The Drama Triangle

The Drama Triangle is a useful language for understanding and resolving unhealthy power balances in relationships

16 min read

The Drama Triangle is a means of understanding power struggles, not just between people, but within ourselves.

The Drama Triangle is normally depicted as an ‘upside down’ triangle, like an arrow pointing downward to the Victim role at the bottom. Usually at the top left corner of the triangle we have the Persecutor, and in the top right we have the Rescuer role.

  • Persecutor

  • Rescuer

  • Victim

Drama Triangle roles

(There is sometimes a 4th noted as well, the Bystander role.)

A Drama Triangle can exist between any number of people!

People can change roles (or potentially be in more than 1 role at a time).

There may even be only 1 person, switching between roles with ourselves. I think this is important to keep in mind, as the relationship with ourselves can often be forgotten.

I think it’s also important to keep in mind, that anyone (including myself) can fall into any of the Drama Triangle roles. It’s not necessarily a case that a single person is a Persecutor, or a Rescuer, or a Victim, though people may primarily fall into one of these roles under certain circumstances.

The language here can be very difficult to hear for some, especially perhaps with the word “Victim”. Please keep in mind that this is absolutely not victim blaming, and I try to capitalise the roles (so ‘Victim’ with a big V) to denote that this is a role (and usually a subconscious one) rather that it referring to someone being a victim of something.

There are 3 main roles in a Drama Triangle:

The Persecutor may sometimes be known as a bully or an abuser. I don’t think it’s the case that a Persecutor is always a bully or an abuser but the common behaviours and communication styles of Persecutors are probably bullying and abusive in nature.

Persecutors at a glance:

  • Invested in satisfying their own needs

  • Invalidating & dismissive. Discounts feelings, and devalues other people’s opinions

  • Puts others down, treats them with disrespect

  • Can be Actively persecuting (punishing and experiences triumph)

  • Can be Passively persecuting (punishment is not necessarily intended)

  • May justify their behaviour (for example, claim they are ‘toughening up’ their victim)

  • Can be rigid and inflexible with their beliefs and opinions

  • May lack empathy or ‘switch off’ empathy for their victim

  • May have strong personal boundaries but not respect the boundaries of their victim

A person in the Persecutor role is invested in their own needs. They may appear arrogant, rigid in their opinions and beliefs, perhaps stubborn, or even narcissistic.

A Persecutor can be ‘Active’. An Active Persecutor tends to be punishing, they actively seek to ‘beat’ the Victim, and they are likely to experience triumph. A Persecutor can also be ‘Passive’. A Passive Persecutor isn’t actively punishing, it may a kind of default, or learned behaviour, they may be on ‘autopilot’.

Often, but not necessarily always, the Persecutor is an ‘aggressive communicator’ (particularly toward the Victim). This means they may use language that invalidates the importance of the Victim’s feelings and opinions. They may use “it is” or “it will”, and other concrete statements about something or someone, rather than “I think”, “I feel”, or “probably”, “possibly”, “maybe”. They may even think using those kinds of words and phrases, is a sign of weakness. Ultimately though, this kind of language can cause or perpetuate conflict.

The Persecutor may even invalidate feelings completely. They may have poor empathy, or they may show empathy to some, but ‘switch off’ their empathy for others.

A Persecutor may use phrases like “My facts don’t care about your feelings”. They may try to make their opinions look like they are facts, or even backed by science. They may talk about “common sense” (as it’s often a means to make a person’s opinion appear commonly popular when it’s not, or no-one really knows if it is or not). In political arguments they may present misleading statistics about one group or another.

The Persecutor may talk about ‘facts’ without caring to check if what they have are indeed facts. Their goal is simply to feel power for themselves. They may be aware of their own self bias, or confirmation bias, but not care.

The Persecutor may invest in justifying themselves a lot. They may adopt a cause, they may speak on behalf of others or an entire group of people.

