The Drama Triangle

The drama triangle is a psychological concept proposed by Stephen B. Karpman, where conflict is understood to be created and sustained by three individuals or groups, playing the role of victim, villain, and savior.

Karpman Triangle by 1000Faces, CC BY-SA 4.0

The drama triangle is one of the most powerful stories. It’s a vicious cycle (or negative positive feedback loop), where it grows of its own accord, but is actively damaging.

We’ve all seen ourselves or others in this way. We’re familiar with this lens on experience. We know how to see this way. We’ve done it before, and it’s easy to pick this way of seeing up again. 

We can tell this story about individuals—ourselves or others—and we can also tell it about groups.

Often, this lens is pleasant and relieving in the moment that we pick it up. It feels good to tell this story, if only for a moment. There’s a satisfaction or fulfillment to it. It does something for us.

Most often, we see ourselves as the victims, or perhaps as someone’s savior. This can be a very satisfying lens on our experience. It’s even possible to find fulfillment or satisfaction or relief in seeing ourselves as the villain. Self-hatred can have a kind of relief, peace, and even joy in it. For example, it might feel like if we admit that we are the problem, then at least we are doing something about it.

In any case, whether we see ourselves or others as the victim, villain, or savior, there’s a fulfillment and a satisfaction in it. In truth, it’s a delusion, and not actually helpful, but it feels good in the moment to tell such a story.

This story is delusional because it is predicated on seeing people or groups as fixed entities—that people are permanently good or bad in a specific way. That’s delusion, because it’s based on permanence, which is not a feature of reality. Impermanence is a feature of reality. 

Nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent, including people or groups. It’s true that there might be recurring patterns of behavior, but nothing is permanent and nothing is fixed. 

If you are going to buy into a story about people’s fixed identity or nature, the one that you should buy into is these people are intrinsically good: that people mean well, and are trying to do the right thing. They are doing the best that they can, and the choices that they’ve made make sense from their perspective. We might not agree with them, we might not like them, they might have hurt us or someone we love, but everyone is trying to do the best that they can. 

If you can see past stories that involve fixed identities, you can see these situations in terms of behaviors and actions: this cause had this effect. When you said that, I felt this. When you made that choice, it had this impact on me or someone I love. That’s true—that’s inarguable.

The drama triangle is also harmful because it creates and sustains unhealthy conflict. As soon as you see yourself or another as the victim, villain, or savior, then, by necessity, others are implicated. As soon as there’s a victim, there’s a villain and a savior. As soon as there’s a savior, there’s a victim and a villain, and so on. 

When you see someone with one of these lenses, it’s hard to listen to them, to truly hear what they are saying. It’s hard to understand their experience, to empathize with them. Ultimately, it’s hard to see them as a person, with their own life experiences, feelings, needs, beliefs, boundaries, and values.

If you recognize that the Drama Triangle is an old, tired, story that is delusive and harmful, you can learn to do without it. You can learn to abandon that story.

The very first thing to do is to just be honest and notice when the story is present or not, and then what effect it actually has. So much of the spiritual path, broadly speaking, is about becoming an honest student of causality. To notice that these causes have these effects. When these conditions are present, and this happens, then these are the effects that follow. You can get a lot of mileage out of looking at that.

We can apply this skillset to our experience of the Drama Triangle, of what it’s like to tell or encounter stories about ourselves or others as victims, villains, or saviors. 

So what are the effects of this way of seeing? If I see myself as the victim and my childhood friend as the villain, what actually happens? 

Perhaps you feel pleasure and joy in a specific part of your body, which lasts for about five minutes, and then your jaw tightens. Then you get a little sleepy, and have a memory of an argument you had with someone years ago. The content seems unrelated, but it feels similar. And then that night, you had a disturbing dream, and woke up feeling unsettled. 

Those could all be plausible effects of telling a story that involves the Drama Triangle—and that’s what being an honest student of causality looks like. You just really pay attention. One thing happens, and then some other things happen—and you pay attention.

Noticing what actually happens is the first step. Paying attention, moment to moment, to the causes and their effects—to what consequences telling this story has on your system—is incredibly important. 

If you really notice that a cause, a choice, an action, has effects that are undesirable, that are harmful to you, then that in itself provides the motivation to escape, to not do the thing anymore.

To some extent, when we’re still participating in something harmful that causes suffering, we haven’t really allowed ourselves to notice in full the harm and suffering that it causes. We’re only noticing the pleasant side effects. It’s a mistake to discount the fact that there are pleasant side effects, that there’s a fulfillment, that there’s a payoff.

This harmful behavior wouldn’t be self sustaining otherwise. We wouldn’t buy into it so consistently if it didn’t do something for us. It’s an error to think that it’s just dumb. That would be making the mistake of underestimating our enemy. It’s not dumb. It’s quite smart, actually. It’s very brilliant. 

An addiction, for example, is doing something for us. You can’t just go cold turkey, without truly seeing that it’s actually harming you, that it’s causing more suffering than it’s worth. Then, going cold turkey becomes possible—but not just on it’s own. Not while you’re still bought into the thing that it’s doing for you.

So, at the very least, be honest with yourself. Notice what’s happening, without trying to change it or fix it. Just notice: “Oh, I’m buying into the victim mindset.” Or, “Oh, I’m seeing this person as a villain.” 

Then notice what effects these stories have, the pleasures and sufferings that come with them. Don’t forget that there are joys and fulfillments in them—that they’re doing something for you.

Once you have sufficiently acquainted yourself with the effects of this story, and the harms that it causes, it becomes possible to stop telling this story. 

There’s a general skill that we learn on the spiritual path: the skill of letting go, of relinquishing. Gradually, we learn to let go of patterns, to relinquish things that are causing us suffering, to escape from thoughts and feelings that are harming us. 

These stories can also be relinquished. It’s not necessarily that you flip a switch and these stories never arise again. But when it comes up, you recognize it, and you don’t feed it. It’s just as if someone offered you a cup of poison. You would refuse to drink it. It’s not that suddenly there is no longer poison in the world suddenly, it’s just that you have the maturity to not drink it.

For myself, I no longer have patience for this story. In truth, it’s difficult to live this way, once you make that decision, because a lot of people want you to buy into stories that are built on the Drama Triangle. They will even feel hurt or offended if you refuse to buy into their stories. 

But if you can, refuse to participate in the Drama Triangle. Refuse to see yourself or others as victims, villains, or saviors. See people as people, real people: doing their best, taking actions that have effects, making mistakes, learning and growing. Where once you chose conflict and strife, choose love instead.

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