drama mask

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Drama: who are the persecutors, rescuers and victims in your workplace?

New Year’s Day, 2008. Feeling a little worse for wear, we bought our kids a Nintendo Wii. “You two play this while Mum and Dad rest.” An hour later I walked into the living room to find a blanket covering the TV. Why? “The telly was cold,” my eight-year-old Gabby explained. I sensed this might not be true, lifting the blanket to reveal the Wii remote buried in the screen. “Do you remember I said to put the strap around your wrist when you played bowling?”, I shouted. My wife heard and came to defend them – “they are only little”. This is the drama triangle.

In this scenario it was short-lived, typical of young families, and provided us with an amusing story. There are much more unproductive, unhealthy, and toxic drama triangles that we have all been part of.

Psychiatrist Steven Karpman came up with the drama triangle in the 1960s, and it is as relevant today as it was then. There are three roles: Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim. Imagine an inverted triangle with the P top left, the R top right and the V at the bottom. We see it in fairytales, films, and on TV (if yours is not cold) all the time. In Little Red Riding Hood, the big bad wolf was the persecutor, the woodsman was the rescuer, and Red herself was the victim.

At work we often play out the drama triangle in our heads, moving around all three roles. The last time you missed a deadline your brain went something like: ‘You idiot, you knew you should have done that’ – persecutor. “They treat you badly. It’s not your fault” – victim. “It’s OK, we can sort this” – rescuer. The roles also play out in real life too. You might have a boss or a customer that is a persecutor, or you might be that persecutor looking for people to blame. A triangle begins because of a situation like a missed deadline, then we play one of the three roles, and look to others to fill the other roles.

The challenge with the drama triangle is to know that all three roles end up as victims because we move around it until we arrive at: “Poor me. Help!” To break out of this cycle is about firstly knowing that the drama triangle exists, and secondly by taking the step to move your role to something much more positive. A persecutor becomes a positive challenger, the rescuer a coach, and the victim problem solves, taking responsibility for the part they play.