Persecutor, Victim or Rescuer: Can you relate to the Drama Triangle?

The Drama Triangle is a powerful piece of theory I often think about with clients during counselling sessions. It was devised by psychotherapist Stephen Karpman in the 1960s.  

Each corner of the triangle represents a role we can sometimes fall into: Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer. They are written with capital letters because they are very different to the terms when used in more day-to-day language. The important thing to remember here is that these roles are all rooted in the past, either by messages we received early on in life, a trauma, or we copied the behaviour from key people around us as we were growing up. They are unhelpful and tend to hold us back in our relationships and everyday lives.

Let’s look at the Persecutor first. A Persecutor will often bully and belittle, or perhaps have a tendency to “lash out” at others. In extreme cases a Persecutor will physically and emotionally harm others, for example in cases of domestic abuse. In less extreme cases a Persecutor might say hurtful things in an argument that they later regret. A Persecutor’s view is that other people are not OK.

When we talk about a Rescuer in the context of the Drama Triangle, we are not talking about someone rescuing a cat from a tree, or giving first aid in an emergency. The Rescuer has a tendency to “rescue” or “help” others even when it is not wanted or needed. In this way the Rescuer, like the Persecutor, also takes the view that other people are not OK, but in this case it’s because they believe others are not capable of managing without them. I also think that Rescuer behaviour can come about because an individual has low self-worth, and perhaps only feels some worth if they are doing something for someone else. It has more to do with the individual’s desire to feel needed, rather than there being an actual issue that requires their help.

I often hear clients talk about a person in their lives who they feel is interfering or intrusive, and this is an example of when I might discuss the Drama Triangle with them. This can help understand the behaviour, and perhaps where they fit in to what’s happening with this other person, and allow us to work on how to set boundaries and feel less intruded upon.

Let’s look at the Victim role. The Victim is the one on the receiving end of the Persecutor or the Rescuer, because they have a belief that they themselves are not OK. They accept the Rescuer’s behaviour because they believe they can’t cope on their own, or they stay with the Persecutor and be bullied or belittled, because they feel they don’t deserve any better.

In this way the three positions of the Drama Triangle are linked and also interchangeable. We can move from one position to another. For example, a Persecutor, after shouting or lashing out, may grovel and beg forgiveness. They might plead for the other person not to leave them as they can’t live without them. They have switched to the Victim position. The original Victim, faced with the grovelling, may now switch to Rescuer. This is a dangerous pattern that is one of the reasons why it can be so difficult for people to leave domestic abuse situations. Another example of a switch of positions could be a Rescuer, after their attempts to Rescue have been rejected, may switch to the Persecutor position and lash out and shout, or to the Victim position and sulk and feel worthless.

Some of these examples are extreme, but I think most of us can identify with at least one of the roles, even to a much lesser degree. Perhaps we see these patterns playing out in people we know.

When we think, feel and behave in ways we sometimes don’t understand, the Drama Triangle can be a helpful tool to think about. But a word of caution, as always: these roles are likely to be deeply ingrained and rooted in the past. So if this is something you want to look at in more detail, and you think it could be complex or painful, consider getting some support via a counsellor.

Photo credit: Scott Kirwan via Unsplash

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