The Drama Triangles: Childhood Experiences Affecting Adult Life


[Victim; Rescuer; Persecutor: The Root to Trouble , Turmoil & Confusion]

Victim; Rescuer; Persecutor: The Root to Trouble , Turmoil & Confusion

Have you ever been on the receiving-end of help & then, for no apparent reason found it all too much, too invasive, too personal & become highly defensive or aggressive towards the person helping you?

Have you ever found yourself helping someone & then, without warning being ‘attacked’ or criticised for what you’re saying or doing by the person you’re trying to help?

Chances are, most of us have been in both situations.

It is a very common scenario, so common that this behaviour pattern is well researched & catalogued.

Dr Stephen Karpman, a well-known & pioneering psychologist & Medical Doctor has studied behaviour for several decades. He observed that with some individuals, this type of response is exaggerated to such an extent that both they & the people they interact with suffer considerable anguish & confusion.

In my last entry, “Why Did I Do That?” Childhood Experiences Seeds Of Our Adult Life I introduced Karpman’s Drama Characters,

  • Rescuer
  • Persecutor
  • Victim

… & that affect our interactions with others & ultimately, our relationship circles.

We discovered that each one of us is prone to adapting one or more of these personas at some time or other during our interactions with others.

However, problems arise when these unhealthy responses become so dominant & driving that, in order to protect ourselves, we play out dramas or games (rather than reality) in our daily lives.

Part of my own recovery has been (& still is) understanding how these personas  have affected my own interactions with others, both in terms of what I give & also how I interpret what others say, do & give to me.

This is what I discovered:

The Drama or Game

We’ve probably all met people whose lives are one continual drama; they’re up, then down, being picked-on, not appreciated, blaming others & being manipulative. They are  incapable of maintaining normal, long-term, healthy relationships. Thankfully, this is an extreme situation but these people do exist & if you’ve been hooked into their games you will appreciate the damage that can be inflicted.

As adults we reflect some child-like responses through our learnt behaviours & defence mechanisms: our adult life is steered by the perceptions, values & messages we received as children. 

  • Sometimes these experiences will have been experienced over a long period of time.
  • Sometimes they may be the result of a single occurrence at a significant or vulnerable time in our young life, such as family trauma, exams, sports days, changing schools, moving to a new area etc.

Perhaps the saddest cause of this dysfunctional behaviour is poor parenting or parental conspiracy to make the child conform or meet a dysfunctional end-point or role defined by the parents, such as:

  • to become a trophy child
  • to achieve what the parents never could
  • to be a source of love & affection that has been missing from the parents’ own lives
  • to be a slave or lackey for an easy life

Karpman identified common tactics used to achieve this, which he called Trapping Triangles.

For example, one parent locks out the other parent, either by “Our special secret” bonding or by threat bonding “Don’t tell or else!!” In some cases, both parents have such a highly developed, well performed Persecutor & Rescuer roles that the Victim (child) cannot compete & stays trapped in a dependent position. Parents & children can also frequently become co-dependent: they need each other for affirmation, meaning & existence.

It is not surprising that these children grow up with a confused & unrealistic perception of their worth or value, later becoming control-freaks in an attempt at self-protection. They become the ultimate game players or drama actors. 

When such powerful  reactions become our norm each day, especially in our encounters with people, we are heading for trouble, for ourselves & for those with whom we interact

We may or may not be awarethat we react in this intense way.  We are so used to it or too ill to recognise the behaviour for ourself &, if we do, we do not have the energy, skills or help to break free.

We may also be so entrapped & enmeshed in this behaviour pattern that breaking free becomes another game or drama, such as with addicts.

We use these dramas & games (often unconsciously) to create a situation where we can justify how we feel (e.g., anger or superiority). We may also use them to  justify taking (or not taking) certain actions, such as where ‘what we want’ differs from what we feel others or ‘society’ want us to do. They are childish responses.

Games can be classified into three categories:

  • Socially acceptable games
  • Undesirable but not irreversibly damaging gamesmay
  • Games which may result in drastic harm.

The consequences of these games may vary from lots of small paybacks (e.g., the girl who keeps meeting nice guys who ditch her) through to payback built up over a long period to a major level (i.e. court, mortuary, or similar). Each game has a payoff for those playing it & the usual end result is a string of broken or fractured relationships & total confusion.


[Karpman's Drama Triangle]

Karpman’s Drama Triangle

Karpman described a triangular cycle (above) in which individual game players or drama actors (i.e., the person who is operating in Child or Childish mode) switch from one of the personas (Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor) to another, depending on the stage of the drama or gameGame players can become highly skilled at the rapid switch, which occurs  after stable roles have become established, usually towards the end of the game, catching the other person off-guard, reversing roles & creating confusion

How might this act out in real life?

I’m Only Trying to Help You

The Victim cons the Rescuer with “You’re The Only One Who Can Help me” & the Rescuer buys in with the response, “Yes, You Have So Much Potential.

