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How to Step Out of the Drama Triangle and Find Real Peace

“Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly your own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.” ~Epictetus

 Are you addicted to drama? I was, but I didn’t know it. I thought I was just responding to life, to what was happening. I really didn’t think I had a choice! The drama triangle is so pervasive, and can be so subtle, that it just seems normal. But it’s not, and there’s a much saner way to live, I found.

Dr. Stephen Karpman first described the drama triangle in the 1960’s.

All three of the roles—Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor—are very fluid and can morph easily into one another. We all have a favorite (usually the role we assumed most often in childhood), but most of us are pretty good at all three of them, depending on the situation.

My personal favorite was Rescuer, although I also did a very credible Victim from time to time. I was a Rescuer in my family of origin (middle children often are). I felt virtuous, strong, and necessary when other people turned to me for help or depended on me to take care of things.

But there’s always a downside. Being a perpetual Rescuer led to chronic stress, as I constantly monitored how everyone else was doing and was never available to take care of my own needs.

That’s when I’d slip into the Victim role: I’d feel sorry for myself, since no one seemed to appreciate how hard I was working to take care of them. Which made me feel angry and resentful, and before I knew it I’d find myself picking a fight with my husband or fuming at some unwitting clerk. (Yep, there’s the Persecutor.)

See how the drama cycles from role to role? They all have their payoffs too. It feels good to be a Victim, at least for a while. We get a lot of attention. We don’t need to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences, because we can always find someone else to blame for them. Often people will help us (those nice Rescuers).

And being the Persecutor can feel powerful, especially for someone who has never learned the skill of asking directly for their needs to be met. We get to “blow off steam.” We might even get to have our way for a while—but at what cost?

It’s an exhausting way to live. All of the roles are driven by anxiety and the ways we have learned to “control” it in our lives. The drama keeps us absorbed, and it keeps us enmeshed (unhealthily) with others, but it leaves very little room for real peace and joy. And no room at all for a truly healthy relationship to form.

But how do we step away from the drama triangle, when almost everyone we know is still playing the game?

The first step is simply to be aware of the game, how it works, and what roles you play most frequently. What role did you play as a child? Can you identify the roles that others in your family played? Are they still playing them?

The role of Rescuer may be the easiest to admit to, since it actually sounds praiseworthy or noble on the surface. This is not genuine philanthropy, however—it’s really about control and being in someone else’s business, thus neglecting your own.

If you’re accustomed to being a Victim, on the other hand, you’ll find yourself often looking for someone or something outside of yourself to blame. (In fact, the hallmark of all the roles is that your attention is usually directed outward.)

Finally, although no one likes to admit to being a Persecutor, if anger is your go-to emotion when things go wrong, you’re probably operating in that role. In reality, the anger is just a mask for underlying fear, shame, and powerlessness. Sadly, adult Persecutors were often Victims as children. In the drama triangle there are no good guys and bad guys—everyone loses.

Once you’ve become aware of your patterns, it becomes much easier to recognize the game and, eventually, step out of it. Since the drama triangle is all about being in other people’s business, stepping out of it requires you to remain firmly in your own!

What helped me with this was a concept I call the “zone of integrity.” Imagine a circle around yourself; this represents your business (your true responsibility). In the zone of integrity, you are responsible for being 100 percent honest, both with yourself and with others. This means acknowledging and honoring your own feelings and needs, and allowing others to be responsible for theirs.

It also means taking responsibility for your own actions and their consequences, and letting others do the same. This might require some “tough love,” both toward yourself and others. You might not be the most popular person at the dance for a while. Codependence (which is essentially what the drama triangle describes) is a system. It requires multiple players to function, so people will probably be upset when you opt out. In fact, you can count on it.

During my own withdrawal phase, I would regularly find myself getting sucked into the old dynamics, but it’s become easier and easier to spot when that happens and to use the “zone of integrity” concept to pull myself back into my own business.

Recently my mother asked me to help smooth over a squabble between some of my siblings—exactly the sort of thing I have done all my life. Even in the act of saying yes I suddenly stopped and thought, “Is this really my business? Do I really have to take this on?” And then politely declined.

It’s not always easy in the beginning to recognize whose business you’re in, especially when it involves your family of origin. These are the people who taught you most of what you know about the drama triangle, after all!

For me, I feel a very familiar sense of obligation and guilt when those Rescuer urges start kicking in, which prompts me to pull back and look more closely at the situation. It took practice for me to hear and trust those feelings, but now they’re easy to spot.

The zone of integrity, when I manage to stay there, feels so good. I still care about people, and help when it feels right, but I no longer feel obligated to rescue. That means that I don’t end up feeling victimized, or resentfully persecuting someone else in return. In the long run it’s much better for everyone involved.

My life now has a lot less drama, it’s true. You might miss that sometimes, when people are trading war stories at Friday night happy hour. What you will have instead is true peace of mind, much healthier relationships and a passionate addiction to staying in your zone of integrity. It’s worth the trade-off.

