There is a typical communication process that will derail conversations and leave participants frustrated. Therapists and communications experts refer to it as the drama triangle. Jackie Pack explains in this episode of Thanks for Sharing how this process works. She also describes how to exit the drama triangle and communicate in more productive ways in the future, avoiding this destructive conversation pattern.
TRANSCRIPT: The Drama Triangle
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Hi, everyone. Welcome to Thanks for Sharing, I’m your host, Jackie Pack. We are living in some chaotic times right now, and I’m hopeful that from chaos comes some reform and some change. As I’ve read different articles online and watched news coverage, those more familiar with our nation’s history than me have remarked and said we have not seen this type of protesting in their lifetime, which when I hear them say that, that stands out to me and I wonder what this will be for. In Utah, where I live, there’s been nine, 10, 11 days of protesting at this point. In 2015, Utah passed some criminal justice reforms in order to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.
However, it’s primarily benefited white people. State data shows that since the 2015 reforms, the percentage of racial minorities among new prisoners is on the rise. In the year before the reform, 34% of new prisoners were ethnic minorities. Three years later after the reform, that jumped to just over 43%. The same is happening in the juvenile justice system. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and several other nonprofits released in 2017 showed that in Utah’s juvenile justice system, youths of color are disproportionately incarcerated. Black youth make up 1% of Utah’s youth population, but they represented 12% of all kids placed with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services through the juvenile justice system.
In one district studied, Latino youth made up 24% of the youth population, but 52% of those sentenced to juvenile lockup were Hispanic. These numbers are stark and these numbers do not tell a good story, nor do they tell an accurate story. We know that the most effective training in the past 10 years has been the training that teaches police officers to only use firearms as a last resort and mandates that they use tasers and mace and other options first. In the departments that implemented that training, police killings were reduced by a significant 25%. Still only a handful of departments use it. There are plenty of departments still with toxic culture, simply because of the way the officers are taught to think about their job.
An officer with a good guy versus bad guy mentality is eight times more likely to be involved in a shooting that results in death. Officers need to be brought up in a culture that doesn’t teach them there’s a war on the streets or scare them into thinking that it’s us or them. If you don’t shoot first, you don’t go home. In 2019, police across the nation killed 1,098 people in eight major cities like Reno, Oklahoma City, St. Louis and Riverside of the cops vein. The police out kill the national murder rate.
And the saddest statistic of all is that when police kill unjustly, when they pull the trigger before making an honest assessment and they kill an unarmed man who pose no actual threat because they rely on heuristics and bias to make quick decisions, they get the benefit of either not ever facing charges at all, which is the case 99% of the time, or if they actually get charged, fewer than one in a 100 get convicted because our courts and our laws are biased in favor of a police officer’s privilege to protect his own life and against a black man’s right to protect his life.
Every single time, with the exception of Amber Guyger recently, officers who knew they were wrong after it had been proven that in fact no threat ever existed, the courts ruled that the officer’s life and even sometimes the citizen’s life as in George Zimmerman’s case was more valuable than the life of the black man. We need your help. I’m not asking you to give up your beliefs about blue lives or all lives. I say black lives matter. If you think all lives matter, I say, of course they do. I agree. And we need your help making sure that a black life matters in a court of law just as much as all lives. I say racist and corrupt police are hurting our society and dividing us.
If you believe all officers aren’t bad, I agree with you. And I need your help making sure that when an officer of the law breaks the law or abuses his power and harms another person, that he gets held accountable just like any other person would. Everyone can always improve from organizations to individuals. And we should welcome improvements. Many of the topics that I cover here on Thanks for Sharing are about ways that we can improve, ways that we can increase our awareness about our own mental health, about our community health, and about our national health.
In today’s episode, I want to discuss the drama triangle. Many times I think the drama triangle is a useful tool to be used in therapy. And when I’m working with a lot of therapists, far too many don’t know about the drama triangle. And when I introduce them to this tool, a lot of lights go off and they start to make sense of behavior. So before we get into what the drama triangle is, I want to ask you a question, have you ever thought about what advice you would give to your younger self? If you could write and send a letter back to a younger version of yourself, what would you say? What wisdom have you gained at your current age that that age of yourself didn’t have but also might benefit from?
The first thing I think of is going back to myself at 15 years old. Dear 15 year old me. And when I was 15, my mom had some serious health issues related to her Crohn’s disease that landed her in the hospital for several months. She was first diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was in the third grade. And I don’t recall a lot of memories about that time period or her diagnosis, or I would imagine, if I can remember, she was in the hospital because I think I remember sleeping at my grandparents’ a couple of nights. And then after that experience that got her diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, it seemed like she managed it fairly well.
