This model of the Karpman drama triangle is a framework to help understand some of the destructive patterns of engagement that play out between people. This may be slightly different to what you have learned or seen before, it is a model I learned from my mentor Alice Haemmerle and also has layers from my own work with couples.
Draw a triangle. In the middle, write “The Drama Cycle”. The other three triangles are “Rescuer”, “Victim”, and “Aggressor”. This, my friend, is the codependent pattern.
These are the three identities that perpetuate the drama cycle, and without any of these the cycle simply cannot continue. What that means is that when you stop, the cycle must stop. And that is exciting!
Let’s start with my dear old friend “The Victim”. The Victim believes they are utterly blameless in the drama, they are hopeless, helpless, and without choices. We see this play out in all sorts of contexts, there are victims of circumstance, victims of their environment, victims of [insert terrible thing here]. You will recognise the Victim in the world because they will always share their latest tale of woe, from bad drivers, to poor restaurant service, to a partner who treats them badly.
The next player is “The Aggressor”. They are the perpetrator, the attacker, the bad guy. The aggressor could be a person, a situation, a thought. The Aggressor is masked with self righteous anger and believes that they are protecting themselves and their boundaries. We see the aggressor at work as a bully, in our heads as the critical mean voice, and in the world as “they” and “them”. You will recognise the Aggressor because, well, they’re angry. They’re angry and they are taking it out on someone or something external.
Shout-out here to the undercover Aggressor - The Passive Aggressive. Oh don’t you be fooled here by their subtle victims act! Please don’t mistake the unspoken anger for anything other than what it is - this is a particularly nasty and manipulative approach to perpetuating drama. You will have experienced this at some point, the hurt they dole out to those who “should know better”. I’m going to have to come back to this in more detail at a later date- it’s a BIG ONE!
The third participant in this cycle is “The Rescuer”. This is an identity that is as familiar to me as my favourite hoodie, comfortable and worn out. The Rescuer believes that they are “helping” the Victim and/or Aggressor. They may give advice, give money, solve problems, or even simply offer a sympathetic ear. For many of us, the Rescuer is perceived as being a positive influence. This could not be further from the truth. The Rescuer is in fact the most manipulative role, as they have the ability to see the drama, they have the behavioural flexibility to empower the other players, and they still gain so much significance from their rescue that they continue to perpetuate the cycle. You will recognise the Rescuer very easily - they are the person who will always put others first and save the day, they are the shoulder to cry on, the superhero in disguise.
"Without this piece there are not adults in a relationship, only children playing house. Without this piece, we are helpless pawns in the game of life."
Now the thing about the Drama Cycle is that it isn’t just a clever name. It is a cycle. A person may play all three roles - begin as the victim, move to aggressor, and then rescue themselves! It looks like this: Your boss at work makes a decision that you think is unfair and disrespectful, you feel helpless to change the circumstances [Victim]. You call a friend or colleague and recount to them the history, the context, and the thing that was done to you. You are angry, and doing what we call venting (or ranting!) and you are now behaving aggressively. Heart rate is up, adrenaline is high. You are angry because you have perceived that your boundaries have been crossed or compromised. [Aggressor]. When you have expressed that anger and are ready to move on, you will then say something conciliatory to defuse the situation, you may explain your boss’s actions or your own position from a different perspective so that things return to an even keel [Rescuer]. No solutions or resolutions here, pure drama.
How about another example: You feel like your partner is treating you badly. Perhaps they are nagging, neglecting, or somehow upsetting you. In this moment you are the Victim, and they, the Aggressor. It happens again, and again, and again. There is a point where you say “Enough!” and you get mad. You lose your temper. This may be an expression of frustration and sadness, of anger, of disappointment. It’s emotional. And now, you have switched roles in the cycle. You are the Aggressor and your partner, the Victim. Whichever of you saves you both and initiates the making up: the Rescuer. And so the cycle continues.
We perpetuate codependency created by these volatile relationships built on the need for unresourceful significance, otherwise known as drama.
It’s a really big deal for me. The addictive delights of drama (think: adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin running wild!) make it a deep patterning for so many of us. It is a way to feel like we are connected, heard, and that we matter. It meets all those needs unresourcefully and it is keeping us all small.
So how do we stop the cycle? It begins with one small step into the role that is the bridge to the next level: The Observer.
All the Observer need do is, well, observe!
This is such a simple and powerful act. Notice the moments when you are being dramatic; Are you rushing in late to an appointment and talking about the drama of why? Do you recount stories about people to others? Do you respond emotionally to perceived slights? The key is to become aware. To notice your own role in creating drama, and in sustaining the dramas of others. To tune into your physiological signs of impending drama.
For me, it’s a tightness in my throat and constriction in my chest. I get heated, and louder, and start feeling pissed off. I say to myself “You’re getting sucked in!” And I activate the Observer.
The Observer is calm, measured, and takes a step back from the scenario. They take responsibility for their own emotional state. That means, they do not associate into the drama nor match the emotions of others. The Observer can notice what is happening for others - “Wow! They (or I) seem really upset.” They take the action necessary to manage their state. That could be saying “Hey babe, I’m feeling pretty wound up right now. I’m going to take a walk and clear my head - can we talk about this again in half an hour?” or it might mean taking a moment in the hallway to compose yourself before respectfully and quietly slipping into a meeting without interrupting. Maybe for you, it’s acknowledging that you are feeling drama, and deciding not to splash it all over your colleagues, friends, and family.
It is beautifully and tragically human to respond in this way, and the fear response that triggers our drama keeps us safe from harm. I am not suggesting there is some spiritual bullshit way to transcend it, because I believe that if you are in relationships with people then there are challenges. I am simply inviting you to become aware of the role you play, and notice when you drop down into drama. Maybe you will choose to step into the Observer. And you could even take responsibility for managing your emotional state.
For me it has been a humbling journey to realise how quickly I take up the role of Victim when I’m not getting what I want, of Aggressor when I make it someone else's fault, and of Rescuer when I’m uncomfortable with the emotion of others. I’ve been working really hard and that happens far less often. And every time I simply bring it to my awareness, breathe deeply, manage my shit and deal like an adult. It changes EVERYTHING.