About Amaya Pryce

Amaya Pryce is a spiritual coach and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her newest book, How to Grow Your Soulis available on Amazon. For coaching or to follow her blog, please visit www.amayapryce.com.

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  • Tim Moorey

    Thank you Amaya for sharing this post. It was very timely for me as I was awaking from a lovely peaceful weekend before returning to work where stress and hectic-ness is seen as proof of performance!
    I recognised that outside of it I felt peaceful and joy and love. I felt normal.
    The drama triangle helps us to see the roles we tend to drop into and with this wisdom of awareness we can see that there need be no roles, when we rest our focus on our innate self. I love the ‘zone of integrity.’
    Awareness also helps us to recognise the ‘projections’ of roles – others believing and acting so that we put on the cape or pick up the knife or cower in the corner. Be it at school, at home or in work, we are of course conditioned into the roles through parenting, education and society.
    I believe that mindful awareness of our thought patterns associated with the roles on the drama triangle can help us make peace with them and then step out.
    Step out of the triangle, step out of the box!

  • ShaunTheCHB

    Persecutor and victim are more than likely my zones. I’m no rescuer. I have not heard of this concept before. This drama triangle.

  • Amaya

    Learning about the drama triangle changed my life. Suddenly I could see it everywhere – in all of my relationships, in the news (countries play the game too), in movie plot lines… It’s so freeing when you recognize the roles you play. Then you have a choice!

  • Amaya

    You are so right about the power of awareness. And I love your description of the roles: “put on the cape, pick up the knife or cower in the corner.” Each one of them gives us an out when we feel anxious, but at what cost?

  • Littlered

    Oh my God! Finally it makes sense!! I resonate with what you have written so much. I somehow always slipping towards the victim in the end though! One thing I feel is that if a loved one tells me some problems that are bothering them, I want to help (rescue) and I don’t know if it is normal to behave like I do next, but I start to feel the problem as if it is mine. Really feeling what they feel, imagining as if the hurt and issue they are facing is actually happening to me. As if it is my problem somehow. And I don’t even know it but I have become the victim of that situation by my own thinking. I feel their fear, feel their pain, physically affects me. Say e.g. my friend has a bad boss who doesn’t treat her well but she can’t quit coz she needs the money. Every time I hear about the boss or any boss or any corporate story, it will somehow relate to her problem and I find anxiety triggered inside me. Or as if I am really affected. I cannot remove myself from that and that problem or issue is now inside me. And anything to do with the issue like some other woman having the name of her boss will give me the same sickening feeling. I realised that when I read your article. What do I do!!

    P.S. thanks a ton for writing this!!!

  • Amaya

    You’re so welcome! And you are describing exactly what happens when you get out of your own “business” and into someone else’s. When you stay in your own business (my zone of integrity) you can still feel empathetic and even offer help that feels authentic, but you allow the other person to actually own the problem and the responsibility for fixing it. We do this because it distracts us from our own problems and anxiety. I’m very familiar with that Rescuer tendency!

  • Thank you so much for this post. It is a phenomenon I have been aware of for many years and have gone to great lengths to change in my life. Yet, I still see where subconsciously these patterns creep up within me. It is a constant practice of becoming aware and making conscious choices to shift such dynamics. Can’t wait to share this article!

  • Littlered

    This is so simple yet so hard to identify. What you said about other person owning up to their problem is really very very true. Somehow they get used to being ‘rescued’ by the likes of us and they don’t take the steps they need to. They can always complain to us! They can always feel like the victim. But good eye opening article. I am trying to apply this to my family and can the see the roles so clearly! Great job! Looking forward to more articles from you.

  • Littlered

    Btw, the above link to your blog gives a 404 error. As in the link doesn’t work. However, separately typing in the browser works. Maybe you can have a look later.
    Bye!

  • Tami Rush

    I need this journal in my life!!

  • AMA

    Your article resonated with me. I would very much like to let go of feeling like I need to rescue others or that I am unappreciated for helping when no one asked me to in th first place. I have begun to to recognize when this is happening. But do you have suggestions of how to transition out of these 3 roles in other people’s drama? I am having trouble thinking of the most effective and tactful way to let others know when it’s “not my monkeys/not my circus.” How can I let close friends or family know I don’t want to get involved without insulting them? Thanks so much.

  • Amaya

    It is definitely a process, and won’t happen overnight! The more aware you become of your patterns, the easier it will be to make new choices. I don’t think you need to make any big announcements – just gently refuse to get pulled into the drama. In truth, I think the biggest struggle is with yourself and your own habits. These roles provide us with a lot of comfort and familiarity (along with all the drama). Good luck!! If you want to talk it over, I offer a complimentary coaching session on my website.

  • Amaya

    I so agree – the patterns can sneak back if you’re not careful. That’s why I love the zone of integrity concept. I have learned to recognize almost immediately when I’m getting out of integrity, and then I quickly do what I need to get back in!!

  • Amaya

    Thank you so much!! 🙂 And thanks for the heads-up on my link!!

