The Karpman Drama Triangle

Photo by Elnur from Adobe Stock

“The Victim is not really as helpless as they feel. The Rescuer doesn’t really help, and the Persecutor doesn’t really have a valid claim.”
~Claude Steiner

In 1968, the transactional psychologist Stephen Karpman published an article describing a model of human relationships later called the Karpman Triangle. It includes three roles:

  • The Persecutor
  • The victim
  • The Rescuer

The subjects of this triangle form the so-called co-dependent relationshipIn psychology, this term refers to a destructive type of relationship. The Karpman triangle is a prime example of such a model.

This is a closed mutually beneficial system of figures dependent on each other:

The Karpman Drama Triangle — Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Persecutor is prone to controlling, blaming, and threatening others with a false sense of superiority. They have a subject on whom they can pour out their negativity, on whom they can win back, and at the same time blame this person for their troubles. As a way of concealing their fear of failure, they put on a grandiose act and get defensive when things don’t go as planned.

The Victim gets rid of responsibility for their life, shifts decisions to others, receives help, and also sympathy and support. When a person plays the victim role, they believe they are “at the mercy of” someone or something. They are prevented from taking responsibility for their condition when they believe others or something else beyond their control is at fault. This undermines their ability to make changes to their circumstances.

The Rescuer looks like a hero in their own eyes and the eyes of other people. While helping others, they feel good and worthwhile about themselves, neglecting their own needs in the process. The truth is that it’s not a genuine concern for others that drives their actions, but rather a desire to feel good about themselves by doing the act. As long as they validate the perspective of victims and confirm and reaffirm their state, they thrive. Therefore, they encourage dependency instead of helping the victim take responsibility for their own choices.

All participants are in a low-resource state, each of them lacks basic support, trust, and self-love.

Plunging into one of these roles, a person begins to dissolve in illusions and ignore reality. Gradually they lose themselves, energy, personality, and life. Getting out of such a relationship and resetting the role taken on is not easy, but possible.

Participants in a triangle can periodically change roles, as well as change roles within other triangles — consciously or unconsciously. As hard as it is to believe, each of the participants gets their own “benefit” in such a destructive relationship. The game tends to drag on and on, destroying lives. Let’s take a look at exactly how this happens and what “benefits” the players are looking for.

Role #1 — Victim

  • Motto: “Why does this happen to me?”
  • Feelings: suffering, helplessness, shame, envy, fear.
  • Motive: to be in the position of a child, not to take responsibility for their life.
  • Repressed: Aggression.
  • Quotes“Poor me”, “It’s not my fault, it’s them…”, “because of you I have…”, “I’m not appreciated”, “you have no idea how much I suffered”, “no one loves me”, “I feel helpless”, “If only others cared for me”…

Description of the victim

It is believed that the triangle begins with the victim. It is the one that provokes the reaction of others, and they occupy one of the two poles — the side of pity or anger. The victim has not matured inside — this is a child who is not ready for making decisions, choices, or taking responsibility for them. Hidden aggression gradually accumulates behind external helplessness, and the victim turns into a persecutor: “help” — “you don’t help well”, “it’s all because of you.” The victim put themselves in a position that lacks freedom and is under control. The “benefit” that the victim seems to receive is the opportunity to feel sorry for themselves, to do nothing, and not change anything for the better.

Role #2 — Rescuer

  • Motto: “I’m fine, you’re not okay” (“You are helpless and hopeless, nevertheless I will try to help you”).
  • Feelings: guilt, pity, pride.
  • Motive: the desire to assert itself, to be needed, “good.”
  • Repressed: helplessness.
  • Quotes: “he/she can’t do it without me”, “how will I leave her/him”, “I advise you …”, “I feel sorry for you”, “Let me help you”…

Description of the lifeguard

No matter how paradoxical it may sound, the rescuer here seeks to save not the victim at all, but themselves. Rushing to help, they recognize themselves as stronger, capable, kind, and knowledgeable. They are engaged in the other’s life, and this allows them not to think about their own life, problems, plans, etc.

Salvation helps them to rise, assert themselves, and take a place “above” in these relationships. They want to play the role of a “good boy/girl” to earn the recognition of others, but in reality, they seek their parents’ missed recognition which they could never feel.

Originally posted on Medium

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