There are 35,000 decisions that you make on an average day. While these daily micro-decisions are important and play a major role in whether or not you’re living your best life, we’re going to zoom out and look at a macro-level decision-making system that’s at play in everyone’s life: The Drama Triangle.
The Drama Triangle refers to a model of social interaction and conflict developed by Dr. Steven Karpman in 1968 and was later expanded on with the work of David Emerald. While this model was originally used to explain external interactions with friends, family, and others, I think it’s important to recognize that this dynamic also plays out internally as we talk and debate with ourselves. Like your everyday trusty triangle, there are three main points, and each point correlates to a decision you can make.
As we’re going through each of the three choices, I encourage you to look at the triangle and yourself through a lens of curiosity and grace instead of frustration and helplessness. Because while it may seem obvious which route to choose in each option, it’s so important to remember that each of these choices often play out in the subconscious realm. This means that before you’ve even realized that you have a situation that requires your response, your subconscious has decided for you and is already moving your mouth or body into action. The awareness you bring to these macro decisions (after reading this article of course!) will help you gain more control and empowerment in your 35,000 daily decisions. So let the drama begin!
Victim or Creator?
First, there’s the decision between Victim or Creator, and it starts with the natural human desire to be happy and live a fulfilled life. When challenges arise that upset our happiness and fulfillment, our subconscious ego naturally wants to minimize the upsetting pain.
Unfortunately that natural desire to minimize pain can escalate into a victim mindset. Inside this victim mindset, it is common to feel anger, resistance, powerlessness, and self-pity. These feelings can create a strange sense of entitlement (“My life is miserable so I deserve another slice of cake” or “My friend has so much more money than I do, she should always offer to buy our brunch!”). At its worst, our criticism of others can turn inward as we become our own worst persecutor, feeling hopeless and defeated.
Fortunately, there’s another option in this decision. With awareness and practice, we can make choosing the Creator instead of the Victim an easy decision for our subconscious. According to Karpman, there are two primary characteristics of being a Creator:
Envisioning and then creating what they really want in life A Creator’s responses are based on thoughtful evaluation of the situation and then choosing appropriate steps toward an outcome, rather than reacting from a problem-focused orientation. In doing so, a Creator works toward desired outcomes instead of reacting to avoiding or fixing problems.
Choosing their responses, even when problems pop up. Sh*t happens. As a Creator, we realize that we are always in choice and we are always responsible for the choices we make (even though sometimes the range of choices is small).
So to move from Victim to Creator, it takes making the space and time to determine what you really want to create with your life, then making daily decisions that support your goals, and responding to life’s upsets with more awareness and intention.
Persecutor or Challenger?
In an attempt to avoid victimization, we face the choice to be a Persecutor or a Challenger.
In the Persecutor’s mindset, we will try anything to avoid becoming a Victim. We have an inner drive to win, be right, and achieve perfection. Sometimes stemming from a time in childhood that had been chaotic and insecure, we develop controlling life strategies to survive and minimize uncertainty. This focus on defending our survival and worth often leads to a vicious inner voice that can be flat-out demanding and demeaning. We build walls to keep people and pain out, and we beat ourselves up in an attempt to avoid failure. While the choice to approach life as a Persecutor will help relieve pain and victimhood in the short-term, its walls often keep true connection and all emotions, including the happier ones, out in the long-term.
On the other side, we can actively choose to be a Challenger. A Challenger mindset is one that is conscious and constructive, offering the opportunity to be in choice in all situations. As a Challenger, we know our end goals and therefore can respond to frustrations and setbacks by creatively taking actions that support our desired outcome. We approach life with a mindset focused on growth and learning. We release the fierce hustle to be perfect and we drop the fear of failing. While the Challenger mindset is much softer than the Persecutor mindset, there is still a healthy drive towards accomplishment.
Rescuer or Coach?
The last point in our triangle is the choice between being a Rescuer or a Coach. In response to our everyday situations, we can either face the obstacles that pop up or run from them.
It’s natural as humans that we feel an obligation and urgency to change or fix whatever isn’t going well. Unfortunately, the Rescuer often responds to this urgency with people-pleasing and avoidance behaviors. Imagine being swooped up by a flying superhero every time you faced anything mildly uncomfortable. Feeling a little awkward on a first date? Swoop! Feeling nervous before asking your boss for that raise? Swoop! Feeling unsure about which fro-yo flavor you want while hanging out with friends? Swoop! So much swooping up that you’d never actually live your life!
