Jason R. Waller
Stop the Drama Triangle from Running Your Life
Updated: Dec 22, 2022
How to choose to live in presence instead of living in drama.
There’s an increasing focus on presence-based leadership and being present as human beings. I find a lot of meaning in the idea of presence — heck, it’s literally part of my full-time job as a coach — but I also find it sometimes hard to define. I find it’s easier to think about what it’s not. More specifically, there’s one thing that robs us of presence most: drama.
One of my favorite tools to understand and diagnose drama is something called the drama triangle. Also called the Karpman triangle, the drama triangle was originally applied to group dynamics and the natural conflict that seemed to unfold in a predictable pattern. After I learned about the drama triangle, I couldn’t stop seeing that pattern everywhere! Here’s what it is:
There are three roles in any triangle: the hero (or rescuer), the villain (or persecutor), and the victim. Imagine the common scenario of an employee complaining to a colleague about their boss. They might say something like, “I don’t understand this new policy; I honestly don’t know how she expects me to fill out a complicated report and get my day job done.” Their colleague might nod in agreement, say something reassuring, or even offer to help them with the report.
In that moment, a drama triangle is created. The complaining employee takes on the role of victim, leaning into their idea of helplessness and the difficulty of their circumstances. Their colleague plays the part of hero, trying to rescue them from their situation and their uncomfortable feelings. And subtly, they default the role of villain to their boss and her new policy.
. . .
You can build a triangle in a thousand ways. An employee complaining to her boss about the accounting department, a parent arguing with her child about their best friend, two friends gossiping about the neighbor, two spouses fighting over the best way to raise their children, and the list goes on. Notice that one or two of the roles here might be assigned to ideas or groups instead of an actual person.
The value in the framing of the drama triangle is that it’s an entry point to awareness. It provides an opportunity to more quickly recognize the familiar pattern and say, “Ah-ha, we’re in the drama triangle!” And, importantly, “Now, how can we get out of it?”
The drama triangle isn’t limited to groups, though, and some of the most meaningful work on our own mindset can take place by locating ourselves on the drama triangle. The Conscious Leadership Group has a nice video that summarizes this, but essentially the approach is built around the idea that, when we’re coming from a place of drama, we’re either playing the role of hero, villain, or victim with ourselves. Let’s explore the triangle in more detail.
The role of hero
In the role of hero, we rescue ourselves and others from sadness by taking on more than our fair share of responsibility. We might rescue others by offering to do their work for them, or by choosing to not share tough feedback, or by not holding them accountable to important deadlines and instead cleaning up their messes for them. In this role, we get a hollow value by being important to or needed by others.
Key here is noticing why we jump into hero mode. Very often, we can trace it back to something that we’re trying to avoid, emotionally. In those moments, we usually just want ourselves and others to feel better. Speaking for myself, I sometimes rescue others because I don’t want to experience their discomfort or disappointment. I take on more responsibility from them because I want to save them, sure, but saving them gives me a co-dependent relief. I also rescue others because I don’t want to feel my own powerlessness. If I can fix the situation or hero them, I get to feel good about myself. I get to feel strong and capable and valued.
Here’s a tricky twist, though: we can also hero ourselves. In the same way we rescue others from their difficult experiences, we can try to rescue ourselves from our own difficulties. Just like we would seek to provide others with temporary relief, we often turn inward with the same motivation. We attack or distract our discomfort. Attacking looks like getting out the to-do list, frantic Googling, something to give us a greater and usually temporary sense of control. Distracting looks like having a drink, going to the gym as an escape, something to give us a greater and usually temporary sense of calm.
The role of villain
The role of villain is characterized by the idea of anger and blame, whether blaming self or others, and is most easily identified by the word should. They say to themselves, “I shouldn’t have done that, I’m an idiot,” or to others, “You shouldn’t have done that, this is all your fault.” A common place I see people pointing blame is toward their unseen leaders, the people who are responsible for the processes or policies that “get in their way.”
Notice that, again, blame can turn as inward as it can outward. When we say, “I shouldn’t have done that, I’m an idiot,” we’re blaming ourselves, our character, or our capability. This feels similar to owning up to a mistake, but I propose that it’s radically different from taking responsibility. Taking responsibility for a mistake involves ownership, such as, “That was my mistake and I feel bad about it; next time I want to do this differently.” Blaming yourself for a mistake involves judgment and pointing the finger at some faulty aspect of yourself.