Then the switch happens & suddenly roles are changed.

Helpful personal hints or unwanted advice backfires quickly & suddenly the Rescuer becomes the new Victim & the original Victim becomes a Persecutor. 

Sometimes the previous Persecutor is thrown into the role of Victim, or the Rescuer suddenly switches to become a Persecutor e.g., “You never appreciate me helping you!

 How did this affect me?

In 2 Significant Ways:

  1. In my ‘willingness to help’ I could easily be drawn-in to situations (Rescuer) where I was always going to lose. From a genuine desire to help I put on blinkers which showed me the need in the situation whilst filtering-out the obvious dangers. If you are an optimistic character, it is very easy to see the good, miss the traps & end-up reinforcing the Victim’s “Poor me” view. I also discovered that if I am struggling with depression, my defences are lowered even further so that I can walk into problems & then not have the energy to use any of the recovery or escape techniques I’d learnt; I have become enmeshed, feeling that there was no way of escape.
  2. When dealing with others, I would offer help or advise & then if I did not think it was appreciated (usually because the other person didn’t say “Thank you”) I would interpret that as a rejection, quickly switching from helper to Persecutor, at least in my own mind. Thankfully I rarely displayed the full intensity of this response to others, but the toll it took on my health & self-esteem was huge, sometimes sending me to bed for a day or more. If left unchecked or unchallenged, it also became a new filter through which everyone was seen. I almost began to expect rejection which then distorted my motives, reactions & moods. Breaking this cycle was critical to restoring a more adult, balanced life.

Yes, when we are hooked-in to this type of response, we suffer; but so do those with whom we interact. Our changes in mood, opinion, friendliness, levels of suspicion etc leave our friends confused & hurt, in many cases driving them away in an attempt to protect themselves. In short, we leave a trail of chaos & destruction.

What have I done to escape from this type of behaviour?

a. Dealing With Myself

If we struggle with this sort of behaviour, we are rarely in a position to help ourself!

So I sought help from a professional.

As I have mentioned several times, the reason we act in this way is not an accident. It has cause(s) rooted in our childhood which may have taken years to mature & establish control over our life without us even realising it. We need skilled people to probe & help us to find the roots, attack them & remove (or at least reduce) their impact on our life now as adults. This is a slow process. It involves commitment, sometimes heartache & a lot of support from people around us. We cannot go it alone. Talking to people is great & can be very helpful, but actually getting to grips with the roots requires a different level of skill. We are dealing with every area of our life in this one little problem. Failure can mean disaster. BUT success means freedom & a quality of life & a level of joy & contentment we could not think possible.

b. Dealing With Others

I like the idea that we cannot change others but we can change our response to their behaviour.

That may be fright & flight or it may be stand & fight.

In my case, a more healthy approach has been to understand why I react so intensely.

Is it through feeling:

  1. out of control?
  2. inadequate?
  3. unappreciated?
  4. invisible?
  5. unloved etc?

These feelings can ALL have origins in our childhood. Once I have understood why I react so intensely, I can deal with the root. BUT I can also start to put things into perspective.

So, does the fact that someone forgets to show thanks really make what I have done any less valuable? No! If I was convinced that it was right in the first place, then surely it is still right. Perhaps they are just very self-focussed & are like that with everyone. If that is the case, it is their problem not mine: I am simply being treated in the same way they treat everyone else. Perhaps the hardest place to reach is to be able to say, “At the end of the day, DOES IT MATTER?”

A lot of my recovery has been & is through re-learning my response; creating new habits that are helpful rather than causing problems. It has been about getting help to understand myself & then committing myself, in good times & bad to see it through. It is also about admitting that we get it wrong & being able to get up & continue moving forward.

Ultimately, the decision lies with us.

As we succeed, the need for games dramas will diminish as we begin to see things in a new, less threatening & more adult way.

The bottom line is IT IS NOT AN EASY ROAD, but just like climbing a mountain, it is well worth the effort, especially when we see success with our progress & get nearer to the summit.


Although we may not be able to actually change others we can help by challenging their behaviour. When we do this we will get flack, kicking & fighting!

It is important to remember that the unhealthy drama game responses have usually become deep-seated over many years. They have become a habit, an automatic, perhaps unconscious response.

We know that setting boundaries or limits is essential for disciplining children & instilling healthy patterns of behaviour. If they over-step those boundaries, certain conditions or consequences apply.

Many people who exist within Karpman’s Drama Triangle have no boundaries, certainly none that are fixed. They are continually changed or moved as part of a defence mechanism & survival strategy.

Therefore, just like introducing boundaries to children who have not had them imposed before, the result can initially be a bit of a fur fight. Our friends will kick against it because they have not experienced it before. BUT if they don’t see & experience a different way, their habitual responses will continue unchecked to the determent of everyone.

One way to start this breaking of the game or drama cycle is by understanding how to deprive the actors of their payoff as Rescuer, Persecutor & Victim. Rather than being just a ‘taking-away’, this is usually best achieved by offering positive alternatives, direction & input.

