What is the drama cycle?
In the 1960s, psychologist Dr Stephen Karpman coined the term “drama triangle” to describe the interplay of three dysfunctional relationship roles: the rescuer, persecutor and victim.
This drama cycle demonstrates the roles we predictably play when we get caught up in interpersonal drama. For example, a person in the victim role will look for a rescuer to defend them from the persecutor, while a persecutor will blame the victim (more on the different roles soon!).
Everyone needs to play their role for the triangle to happen, but people can also switch roles (for example, the victim may become the persecutor).
Despite our best intentions, as human beings we tend to be attracted to drama. Biologically, we’re primed to enjoy the novelty and stimulation of drama – we love watching it unfold and we can also become easily swept up in it (and addicted to it!).
Unfortunately, the drama cycle can be harmful and toxic for our connections with the people we love. Getting caught up in the cycle often means we lose the opportunity to communicate well, we pull other people into the drama, perpetuate conflict and we struggle to climb out of the deep drama hole we might have fallen into.
In this article, you’ll learn all about the roles played in the drama cycle (including the victim, persecutor and rescuer roles), what these roles might look like in real life, signs you might be getting stuck in the drama cycle and simple tips to help you escape the cycle.
It can be important to keep in mind that the drama cycle only refers to these three roles when they’re used unconsciously or in a manipulating way – the drama cycle doesn’t apply to actual victims (such as victims of crime or abuse).
What are the roles in the drama cycle?
THE VICTIM ROLE
When a person plays the victim role, they usually see themselves as oppressed, powerless, helpless and dejected. They aren’t an actual victim; they just act and feel like one. Also, They don’t like to take responsibility for their experiences – instead, they blame someone in a persecutors role for victimizing them. They might come across as overly sensitive and they look for rescuers to look after them and perpetuate their victim mentality. Someone in the victim role won’t feel able to solve their own problems and so they turn to others for support, guidance and reassurance. A victim might also:
- claim innocence whenever problems arise
- seek attention from rescuers
- pity themselves and feel ashamed
- feel inferior to rescuers and persecutors
THE PERSECUTOR ROLE
Someone in the persecutor role will tend to criticize and blame the victim and make them feel oppressed through bullying tactics. They might also:
- become angry and intimidating
- be inflexible and rigid
- set strict rules
- seek to control others
- fear becoming a victim themselves
A person in the persecutor role might refuse to be vulnerable with others and try to avoid asking for help.
They also don’t solve problems – they tend to become angry and critical without actually seeking to resolve anything.
THE RESCUER ROLE
A person in the rescuer role will seek to help and look after other people, while neglecting their own wants and needs. Rescuers often enable the people in the victim roles by letting them stay a victim – and maybe even encouraging it. A rescuer might enjoy being needed by a victim because it helps them feel good about themselves. They have good intentions to help, but people in the rescuer role often keep victims stuck in their victim roles.
When a person is caught in the rescuer role, they might also:
- become a martyr
- feel guilty or worthless when they’re not looking after anyone
- attract needy people they can try to “fix”
- feel overworked and depleted
- start to resent victims who are always “taking” from them
- offer to help when it isn’t asked of them
- focus on other people’s problems to avoid facing their own
An example of the drama cycle playing out…
Imagine a group of three friends named Mandy, Beth and Cindy, are getting ready for a girl’s trip. Mandy realises she has left important travel documents at home and starts talking about how “useless” she is. Beth starts to feel annoyed and tells Mandy that she wouldn’t be so useless if she just organized herself better. Mandy gets upset and walks off, saying she doesn’t want to go on the trip anymore. In this situation, Mandy has taken on the role of a “victim” and Beth has taken on the role of “persecutor”.
Meanwhile, Cindy has started calling Mandy’s home and speaks with her husband who agrees to meet them halfway with the documents. Cindy then goes after Mandy to console her and tell her about how she’s solved the issue for her. As you can probably guess, Cindy has taken on the role of “rescuer.”
This is just one example of how the drama cycle can play out. When someone takes on a role, other people can be triggered to take on their preferred roles, too. It can also be interesting to think about how the roles can switch.
