Ethics- Drama Triangle

You may have been taught about the Karpman “Drama Triangle” in school. 

It is one of the basic theories in psychology that explain dysfunctional patterns that keep us stuck in our lives.

The Faces of the Victim by Lynne Forrest is one of the best explanations of the Drama Triangle online.  I highly recommend reading that article first if you are unfamiliar with the theories or what to learn more.  

 As massage therapists we are drawn to this profession to help.  We think that we will be more fulfilled by helping others.  There is often a darker side to helping- that we help to get our own needs of needing to be needed and valued met.  When we try to get our needs met through our clients, we end up feeling burned out or unfulfilled. Thus we end up on the triangle trying to get our needs met by acting out different “Dramas” or roles.  It is usually an unconscious process until we do the work to bring it into consciousness.

All of these roles were learned early in childhood from our families, teachers and early life trauma.  Even the simplest things can result in a trauma that makes us believe that we are not good enough or smart enough.

The Rescuer
As massage therapists, we are at a high risk of falling into the rescuer role.  Clients seek us out when they are in pain or under great stress.  They often expect us to relieve their pain.  We are expected to “rescue others” from their pain. We get caught in fixing, giving advice and needing to be the expert.  We feel uncomfortable when people are in pain.  We take classes to constantly learn new methods for relieving pain.  We often feel responsible for others pain. As rescuers, we avoid acknowledging our own vulnerability so we seek out others who are vulnerable to caretake. The way that we feel safe is by enabling others to remain in the victim position.  We feel more connected when we are rescuing others but in reality it only lasts a short time.  It becomes an addiction like being addicted to the sweetness of chocolate – it only lasts a short time. Our need to give advice is an effort to make us feel better about ourselves.  It is a defense mechanism that actually keeps us more separate from others so we can further avoid our feelings and needs. Our need for admiration, connection and attention drive us to keep searching for that one who will fulfill that need. 

A person is rescuing when they:

  • are doing something they don’t want to do like working extra hours just to fit someone in the schedule or not taking breaks to work on someone.

  • doing something they are not asked to do like giving advice about nutrition or other health tips.

  • doing something that you can’t really do like giving nutrition advice

  • doing more than 50% of the work like when we feel like we give and give and end up feeling taken for granted.

Often a rescuer will state that they are doing something only because they care.  They attempt to validate their rescuing and relieve the feelings they are having.

The way out of the rescuer role is to start taking responsibility for your own feelings.   What is it that you are feeling the second after someone is describing their pain or problem that makes you want to jump in and give your advice or share your story?  Can you stay present enough to bear your own pain and story and be clear of it when you respond to the clients pain?  Taking responsibility is the act of being able to respond to a person rather than react.  It is often a difficult process.

The Victim
We are victims when we don’t take responsibility for ourselves.  When we ignore our feelings and needs we fall into the victim trap.  We will often feel overwhelmed with our feelings or even numb to them.  We are victims when we say things like:
” I have done everything I could to build my practice, but nothing is working.”
“My practice is slow right now because of the economy.”  

We blame our misfortune on other factors outside of our control.  We feel hopeless, helpless and are always complaining.  These “victim” beliefs keep us stuck repeating the same things again and again, until we either go out of business, find a new career or settle in and tackle the issue seriously.

Victims are usually raised by rescuers- the mother who is the martyr and does everything for the child thinking they are helpless to do things themselves.   Since rescuers have taken responsibility for others it leaves victims being unable to take responsibility for themselves.

The opposite of the victim role or the way out of the victim role is again, taking responsibility and stop blaming others or events outside of yourself.

The Persecutor
The persecutor needs to feel important and right all the time.  We judge and criticize others to make us feel better.  We are often unaware of our own power.  Putting others down leaves us feeling one up from others and more powerful.  Using criticisms and judgments, we keep ourselves separate.  We often become critical of clients who don’t do their stretches or take our advice.  We feel we know better than doctors.  We often think that “It is all your fault”.  We have an incessant need to be right all the time.

Persecutors will also take this role on against themselves.  We are critical of ourselves when we fail.  We harshly criticize ourselves and blame ourselves. We feel it is our duty to give helpful feedback even if it isn’t asked for.

Clients can become persecutors when we fail to fix them or relieve their pain.  

Carl Jung says “What we are unconscious of becomes our fate.”   When we hide beneath the roles of victim, rescuer or persecutor, we will often unconsciously create what we most need to see about ourselves.  The pattern will keep repeating itself until we become aware and make changes.  When we are caught in the drama triangle it is an indicator that there is a boundary violation.  Our boundaries are what keep us clear. Getting in touch with our stories is what helps us keep clear.  Other things that can also help in the process is developing a spiritual practice, supervision, peer supervision. 

Getting off the drama triangle starts with first becoming aware that we are even on it!  It is often difficult and humbling to even see our roles let alone accept them.

 If we can understand our roles in helping others (our clients), we will have a better understanding of our needs. Often as massage therapists we are not aware of our needs but we can often see others needs more clearly (or so we think).  We set aside our needs to help others.  Becoming aware of our needs is essential in getting off the triangle.  We need to learn to take responsibility for our needs.  Our feelings are the key to learning to take responsibility for our actions.  Our feelings are what tell us what we need.  When we are having feelings like hopelessness, anger, helplessness there is often a need underneath the feeling.  When we can figure out what we are needing and learn how to get that need met, the triangle collapses.