It’s subtle, but when we do this we’re actually taking less responsibility in the moment. When we make judgments about our character or our capabilities, for instance, we’re just blaming a faulty part of ourselves. If we took the idea of the self-talk to the extreme, it would sound like, “Of course I didn’t do a good job, I’m not even qualified for this role,” or, “I should have sent that earlier, man I’m a procrastinator.” Hidden inside our self-judgments and self-blame are tiny excuses that give us an out for our actions. It’s the same black-and-white thinking that happens when we blame others, and it’s disempowering.
The role of victim
Finally, the victim mindset is one of helplessness. Victims are “at the effect of” their circumstances and powerless to make choices or take responsibility. While the villain is recognized typically by anger, the victim is identified more often by fear. While the villain is most often looking at people to blame, the victim is most often looking at their circumstances as the source of their grief, such as the economy, the traffic, their organization, or their family. Both the villain and victim are taking less than their share of responsibility.
One easy way to notice the victim is by paying attention to our complaining, whether said out loud or quietly in our own heads.Complaining is a tricky idea, because it can give us a false sense of control. When we complain about a situation we don’t like, it can feel like we’re taking a stand against it. When we complain about someone else, it can feel like we’re fighting for justice or fairness. But really, we’re wasting valuable energy, energy that could be reinvested into an actual, meaningful change.
I want to clarify a very important idea here, which is the key difference between experience and narrative. Our experience is the unarguable reality of what it’s like to be us, our feelings, thoughts, and sensations. When somebody hurts us, we might feel hurt and wonder what happened. When we perceive injustice, we might feel angry and want the situation to change. Nobody is saying that you’re not allowed to feel your feelings, in fact, quite the opposite. Moving out of the victim role isn’t about compartmentalizing or pretending that something painful isn’t. It’s leaning into reality, not away from it.
By contrast, our narrative is the arguable story that we make up about the situation. It comes with assumptions about the way the world ought to work (but doesn’t) or the way people ought to behave (but don’t). Our narratives are often the source of our suffering, because we retreat into them and continue to live in their fiction.
Although we call this role the victim, it’s more accurately being in a state of victimhood. When we are truly a victim, we have no control. It would never be fair to say that things like assault or discrimination are all in our mind. But when we are in a state of victimhood, we continue a lack of control into our daily lives by existing in the narrative that we can’t do anything. We give our power over to others and default to being the victim.
Here’s a sneaky secret: all the roles in the triangle are actually just different forms of the victim, because in all three we are focused on others and the outside circumstances as the root of our suffering. Again, reducing suffering is leaning into reality, not away from it.
How to escape the drama triangle in your life
If drama is our way of avoiding reality, then present awareness is our way of embracing reality. The first step is identifying when and how we live in drama. This is why the drama triangle is such a nice tool, simply because it offers us a framing for that awareness.
With clients, I’ll very often set a one-minute timer and ask them to step into each role, just to really explore the beliefs living in each. I ask them to improve and get unenlightened, really feeling out what it’s like to be in drama. This is something you can do, too.
I also want to acknowledge that every relationship has a culture of its own, and that this can be influenced by a broader culture, whether that’s our family, our religion, our ethnicity, or any number of things. Each culture has its own norms around how to communicate and how direct or indirect to be. Start this journey in a way that feels authentic to you and to your cultural backdrop.
If you’re noticing yourself out of presence or feeling stuck, give yourself one minute each to be the hero, villain, and victim. Notice what you feel and which role feels the most familiar for you. Then, keep track of the patterns that hold you into this role and notice how you take on or give away more than your fair share of responsibility.
After going through the drama triangle, ask yourself: “What do I own here?” It’s a simple but radically powerful question. “What do I own here?” is an invitation to reclaim your agency in face of the drama. With the hero, you might find that you don’t really own the discomfort that you’re trying to rescue others from. With the villain, you might find that there’s a truer responsibility behind the blame you focus on. With the victim, you might realize that, even though the situation is difficult, you still have choice.
. . .
In the end, drama is a tactic we use to outsource our presence to others and step away from our true responsibilities. If we look closely, we’re always at choice. Sometimes, the choice is smaller, like voicing a concern, standing up for a value, or living with others’ disappointment. Sometimes, the choice is larger, like leaving a job or a relationship. And sometimes, the choice is gigantic, like deciding how you react in the face of oppression or how you move toward justice.
This is all easy for me to write from my current context, and easy for you to read and either nod your head to or shake your head to from yours. But the reality is that this idea is not easy. Take from it what you will, but I leave you with one question for reflection: what opportunity for real change am I avoiding when I only blame others or my circumstances?
Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in Better Humans