woman looking overwhelemed

A Story of The Drama Triangle

woman looking overwhelemed

Kim was imagining relaxing by the pool on a sun bed, cold drink in hand with the sun warming her tired body. She wished she could stay in this daydream forever, then her email pinged and snapped her back to reality.

And in reality, it had been 18 months since she had spent quality time on holiday with her husband. What with him being furloughed and her working long hours, she felt they deserved a break. Luckily she had a holiday booked next week, one that she could not wait for.

Reading the email made her stomach churn. For a worrying moment she despaired she might need to cancel her holiday, or at the very least take her laptop and do work whilst away. Things at work were difficult, her suppliers had been constantly letting them down, and the search was on for replacements. Now her boss was on the warpath.

Kim felt helpless. As a leader she couldn’t refuse to do the work, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to tell her husband Mike. She started to explain this difficult situation to her friend and trusted work colleague John. But she had no idea how to resolve this problem…

So the Games Begin

This dilemma  is not unique to Kim, similar things happen time and time again. Be it disrupted travel plans, a deadline brought forward, an unfinished report, an over-looked promotion, or a strained relationship. Why then is this game so predictable, repetitive and ends in a negative pay-off?

Drama Triangle Image

The game we are talking about here is played out on the Drama Triangle, first described by Stephen Karpman in 1961. A useful theory used in psychology to describe the insidious way in which we present ourselves as “victims,” “persecutors” and “rescuers.” Understanding the roles of the Drama Triangle is crucial in helping you get your report in on time, repairing strained relationship, landing that job, and in Kim’s case, getting away on holiday. Once we understand the roles that each of us play, and how quickly we can move around each position on the triangle, the sooner we can get off the Drama Triangle and onto the Winners Triangle.

Back to Kim

Kim feels like the victim, she feels helpless and doesn’t know what she should do for the best, so she goes to see John because experience has taught her that she’ll get a sympathetic ear and he may step up and help her out with the supplier. John is the rescuer.

Whereas, Mike her husband has very definite ideas about what Kim should do in relation to work. Mike is in the role of persecutor. He get’s annoyed with Kim and how much work walk all over her in his eyes, he sees taking the laptop away with them as spoiling his holiday well as hers. Although he’s nothing like her step-father, any confrontation with Mike, brings back awful memories of her bullying step-father. There’s simply no point in talking to Mike she explains to John, he just doesn’t get it; he just says: “If it was me I would tell ‘em to stick their job.”

Whilst neglecting his own needs John is constantly applying short-term repairs to Kim’s problems. In general he is always working hard to “help” other people, leaving him feeling harried and tired. Rescuers are usually angry underneath and maybe a little martyr in style.

Quote - We are the stories we tell ourselvesWithout Kim realising it, her own behaviour has helped create this rescuing behaviour in John and a persecutor in Mike too. Her behaviour is also leading Kim’s boss and supplier relationships to be seen as that of the persecutor. By denying responsibility for her negative circumstances, Kim is also inadvertently denying herself the power to change things. Her historic self limiting beliefs won’t allow her to take a stand, she’s therefore acting “powerless.”  And as the saying goes, not making a decision is a decision to keep things as they are.

Mike with time on his hands, can’t wait for a change of scenery, it’s been so long since his last holiday, the bars and restaurants are going to be open, and after all he’s been through this year he deserves a holiday. In his eye’s being on furlough is the same as being laid off and he’s anxiously worrying why they decided to lay him off when he’s one of the best workers? He’s frustrated that, Kim doesn’t see how hard these feelings are for him, and what a toll it’s taking on his mental health. And with that, we now also place Mike in the victim position.

John starts to think he might be taking on too much work, why does he always agree to do this? He won’t get paid anymore money for taking all this work on. And Kim is technically more senior than him. Might John be starting to act and feel like a victim too?

These subtle moves take place without much manoeuvring, could it be that Kim is now starting to look like a persecutor?

That’s the thing about the drama triangle, people take up different positions very quickly as the drama unfolds.

How to get off the drama triangle?

Let’s look at Kim’s position as the victim. What possible moves has she neglected to take? What has prevented her from going to see her boss? Does he know she is meant to be going on holiday?

Winners Triangle

Could Kim make a move from Victim to Vulnerable? If she acknowledged the problem to her boss, explaining the situation, rather than avoiding him. If only, she could stop seeing people in her step-fathers image?

Instead of blindingly taking work off Kim, could it be that John moves from being a rescuer to being a responder, acting with care? Yes, he can acknowledge Kim’s problem, but rather than taking on her issues, he might suggest they look at some solutions together, or ask “What else have you thought about here?” If only John could stop feeling like he needs to be needed, like a hero.

What about Mike? How could he be more supportive and encouraging to Kim. What if he didn’t have all the answers and asked more questions instead? He could be a great sounding board if he truly listened. If he could try asking: “What is it you want to see happen?” and “What do you want to do to change this?”

In Summary

If you find yourself on the Drama Triangle like our characters, you can start to move onto the Winner’s Triangle by doing the following:

Stop complaining – That it’s not fair and that this always happens to me.

Start thinking – OK, what can I do to change this for the better.

Stop telling – OK, here’s what you need to do.

Start asking – OK, what do you think needs to happen next.

Stop saying – Yes to every request for help.

Start implementing-  Healthy boundaries and habits of mind; that people have the agency to help themselves, and when they do, they usually see the best results.

Want to learn more about the drama triangle and how it plays out in the workplace? We offer a 2-hour interactive workshop on the Drama Triangle. Focused on tackling issues of how the drama triangle positions may detract from productivity, and employee wellbeing in teams. Get in touch for more info prices start from £750 for up to 16 delegates.