Personal Growth

To Avoid Drama, You Need to Break the Karpman Drama Triangle

"Drama" is different from everyday conflict. It's entertaining — there's a reason it's the biggest buzzword in reality TV — but it's also bad for everyone involved. Essentially, it's what happens when conflict goes haywire, outside parties get involved, and everyone plays a psychologically unhealthy role.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

Psychologist Dr. Stephen Karpman broke down what exactly these unhealthy roles look like in a 1968 model called the Karpman Drama Triangle. Detailed in his book "A Game Free Life," the triangle broke the chaos of drama into a scenario with three simple roles: a victim, a persecutor, and a rescuer.

  • The victim feels or acts like they are being victimized. Typically, the person in this role feels powerless, oppressed, and — on a deeper level — ashamed.
  • The persecutor is whoever the victim feels victimized by. Cast as controlling and malicious, people in this role often act angry, defensive, and condescending. (The persecutor is sometimes also a situation.)
  • The rescuer is a third party who gets indignant on the victim's behalf and works industriously to "save" them from their persecutor.

This triangle can feel good, Karpman argued. Victims feel innocent; persecutors feel powerful; rescuers feel righteous. However, the pleasure of stepping into one of these roles is like the pleasure of picking a zit. It's satisfying in the moment, but it can create long-term scarring. The victim role teaches people to take a passive position in their own lives. Rescuers, while seeming to "help," are just enabling this mindset. (Often, they benefit somehow if victims continue to feel helpless.)

This model isn't useful in every case. If a person has been mugged at gunpoint and they call the cops on their attacker, the three roles in the triangle are all arguably filled, but that's not dysfunctional drama. That's the rule of law. Karpman's triangle can be a useful lens for looking at murkier, lower-stakes conflicts, though.

Escaping the Vortex

The key to escaping the drama triangle is for each party to see their role in a different light. "Drama" feels explosive and messy because a lot of effort goes into establishing (or escaping) roles. The victim wants to establish their innocence; the persecutor wants to clear their name; the rescuer wants to be viewed as righteous. In healthy conflict resolution, the focus shifts toward, well, resolving the conflict.

Three new roles emerge, creating a new model often termed TED (The Empowerment Dynamic).

  • The victim becomes the creator. This person works proactively to create a positive (or at least tolerable) outcome to a conflict.
  • The persecutor becomes the challenger. This person is honest even when it's difficult. Their honesty can create conflict or cause pain, but it also gives the creator an opportunity to reflect and grow.
  • The rescuer becomes the coach. This person asks the creator questions to help them discover and achieve what they want.

In this reframing of the situation, there's still discomfort and pain, but there's no villain. Instead, there's a conflict between two players with decent intentions. Both of them have agency. Both take action and deal with its consequences. The coach, once the hardest-working member of the drama triangle for no particular reason, is in a more sensible satellite role. All three work together to build a functional future. This dynamic would make for terrible reality TV, but it has a lot of potential in real life.

For more about how to break free of the Karpman Drama Triangle, check out "The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic)" by David Emerald. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

4 Psychology Myths You Probably Thought Were True

Written by Mae Rice August 2, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.