I mean, we knew that there were side effects and we knew that she had ongoing symptoms from some of the surgeries that she had to have, but it wasn’t until I was 15 years old that she had another serious flare up that, like I said, landed her in the hospital for several months. Now, from what I recall, she went into the hospital just prior to school getting out for the summer. I would have been finishing my ninth grade year. And so I had just turned 15. My birthday was in May. And after a serious surgery, some complications from being in the hospital, infections and bad reactions to medications, the next school year had recently started when she was released from the hospital.
Now, as I’ve previously mentioned in other podcasts, my dad really wasn’t around very often. So this left the six of us as kids, mostly on our own during that time. We did have some help from neighbors and extended family from time to time. My older sister, who was two years older than me, she had a job that required her to work most afternoons during the week. To me, it felt like I was mostly in charge because I was the one at home. Now, I have some good memories during this time. As brothers and sisters, we sometimes still share funny memories that are from this particular time period, songs we made up around the dinner table, jokes we told, and ways that we found to work together to get things done.
Now, it was not all appropriate given that a 15 year old was running the show, but we managed and we made it through. As I got older and became an adult, a professional, a parent, an expert, I would find that in certain situations, my current age didn’t match the age I was feeling inside. Often when I would ask myself, “How old do I feel right now?” The answer a lot of times came back to 15. Even though chronologically, I was much older than that, there was something about being 15 that was a marker for me, that I usually returned back to. The effect that this had on me was often I wouldn’t speak up. Even if I was confident about what I would say, I held back.
Sometimes when I would speak up, I would find fault or doubt everything I had just said. I might become shy or withdrawn in certain social situations. Now I know for some people who know me and my personal life, they might find that hard to believe because they might see me as outspoken or I don’t hold back. But from how it feels for me, there are still a lot of times that I hold back or withdraw and shut down. I found that a lot of times that I was in a situation, maybe this had come when I was in grad school or at a training, I wasn’t going to ask any questions even if I had them. This fear would somehow surface inside me and the thought was that I was going to be found out to be a fraud or like I was an imposter.
Even though I wasn’t doing anything fraudulent, for me, I was still able to function after all at 15 years old, I had done a pretty good job at running things in the adult world and playing an adult role even though I wasn’t an adult. But this feeling of faking it or being something I wasn’t lingered with me as I aged. I began to realize that while I might’ve done a functional job at 15, I really didn’t know what I didn’t know. And I had a sense of that at that time. I remember one day my aunts who were 10 and 12 years older than me came by the house and dropped off, if I remember correctly, it was like a two liter of root beer and some donuts or something like that.
And they were really excited to bring this treat by. And we were excited because again, we didn’t really have money to spend and I didn’t have a driver’s license, so it’s not like I could take us out for treats or anything like that. So they were thoughtful and they thought, hey, we’re going to drop this by. And so they came by and kind of visited. I don’t recall that it was a long visit, maybe 10, 15 minutes and they just visited with me and then they left. And I remember afterwards thinking like, I guess they think I’m doing it right. I guess everything’s fine.
But it wasn’t very comforting to me that the adults that were around me or the adults that knew that I was in charge of things actually believed that I had it covered and there wasn’t anything off about a 15 year old girl in charge. I mean, like I said, the state didn’t even trust me at 15 to drive a car. So who would think that a 15 year old in charge of five other minors was a good idea. Now as an adult with the help of a good therapist who was trained in EMDR, I was able to tend to those younger wounds from my current age and understand that those feelings of being a fraud or imposter were about being put in charge of things that at my age, I probably shouldn’t have been put in charge of.
And the fact that everyone around me thought I was doing a great job, also wasn’t comforting because inside I knew I didn’t really know what I was doing. I did not know how to take care of children for months at a time. I think my youngest brother at that time would have been not even in kindergarten yet. Now, the way that that experience was maladaptively stored for me was that I’m doing it right just because of luck. It has nothing to do with me. And what that meant is I didn’t know if I’d get it right tomorrow or the next week or the next week. I didn’t know when things were going to go bad. And I felt the weight of people relying on me and I had to keep it together.
And all this time I know that I don’t know what I’m doing, and it looks like I’m just fooling everyone around me. Now, one of the pitfalls we can fall into when we are operating outside of our current age is the drama triangle. Now the drama triangle was developed by a well-respected psychiatrist and teacher of transactional analysis named Stephen Karpman. He defines three possible positions one can take when in the drama triangle, the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. As I said, this resource has become an important tool that I use both professionally and personally. The drama triangle is also known as a shame generator because through it, we unconsciously reenact painful life scripts that create shame.
