Many, many times have I been talking with a patient and they will describe a pattern of behavior between themselves and another person – spouses, parent-offspring, coworkers, siblings, you name it. Most of us fall into this pattern, sometimes it’s chronic, sometimes it’s brief, sometimes disastrous and sometimes not. Regardless of its various expressions in a relationship, it is nearly always counter-productive if not destructive.
I’m referring to the pattern of interaction when two people enact the role of “Rescuer”, “Victim”, or “Persecutor”. The process is perhaps best illustrated by what is now called the “drama triangle” first described by Stephen Karpman in an article he authored in 1968.
Many of us react to Life as a Victim. Some do it habitually. Whenever we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we play the starring role as Victim. Here are a few questions that might help you decide if you’re playing Victim.
- Do you feel that others often take unfair advantage of you?
- Does it seem your efforts are often unappreciated?
- Do you often say (or think), “It’s not my fault.”
- Does it seem that you have to carry more than your fair share?
- Do you feel you seldom get a fair opportunity?
- Does it seem you’re just unlucky and have received a raw deal from Life?
- Do you often feel that if you could just “get a fair break” that your life would improve?
The above are frequent indicators of those who play Victim. Victims ask to be taken care of, bailed out or cut slack. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s outrageously blatant.
Frequently, (particularly when I’m not on top of my game) when I encounter the Victim, my heart wants to go out and help them. I get sucked into the vortex of the drama triangle. It’s happened many times to me both personally and sometimes professionally. When I succumb to Victim bait, I reflexively enact the “Rescuer” role. When playing the Rescuer role, I initially feel good about myself because I believe I’m helping. In the role of Rescuer, one feels competent, beneficent, compassionate or morally elevated. Apparently, my belief (at that moment) is that the Victim is incapable, not as smart or insightful as I am or will perhaps sink further into an abyss without my intervention. I act as if I’m saving them from a fate which they haven’t had a hand in engineering, (intentional or unintentional).
Before going further with the dynamics involved, I’d like to comment on a few aspects so far.
While a Rescuer will nearly always insist that they are Rescuing (i.e., enabling) for the sake of the Victim, but, the hard truth is they are not. The Rescuer engages in rescuing behavior to reduce their own anxiety. The greater motivation for Rescuing is one’s own need to feel better about ONE’S OWN SELF. Our true motivation is not so altruistic as we may wish to believe.
When we see someone doing a good job of playing the Victim role, it is normal that our level of anxiety escalates; when we bail-out the Victim, our anxiety drops and we feel more comfortable. The problems that accompany this “duet” are (a) the Victim will, if the pattern becomes chronic, eventually resent the Rescuer because (b) The Rescuer nearly always expects “something” in return – gratitude, acknowledgment – some sort of pay-back.
After repeated enactments of the Rescuer/Victim drama, the Victim will “run the bases” on the triangle and take on the role of Persecutor and the heretofore Rescuer will now take the role of the Victim of the Persecutor. This base-running is the drama – just like the drama of baseball when players are running the bases
Confused? Allow me to present a simplified but increasingly common example:
In this vignette, we will assume an interaction between a Rescuer-parent and the parent’s 30 year-old Victim-“child”.
- The 30 year old has free room and board – has no job. “Nobody’s hiring. All the employers drug-test applicants.” The Victim wants to continue smoking pot, ostensibly because he gets too angry when he can’t have his pot. He plays video games most of the day. He complains there no food in the house that suits his palate. He up half the night playing on the computer. He sleeps during the day. He does few if any chores and the lets everyone know he’s put-upon. He says he’s also depressed. He’s surly and entitled.
- The Rescuer-mom doesn’t give her son the boot because she falls for the Victim- bait that he’s depressed; so he can’t help it. The Rescuer-mom doesn’t object to the pot because she thinks she’s just doing what it takes to keep him happy. She doesn’t boot him out because, “the economy is terrible – no one is hiring – it’s not his fault." She buys the food he likes to keep peace in the family. She doesn’t impose boundaries because he might get upset.
In the above example there is a tacit acceptance of the idea that the son is incapable, incompetent or disabled; he is playing the role of Victim.
The Rescuer-mom’s anxiety escalates rapidly if her son seems angry. She tries to pacify him instead of (a) tolerating her anxiety and (b) allowing her son to take responsibility for his own behavior. Taken to an extreme for the sake of illustration it is as if the mother is picking up a colicky infant believing that that baby must be comforted. Regardless of the mother’s protestations, the primary reason for picking up the baby and trying to sooth him is to reduce her anxiety.
Eventually, the Victim will “run the bases” becoming the Persecutor. Instead of being grateful, he’ll resent the Rescuer who now “runs the bases” to play the role of the Persecutor’s Victim. (Isn’t this dramatic?) Probably she’ll sing the refrain that’s common for many Rescuers who have been converted to Victims. “Why does this always happen to me? I was only trying to help. I do everything for him and look at how I’m treated. It’s not my fault.” Sometimes the Victim-mom will appear in my office – but by now she’s reverted back to Rescuer. She says, “What can I do to help my son?” When I tell her to boot him out, she won’t; it would escalate her anxiety to an intolerable degree. “Where will he live, what will he eat?” Again this exhibits the tacit assumption that the son is incompetent to fend for himself.
- The Persecutor is resentful, angry and suggests the Rescuer has helped them only to gain leverage over them.
- The Persecutor chronically feels misunderstood
- The Persecutor feels righteous in their anger.
- The Persecutor frequently has out-bursts of “uncontrollable anger”.
- Occasionally, the Persecutor is assaultive.
- The Persecutor often resorts to intimidating name-calling
Unless someone is genuinely injured or has been officially determined to have an inadequate IQ, they will either learn to survive in the world on their own – or they will find another Rescuer to take care of them.
I think most understand that generalizations are limited. Stereotypes can sometimes be useful for the sake of illustration but they are never always true – nevertheless – allow me to point out some typical arrangements where the drama triangle is often found.
- Parents and adult offspring
- Therapists and patients
- Co-dependents and addicts
How does one stop enacting the drama? It’s difficult but the key is that the Rescuer has to be able to tolerate their feelings – feeling of guilt, fear, rejection –feelings can be uncomfortable but feelings don’t kill us. Allowing the drama to continue is far worse for everyone.