I was speaking to a client recently as she shared all the anxiety and drama in her relationship between her daughter, herself and her husband. I asked her “Aren’t you tired of all the stress and drama and want it to end? ” Most of us get to a point where enough is enough and we yearn for peace. It was her time. So I shared the Drama Triangle communication model that was developed by Stephen Karpmann in 1968. It still plays out today – locally and globally.
Drama is everywhere! We are bombarded with it in the media, social media and the blogging world. We see it around us at work and on the playing field, and we live it out in our own relationships.
Drama arises from conflict in our relationships.
Conflict is a fact of everyday life, whether we like it or not. It’s simply a condition in which people’s concerns appear to be incompatible with with an other’s. How we deal with it is an other story.
In fact it IS often a story.
As human beings this happens … and what we do about it, is to create our own stories. We learn about this conflict drama early on in life in stories and fairy tales we are told.
In classic tales, we encounter three types of characters: the victim (often portrayed as a damsel in distress or an innocent youth); the villain (a witch, giant or dragon); and the hero (the white knight or prince). Because we experience our own conflicts as stories, we unconsciously adopt these roles. Most often we see ourselves as the victim – innocent and powerless. The central character in the drama. Sometimes we play the hero in order to right a wrong. And occasionally we may slip into the role of the villain, venting our anger or frustration on another person. Together, these roles form a “Drama Triangle”.
I think most of us can all relate to this … can you?
Of course, each person in the conflict has their own story. And this is where it starts to get complicated.
Our adversaries will see us as the villain and paint themselves as the victim, we in turn will defend ourselves and see ourselves as the hero. The drama will continue until a time when we can step back and observe what is going on. As long as we are in the drama, we will keep the conflict and going.
As the Victim
We experience conflict as an attack on our esteem or persona. We may see our values threatened or fear someone will take something from us and we feel victimized. When we feel victimized we need a villain to blame.
The victim role includes a sense of powerlessness. We may withdraw and wait for something to change or for someone to rescue us. Some of us will suffer in silence, while others with vent our frustration and blame.
The reward of victimhood is a significant amount of attention in the form of sympathy. We may also be lucky in attracting a hero to “right the wrong” for us.
Alternatively we can play the guilt card and hope that the other person starts to feel bad at inflicting pain on us and behaves differently. In this feeling of powerlessness, we also absolve ourselves of responsibility. We justify inaction by saying it isn’t our fault and the other person has to change. Powerlessness erodes our self esteem and leads to more resentment and frustration. By playing the victim we trade personal power for sympathy and ironically increase the stress and negativity we seek to avoid.
On a more positive note, the victim role reflects our goodness, sensitivity and compassion. The victim/princess rarely seeks revenge and facilitates reconciliation. These qualities are essential to escape the drama and adopt a cooperative approach.
As the Hero
The role represents courage and action, taking a stand and risking discomfort or judgment.
There is a darker side to the hero role however. That is the fine line between righteousness and self-righteousness. What we may see as clever, others may see as manipulative. What we see as taking charge, others may experience as controlling.
We can justify our own aggressive behavior by saying “they had it coming.” Based on actions alone, the hero is simply a self righteous villain. Some of us may appoint ourselves as heroes in the conflict of others. Though our intentions may be noble, this approach reinforces the helplessness of the victim and further entrenches the other person in the villain role.
As the Villain
Wait a minute, none of us want to be the villain! Right? We have labeled the villain as “bad”….. However, most villains come from a fear filled place. They will do anything not to become a victim again! We see villains in other people, but it is much harder to recognize how we take on this role ourselves. Most villains want to see themselves as a victim or hero in the story.
Villains traditionally capture and control the victim for their own purposes. This role can also represent the shadow or dark side of us that is mean spirited and vindictive. This dark side also includes the part of us that is mistrustful, controlling and manipulative. The villain acts aggressively, attacking and hurting others to get what they want. When we experience someone controlling us, we quickly cast them as the villain in our conflict story.
The behaviors of the villain are similar to those of the hero, distinguished only by how we judge them.
Internationally – and from US history – the same acts of violence against an existing power are seen by other ideologies as the selfless acts of freedom fighters. It depends on whose side you are on. One person’s justice is the another’s revenge. The villain gets a bad rap, but some qualities include patience, creativity and ingenuity (though we would probably call that behavior manipulative or sneaky).
Our conflicts become populated by a constantly changing cast of victims, villains and heroes:
- The 3 characters in this story form a drama triangle.
- There cannot be a victim without a villain.
- Before we can become heroes we must have a wrong to right, and a foe to vanquish.
- A hero needs someone to rescue (and that someone might be ourselves.)
- If you see yourself as a victim or a hero, then you automatically create a villain and conflict.
- When you see someone as a villain, they in turn will feel victimized by you – and see you as the villain.
- Behaviors you see as self defense become attacks in their minds. And the walls of judgment and justification are buttressed on both sides.
Beyond the Drama
To eliminate villains from our conflict, we must be prepared to give up being a victim, and the sympathy and security this role appears to give us. We need to relinquish the mantel of being a hero, and the self righteousness that comes with that role. We must also be prepared to see how we may have hurt others and have become unintentional villains ourselves. The Drama Triangle produces a winner or loser approach, and we will battle ferociously to avoid defeat and claim the moral high ground (of the victim and hero). However, in the Drama Triangle there is no real winner. To end the conflict, we need to shift our perspective and our approach. For the drama to end, we must recognize the role we have been playing, address the real issue and step out of the drama.
When we recognize the Drama Triangle we have choices:
- To continue in our role and not take responsibly to do what we can to work towards resolution.
- To shift our perspective to one of listening to understand what is really going on. Becoming the observer of the drama rather than a player.
- To embrace that we are all human beings who want to be recognized, accepted and loved. What are the fundamental needs of each player? How do they each see the situation? How can we help them in getting their needs met?
- Even if we have been cast the villain of this particular drama, then we can apply our patience and creativity to find strategies to solve the problem, rather than to blame and exact revenge.
- If we are the victim, we need to let go of the sympathy from others and to no longer expect someone else to rescue us. It’s time to turn our attention to what we can do for ourselves to get the help and resources we need. Self responsibility is key.
Drama lives in our every day ego-mind and media driven lives. It’s a place of “me” “mine” and “I’. It’s a way of living that is about “me” versus “them”. “Them” versus “us”. When we come to an understanding that we are human beings who share fundamental needs and values, that we are connected, rather than separated … then we can let go of the drama and conflict.
Living in our own drama triangles prevent us from connecting with ourselves and living from our Middle Ground.
Take a moment to ask yourself if you are having difficulty finding your Middle Ground and being present – and consider if you are engaged in a drama triangle in your own life.
Where there is drama there cannot be true peace.