Emerge Therapy

What role do you play in your drama?


Have you ever wondered why you keep repeating the same old patterns? Ending up with the same old feelings of anger, hurt and frustration? If you have then this is definitely the model for you.

The Drama Triangle is my favorite model from Transactional Analysis to share with clients. It is the one that produces the most AHA moments. The time when you can see people suddenly realize just how their own actions might be causing some of the problems they currently blame on others.

So what is the drama triangle?

It is a model of psychological interaction developed by a Transactional Analyst, Stephen Karpman, in the 1960’s and describes patterns of negative interaction and conflict.



The story goes that Karpman developed this model whilst watching basketball. He noticed a player fake to go one way before quickly turning the other way and opening up attacking space. He particularly noticed how the defender had reacted to the initial fake pass and had a lightbulb moment. Our actions, big and small are inviting a response in the people around us just as the fake pass invited a response in the basketball player. At this moment Karpman realized he could model aspects of human interaction just as sports coaches use a playbook to model attacking and defensive formations.

So the drama triangle, as the name suggests, contains 3 roles that we may play when we are not in our Adult ego states. Because of this, the Drama Triangle is a really useful way to understand how our past relations may be continually re-enacted in the present day. In fact, I may go as far as to say that every negative interaction we have is the result of a drama triangle transaction.

As we grow up we learn to relate to others through one of 3 basic roles. The roles, or positions, on the Drama Triangle, are known as the Rescuer, the Persecutor, and the Victim. Sometime you will see these referred to as the Hero, Villain, and Victim – particularly when this model is used in a workplace or an educational setting.

The idea is that we each have a favoured starting position – and from this starting position, we attract people who play a complementary role. So, for example, I am a Rescuer, therefore, it is likely that I will be attracted to Victims, and that they will be attracted to me. Whilst I am being helpful, and they are being helped everything seems ok.  But then comes the switch!

I will explore the switch fully later on, but first let’s take a better look at the 3 roles, starting with the Rescuer.

The Rescuer role is defined by the need to be right. When things go wrong the Rescuer is likely to say “I can fix that” or “let me do that for you”

Many rescuers would define themselves as the good guy, someone who would go out of their way to help others. They may appear like really nice people from the outside. In fact, as I teach the triangle to my clients, many fall into the trap of thinking that the Rescuer is the best position to be. This is NOT the case.

All the roles in the Drama Triangle are inherently false. They are roles we play to cover up our innate sense of inadequacy and powerlessness. When Stephen Karpman developed this model he said that all the roles are merely ways of covering up the fact we are all, in our own way, victims. The solution to the drama triangle is not to move to a better position – but to step off the triangle all together.

So what is wrong with the Rescuer position?

Let’s start to explore this using the ego state model. The Rescuer is a Parent role. In fact, we often refer to it as the Nurturing Parent role.  This means that the Rescuer is relating to the Victim as a Child. When described in this manner you can start to see that there is an inhbuilt power balance in this relationship. The Rescuer believes that he knows better than the Victim and is discounting the ability of the Victim to complete the task for themselves. We sometimes refer to this as a one-up position.

In essence, the Rescuer is trying to feel good about themselves by helping others. Inherent in this relationship is the sense of being better than, or knowing more than, the Victim. Also, the Rescuer needs the praise he is getting for his good deeds to feel good about himself. This tension will eventually lead to the switch.


The Persecutor or villain is also a Parent role. This time we think of it more as a Critical Parent. Remember when Mom or Dad were yelling at you for something you did wrong? This is the Critical Parent. And of course, the Victim is again being placed in the Child place. However, where the Rescuer may see the Victim as a helpless Child the Persecutor is more likely to see the Victim as useless. The Persecutor role is characterized by blame. When things go wrong the Persecutor will look for someone else to blame.

Whilst at first glance the Rescuer and Persecutor roles seem very different – almost opposites, there are also a lot of similarities. As we have mentioned both are Parent ego state roles and therefore both perceive the Victim as a Child role, discounting the other person’s ability to grow, change and succeed. In addition, both the Rescuer and Persecutor are one-up positions. They both see themselves as superior to the Victim and get their sense of validation, of okayness, by ensuring that the victim stays in his, or her, place.