A Persecutor may use their right to Freedom of Expression as means of attack. They may claim that Freedom of Speech is paramount, that nothing else matters. This is what I term “Freedom of Speech with Freedom from Consequences”. Really though, perhaps in most cases I think these Persecutors do not actually believe in Freedom of Expression, they are not concerned equally with the rights of all, they are severely biased toward their own expression, and the expression of those they identify with. These people do not walk down the road telling everyone they look at what they think of them, because the consequences of doing so would likely undermine their own position. They exercise their freedom of expression, under circumstances, where it they think it will benefit them, at the expense of others that are not like them. These people even use their Freedom of Expression to dehumanise others, so that it becomes easier to get away with Persecuting them.

In an attempt to justify themself, a Persecutor may take on a cause of a group that is in some way (but not necessarily entirely) aligned with their goals. They may speak on behalf of all of the people in that group. Actually, they may even create a kind of pseudo grouping of people (one that the people in the group didn’t form). In doing so, it’s possible that a Persecutor is then stepping into the Rescuer role. They may see themself as the ‘saviour’ of that group.

As well as a Persecutor sometimes moving into the Rescuer role, they may place themselves in the Victim role, and attempt to be seen as the Victim of the very person, or people, they Persecute. This s a classic recognised tactic of abusers too, to accuse their victims of being the thing they are, the abuser. Switching to the Victim role is also likely to get the Persecutor, Rescued, and in turn create a power struggle between the group of people and the Persecutor. A clever Persecutor, might be able to use this all, to place themself in a position of power both over their victims, and over the group they claim to speak for.

The Persecutor may try to hide that they are even the Persecutor, by manipulating others into Persecuting their Victim(s).

A Persecutor may simply be very straightforward too, they may be a school bully, or an abusive partner. They may even just someone like you or I, stuck in a role.

A Persecutor may have strong boundaries when it comes to themself, but usually, they will disrespect or ignore the boundaries of others, especially the boundaries of the Victim.

Perhaps out of the 3 roles though, how a Persecutor gains a feeling of power, is more easy to understand than the other roles.

I think it’s important to be aware though, that a Persecutor may hold a form of power, or most of it, in this power struggle, but they don’t necessarily have real power, at least not healthy power.

A Persecutor, might be a very lonely person. They may have wealth, they may have people to protect them, or even an army, but are likely to be living an inauthentic existence, their true selves, their feelings, are likely to be buried. Since a Persecutor may be arrogant, or narcissistic, it can make them vulnerable (especially to other Persecutors). Their arrogance can equate to incompetence. They may be intelligent (or not) in one way, they may know lots of ‘facts’, they may be eloquent, but they probably lack emotional intelligence.

The Persecutor may over inflate how clever they are, and in doing so, they may make serious mistakes. If they gain enough ‘power’ they may even create an entire system around them, which is based on a kind of mass incompetence. At first, this system will seriously, negatively affect those most vulnerable (usually the Victims), but it may also be unsustainable, seriously unstable, and ultimately lead to the downfall of the Persecutor themself.

It’s probably wise to not underestimate the ability of a person in the Persecutor role, to shoot themself in the foot.

The Persecutor

The Rescuer

A person in the role of a Rescuer tends to seem invested in helping the Victim, but the relationship between the Rescuer and the Victim, in terms of power, is not equal (or healthy).

Rescuers at a glance:

  • May feel insecure and struggle to have power for themselves, so they gain a feeling of validity and purpose by Rescuing others

  • May neglect their own self care

  • May find it difficult to say no to things, even if it could be harmful to them

  • May be genuinely concerned for the Victim but subconsciously disempowers them by speaking for them and/or doing things on their behalf

  • Reinforces the Victim’s sense of powerlessness, helping to hold them in the Victim role (and thus holding themselves in the Rescuer role)

  • Tends to have poor personal boundaries and may disregard or not be aware of the boundaries of the Victim

The Rescuer role is disempowering to the person in the Victim role, it also tends to be disempowering to the Rescuer as well though, since while the Rescuer is heavily invested in the Victim, they may neglect their own needs, or the needs of others. They may be active in ‘standing up’ for the Victim, but rarely, if ever, stand up for themself. A Rescuer, may rarely say “no” to things (especially in relation to the Victim) or even actively agree, say yes to everything requested of them.

