[This was originally a blog post for a college webwriting class - Feb 27, 2010.]
In 1987, my dear friend and teacher, Jordan Roberts, hadn’t yet contracted HIV and died of AIDS. He was, rather, a strong and healthy 40-something-year-old psychologist. Working from his beautiful craftsman-style home on Seattle’s Capital Hill, Jordan held classes and group therapy and met with clients, both individually and in couples. He was an extremely private man, even though hundreds of people came into his home every month. He was also one of the wisest men I have ever known.
I met Jordan via a small, free newspaper, bundles of which were dumped into the doorways of health food stores, coffee shops, and libraries around the city. The Experimental College advertised short, low-cost adult classes which ran the gamut from pottery and dance classes to self-esteem building.
Earning a psychology degree had not put an end to my shyness and struggle with feeling not good enough. I knew I had low self-esteem. It was time to do something about it.
[Confession time: it took three times of attending Jordan’s self-esteem class before the dramatic shifts really happened. Consequently, my life and relationships changed profoundly.]
I would like to share with you the shining jewel that forever changed the way I conducted myself in relationships, the most empowering tool that Jordan shared with tens of thousands of students. It is called The Drama Triangle. Designed by Stephen Karpman, a teacher of Transactional Analysis and respected psychologist, many therapists today still use his diagram to help clients create healthier relationships.
Karpman Drama Triangle
Imagine a triangular-shaped board game with three positions, one at each corner. We, as players, unwittingly play this game, attempting to get our emotional needs met. We are usually not aware of how caught up we get, nor that there is a much healthier way to live. The object of the game is to Get Off The Board.
The first step is to become aware that we are playing. The second is to learn a different, more healthy way to interact -- one that can authentically fulfill our emotional needs.
When caught in the game, people generally play a favorite position, but often jump to the other two corners when things get uncomfortable. It’s nearly impossible to STOP playing until you recognize you’re on the board, but once you do, jumping off can stop a cycle of shame and disempowerment you may have been unconsciously living for years.
The Victim role is by far the most influential (read: manipulative) and destructive to healthy relating:
THE VICTIM – “Poor me” “It’s not my fault” “Life happens TO me” “I’m incapable”
While the Victim may look like the least powerful person, the truth is, Victims run the game. If you find yourself in this position or someone in your life is playing it, the key to getting off the board is for the Victim to
realize there are always options and
move into problem solving.
Being a Rescuer may sound and look noble, but is actually a big part of the powerlessness game:
THE RESCUER – “Let me help you” “It’s for your own good” “Enabler” “Smotherer”
Whether you want it or not, this person will be your caretaker. The Rescuer is the classic helpful “co-dependent.” (This was my favorite role, and I still fight to stay off the board!) If this is you or someone you know, the key for the Rescuer is to
recognize the habitual behaviour and
learn to encourage and empower others.
The Persecutor can be recognized as the angry-at-the-world role:
THE PERSECUTOR – “It’s all your fault” “Criticizer” “Always Right” “Win-Lose”
Desperately needing to be right, this person pushes, executing sophisticated power-ploys that keep everyone off-balance and one-down. As with all of the positions, it is a controlling role, stemming from a wounded self-image. If you find yourself or see someone playing this position, the keys to stopping are
admitting you’re playing the blame-and-attack-role and
learning to set clear boundaries. (“This behavior works for me, that behavior doesn’t.”)
Jumping out of this far-too-common game is not easy if it has become habit. The roles can become so familiar (every TV drama banks on it) that there don’t appear to be alternatives.
The truth is, the fulfillment that comes from taking full responsibility for the health of your relationships is worth every step it takes to stop the game and learn new, empowering ways of communicating.
Once again, this reminder: We Can Only Change Ourselves. If you see this game happening in one of your relationships, consider that you may be an unwitting participant! At a time when you are NOT in the midst of a drama, you may choose to share this information with your person… not to change them, but to ask for their support in changing your pattern. Be kind and patient with yourself. Expect some resistance. Change is rarely easy.