to blame, and in need of a hero due to their desperate situation (which was created largely by the perpetrator), want to believe the perpetrator and give them another chance. So, they often do.
The perpetrator’s manipulation may put friends and family into conflict with each other.
A few outspoken and brave people may call out the addict/abuser on their bullsh**.
Other relatives or friends will remain largely silent, or argue that the addict just needs to be given more chances. Deprived of attention and affection, they may compete for the limited, occasional attention and affection that the addicted person has to offer them.
Unfortunately, these unpredictable emotional reward patterns, which behavioral psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement,” can themselves be very addictive for the enabling family members. Intermittent reinforcement is what keeps people playing a lottery or pulling the lever on a slot machine. It is what keeps many people in abusive relationships, where they get only intermittent glimpses of love and affection. It is one reason why pick-up artists all over the internet advocate “push-pull” flirtation techniques. (Sidebar: I don’t know whether relationships founded upon such attraction are more likely to be turbulent. It’s certainly possible.)
All this infighting and competition, of course, keeps the rest of the family system divided, distracted, and competing with each other, enabling the addict/abuser to keep on doing what they’ve been doing.
I’m not talking solely about chemical addictions. In light of findings suggesting that a lack of connection may contribute to addictive behaviors, I’m talking about various behaviors that distract from connection to oneself and to others. This can include excessive pursuit of materialistic rewards, excessive pursuit and hoarding of money, addiction to power, workaholism, and so on.
From the Family to the Organizational & Societal Level
The dynamics discussed above can occur at the family, organizational, and societal levels. At the societal level, masses of individuals remain in conflict, blaming one another–by race, sex, religion, or other labels that divide them–while various addictions continue. For example, many people may compete with each other, supporting those with influence in hopes of getting some of the money and power that they intermittently dole out.
These behaviors may be driven by a deep fear that the world is going to hell, and the only way to survive is to compete as fiercely as you can and to accumulate as much as you possibly can in hopes that you’ll be among the few surviving.
This is similar to the dynamics in an addictive family system, where family members, starved for healthy affection, may compete in vain for the limited, intermittently available love and attention of the primary addict.
Things don’t change until others stop their infighting, recognize the source(s) of the tensions, and band together to intervene. Along the way, some folks may need to address issues like holier than thou syndrome.
Because many parts of the world are experiencing significant political tensions, I’ll use the example of elections.
Take a moment to consider the dynamics surrounding an upcoming or recent election that you feel passionately about. You may experience one or more of the following:
- I realize now, more than ever, how unfair the world is to me (which may be true, but now it’s feeling even more salient than ever).
- My political candidate of choice (or other public figure) has been victimized in some of the same ways I have (which may or may not be true). I can really relate to them.
- My candidate is under attack by some pretty crazy and unreasonable folks. I can’t believe the extent to which those persecutors are stooping to make my candidate look bad.
- My candidate seems to be the only reasonable person among them. And even when my candidate does lash out a bit, it’s because the other person and their crazy supporters deserved it.
- If and when my candidate wins, they’ll help to rescue me, and those like me, from these injustices.
If any of the above sound like you, then you have allowed yourself to be drawn into at least one drama triangle. But don’t beat yourself up over it; again, it’s very, very common.
Leaders as Parental Projections: Increasing the Power of the Drama
If you’ve ever worked with a relationship therapist, or have training in psychology, you already know this: We often choose romantic partners who remind us of one or both of our parents. We look to them to “heal the wounds” of our imperfect childhoods, compensating for the shortcomings we experienced with our parents. We look for “the person who can make me whole again.”
In other words, we expect our romantic partners to be our heroes or heroines, rescuing us and making everything okay.
When you project these needs upon a significant other, it creates powerful attachments, and can result in powerful emotions. You identify with the other person on a very personal level. You may come to feel that your own survival depends upon their well-being, in the same way you once relied upon your parent(s). Being in relationship with them, even if you still maintain a healthy amount of independence, is an important part of you.
Given all of this, if you sense that someone is attacking your loved on in any way, you’re likely to experience that attack on a very visceral level. You may take it personally.
Now, imagine that you project some of yourself and your needs upon a preferred political candidate in a similar fashion. This doesn’t seem like too far a stretch, given that we prefer leaders who remind us of our parents in other ways. For example, our preferred parenting style–which is often inherited from our parents–often predicts our preferred public leadership style.
When you strongly identify with a candidate, leader, or other public figure in such a way, seeing them as a hero or heroine who is going to make up for the injustices you perceive in the world, your connection to them may come to feel like a strong part of your personal identity.
As with your parents and significant other, it may feel as though your survival depends upon the public figure’s existence and well-being. If a friend says negative things about them, it may put knots in your stomach and make you angry. It may feel like an attack on you and a potential threat to your own survival and well-being.
The Drama Triangle in Story Telling
Alongside addictive family systems, another factor makes the drama triangle especially prevalent in our culture. It is often linked to one of the oldest and most powerful plot devices: the hero’s journey, described by Joseph Campbell. It’s the structure which forms the foundation of many of the world’s most powerful myths and stories. Famous filmmakers utilize it in dramatic tales ranging from The Matrix to Star Wars.
