Firebreak Chat / Navigating the Drama Triangle
How to reframe your interactions in order to minimise needless conflict with both yourself and others — especially during a global pandemic.
One thing that I’ve never been far from, in both start-up and media agency life, is conflict. I do not necessarily mean pistols at dawn [at least not all the time], but more rumbles, grumbles and misgivings. This can be a massive productivity drain and certainly a sucker of energy.
In my last post — I spoke through Hanlon’s Razor: giving the benefit of the doubt and creating positive environments for learning and growth. Sometimes though, even with the most serene intentions, you may end up in a spiral of blame, liberation or apathy. In this post, I want to talk through Karpman’s Drama Triangle, how it was first represented to me and how I feel it is as pertinent as ever with our own internal relationships.
To kick off, who is Karpman, and what is his Drama Triangle work?
Stephen B. Karpman was born to a prominent Russian psychoanalyst and Spanish psychiatric social worker in Washington DC. Excelling at Physics, but also with a keen eye for art, his modus operandi was to theorise through diagrams. In the late 1960s he began working with Eric Berne, father of Transactional Analysis. Berne would encourage Karpman, also a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild, to write up his theories on Script Drama Analysis — his Drama Triangle rather theatrically applied to childhood fairytales.
The triangle is a concise way of explaining the three states of mind we occupy when confronted with conflict — either conscious or subconscious: Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer. They are what we hide behind rather than address the real world problem.
Victim: “I’m not OK — it’s someone else’s fault”. Victims place themselves in a powerless situation, and are at effect of something or someone else.
Persecutor: “Why aren’t you OK? It’s all your fault”. Persecutors pass blame onto others, they take an upper ground in situations.
Rescuer: “I’ll make you OK — Let me help”. Rescuers jump to the aid of others to mask their own frailties, promoting dependency to rescue again.
It is common for individuals to unknowingly move between these states. However, they sap energy and do not get us closer to a remedy for the conflict we find ourselves in.
Why would you need Transactional Analysis in a media agency?
I was first introduced to the Drama Triangle in 2017. I had spent large parts of the previous twenty-four months struggling with the concept of being “at cause” or “at effect”, often playing the victim in the “at effect” bucket. In what I perceived at the time as an impossibly high pressured client facing role (vs. what it proved to be as a huge opportunity), time was ticking in working through ways out of increasingly frequent slumps in energy.
What was especially helpful were the mechanics for lifting myself and others out of these victim situations within the triangle, or at least trying to prevent it happening again:
- To have the self awareness to realise you are where you are — this is nobody else’s doing. You have the luxury of reacting in the way you chose to react — you just have to chose it. The cool objective voice in any situation is often the one people end up listening to… Eventually…
- Analyse what got you here. What were the series of actions that led you or the group to where you are now? Which role have you all been playing?
- Make a conscious effort to withdraw, and potentially reframe for the future based on your learnings. This does not necessarily mean to avoid all conflict but simply look to address it differently in future, restructure the conversation.
Why dealing with your own Drama Triangles is important right now
Conflict isn’t just with others. More and more, it’s within ourselves. In a year where social interaction has been forced to a minimum — many of us have had to look inwardly to rekindle our energy.
And that’s hard. Not least because it’s winter and most of the kindling is wet!
In a world of work with much less structure, in a world of play with much less freedom; we’ve all had to take on multiple conflicting roles for ourselves, often all at the same time. Through this, it has become all too easy to slide into victim whilst being your own persecutor or rescuer — still, all at the same time.
A 2020 Triangle: I’m just going to make myself feel better by Marie Kondo’ing my underwear [rescuer]; realising I can’t fold to save my life, why am I so awful at this?! [persecutor]. Then sulking with the only ice cream left in the shop [victim].
Understanding that this is happening and reframing situations for yourself is key this year. I remember writing something to my team back in May, two months into lockdown and at the end of a particularly challenging week — “There’s no point shouting at a virus, viruses don’t have ears”.
It was the awareness required for the situation at hand. And no, this is hardly self-awareness at its strongest, but its certainly a reminder of not looking to control what we simply cannot. So:
- Be aware: Just because Instaflix or Netgram have suggested it — it really is OK not to fold your underwear, really. Sure, it might give you that high that only perfectly colour coordinated laundry can, but what else are you avoiding?
- Analyse: It is also very unlikely you’ll ever have to do so under any level of duress, so you can cross that worry off your worry list. And now you’ve realised where you are, how exactly did you end up down that YouTube rabbit hole on folding techniques?
- Step back: And 2020 is very much the year to eat ice cream, just be aware that you are doing it. Sure, treat yourself, but is there something else that could bring a more longer lasting (fewer calorie) kind of joy?