Victim:  A Victim feels powerless & has experienced some loss, thwarted desire or aspiration &/or killing of a dream. Challenging/encouraging Victims involves helping them to stop & think about a situation & then choose appropriate, achievable steps towards a realistic outcome, rather than focussing on the problem & reacting to it. By setting realistic outcomes, our friends consciously work towards something positive rather than just responding with a knee-jerk reaction in order to avoid or fix a problem.  This positive change in approach becomes part of a new habit, they will find it easier to build (& perhaps even seek out) relationships with others, both to support & to be supported.

Persecutor:  Persecutor may be a person, a condition (such as a health issue), or a circumstance (e.g., a natural disaster) that seeks to dominate the Victim (either overtly or covertly) & maintain a “one-up” position using a variety of assertive & /or manipulative means. The Persecutor’s behaviour is driven by a fear of becoming, or re-becoming, a Victim or by a fear of losing control. In order to successfully reverse this behaviour, it is important to encourage, challenge or even provoke the Persecutor to take action. Although this is from a position of compassion, the challenge may at times need to be confrontational in nature. The helper becomes a kind of teacher who points the Persecutor towards life’s lessons, towards opportunities for growth rooted in the living of life. Focus is always on a  will to create & may require the Persecutor to learn new skills, make difficult decisions, or do whatever is necessary to make a dream or desire come true. The aim is to demonstrate the power of building-up rather than pulling down.

Rescuer:  The Rescuer is any person or activity (such as an addiction) that serves to help a Victim relieve the “pain of Victimhood.”  The Rescuer helps the Victim “numb out.” Although the Rescuer wants to help, in reality they reinforce the Victim’spoor me” self-identity & sense of powerlessness. The Victim becomes dependent on the Rescuer for a sense of safety, a bond which is forged by the Victim’s shame at needing to be rescued & cemented by the Rescuer’s own fear of abandonment or loss of purpose. The best antidote for a Rescuer is someone who can see the real potential in the Rescuer & help them to put plans & strategies in place to help them achieve those goals. They are like a Coach, supporting & helping the Rescuer in the process of creating outcomes.  They leave the power with the Rescuer & aim only to help facilitate that person’s progress, asking questions that help to clarify where the person wants to go & what they want to achieve. They maintain a reality check on the current situation & help plan small sequential actions that lead towards lasting change for the Rescuer.

I have also discovered that it does no harm to do some research & reading to understand ways that we can move forward.

Once we’ve started moving it is critical that we avoid slippery places, slippery people & slippery thinking i.e., find people who can help us in the direction we want/need to go.

An alcoholic seeking support from another alcoholic to give-up drinking or a drug user seeking help from a drug supplier to give up using drugs are non-starters (but you would be surprised how many seek these routes based on the misconception that they understand my problem & can help me.  That is nothing more than a Victim role starting to play).

If there are friends that lock you into or drag you into these unhealthy game or drama responses, change your friends.

With a knowledge of who we are & ‘how we tick’ we help ourselves to identify when a new drama is starting, at which point we can say “No!” to that drama. If we are aware of the roles & switches & consequences, an escape is available from any of the drama roles.

This has been quite a long & in-depth discussion which I hope you have found helpful. I will be presenting one or two small chunks in separate blogs which are more focused on specific areas we have discussed so that they are easier to ‘digest’.

Thank you for reading as always.

Take care until next time …

About waywood

Hi & Welcome to my thoughts. I share subjects that are important to me. As you’ll notice, these subjects can be quite broad & varied. I like variety; I like breadth & I like a challenge. I am passionate about helping others overcome their fears, grow in confidence & succeed. Although many people would label me as an achiever, I have battled low confidence, low self-esteem & a couple of nasty, long periods depression over the years. I can’t say, “I know how you feel” but I can hopefully empathise & offer some of the things that are helping me to turn my life around. Please feel free to comment, share & enjoy. Take care, best wishes & keep well Stuart
This entry was posted in authenticity, barriers to friendship, barriers to relationship, bringing hope, broken people, building confidence, building relationships, challenge, change, change for the better, change through adversity, communication, connection, cultivating friendships, daily help, deception, depression, despair, drama triangles, dreaded drama triangle, encouragement, face your fears, freedom, friends, Friendship, fulfilment, good news, healing, honesty, hope, hurting, hurting people, inspiration, integrity, karpman triangle, listening, lying, meaning for life, mental illness, motives, new start, overcoming barriers, principles, purpose in life, recharging, reconciliation, relationship, relationships, rescue, respect, support, ted, thank you, the bigger picture, tough times, transactional analysis, transforming our life, trust, truth, Uncategorized, vulnerability, vulnerable, wisdom, wise use of time and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Drama Triangles: Childhood Experiences Affecting Adult Life

  1. Pingback: Setting The Victim, Rescuer & Persecutor Free | Stuart Wood's Weblog

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