Sometimes, a person, may subconsciously seek to be in a Rescuer role, as a means of avoiding their own emotional pain. It’s not that the Rescuer doesn’t truly care, but they may benefit from the power struggle perpetuated by being a Rescuer.

The Rescuer may truly care about the Victim, but the outcome of being Rescuer, disempowers the Victim, or holds them in the Victim role, by doing things for them or speaking on their behalf, or in some cases, it can seem like the Rescuer is thinking for the Victim.

People who truly care about causes, about real victims of oppression, can engage with those causes with good intention, but find themselves locked in a seemingly endless fight, then get seriously damaged too.

Or, instead of some complex political activism, a Rescuer might be a friend, who really cares about us. We may have a bad situation with, for example, a Partner, or manager or someone else in our lives, and the Rescuer may get directly engaged in the situation, try to ‘fix’ things on behalf on the Victim, or simply give advice, but partly because the other person is in the Victim role, the actions or words of the Rescuer, ‘take over’, responsibility can appear to have shifted, and the Victim tends to lack the agency.

So, the result of being a Rescuer, is likely to be that the other person remains in the Victim role, and the power struggles perpetuates, indefinitely.

The Victim

A person in the Victim role, feels powerless, and the behaviour of the person in the role, works to perpetuate their own disempowerment.

Victims at a glance:

  • Feels they do not have the resources to solve problems

  • Feels powerless and dependent on others for their safety, and may act as though help needs to come from others

  • Can act as though they are entitled to others’ time, sympathy, and help.

  • Can move between feeling overwhelmed, and numb

  • May focus on blaming others or feel they are not responsible for themselves

  • May subconsciously surround themselves with people who fulfil the role of Rescuer

  • Has poor personal boundaries, struggles to enforce them, or communicate them

The Victim may indeed be currently the victim of a Persecutor but the role itself is not strictly about being immediately under attack.

A person in the Victim role, usually feels that they lack the resources to solve problems.

The Victim feels powerless. They may well actually be oppressed, and lack power in some respects, but importantly, the feeling of powerlessness, is probably like ‘concrete thinking’ (and perhaps other unhealthy thinking habits), which I think often goes hand-in-hand with the role.

Importantly though, this feeling of powerlessness, is held on to by the person in the Victim role, and it’s completely understandable, that a person who has spent their life being disempowered, might feel like that they as a person, are powerless, and will always be powerless. It’s not that the person ultimately desires to be truly, completely powerless, especially in the face of a Persecutor, it is sadly, an outcome of trauma, of being mistreated, usually as a child, by people who have power, or authority over us.

If in our early life, our earliest relationships, perhaps our parents, or a parent, is overbearing, dominating, or smothering towards us, without healthy structure, without being nurtured enough, then we may form ‘scripts’ that play out subconsciously through the rest of our lives, that tell us that we are powerless. In effect I think we can grow up to be adults, but largely still be guided by our child role. These unhealthy scripts can result in us, without realising, finding people who resemble the people in our early life, who then perpetuate what is an unhealthy power balance. The ‘norms’ of society, such as heteronormativity, cisnormativity (or gender norms), mononormativity and so forth, all play a part in this.

What I think can happen, is that there’s a weird, but false feeling of ‘safety’ in struggling. It’s something like a ‘better the devil you know’ feeling. We get so used to surviving in difficult circumstances, that the idea of not struggling, can seem scary.

Through homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, ableism and more, we are frightened into merely questioning ourselves.

Our ability to use language for ourselves, to question ourselves, who we are, is I think a form of power.