These scripts, we create feelings of anger, fear, guilt, entitlement, resentment, or inadequacy, and leave us feeling betrayed or exploited by others and keep us stuck in an altered version of reality. I often tell clients if you’re in the drama triangle, you’re in a no win situation. There is no winning when we’re in one of those roles, victim, persecutor, or rescuer. So in my experience, every dysfunctional interaction in our relationships, whether it’s with others or ourselves takes place in the drama triangle. Until we become conscious of these dynamics, we cannot transform them into something that allows us to reclaim emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.
Now, everybody has a primary role or the role that they are the most familiar with in the triangle. It’s usually the one they enter the drama triangle through. We usually learn our entry position in our family of origin. However, once we are in the triangle, we automatically rotate through all the positions, sometimes in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Now I’ve done an exercise before in the groups that we run and we get a volunteer, somebody, some participant in the group who is struggling with a conflict, a relationship conflict. And we set up the chairs in a triangle. And I have pieces of paper that we label the chairs with.
So here’s the victim, which is usually at the top, the point of the triangle. And then the other two sides are persecutor and rescuer. And as they talk about this experience, the group as witnesses and as bystanders to what they’re experiencing, will listen for when they change seats and will have them get up and change seats, right? You just move from victim to persecutor. So get up and move to the persecutor chair. Oh, now you went back to rescuer. Okay, now you’re back to persecutor and we will run through that scenario. Sometimes for the participant, it can get a little bit frustrating because they’re faced with their own behavior where a lot of times when there’s conflict in a relationship, people tend to go to either the victim or the persecutor.
Let’s talk for a minute about the victim role in the drama triangle. So the victim role, like I said, I typically draw it up at the top of the triangle. In the victim chair, the thoughts around it are that I’m blameless, that I’m safe, and love me no matter what, right? So in this chair, I’m the victim. I can’t be blamed for anything. Nothing is my fault because I’m the victim. Now I do find that a lot of times this victim chair is the coveted spot in the drama triangle. Because again, I’m blameless when I’m in the victim chair. The victim chair is also often associated with the age of zero to nine years old. Now, this is when we had the least amount of power in our lives and we were the most dependent upon others for our needs.
The victim role is the wounded shadow of our inner child. It’s the part of us that is innocent, vulnerable, and needy. Of course, it’s natural to need support throughout life. However, it’s when we are convinced that we need somebody to take care of us, believing that we are powerless or defective, that it moves us into this victim position. I often will tell clients that if you are an adult, you can’t be a victim, right? When we’re talking about those vulnerable years where we don’t have power and we are dependent upon others for our needs, that’s typically between zero to nine. Like I say, young children and domesticated animals are dependent and therefore they can be victims.
Now that doesn’t mean that as an adult, I can’t be a victim. Let’s say that somebody breaks into my car and steals something or burglarizes my home. Of course, I’m a victim of crime. But because of my age, I also have resources that I can enact to try to help recover or to offer restitution for what was done to me. The persecutor role is about being right and having power. And the persecutor will defend their rightness and they will wield their power in order to protect their rightness. Entitlement often justifies the behavior of persecutor. It’s okay to act this way because of what happened to me. So again, this is where we start to see this tie in between a victim and a persecutor.
Because this happened to me, I get to do this to you. Because you did this to me, I get to call you names. Because this happened to me, I get to lash out in anger. Now there’s many ways that prosecutors act out. However, persecutor behaviors are most often associated with adolescent rage. So that age group would really be that ragey teen. That again, not all teens are, but when we’re thinking about this persecutor chair, we’re thinking about ragey teenager. It’s easy to think that prosecutors are bad people. They are not, they are operating from a shame base. And like I said, they’re wounded individuals who see the world as dangerous, which requires them to be ready to strike back and live in a defensive position.
So sometimes when I’m talking about the roles in the drama triangle, we kind of look at the victim, rule number one. Okay, We take that one out, that one’s not healthy. We look at persecutor. Most people are like, yep, that’s not healthy. Take that one out. Now we’re looking at the rescuer role. And a lot of people are like, well, what’s wrong with rescuing? Well, the rescuer has been described as a shadow of the mother principle, the God principle, and is the classic codependent. So instead of an appropriate expression of support and nurturing, the rescuer tends to be overly responsible, to smother, control, or manipulate for others own good of course, is what they think.
But it’s a misguided understanding of what it is to encourage, empower, and to protect. Rescuing comes from this need to feel valued. And often rescuers have been falsely empowered during childhood. Maybe like I was at 15, right? Sometimes the rescuer will rescue themselves or others by denying reality. So again, that rescuing is just as much for the rescuer as it is the person that they are rescuing. And they’re not actually empowering this person to advocate or to rescue themselves, they need to do this because of their own wounds that need to be seen. So how do we get out of the drama triangle?
