Have you found yourself in a drama triangle with... yourself?

If you know me, you likely know about my love of TA (Transactional Analysis). I love teaching the TA module at Animas Centre for Coaching.


The concept I come back to again and again is the Drama Triangle, also called the Karpman's triangle. It's a useful lens to explore dysfunctional dynamics, or games, that we get into with other people. But not everyone knows that it's also useful to explore what goes on inside us, in particular how different parts of us interact.


I keep reflecting on this idea with both my coaching clients and with coaches in supervision sessions.


If you experience self-doubt or imposter thoughts, you may find yourself in a drama triangle with... yourself.


As usual, the drama comes from shifting between the roles. I'm curious to know if you can recognise yourself moving between different roles within the triangle?


Let's explore the roles one by one...


The Persecutor


The persecutor is the one that blames and points the finger.


This can be your self-criticism or negative self talk. We can truly be our worst critics. (“I’m rubbish at this”, “I can't believe I didn't come up with a better thing to say”, "Gosh, I'm blabbering").


I for sure have a repertoire of phrases my inner critic doesn't hesitate to throw at me when I'm not at my best. I bet you have your own phrasebook too...


But the persecutor can also mean giving yourself very ambitious goals, keeping yourself to impossibly high standards, or working to an excess instead of prioritising self-care.


The persecutor can also be an external circumstance or condition outside of yourself. This can be anything - the pandemic, market conditions, competition, lack of money or any other perceived difficulty outside of our control.


If you are a coach, you may convince yourself that there are just too many coaches out there for you to make a living out of it.


The Rescuer


This is the hero that saves the day.


We let the rescuer take over when we give in to instant relief to feel validated (or receive strokes, to use a TA term), or seek to prove our value. This is often an ”in the moment” urge to save ourselves from uncomfortable feelings.


So what can this be about?


It can mean succumbing to procrastination or working extra hard to compensate. It can also be about over-preparing and holding on to that rehearsed version of reality.


If you are a coach, it can feel like doing the ”heavy lifting” for the client, or being overly invested in the client's outcome. It can also mean overstepping (or letting clients overstep) your boundaries.


This is where the urge to give advice tends to show up. You may be tempted to share information or your own experience to show how much you’re worth, rather than staying in coaching mode.


I often work with coaches who used to be experts in their field. That switch from the one who has the knowledge to the one who facilitates can be a tricky one to manoeuvre and it becomes extra hard to keep the Rescuer at bay.


The "Victim"


The "Victim" often feels powerless in the face of their own perceived limitations or external circumstances.


This can take many flavours: feeling too overwhelmed to take action, procrastinating to the point of hurting your own chances to succeed, or not valuing your input enough.


You may also be overly focussed on what you perceive to be missing. "I just don't have the network that other people do" seems to be a common complaint.


The victim is often adopting a fixed mindset, discounting the potential for things to change and develop. When we adopt this role, we may be feeling disempowered, not trusting ourselves or believing that change is possible.


How to get out of the Drama Triangle


First step, as with any change, is awareness and the desire to shift to a more "adult" stance. Adult, in the language of Transactional Analysis, is about being aware and responding appropriately to the here and now.


There are different sets of alternative roles that we can step into instead of being stuck in the Drama Triangle, but today I'd like to explore The Winner's Triangle.


[Another well known set of roles is described in "The Empowerment Dynamic" by David Emerald]


The Winner's Triangle is a useful antithesis to the Karpman Drama Triangle because it eliminates the discounts within the three roles of the Drama Triangle, and replaces each with a specific skill for game-free relating.


Assertive (as opposed to Persecutor):


This role is all about being clear on your goals and plans, but keeping them realistic and not pursuing them to the point of burnout. This role in the Winner's Triangle also calls for the courage to say 'no' when what we are asked to do is not aligned with our vision.


It's about keeping yourself accountable to grow, set goals, and stretch out of your comfort zone without engaging in critical self-talk or self-punishment.


Caring (as opposed to Rescuer)


This role invites self-compassion and kindness. It's about listening and trusting your own internal sense of direction and tuning into your body and its needs, e.g. giving yourself a break when you feel tired.


It's about creating and upholding boundaries that help you preserve your energy and emotional wellbeing.


It's also like the positive unconditional regard that as coaches we have towards the client, but applying this to yourself.


Vulnerable (as opposed to Victim)


While the Victim is helpless and disempowered, the Vulnerable is aware of their own feelings and emotions, but steps into the Adult state for thinking and problem solving.


This role is about being present, using the awareness of one’s own thoughts and emotions to fuel learning and growth.


So rather than feeling disempowered by your own feelings, it's about adopting a learning mindset and taking realistic steps towards the vision you have for yourself.


In conclusion


Stepping away from the Drama Triangle can take time and effort - it’s a well oiled machine of habit. We play games inside of our heads all the time without even noticing.


We may shift between these roles within moments:


  • The Persecutor within you might be calling you “silly” or "incompetent".

  • The Victim may follow with the feeling of guilt, disempowerment or anxiety.

  • Then the Rescuer takes over armed with a fix to avoid uncomfortable emotions. This can be an offer to procrastinate or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, to give in to over-preparation.


Start by examining your own experience of moving between the aspects with curiosity. Once you've identified your behaviour patterns, can you take steps towards one of these alternative roles?

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