Are you in the ‘drama triangle’?

In our first two blogs we talked about Eric Berne’s PAC model, following on from this we have a look at one of his students work; Stephen Karpman’s who published the Drama Triangle in 1968.

What is the drama triangle?

The drama triangle is social model which highlights the connection between power and responsibility in a game we probably all have played. Typically we have a default position but we can also shift roles within an interaction with one person, and we play different positions with different people.  Karpman suggested when people ‘play games’ (or are in their child/parent ego states) they are playing one of the roles in the drama triangle: the Rescuer, the Persecutor or the Victim.  A Persecutor is someone who puts other people down and belittles them, they view people as a step down from them and ‘not OK’.  A Rescuer also views people in the same way, but instead of putting people down, they try and help them up to their level because they have a belief that those people can not help themselves. The Victim also believes also they are one down and not OK and either seek a Persecutor or a Rescuer to confirm their belief that they can’t cope on their own.

Resilience, Counselling, Drama Triangle, London, Nikki Millard.


In may be no surprise to hear that many counsellors fall into the Rescuer when they first begin training and their self beliefs and life scripts are highlighted or discovered. Rescuers want to help others, which sounds fine in essence but can be disempowering for the Victim. There is also a caution for a Rescuer in that a Victim may be quite happy playing that role as it is serving a purpose, a rescue attempt could cause the Victim to switch to Persecutor and the Rescuer becoming the Victim. An example could be a wife hears her husband complain he has no clean shirts. She decides she has time to put on a load of washing and can quickly solve his issue. She presents a clean ironed shirt to her husband who shouts that its the wrong shirt and it won’t go with the suit he was intending to wear. She feels hurt and feels whatever she does isn’t appreciated. Looking back with the triangle in mind, ‘I have no clean shirts’ (Victim), ‘here is a clean shirt’ (Rescuer), ‘that’s not the right shirt’ (Persecutor), ‘can’t do anything right’ (Victim). Could the husband sort his own clean shirt? Yes. Did the husband ask for help? No. Did the wife ask if he needed help? No. Why was the clean shirt important? The husband had been given short notice for an internal interview the following day, so the clean shirt was covering up his feelings of anxiety about a work situation.

How to get out of the Drama Triangle?

If you have recognised a role you play in this triangle, you may also recognise that you are responding to the past rather than the ‘here and now’. If we are in the past we are usually in our child or parent ego state listening to our old self beliefs and life scripts:

  • Rescuer – ‘I’m responsible for it all’, ‘ I need to help’, ‘I serve others’
  • Persecutor – ‘whose fault is it!?’, ‘it doesn’t matter what you feel just do it’, ‘its got to be done right now’
  • Victim – ‘I’m always getting picked on’, ‘There’s not enough time to do it all’, ‘its all too much’.

Observe the types of things you say, your feelings and your behaviour to help identify your ego state. By becoming more ‘present’ and letting go of old beliefs and scripts (past) you can help switch your ego state to adult which helps us break out of the drama triangle and into the healthier ‘winner’s triangle’.

The Winner’s Triangle

In 1990 Acey Choy developed the Winner’s triangle, and since this there have been further variations on his work. Choy’s triangle is similar to Karpman’s triangle in terms of layout; the differences are:

  • Persecutor becomes Assertiveness (aware of own feelings, needs, and wants)
  • Rescuer becomes Caring (who gives help/care when needed) and does not need to be needed by others
  • Victim becomes Vulnerable (owning own feelings).

Rather than playing roles that are inauthentic, in the Winner’s triangle there is acceptance of others value and integrity (Assertive), acceptance of others ability to think for themselves (Carer) and acceptance of self (Vulnerable).  Returning to the clean shirt scenario (with acceptance) – ‘I have no clean shirts’. ‘Can I help with anything?’ ‘No, I’m annoyed as I’ve been given short notice for an interview tomorrow and I’m anxious about it’ ‘Fair enough’ ‘Actually would you mind putting a wash on so then I can prepare for the interview?’.

This is an ideal scenario, when someone comes out of the drama triangle with another person, it may be they are met with resistance and the hook to come back and play can be great.  The husband instead of accepting his Vulnerability and owning feelings when asked ‘Can I help with anything?’, may have responded as a Persecutor ‘You could have helped by doing the laundry last week! Now I have no shirts’.  The wife remaining in the present, may acknowledge how she feels and perhaps say something like ‘I sense you are annoyed’ and could remove herself from the situation ‘I am going to give you some space’.  In staying in the present, we encourage those to either join us there or find someone else to play in the drama with them instead.

Main Image: Lisa Fotios



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