Humans are social animals. Because we live together in complex social structures and cultures there will always be conflict. While this is an unavoidable part of life, how we manage conflict differs greatly.
When we are unconsciously in conflict we tend to be fear based and take on one of three unhelpful main roles: that of victim, rescuer or persecutor. When we can bring consciousness or awareness to conflict we transform these roles into something greater.
Stephen Karpman created the drama triangle in 1968 as a way to understand how conflict arises between people. It shows us what roles we take in unconscious conflict, and how we can use presence to rise above the triangle to take more effective roles. (See fig 1.)
Before we go into what the roles of unconscious conflict are, it is important to understand that at any time we are in movement between the three roles.
The fear-based unconscious roles of the triangle
Being the victim means you feel helpless, like the event is happening to you and there isn’t much you can do about it. As the victim we might say things like “this always happens to me” or “why am I in this situation again?” or “nothing ever works out for me”. There is a feeling of having little control over ones experience. We may ask for help but we don’t really want to be helped. The emotions characterised here is sadness.
In the rescuer role we take responsibility for other peoples problems and make them our own. We’re nice and we think we can help but usually we are doing so in a way that makes the other helpless. As a rescuer it is easy to neglect our own lives and the problems inherent in them, looking out to others instead. We may see people going through a difficult time and think or say things like, “Oh look at that person, I will help them”. We run to the rescue and solve problems for others instead of empowering them to take care of themselves. The emotion that drives the rescuer is fear.
The persecutor is frustrated, self righteous a bit of a bully. In this role we may think or say things like “they are wrong and I am right”, or “they need to do what I say” or “that person will get what is coming to them”. We are dominant, overbearing and characterised by anger. The persecutor is also sometimes called the villian.
The starting concept
Although we are in constant movement between the roles there may be one that we enter with the greatest ease. This is called the starting concept. What this mean is that one of the three roles may come more naturally to you and is the one you are likely to enter into first.
The starting concept is often how we define our identity or how we see ourselves. Inevitably, no matter which one you identify with the most, we will all end up as victims in a fear based unconscious conflict. Without presence, we all arrive at a place of powerlessness and hopelessness.
How do we get out of the drama triangle?
When we shine the light on consciousness we are able to move out of these roles into a higher state of being. The victim become what is called the survivor or creator. The rescuer becomes the teacher or coach. And the persecutor becomes the challenger.
Let’s see how this works.
Victim to survivor (or creator)
With awareness we can identify that we are in the victim role. Instead of remaining helpless we can instead think like a problem solver. We ask ourselves some key questions that will result in action and solution solving.
-What do I want?
-What steps can I take to get what I want?
We can also take active steps to look into what is going right over what is going wrong: for example making a list of all the things in your life that are currently working, writing down five things you are grateful for, or asking yourself what did I achieve this week?
Rescuer to coach
Awareness placed on our rescuer tendencies can help us to have less fear. We can allow others to be responsible for themselves. Once we can see clearly into the rescuing behaviour we can take ourselves out by remembering the fable of teaching a man to fish. This usually requires letting go of the dependency you have created for others.
We do this by listening and supporting others to find solutions for themselves. We must resist the urge to tell them what to do or give the answers to them. Instead, we teach them how to catch fish for themselves. This requires the belief that each person is just as capable of figuring out life as you are, that you are no better or worse than them.
You might ask, “what would you like to see happen?” or “what do you think you can do to change things?” It is also important to set healthy boundaries with the other regarding how much time you are willing to spend with them on an issue so each party knows where the coaching begins and ends.
Persecutor to challenger
To take yourself out of the persecutor role you have to bring presence to your anger. What is it that you want to be done? You must be firm but fair in your approach, addressing consequences of actions and setting firm boundaries.
You might say “if you keep your side of the agreement I will keep mine”. You must be able to recognise that it is not your problem to solve, but rather you have the opportunity to hold someone accountable.
The coke machine
When you are ready to step out of the drama triangle just remember that others aren’t always coming with you. This can create some disruption as you are no longer predictable to the people around you.
Imagine a coke machine. We all know that when you place your money in and make your selection the drink comes out. This is predictable and how it is. If the coke does not come out what do you do? Usually we start the shake the machine, tap the button, or rock it side to side. We’ll do many things to try to get the machine to do the predictable thing.
At first, as your behaviour is no longer familiar, others may try to push your buttons and give you a shake too. It is important to be ready to respond with presence and love, no matter what. Eventually, as you let others be, resisting the urge to rescue them, get angry at them or feel victimised by their behaviour, they may just rise out of the triangle with you too.