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.

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Burnout: three tips on how to avoid it

A journalist asked me recently to comment on the subject of stress and burnout among frontline NHS workers during the pandemic. It got me thinking about burnout more generally.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. In these uncertain and unsettling times, I’ve seen a huge amount of this in clients I work with. And while key workers have been hit particularly badly, people from just about every other profession have often also suffered.

From what I’ve seen, the pandemic has created a kind of perfect storm for burnout. People are trying to handle an increased workload from their jobs or because they are home-schooling, while also facing great uncertainty and fear of the virus. They are also missing their usual coping strategies and support networks as they are forced inside by lockdowns.

The situation has gone on for more than 12 months and the equation is stark:

Stress + Uncertainty – Support x Time = Burnout

When people first come to me for counselling, they report feeling drained and tired. They say their sleep is poor, they are irritable, or lack motivation. Some are having panic attacks and find everything overwhelming. Often there is also a sense of guilt that they feel this way, and that if they stop to rest they are letting people down, so they “plough on”.

What can we do about it? Here are three things I often talk about with clients.

If you feel burnt out and stressed, something has to give.

Ask yourself what could you say no to or delegate to make a little space for yourself? Could you ask someone to help out with the housework or food shopping? Could you occasionally say no to that person who is demanding a lot of your time? Often this inability to say no for fear of letting people down is quite an ingrained trait that is rooted in the past. It can be helpful to talk through why we feel compelled to put everyone else first, to the detriment of our own health.

Could you build in a little me-time into your day?

What about a bath in the evenings or a run at the weekend? What things have made you feel good and helped you relax in the past, things that you haven’t had the time to do lately? Usually people have plenty of coping strategies already, they just need to make space for them. Often with my clients we work on how to create that space and to not feel guilty about it.

Take your own advice.

My guess is that if a friend came to you saying they were stressed and burnt out, your advice to them would be to get some rest, or to get some support. I doubt very much that you would tell them to just carry on and to stop being so self-indulgent. We need to take a kinder approach with ourselves.

If you feel like you may be on the road to burnout, you are certainly not alone. Lots of workplaces offer free counselling through their occupational health or employee assistance programmes. Ask your manager or HR department about what support is available. A lot of clients I work with come to me in this way, and often six sessions is enough to relieve some of that stress and learn some new ways of avoiding burnout in future.

For more information on burnout and stress there is some helpful information on

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Perfectionist or Pleaser? Five traits that can hold us back

We’ve probably all heard of someone described as a “perfectionist”, but perhaps we’ve not thought more about what this means, or why some people are this way. There are some helpful theories in Transactional Analysis—a style of counselling and psychotherapy—that examine this urge to be perfect, as well as some other common tendencies.

In TA, we call these urges “Drivers”, after a theory developed in the 1970s by a psychologist named Taibi Kahler. Drivers are kinds of rules by which we live, often without being aware, in order to feel OK in the world.

Have a look at the list below:

Be Perfect

Try Hard

Please Others

Be Strong

Hurry Up

Often people relate to one or two in particular. Do you? At first glance they might seem like positive traits. Isn’t it a good thing to try to get things done perfectly? Isn’t it nice to please others, or to be strong? I would say yes and no. It’s true that these traits can be positive, but what if someone only feels like they are a good person if they get things 100% perfect all of the time? What if someone only feels OK when they are pleasing others, even if it’s at the cost of their own wellbeing, needs and wants? What if someone’s idea of being strong is to never ask for help, never let on that they are struggling? These are the sides of Drivers that can be unhelpful, and can make us feel stuck at work or in our relationships.

Sometimes I talk with clients about which Driver they relate to, and discuss the pros and cons. What aspects of being strong or pleasing serves us in our day to day life, and what is holding us back? Talking about this can be helpful. Firstly, it makes us aware of what is perhaps a deeply ingrained trait we have but were not conscious of. Once we are aware, we can choose to do things differently. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in sessions with my clients. Someone with a “Be Perfect” Driver can learn that it’s not just OK but normal and healthy to not get everything perfect all the time. And perhaps that drive to do everything perfectly was holding them back as it meant they never tried anything new or took any risks. Another person with a “Be Strong” Driver can learn to ask for support occasionally, and perhaps this in turn then makes them feel more connected to the people close to them. A person with a “Please Others” Driver can learn that they too are important and have needs, and it’s OK to put themselves first sometimes.

This kind of change can take time, and sometimes the process can be painful, as Drivers are often rooted in our past experiences. But being more aware of what our Drivers are and why we have them can be a helpful tool in understanding our thoughts, feelings and behaviours better. And that understanding can lead to change.

Take care of yourself when thinking about these things. And if it is something you want to look at more closely, and you think it could be difficult or painful, then consider getting some support from a trained and qualified counsellor or psychotherapist. 

If you want to find out a bit more about the pros and cons and characteristics of all five Drivers, have a look at these helpful descriptions by The Link Centre.

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How can Transactional Analysis help us better understand how we think, feel and behave?

Transactional Analysis. It sounds a bit strange and complicated, but it’s basically a style of psychotherapy and counselling which has some very simple and useful concepts to help us better understand our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

TA was founded by Eric Berne in the 1950s. He wanted to create more equality between psychoanalyst and patient and so designed concepts that used every day language and were easy to understand.

Central to the theory is the Parent Adult Child model and it’s something I think about a lot with my clients. There are three main states – Parent, Adult and Child. Let’s start with Adult as that’s the state we hope to spend most of our time in. Being in Adult is when we think, feel and behave in response to the here and now. For example, we hear a door slam and, while we may get a shock, once we realise it was just the wind that caused the door to slam, we calm down and get on with what we were doing.

Next let’s look at Child. This is when we think, feel and behave in a way that is rooted in the past. So when we hear the door slam, we might be paralysed with fear and cower in the corner, worried that someone is coming to hurt us. Or perhaps we berate ourselves for being so stupid because we left the window open, causing the door to slam shut.

Lastly there’s Parent. This is when thoughts, feelings and behaviours are copied from parents or caregivers. So when we hear the door slam, and perhaps we had a very authoritarian parent, we may be consumed with rage and look for someone to blame and punish.

If we are spending a lot of time in either Child or Parent, clearly this is going to have all sorts of negative repercussions on our relationships and work life. Plus this is usually happening subconsciously, so we are not aware of what is happening.

And that’s where counselling can help. Often with my clients, we will talk through scenarios from that week and try to unpick what happened, and whether their thoughts, feelings and behaviours could be rooted in either Child or Parent.

Does any of this ring true with you or someone you know? It can be interesting to think about why we end up in the same arguments with people over and over again, or get paralysed by anxiety before a meeting. But this process can also be painful and difficult, which is why lots of people opt for some support through a counsellor. You know yourself best, and the most important thing is to do what’s right for you.

If you are interested in finding out more about TA, look out for more of my blog posts in the coming weeks, and I also recommend the books TA Today by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, and Games People Play by Eric Berne.

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