The persecutor, the rescuer, and the victim…who are you?
I have been researching different communication styles, theories on family interactions, and models of therapy for dysfunctional families. Why? With alcoholism in the household, I am constantly researching better ways to work on myself and to communicate better with my parents. I came across an idea in which I was unfamiliar, Karpman’s Triangle (See above). AKA The Drama Triangle.
This concept was developed by Stephen Karpman, M.D. who studied at Duke University under Eric Bearne, M.D. Dr. Bearne may ring a bell because he is considered the “father” of Transactional Analysis. I won’t go into too much boring detail about that but check out my references if you want to learn more about where these ideas originated.
As you can see, there are three roles in this drama triangle. There is the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. Before I even begin to delve into how this is my family, are you already formulating ideas as to who you are in your family? It was immediately clear to me even before I read the descriptions.
The victim isn’t really a victim. It is the person who THINKS they are a victim. They are in a state of hopelessness, helplessness, and bring in the persecutor and rescuer to not only save the day but to also continue the cycle of their helplessness.
My mother would be the victim in our family. She is an alcoholic and constantly in a state of helplessness. She often finds the idea of recovery hopeless. She feels bad for herself often. She doesn’t accept responsibility for the choices that she has made to get herself into her current situation. She often needs others to come in and fix whatever mess she has gotten herself into. Textbook victim.
The persecutor is controlling, critical, angry, and full of blame. They are quick to show the victim that this is their fault and they clarify where the problems lie.
This would be my dad. He can come across as an angry person. He is married to an alcoholic so who could blame him? He is very critical of my mom, even when she is doing well. He tries to control her and thinks that the drinking will then be controlled but its been a few decades of that method and it hasn’t improved…shocking. Textbook persecutor.
The rescuer is the enabler of the drama. They try to fix everything for everyone. They feel guilty if they aren’t involved and doing everything they can to soothe the victim, to calm down the persecutor, and to find the family peace.
Not only did I fall into this role but so did my siblings. I hated when my dad was angry with my mom even if he was rightfully angry. My mom would get arrested or lose her job because of drinking. She would be so pitiful and full of self-hatred. My dad would have no pity or understanding. He would just be angry. She would shrivel up and tell her therapist how mean her husband was. I wanted to solve all of their problems. I didn’t mind driving my mom when she lost her license. I didn’t mind filling in for her roles when she went missing so my dad wouldn’t be upset. It was enabling and it was unhealthy. Our cycle continued for years.
How do we fix this unhealthy triangle? How do we stop this cycle? Well, it depends on the role you play.
For victims, it’s important to acknowledge their vulnerability. They need to become self-aware of what they are doing so that they can accept responsibility for putting themselves in this situation. Things may be hard for them but often its because of choices they made that those things are so difficult.
For persecutors, they should acknowledge that assertiveness can be a strength but it shouldn’t be used for punishment. Instead of blaming the victim and clarifying what is wrong with them, have them find it on their own. This will help both grow.
For rescuers, remember that the victim is capable of making their own choices. Rescuers do not have to step in and fix the problems victims created. Victims will never fix their own problems if they can always rely on rescuers to do it for them.
Obviously these things are easier said than done but it is an interesting concept to consider. Becoming self-aware about dysfunctional styles communication can hep us learn from our mistakes. I am constantly advocating that those who are enabling are doing harmful damage even if they think they are caring. I advocate so strongly because I am the best example of an enabler. I am trying to break free of that role and every step I take away from it, the better I feel and the better off my family is.
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If you are interested in learning more about these roles and how to reverse these roles, check out the information below under References.
David Emerald, David (2016). The Power of TED (3rd ed.). Polaris Publishing. pp. 1–138. ISBN 978-09968718-0-8.
Karpmen, MD, Stephen. “Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award” (PDF). karpmandramatriangle.com. Retrieved October 17, 2017
Karpman, M.D., Stephen B. “The New Drama Triangles USATAA/ITAA Conference Lecture” (PDF). karpmandramatriangle.com. Retrieved October 17, 2017.
Forrest, L. (2017, January 19). The Three Faces of Victim – An Overview of the Drama Triangle. Retrieved October 17, 2017, from https://www.lynneforrest.com/articles/2008/06/the-faces-of-victim/