For example, perhaps Cindy (the rescuer) starts telling Mandy (the victim) about how she organised for Mandy’s husband to meet them halfway with the documents. Instead of being grateful, Mandy gets angry at Cindy for going behind her back and sorting out the problem without her. Suddenly, Mandy has taken on the role of “persecutor” while Cindy might then become the “victim”.
5 signs you might be running the drama cycle in your own life…
Now that you know what the drama cycle is and how it might be playing out, you might be wondering if it’s occurring in your own life! Here are some signs that you’re getting stuck in the drama cycle.
Sign 1: You struggle to solve problems efficiently
– there is often a large conflict with pointed fingers, tears and anger before things settle down again.
Sign 2: You feel triggered by certain people to take on a victim, persecutor or rescuer role.
Sign 3: You can see other people getting caught up in the drama cycle
(and then you end up in the middle of it, too!).
Sign 4: You feel a sense of power from playing any of the roles and actually prefer that to solving problems without drama (maybe even subconsciously).
Sign 5: You either feel inferior or superior to others – it’s difficult to see everyone as equal.
How to break free from the drama cycle!
If you want to escape the drama cycle, here are 10 simple tips to help you. The first three tips are based on The Empowerment Dynamic (TED) developed by David Emerald.
Tip 1: If you take on the victim role, try to become a “creator”
Rather than being tempted to give up and let other people solve problems for you, move your focus from the problem to the potential solutions. Use different problem-solving techniques, such as brainstorming, researching and collecting information to make an informed decision about how to move forward. Choose to take responsibility, instead of giving your power away.
Tip 2: If you take on the persecutor role, try to become a “challenger”
Rather than persecuting a victim, encourage them to clarify their needs and focus on how they can move forward. If anger is getting in the way of being a helpful challenger, it might be beneficial to undertake an anger management class or course.
Tip 3: If you take on the rescuer role, try to become a “coach”
Ask the victim (now a creator) to look at the possibilities for positive action. Try not to offer unsolicited advice or take over – encourage the creator to problem-solve with your support (or on their own, if possible).
Tip 4: Know your triggers
Do you notice yourself getting particularly triggered to get involved in the drama cycle by certain people or situations? Acknowledge these triggers and use them to learn how you can escape the drama cycle. Be aware that you might feel the urge to get caught up in drama and notice what works to help you stay out of it.
Tip 5: Develop healthy boundaries
Regularly getting pulled into the drama cycle? It might be helpful to set up some solid boundaries. Don’t go out with people who trigger you when you’re feeling tired and grumpy. If you’re a “rescuer”, put limits on how much time you spend helping other people and start to prioritise your self-care time. Figure out which boundaries would be especially helpful to set and calmly and assertively let other people know what your boundaries are.
Tip 6: Try not to engage
When you feel compelled to enter the drama cycle, make the choice to not engage. For example, if you tend to take on a “persecutor” role and you feel ready to blame a victim, take a few deep breaths and don’t engage.
Tip 7: Be non-judgemental towards others
One of the reasons why we get caught up in the drama cycle is because we tend to judge other people (or ourselves). Victims judge themselves as incapable and judge persecutors as victimizing and mean. Rescuers judge victims as unable to help themselves. Persecutors judge victims for being irresponsible and judge rescuers for enabling victims. The more these judgements swirl around, the more you will stay stuck in drama cycles. Practice letting go of judgements by seeing what’s unfolding without jumping to conclusions about other people.
Tip 8: Practice responding, rather than reacting
When it comes to escaping drama cycles, good communication is key. Seek to respond to the people around you calmly and kindly, rather than reacting to your emotions and triggering more drama.
Tip 9: Take a break from conflict
If a drama cycle has been started and it’s becoming intense, it might be best to step away and take a break so you can figure out the best way to move forward.
Tip 10: Respond with compassion
Try to look at other people’s reactions, behaviours and actions with compassion and understanding. Know that escaping the drama cycle can take time and practice – it might be difficult for you and the people around you!
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the drama cycle and how you can escape it. If you think this article would be helpful for your friends or family, please take a moment to share it with them!