The Drama Triangle: a model for understanding interpersonal conflict.
Again and again I return to this model to understand my own accountability in contributing to conflict, and as a tool for supporting others in navigating conflict.
The Drama Triangle is a relational model where three roles are triangulated: Victim, Rescuer, and Bully. The Victim seeks someone to rescue them from a bully, and anyone who refuses to rescue is seen as another aggressor. The Rescuer looks for victims to save— the archetypal ‘white knight syndrome’— but may be blind to how they disempower the victim and by doing so become an oppressor. The bully is also a victim, someone fearful and hurt who has come to believe the only way to get their needs met is to take from others.
We all play these roles at different times. And when someone else is playing one of these roles, it is so hard to not be baited into playing one of the parts. We cycle thru Victim/Rescuer/Bully and back to Victim. This is the vortex. It’s sticky, like fly paper, and once we touch it, we can feel trapped. This is the essence of ‘toxic’ relationship dynamics.
In this Drama Vortex, everyone’s childhood wounds emerge. The consequences of the not-enough-holding, not-enough-love, the minimization of emotions, the unhealthy role modeling: all that might have been part of our experience plays out. The Drama Triangle exists in the space of fight/flight/freeze/fawn, and our primal survival instincts are activated by it.
I contemplate often how to step out of this vortex. There are some great tools for changing from Victim to Thriver, from Rescuer to Counselor, from Bully to Coach. But- if one person is insistent in remaining in the vortex, what then?
I recently had an insight: that switching those roles to ‘stop the drama’ doesn’t always stop the drama. Sometimes, it does, and resolution is found and all is well. But in some cases, the triangulation continues, and any individual who refuses to play their ‘role’ risks becoming villainized, and any attempt to set boundaries fuels the fire. So, in those situations, how do we actually stop the drama?
The answer is: we don’t. We just stop feeding it.
In ZEGG Forum (and related Forum practices) it is not uncommon for a Drama Vortex situation to arise. The facilitators act as provocateurs and coaches to draw out more about the situation, without commentary. It is then up to the community to offer compassionate, loving mirrors (or reflections), to what they have observed. The transformation out of Drama may not happen there in that moment, but in receiving the reflections of community, an individual who is feeding a vortex that cages them can take away those insights, reflect on these for themselves, and very often finds a place of greater softness. The Forum also allows for the raw survival-based emotions to be expressed and seen and heard, which clears the way for being able to step into a different emotional experience. This is a very beautiful and ritualized form of open communication within a community and I am fortunate to have participated in multiple communities who use this practice.
What I have found is that this seems to be the most effective way to escape the gravitational pull of the Drama Vortex. I invite you to try it out: rather than participating in a dynamic in a way that feeds the drama, explore what happens if you step out and offer a loving, kind, compassionate reflection on what you see.
When someone is angry, they are often scared. When someone is scared, they are often hurt. When someone is hurt, they are often feeling unloved. When someone is unloved, they want to be seen and heard for who they are and what their experience is.
This is something I often do in my role as a coach, when working with clients who are experiencing their own drama vortex. And, it is absolutely possible to do this in one’s own personal relational conflicts, as long as you can do so with kindness and compassion. What is it like, to give a loving mirror that maintains compassion and emotional presence without feeding another person’s self-identity story as a victim, or rescuer, or bully? And what is it like to allow that mirror to be a boundary, so that you yourself do not become drawn into drama again?
Our inner martyr may feel compelled to play out the roles we are cast into. But that is the moment when things have the potential to change and transform: when you can speak directly, with kindness, with empathy, and say clearly, “I see your fears, your insecurities, and I feel sadness that we’ve both spent so much time and energy chained by them. I make a choice to step out of this vortex.”
Once you step out of the vortex, it doesn’t matter if the other person stays in it or not. With no one left to project the roles of bully, rescuer, and victim onto but themselves, most people will loose steam and eventually let go of the drama themselves. As long as we are in the Drama Vortex, we negate self-responsibility and our own self-development work. As soon as we escape the vortex, the incredible work of self-growth and awareness begins to happen.