Ironically, Persecutors often see themselves as victims in need of protection. This is how they can so easily justify their vengeful behavior … “They asked for it and they got what they deserved.”

That’s the way they see it. Their core belief might go something like this; “The world is dangerous, people can’t be trusted so I need to get them before they hurt me.” This attitude sets them up to think that they must strike out in order to defend against inevitable attack.

The final position on the Drama Triangle is occupied by the Victim.

The Victim will spend a lot of time in their Child ego state. They will feel powerless and discount their ability to take care of themselves. They see themselves as consistently unable to handle life. They may say saying things to their potential rescuer like “You’re the only one who can help me.” These are words that any Rescuer longs to hear!

The Victim is often driven by fear. Fear of what will happen if they get things wrong, or are found out.

Drama Triangle starting positions are generally set-up in childhood. For instance, if a parent does not ask their child to take age-appropriate responsibility for themselves, they may grow up either to become adults who feel inadequate at taking care of themselves (Victim) or become resentful adults who blame others when they don’t get taken care of in the way they think they should be. (a Persecutor). Either way, they are set up for a lifetime of re-enacting these relationships on the Drama Triangle.

The Drama Triangle models a concept that in Transactional Analysis we call Psychological Games. This idea was first made famous in a book by Eric Berne called “Games People Play” which was a bestseller for many years and is still popular today. Berne outlined a number of games – ways in which people may be acting in fixed patterns of behaviour which don’t have an obvious advantage. Berne explained the psychological and social advantages people get from playing games. If you particularly this like idea you may want to read Games people Play yourself although it can be rather complicated. Personally, I find the Drama Triangle a much better way of looking at this concept. There are numerous excellent articles on the web about the Drama Triangle – a quick Google search will bring you thousands of sites to explore.

The Switch

So whilst we all have a favourite starting position or role, we are capable of playing all the roles on the triangle – and we probably do this on a daily basis.

The point of the Drama Triangle model is the switch. At first, things seem to be ok, we are relating with someone who is playing a complementary role – for example a Rescuer and a Victim. But then one player switches position. And this is when the conflict begins. The switch is always accompanied by feelings of confusion followed by experiencing a racket or secondary emotion.

So let’s take a simple example.

I am a Rescuer, and I see my colleague Ben struggling with a work project. I can see the frustration on his face and I can hear him muttering to himself “I can’t do this stupid spreadsheet”

“Hey let me take a look at that for you” I offer. This is a typical Rescuer move. Notice that Ben has not actually asked for help. Again this is typical of the process – one definition of Rescuing is giving any help that has not been asked for.

At this point, I have stepped on to the Drama Triangle in the Rescuer role inviting Ben to play the Victim role

I peer over Ben’s shoulder and start offering advice on his spreadsheet. Each time I offer advice Ben rejects it.

This is the point when a switch is likely to occur. Since Ben is not accepting my advice I am not getting the validation I require from helping him. It is possible that I will switch to the Persecutor role thus blaming Ben for my sense of frustration. I may well be angry at Ben for not accepting my advice. I will probably say something like “You just can’t help some people” before storming off in an angry mood. Now Ben may feel particularly sad and worthless. He plays the Victim role because he feels good when someone else takes the time out to help him. He may be sitting there thinking “ I am so useless no one can help me”

There is an alternative switch possible where Ben moves to the Persecutor role leaving me as the Victim. Perhaps my Rescuing has left Ben’s feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. It’s possible that his frustration at my interference turns to anger as he switches to the Persecutor role blaming me for his predicament. He storms out of the room slamming the door behind him. “ I just wish people would leave me alone” he shouts as he departs. I am left feeling frustrated and angry with Ben.

The Drama Triangle works hand in hand with the Ego-state model. All of the roles on the Triangle are based on you acting from either the Parent or Child ego state. This means that we are acting on beliefs and feelings that are related to the past. This also means that we discount our capacities and our options in the here and now.

So the way out of the Drama Triangle is to move towards acting in your Adult ego state where you fully account for the options and actions open to you.

I will explore each of the positions in more detail over the coming weeks.

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Have you ever wondered why you keep repeating the same old patterns? Ending up with the same old feelings of anger, hurt and frustration? If you have then this is definitely the model for you.

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