If, like I said, there’s no win situation in the drama triangle, if we’re operating in the drama triangle, this conversation is going to go around and around and around with no resolution. Living in the drama triangle creates misery and dysfunction. Like the childhood game of musical chairs, all players sooner or later rotate positions and are often left fighting over the victim seat. Whenever we fail to take responsibility for ourselves, we end up in the drama triangle. So one of the hardest things that I had to learn and that then I pass onto clients for them to learn is that the only way to get out of the drama triangle and free ourselves is taking responsibility.
Taking responsibility is a key factor in moving us out of this drama triangle. And it begins to produce a meaningful life that requires a mindful willingness to get out of the triangle and to extend grace to those still trapped in it. For a lot of clients, if they’ve worked a 12 step program, we talk about step four, which is to take a fearless, moral inventory of the wrongs that we’ve done. And for a lot of people, they don’t make it through step four. They get stuck starting step four, they feel overwhelmed or intimidated at the prospect of step four.
However, for those who muddle through and dig in their heels and get to work and pass through step four into step five, which is where we share that inventory with another to fairly witness that, what we find is actually taking inventory and being responsible was not as bad as it seemed when we were rounding step three and staring down step four. Like I said, a meaningful life requires this mindful, willingness to take responsibility for ourselves and to have awareness of the impact we leave. Operating from our current age means that we’re willing to let go of the outcomes and we accept life on life’s terms. That means we’re not victims. Things happen.
We learn that it’s important for us to nurture ourselves and for us to empower and advocate for ourselves because at whatever our current adult age is, we are the ones who were responsible for nurturing our needs. So when we start to get out of the drama triangle, again, that step one to get out of the drama triangle always comes with taking responsibility. We start to look at what I’m doing, what I did that led to the conflict. After we start to take responsibility, that frees us up to see that there are options. Now, for a lot of people when I’m working with them and they’re looking at options, it’s oftentimes viewed in a binary lens. So it’s either this or it’s this.
And usually neither looks that appealing. So when I’m faced with a client who has two options, neither of which look like they’re going to produce good outcomes, I often have to say to them, “We’ve got to brainstorm something else because I don’t think that usually there’s just two options. I think when we feel like our back is up against the wall, we’re not seeing something. And maybe fears driving the bus, maybe prior wounds are driving the bus, but we need to start opening up to options. And we start to brainstorm and list options, maybe some that we know we’re never going to take, but it’s an option and we put it down. And so we start to see that there’s actually a lot of options.
And I think that starts to calm us and relax us because it shifts us out of feeling like our back is up against the wall and I don’t have any good way to get out. So we learn as adults that we have choices. We have options. I also say to clients, as an adult, I can’t be abandoned nor can I abandon other adults. If I’m in a relationship with an adult and they’re feeling like I am abandoning them, I know that they’re coming from a victim chair and they’re not feeling their current age. They’re feeling younger than that. Right? Young kids can be abandoned because they’re dependent. Domesticated animals can be abandoned, again, because they’re dependent and they haven’t lived in a way where they are comfortable or even know how to forage for themselves.
However, once we’re out of that age range, we have to start taking responsibility for ourselves. We have to recognize, like if I’m feeling abandoned, that’s probably coming from a much younger wound that needs to be addressed. So we have taking responsibility, that’s what gets us out of the drama triangle. Then we start to look at options. And then the third step is we start to negotiate. Now, one of the practices I have learned and I still use is to ask myself, what time is it? If it’s 1985, that is not the current time. That’s my 15 year old self. If the answer is anything other than the current year or your current age, then I need to tend to what has come up.
So the next question is, where am I? If that answer doesn’t match up to where I currently am, here, then again, that’s a sign that I need to tend to some emotional things that are going on that may not be current. The third question is, what matters? Now the answer I like to hear back when I say, “What matters?” Is, this moment. This moment is all that matters. However, if the answer is something other than that, that’s an indication that I need to do some exploring with myself and possibly others who have earned the right to give input in order to operate with all the wisdom and resources that I have at my current age.
And when I know that I’m not operating from a previous time or a previous place, then I can do healthy negotiations. And I can negotiate in this moment, not the next day or the next week or tomorrow or 10 years ago, but in this moment. They say timing is everything. In our relationships, the time we are acting or reacting from may mean the difference between healthy communication or the beginning of musical chairs. At the end of this episode, I want to remind you that your story matters. Remember there’s something meaningful in every chapter. Don’t wait to share your story until it’s finished. Until next time, I’m Jackie.
The legal stuff. This podcast is solely for the purpose of information and entertainment and does not constitute therapy, nor should it replace competent professional help. The prayer of the perfectionist. Nobody has time for perfection. We are pursuing progress. Help me to remember the only step I need to focus on is the next right step for me. Help me to remember that life is a journey. Help me to be able to separate all that I am learning from all that I have to do. Help me to remember that I’m not alone, I can ask for help. Help me to strive for frequent awakenings, not mastery. I am enough. Amen.