  • Jannette Morrow

    My favourite season is Autumn, because it is starting to get cool and I function better in cool weather, I feel more alive and breathing the cool air makes me think more clearly

  • Whitney

    Thank you for sharing this — very helpful. I appreciate your vulnerability with sharing your own struggle in the triangle. I really like the “zone of integrity” circle and will use that when I find myself caught in the triangle.

  • Amaya

    I’m glad that is helpful for you, too. One thing I like to remember is that no one can pull me out of that zone – I have to step out of it myself. And so I can also step back in – it’s always my choice. <3

  • cafebabe

    Thank you for sharing! I realized I selected environments that were ‘exciting’ and “war zones” like. This was both in personal and professional atmosphere. Instead, I have chosen to focus on my responsibilities – this included many aspects: removing myself from needy family members, removing myself from toxic relationships, spending less time on social media, deleting some of my social media accounts. At work, my relationships became professional – meaning I became more accountable for my work, I stayed away from politics, I became better at my job BECAUSE I refused to kiss ass. I refused to focus on the negative, and instead took a step outside of my emotions. What some people call boring is actually – peace of mind. It’s the refusal to participate in gossip, and the extreme form is slander. Unfortunately, unless I actively fight against the “drama triangle” – it creeps in. It’s the oversharing that happens on social media, it’s the media parade of endless topics that aim to divide and destroy people – they paint others as evil and put delusional ideas in peoples’ heads. It’s important – more than ever- with digital distribution of opinions to fight against people’s role as the ‘rescuer’ or the ‘persecutor’ or even the ‘victim’. It’s been a challenge – definitely- because human relationships are complex and complicated. But there is always a sense of humanity that I remember and keep things in perspective.

    Cheers!

  • Maeve

    I gotta say, this article really hit home for me. It makes me question myself however, and feel more than a bit of shame. I always thought I was just a big-hearted person, that if I had anything, it was my altruism and my dependability. Recent events have made me think that my helping may be leaning more towards unhealthy co dependency.

    The first guy that I loved was going through a divorce when I met him. I had never been close to love before and was very naive. I realize now that he had projected his residual feelings onto me that he had for his ex. It was intense and exciting for naive me, and I fell in love quickly. When he went back to her I felt used and foolish and lashed out at him. He wanted me to stay in his life however, and I wanted so badly to not feel like I had imagined everything, that I was wanted, that I allowed him back into my life.

    I dove headfirst into his issues, basking in the feeling of ‘helping him’ I was his light, the one person he could turn to. (I clearly was desperate for affection, and wanted to win his love as I hopelessly still loved him despite everything.) I thought I was being a good person, but what I was really doing was enabling him to ignore his issues with his ex and stay with me, it was my way of asserting control when I felt helpless I am realizing.

    I didn’t kick up a fuss or ask that my needs be met. I wanted to save him, and win his love. Needless to say, it was the most painful experience of my life. I had never experienced so much rejection and shame, because he never wanted me truly, he just developed an unhealthy attachment for his crutch. It made me doubt my own importance and to avoid this personal issue (and to avoid cutting him out of my life and pushing him to fix his own mess), I fell into the triangle. I was angry and lashed out when he didn’t truly love me. I was the ‘victim’ of emotional abuse, when in reality, he was in no place to be with anyone and I knew it deep down but pursued anyway.

    I want to get out of this habit. This approval seeking behavior and start forming relationships where I can just feel honest. I think the circle of integrity thing will help me to build up the courage to step away from a bad situation and protect myself. I realize I have been ignoring my own growth and calling it altruism and empathy. This post was very illuminating.

    Thank you for the post and sorry for the overshare.

  • Amaya

    Thank you for your comment – I agree completely. I’m reading a book right now that you might enjoy, called “Radical Forgiveness.” It is primarily about releasing the victim consciousness and seeing that every situation is there for us to learn and grow from, not to bemoan or fight against. Not always easy to remember in the heat of the moment, but so helpful nonetheless!

  • Amaya

    Maeve – no need to feel shame – the drama triangle is something that literally everyone takes part in. The smart thing is to realize when you’re doing it! I have a coach friend who is fabulous with the issue you describe. She has a blog with some good posts you can read about how to stand in your own truth in romantic relationships (meganforrest.com). I wish you the best!!

  • cafebabe

    Totally! Best we can do is become better versions of ourselves!

  • Maeve

    Thank you so much for this! I will take a look.

  • CJ Johnson

    I needed to read what you wrote, every word, so for me it wasn’t an overshare. I have struggled with a very similar situation and found myself not liking myself much as I turned my victimization into rage and became the persecutor. I am much more comfortable with the “nobler” role of rescuer. Yeeks. Your post made me feel better I’m not alone, I felt all those same emotions of shame and guilt. Thank you so much for writing your story down. xo

  • Maeve

    Thank you for the response. I am so glad I’m not alone in this regard as well. 🙂 I’m looking at my own situation as a learning experience. The relationship highlighted some insecurities that I didn’t even know that I had. Now I can work on them and get to the root of where they came from. I imagine you are in the same boat here. We gotta keep our chins up.