You come to identify with someone in a film or story. Your Jedi knight is wronged by someone from the dark side. Challenging consequences and vicious attacks make your heroine or hero the underdog.
You feel tension and uncertainty. You want things resolved. You want justice. Oh, so badly. It had better be resolved soon, by the end of the movie.
With support and rallying of troops, the hero overcomes the evil forces and saves the day.
At long last, against nail-biting odds, the Death Star is destroyed.
You get a big adrenaline rush, the emotional reward that the writers had in store for you. You feel great.
Then you leave the theater and get back on with your life.
These dynamics, in movies and in real life, can be very seductive. Who doesn’t want to feel like a hero? Who doesn’t enjoy the sympathy we can get when others agree we’ve been a victim?
These same story lines are employed in advertising, movies, books, and news stories to influence your opinions about particular products, causes, political candidates, social policy ideas, religious viewpoints, or other topics.
For example, a story biased toward stronger gun control legislation may feature a gun user as a perpetrator and an innocent person who was shot as the victim. A story biased toward freedom to carry firearms may feature a gun user as a hero, defending themselves against a perpetrator such as a robber. This is just one example among myriad controversial topics.
Such stories can have a persuasive effect, creating a change in opinion over time. At the same time, they can exacerbate “us” versus them” tensions.
Potential Dangers of Drama Triangle Engagement
Unfortunately, in many cases, a drama triangle does represent reality. Oppression of many groups and individuals is still a real thing in our culture. Injustices often happen. But in many cases, the good guy/bad guy lines drawn aren’t so clear. The same person or group can be a hero, a victim, AND a perpetrator at different times. An example of this would be U.S. military engagement in other parts of the world.
Black-and-white or dichotomous thinking often goes hand-in-hand with addiction-driven behavior and the drama triangle.
When you pair dichotomous thinking with a Drama Triangle, it has an additional impact: Wherever you have a clear and persistent victim, you may crave a hero/heroine to save the day, and want a clear perpetrator to lay the blame on.
You may seek out specific people or organizations to label as the “bad guy.” This might be a certain evil corporation or industry, a certain evil politician, an entire country, or even a group of countries (Axis of Evil). This makes things more predictable. You might look for opportunities to get involved and support the hero or the victim.
Sure, sometimes individuals, organizations, or even industries do thoughtless things and need to drastically change or even be put out of business. Or sometimes, targeting a particular person or organization—in a relatively civil manner—can help to build momentum for a cause. I’ve done this myself. But in many cases, it’s not that simple. You can lose sight of the actual underlying issues while focusing so much on the bad guy.
This can lead to wanting big brother to take care of all the danger and uncertainty—after all, who wants to deal with pure evil themselves?—as well as institutions like prisons to lock all that evil away. It can lead to support of blanket policies to take care of all people of a given category, often without regard to other complexities. “Anytime someone does X, they should receive punishment Y.” This can lead to sacrificing some of our personal freedoms.
When you’re drawn into a drama triangle, you may be eager for the tension to resolve. As Buddhists so astutely point out, humans are very uncomfortable with uncertainty. We want our clean-cut resolution, our justice, right now. We want the person who can get us there most rapidly.
Another potential danger of drama triangles is that the hero is able to provide only a temporary fix:
Avoiding Drama Triangles
It is difficult to avoid drama triangles completely. However, there are several proactive steps you can take to lessen their impact in your life.
Just being aware of these dynamics is an important first step. This will help you to recognize and navigate complex situations, and to defuse addiction-like dynamics rather than inadvertently helping to perpetuate them. This is especially the case if you’re in a leadership position, or are planning to be in one.
Realize how your own internal state, combined with the internal states of those you love, can have a contagious effect. When enough people have similar internal dramas, they are often played out on a national level.
You may need to learn to be more uncomfortable with uncertainty. Unfortunately, nobody can guarantee a perfect life or a perfectly just world for you, me, or anyone else. I often coach people on strategies for managing and even leveraging uncertainty in their lives. This is not easy work to do on one’s own.
Remember that people or groups rarely fall into neatly-defined role categories. Often the same person–including yourself–may sometimes play the role of a heroine or hero, victim, and even perpetrator, depending upon the situation. Or, a person may play different roles in the same situation or setting.
Whenever you’re offered a savior, hero, or heroine, or you find yourself looking for someone or something to rescue you, ask yourself what that is about. It’s perfectly healthy to ask for support, but not healthy to abdicate your own responsibility.
Examine your binary beliefs, as those often go hand-in-hand with Drama Triangle roles. I’ve created a resource to help liberate you from some of the power of binary beliefs. These dangerous dynamics can easily take over your life, so they’re worth examining.
By taking responsibility for your own growth and development, you’re proactively contributing to a more peaceful and sustainable world.
While the linked article on authoritarianism focuses on one candidate, I’ve observed some of the qualities the article discusses in other political parties, candidates, and their followers as well.
Thanks to Stara Shakti for a conversation that inspired the segment about projecting our parents onto political candidates.
Thanks to Maria Veltman for making me aware of the drama triangle video, and to Stephen Horvath for making me aware of Lynne Forrest’s work.
Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.