Recognising our own vulnerability, is a form of power. Except, vulnerability, in our society, has long been treated as weakness, rather than a strength. It’s a lie though. The opposite is true. Being vulnerable when we’re under attack, of course is not a good thing, it’s simply not right though, that we are under attack, and I theorise that this cultural disliking of displays of vulnerability, may in part be a result of a kind of historical memory, a confusion around how we perceive threat, where we act as though we are under immediate physical threat, but in situations where we are not. It’s also, probably largely, a trauma response. With conditions such as Complex PTSD, we can feel like we are actually back in a past experience.

Being aware of our vulnerability, is powerful though. Our awareness is powerful within ourselves, but it’s also a powerful means with which to authentically connect with others. When we do that, we can have healthy, collective power too.

We can be under real physical attack, but I think we are never completely powerless (though I absolutely recognise that there are children, and those of who have more need for support, privilege exists too). Our power may not stop those who Persecute us entirely, we may still need to fight sometimes, but recognising our true power, means we can feel better able to defend ourselves, we can feel less overwhelmed, and we can make healthier decisions for ourselves,

Powerlessness, is often considered to be part of loneliness too. The feeling of powerlessness can equate to a feeling of loneliness.

When we become more aware of our vulnerability, we can connect with others through it. Together we can create safer spaces together. Safe spaces are people, not places, safe spaces are built on empowering each other, giving space to each other to just be. The more we empower each other, the safer we feel together, the more powerful we become.

Stepping out of the Drama Triangle

Drama Triangles happen, they probably always will. I think the key is language, within ourselves first, and then with others. The key is to recognise drama triangles, to recognise when we’re in a drama triangle role, then to step out of the drama triangle.

How do we step out of a drama triangle?

If someone is Persecuting us, we may not be able to simply stop them of course. We can however make a choice: do we remain in the Victim role, or not?

If we acknowledge that we are in that Victim role, then we may well have already made a very important step to getting out of it, but how do we do that?

By changing to another role, and one that is not part of a drama triangle, instead it may be part of what some call, ‘The Winners Triangle’ (though I think there is at least one other).

What we can do, is change from the Victim role on the drama triangle, to the Vulnerable role in the Winners Triangle.

Vulnerable But Not a Victim

When we step out of the Victim role into the Vulnerable role, we recognise our power, we empower ourselves.

A Vulnerable person recognises they are suffering, but also recognises that this suffering is not part of who they are, their existence does not depend on suffering. They begin to realise that although change is scary, it is still possible to change things and feel better (even if that change is internal). The change may not, at first at least, solve their problems, but it’s a huge step toward doing so, and the change will feel better than feeling perpetually stuck.

A Vulnerable person starts to recognise their own agency, they learn to change their language with themselves and others. They learn to ask for help, for support, rather than the old way of subconsciously surrounding themself with people who might Rescue them, then passively expecting, or hoping to be Rescued. In doing so, they gain power and control over themself.

A Vulnerable person recognises they have responsibility, that at very least, they have control over how they react to what’s happening.

The Vulnerable person is more likely to use their emotional awareness to work through problems, and they are more likely to feel in an Adult role, in the ‘here-and-now’. They may listen to their ‘inner child’ and the hurt there is there, and recognise that past trauma, though those things were wrong, and terrible, are not happening now, they have changed, they cannot go back. So instead they begin to be more in the moment, to spend less time with the clutter of the past, and see that change is possible, even positive change.

A Vulnerable person, may feel underlying emotional pain more, but they see the true power in feeling that pain, it’s still there, but in a healthier place. Both thinking and feeling, can be present.

Becoming more aware of our needs and boundaries, then communicating them is crucial here.

It can be a very difficult road to get here though, because our self esteem might be so low, that we struggle to trust ourselves, our self care might be poor, we may not feel worthy of our own care. but, becoming aware of ourselves brings with it new language to use with ourselves, and often, if we use that language, we can change ourselves while not necessarily believing in ourselves at first. Essentially, there may be an element of ‘fake it to make it’.

Also, the more people there are around us, who become emotionally aware of themselves, the more safe spaces will be created to healthily support those who are most struggling. Everyone starts to empower themselves and each other.