Alternatively, we can choose a Coach role when facing obstacles. Instead of avoiding uncomfortable situations altogether, we have an internal self-confidence that we can face whatever life throws at us. Our inner Coach views us as capable and resourceful, and wants to support our progress by asking questions that help clarify envisioned outcomes, current realities, and possible small action steps. Your inner Coach is that internal voice that dares you to dream and helps you to plan for those dreams. No swooping, all living life to the fullest!
The Drama Cycle
Now that we’ve discussed each point of the triangle individually, let’s explore how The Drama Triangle operates as a cycle within each of us.
First, it’s important to note that we can enter the triangle at any point. For example, let’s say you are thinking about applying for an upcoming promotion. You might notice that your inner dialogue starts out in Victim mode, saying, “Nothing good ever happens to you, why would you even consider applying?” Or you could hear your inner Persecutor first, “You’d have to be perfect to get that promotion! So get your pathetic self moving! We don’t have time for friends this week, we have to put in overtime!” Or your Drama Cycle could be started by the Rescuer, “You know, this is actually feeling very stressful so why don’t we hideout with Netflix and ice cream tonight and maybe not apply…” No matter where it starts, the cycle continues. Your Persecutor blames your Victim for not being ‘good enough’ to apply; your Victim makes you feel helpless and unworthy; your Rescuer tries to save face by encouraging you to hide out; your Persecutor makes you feel guilty and stupid for hiding out… round and round and round it goes.
Or take the opportunity to go on a first date with someone new. Maybe your Rescuer charges in full speed, “Love is scary so we should probably just avoid dating altogether.” Your Persecutor chimes in, “I actually agree. We should not go on this date. You haven’t worked out in forever, and your clothes don’t fit. You’ll be rejected until you get your ish together.” Your Inner Victim feels helpless, “But I don’t have the time to go to the gym. Or enough money for new clothes right now. I’ll be alone forever!” And right before you start crying, your Rescuer swoops in, “Well this is clearly uncomfortable. Let’s cancel the date. We can say you have a family emergency. And then we can keep watching your favorite show tonight!” …
The Ultimate Shift
The ultimate shift happens when we trade our inner Victim-Persecutor-Rescuer cycle for the Creator-Challenger-Coach cycle.
Taking the examples above, here’s how the Ultimate Shift might look like when applying for a promotion:
Creator: I’m not sure if I’m quite ready, but this promotion supports my goal of moving into a management position, so I think I’ll go for it.
Coach: Oh yeah, this is definitely a possibility!
Challenger: So what do we need to do to make this happen?
Creator: Oh hmmm, that’s a good question
Coach: We could start by updating our resume, and then checking out the job description to see what we could work on.
Challenger: What about a timeframe? When do we need to have this completed?
Round and round again, but this time the cycle is moving in a positive, empowering direction.
Let’s try out the other example of a first date:
Challenger: This is so out of your comfort zone- let’s go for it!
Creator: I just need to figure out what to wear...
Coach: We can determine what to wear based on how you want to feel, so how do you want to feel on this date?
Creator: Oh, I like that idea. I want to feel empowered and attractive. I’m just worried about my weight.
Coach: I know you have a goal of feeling more comfortable with your body. What could we do this week to move towards that goal?
Challenger: I bet we could go for a walk after dinner every night this week!
Creator: Starting right after this date!
To shift from Victim to Creator try these:
Take responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Think like a problem solver and use your creative imagination.
Take actions that will achieve your desired outcomes.
Instead of looking for someone to save you, learn to take care of yourself.
Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want.
Ask empowering questions like: “What do I want?” and “What steps can I take to get what I want?”
Look at what’s going right in your life. You can do this by practicing gratitude each day and reviewing your accomplishments often
To shift from Persecutor to Challenger, try these steps:
Challenge yourself without blame or criticism
Explore where you have walls up and what you need to feel safe to lower them
Set and keep promises to yourself
Shift from avoiding punishment to achieving improvement
Set respectful boundaries around your goals
Ask yourself questions like, “What about this situation brings out my inner Persecutor?” or “What would happen if I challenged myself in this area?”
To shift from Rescuer to Coach, try the following:
Approach life with curiosity
Explore the areas of your life that you tend to avoid
Examine any people-pleasing patterns that you have
Set a boundary for how long you’ll complain about something before moving into action
Ask empowering questions like: “What would you like to see happen in this situation?” or “What can you do to change this?”
Trust yourself and practice taking small risks that support your best life