The Karpman Drama Triangle – What is it?

Everywhere I’ve turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my own good—only /they/ were the ones who benefited. And now we start on the old sacrificial merry-go-round. At what point do we stop?

Ralph Ellison

I am grateful for this guest post from a long time contributor and supporter of this site. She tweets as @DVHurts and has her own blog which you should visit. She writes here about the Karpman Drama Triangle

The drama triangle is a social model of human interaction – the triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict. The drama triangle model is a tool used in psychotherapy, specifically transactional analysis.


Conflict, power and the roles we play

I am a parent who has been through care proceedings and I want to talk about something that was an eye opener for me, with apologies to those who are less of a nerd. My specialist subject today is the Karpman Drama Triangle and how it applies to interactions with professionals. The what?!

Basically ,there was this bloke, Stephen Karpman M.D. American of course, who as a student constructed a theory of social interaction encompassing conflict , power and the shifting roles people play. Why I first became interested in it was as a domestic violence victim , I could not understand how professionals did not see past the perpetrators immediate morphing into the victim every time the police were called. That victim status got him sympathy and belief that he was the injured party.

The Drama Triangle consists of three roles; two at the top of an inverted triangle, the persecutor and the rescuer at the top and one at the bottom is the victim. Although the roles are not static , people often have a natural leaning towards one of them initially in a relationship whether personal or professional. These are learnt roles from childhood.

I am a natural rescuer, though of course I have played of three roles at times. The reason why, is I had too much responsibility as a child and so learnt that my worth is consistent with how much I can help someone. Many caring professionals are also rescuers, but a significant minority can also spend some of their time as persecutors and victims. One such was my children’s social worker. I hope I am now not turning into the persecutor but rather pointing out bad social work practice. I will not name her, lets call her Susan.

Susan was actually a little bit younger than me, she had like many come to social work late in her late 30’s . I got to know her well, too well, as she used to slot me in as the last visit of the day and sit and talk about herself. She told me about her strained relationship with her mum, the split with her ex, all the jobs she had prior to becoming a social worker,her son, a difficult removal of a new born baby, her problems with her job….. I listened. What I didn’t realise at the time was that she was playing the victim and I was playing the rescuer, when in fact I was an actual victim whose needs she should have been attempting to find resources for. For instance we were supposed to have a family group conference and I should have had a carer’s assessment. When my situation worsened she of course then shifted roles again to be the persecutor.

We all get payback from the roles we play. Susan initially got me to confirm her victim status, she sat on the pity pot and I said the appropriate responses. Remember on the whole I am a rescuer and it was a role I was very familiar with. It was extremely unhelpful to the situation though, by rescuing , I could stay in denial about my problems and by Susan maintaining her victim status she was telling me that she was helpless to make changes to her life let alone enable me to make changes to mine. We were both trapped on the merry go round.

Act 2
Whilst Susan continued to play out her victim role , the situation worsened and our positions on the triangle shifted. She became the rescuer of my children and my ex, plus my persecutor. I then felt like a victim, when no one would acknowledge that, I in turn became her persecutor , if she had done her job properly would we have reached crisis?

Social Work in particular

I have every empathy for social workers, heavy case loads, working conditions and the undoubted trauma they face every day. However, and you knew there had to be a however, they are not victims. They are middle class , from social classification, and have far more choice and advantages than their clients. Including the ability to move jobs, if they really cannot stand the position they are in.

Their client group, if it involves child protection or mental health has multiple disadvantages. Yes some of clients problems are inter generational, but you can’t actually be blamed for your parents. Clients live very different lives,with very few options; some days just living is a miracle.


What is in it for me?

This is the single most helpful tool I have found in breaking the drama triangle. Not being over analytical, but simply working out what payback that both you and the person you are in any relationship with are getting. Is one helping the other , giving too much time , money, sympathy without any return.

Do you know absolutely nothing about your friend but they know your complete history? Healthy relationships benefit both parties, I’m alright, your alright. that includes relationships with professionals as well.

3 thoughts on “The Karpman Drama Triangle – What is it?

  1. Angelo Granda

    QUOTE: I could not understand how professionals did not see past the perpetrators immediate morphing into the victim every time the police were called. That victim status got him sympathy and belief that he was the injured party.;UNQUOTE

    Thank you for a very interesting post; I am looking forward to more from you. Naturally we are interested in ‘social interaction’ theories but we should always remember they are merely theories. The theories don’t apply to every case. I am pretty certain that if and when parents interact with middle class CP professionals and complain about false representations and ‘victimisation’ they assume he or she has morphed themselves into a victim who is in denial. Instead of that , they should LISTEN to what is being told to them and CHECK their facts.

  2. Paul Garland

    There is a history of failing to ‘rehabilitate’ people in need, be they ‘offenders’ or ‘victims’. This history includes a failure of those who ‘rush in where angels fear to tread’ (ie: the ‘rescuers’) to learn how to actually help. The first obvious (or maybe not so obvious) mistake is to assume the power invested in you as a so called ‘professional’ is absolutely not influenced by your own agenda.
    This cannot be over stated. Most people who train in and then work for corporations then proceed to adopt the ‘corporate ‘we’ – the corporate identity. Interestingly, they then rarely speak of themselves as individuals with personal responsibility but as ‘operatives’ of a system which ‘everyone assumes’ is legitimate and bonafide ‘care’ (because it’s always someone else actually ‘doing’ the caring. These ‘jobsworths’ in the making and their ’employers’ become; ‘them’ over there in a ‘department’ which YOU the service user are excluded from.

    -“Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”-.
    There is a huge incentive for so called professionals and their trainers inside these ‘corporate’ labyrinths to develop a kind of ‘professional’ dissociation where no one is ever actually responsible and the power is never shared with the alleged ‘service users’.
    Tax payers who hear about ‘other people’s problems’ don’t care how the money is spent, they only care the corporation with the responsibility to ‘deal with the problem’

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