Supportive Not Rescuing

As with the person in the Victim role, once the person in the Rescuer role becomes aware of being in that role, they can choose to step out of the Drama Triangle and they can do so by changing roles.

In the case of The Winner’s Triangle, it’s a change from Rescuer, to Supportive.

A Supportive person, respects the agency of others. They stop and consider if the language they may have been using, or things they have been doing, might be taking agency away from others. The change may be simple, it could be saying “If you’d like some help, I’m here for you” instead of “Here, let me do that for you”.

A Supportive person has better awareness of their own boundaries, they won’t do things they really don’t want to do, and they will say “no” more.

Generally speaking, the Supportive role is about not taking over, it’s still based on care and compassion, but understands that to truly care for someone is to give them the space to be themself, to make their own decisions, and to speak for themself.

Assertive Not Persecuting

Persecutors can change too, though possibly in some situations, a person in the Persecutor role may be the least likely to change. Good to keep in mind though, that anyone could fall into the Persecutor role, and be Persecutor of themself, and so in that situation, perhaps there may be more incentive for change.

Like the other 2 roles, change can happen by moving from one role to another. Based on the Winners Triangle, the Persecutor can change to the Assertive role.

I think possibly the Assertive role has a few similarities with the Supportive one, except the person in the Assertive role isn’t necessarily concerned with the Vulnerable person as much. They may even still be ultimately self centred, but crucially the change in language, has benefits for the Assertive person.

A person in the Assertive role, essentially uses Assertive language rather than Aggressive. Rather than trying to corner people with words, an Assertive person at least uses language that gives space to other people’s opinions, even if there is disagreement. For someone who is used to being in the Persecutor role, this could be difficult. Getting the concept that it’s possible to have a healthy conversation with someone we may fundamentally disagree with, is tricky (and perhaps there are still lines to be drawn anyway, though it’s debatable).

An Assertive person is not interested in punishing (well, I mean non consensually!). They are aware of their needs, and better aware of how to get needs met healthily. It might be that there was some unhealthy learned behaviour around getting needs met by forcing other to comply, and the solution may be more in recognising that this rarely works in the long run. Being authoritarian and aggressive can produce some immediate results but aside from the important moral and ethical problem with doing that, it’s not sustainable and tends to eventually lead to the Persecutor being surrounded by inauthentic people, and uprising against them. Most Persecutors, though they may feel like they have power, and may even be surrounded by people, are probably deeply unhappy, lonely, and they make their own position unsafe. In order to hold others in the gutter, these people need to spend much of their time in the gutter with them. Probably best to get out of that gutter.

The Assertive person understands the value of negotiation. They at least understand that it’s more sustainable, and healthy for them, to treat others with respect, even if underneath it all, they might not care like the Supportive person does.

However, there is also the possibility of fake it to make it here too. By beginning to give space to others, and use language that respects others, by paying an interest in others, a person can start to actually empathise or sympathise, or simply respect others. A person changing their own language can result in a real change in how they feel both about themself and others.

So, I’ve outlined here some ways in which we might step out of a drama triangle, and achieve a healthier balance of power, for all.

Perhaps the main difficulty with The Winners Triangle though, is it appears that it requires each person in each role, to become aware of their role(s), and to choose to change. This may not always be possible though.

There is another approach, and that is, for example, for the person who was in the Victim role, to change how they view the people in the other roles. This has it’s difficulty as well, particularly with the relationship with the Persecutor. The Persecutor may remain a Persecutor. The person initially in the Victim role may think “Why should I change when they won’t?!”.

The answer there is simply that it may be the best option to live a healthier life, and to step out of the Victim role.

We may have to accept that others won’t change, and that the only person we can change is ourselves, and that the only way we can change is to change our reactions, and the language around those reactions.

I think the principle here is that the person who was in the Victim role, steps out of it by changing their language with the people in the other roles. The language is assertive, not passive (so there is power) and not aggressive (so there’s less chance of perpetuating conflict and continuing to be Persecuted).