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  • Jonathan Pearl

Don’t make a Drama out of a Crisis!

The drama triangle is a social model that was first written about by Dr. Stephen Karpman, 40 odd years ago. Under the theory, people in conflict play one (or more) or three roles: Perpetrator, Rescuer and Victim.

The Victim: The Victim says, "Poor me!". The Victim feels victimised, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight into their condition. The Victim, if not actually being persecuted, will seek out a Perpetrator and also a Rescuer who will save the day but also perpetuate the Victim's negative feelings about themselves.

The Rescuer: The Rescuer's line is "Let me help you". But the Rescuer feels guilty if they don't go to the rescue. And their rescuing has negative effects: it keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from this rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the Rescuer. When they focus their energy on someone else, it enables the Rescuer to ignore his/her own anxiety and issues.

The Perpetrator: (a.k.a. Villain) The Persecutor insists, "It's all your own fault". The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior.

The Drama Triangle players take on roles that are not static, and various scenarios can occur. For example, the Victim might turn on the Rescuer, and the Rescuer then switches to being the Perpetrator.

In one case I mediated the person who appeared to me initially to be the Victim, and who willingly took on that role, soon began to bully the alleged Perpetrator – and tried to bully me as the day wore on.

As a mediator it’s relatively easy to avoid being the Perpetrator. It’s also fairly easy to avoid becoming the Victim. But it’s relatively easy to fall into being the Rescuer. We do genuinely want to help solve the conflict. But as mediators we must avoid being IN the conflict in any of the Drama Triangle roles, especially that of the Rescuer.

I was involved recently in negotiating the logistics around setting up a mediation and it was really amazing how easy it is to get sucked into the Drama Triangle. In this case one of the parties, who was then playing the Victim, asked me to contact a third party to make something happen before the mediation meeting. I wanted the meeting to go ahead and I could see that acting on his request might make that happen. But I quickly saw that I was being dragged into more than just ‘meeting logistics’. In just making the call, as requested, I was becoming too involved in the resolution of the dispute. And that’s the job of the Parties. I told the Victim, politely, “no”.