Psychologist Stephen Karpman developed the concept of the “drama triangle” over 40 years ago and it remains a valuable way to think about the roles you might find yourself playing in certain situations and when you’re involved with other people.
Drama triangles are environments where narcissists thrive and where, if you’re not careful, you can find yourself being sucked in, being forced into a role which is stressful and upsetting.
In order to understand the drama triangle, imagine a triangle and, at each of its points, is a “role” that we and others play. These roles are: persecutor, victim, and rescuer.
The persecutor role particularly suits the narcissist. They dominate, think they know best and ignore other people’s opinions. When things go wrong it is because someone else is useless. They may bully others and become aggressive if they don’t get their own way. They may use passive-aggressive means to be nasty to people. By persecuting others, the narcissist’s fragile sense of identity is shored up and their need to exert power over others is met.
Victims view the world as being against them. Like the persecutor, when anything goes wrong in their life it isn’t their fault. They project a helpless image to those around them and manipulate others into helping them. They are exhausting to be around. Vulnerable narcissists, in particular, often play the victim.
Narcissists can also be the rescuer. They may surround themselves with people who they view as weaker than they; this also meets their need to be surrounded by people who feel too threatened to offer a challenge. Rescuing people can meet their need for attention, and they look like the “good guy” to everyone else. Being the rescuer can also mean that they can control the person they have rescued.
Narcissists can move in and out of these roles themselves, moving from the point of victim (dad was horrible to me, can you look after me) to persecutor (Dad and I have made up and you’re just a kid, stop exaggerating). And because narcissists derive their sense of validation externally, they will do all they can to draw other people into their drama triangle. If you’re involved with a narcissist, chances are you’ve been sucked in without even realising it.
Here's an example: Mary’s mother is a narcissist. Mary’s main role in life has been that of “rescuer” – her mother has had various dramas over the years involving Mary’s father and then various boyfriends of her mother. Mary has been involved in helping her mother flee from the boyfriends, packing her bags for her on one occasion and helping her move to a different state while her boyfriend was at work.
Mary starts her first serious relationship and gets married. She starts to set up boundaries and respond less to her mother’s needs. Because Mary isn't playing the role of rescuer, her mother sees Mary as a “persecutor” and turns on Mary with extreme aggression accusing her of not being grateful for all her mother has done. In doing so, Mary’s mother has become the persecutor.
Despite the fact that Mary has moved forward with her life, she is so deeply upset by her mother’s actions that she becomes a victim. She feels helpless and threatened and loses the strength she displayed in creating her boundaries. Mum, in the meantime, has a new boyfriend to “rescue” her. She continues to persecute Mary until her boyfriend leaves. Realising that she needs someone in her life, Mum “rescues” Mary by allowing her back into her life. The next time Mum needs help and acts the victim, Mary quickly becomes her rescuer in order to avoid a repeat of the aggressive response.
Both Mary and her mother have played all three roles within the drama triangle. When you’re in a narcissist’s drama triangle, you may find yourself playing one role most of the time, but narcissists are fantastic at manipulating situations and easily play a different role, forcing you to adjust your role, too. Being caught up in someone else’s drama triangle is exhausting. You constantly have to keep an eye on what the other person, or people, in the triangle are going to do next. It causes extreme anxiety and a sense of a loss of control.
There is only one way to end the drama triangle and that is to remove yourself from it. That doesn’t necessarily mean having no contact with the main protagonist/s (although it might do), but it means adopting a neutral position. Sometimes this is unacceptable to the narcissist.
If you refuse to gang up with one sibling against another so that you can both be persecutors together, or if you refuse to act like the victim so that the narcissist can continue to feel like a rescuer, they may not be able to handle your presence any more.
If being in someone else’s drama triangle is causing you distress, you need to establish which roles you are being pushed into and what you can do to change your behaviours and responses – or whether you need to leave the triangle altogether.