Victims, saviours, and the drama triangle…
The “drama triangle” can be a surprisingly thought-provoking model for shining a light on interpersonal dynamics. But also, perhaps, for thinking about the philosophy of a sector struggling to shift from paternalistic benevolence to partnering for change.
First described by Stephen Karpman in 1968, with support from his mentor and Transactional Analysis founder, Eric Berne, the triangle describes the dynamics between three people, one of whom Karpman casts as a victim, one as a persecutor, and one a rescuer.
Like most things, once you’ve studied the model you start to see it playing out all around you, including in your own interactions. But you also notice how it appears in different guises, at different scales, and how a given triangle can look completely different to different people.
In a work context, you will often find two people who tend to harass and harangue each other, both of whom see themselves as a victim, making their case to any would-be rescuer or supporter. And in a social context you will often see those riding in as rescuers going beyond simply defending the victim, and instead, becoming persecutors of the original sinner themselves.
The triangle can equally be seen in group dynamics. Whole teams within organisations can feel like they’re being oppressed by another team. Many is the team leader who has been happy to position themselves as a saviour, garnering the loyalty of their troops as a result.
And it feels good to be a rescuer. Benevolent. Courageous. Self-sacrificing… But is it?
Donald Trump positioned himself as the rescuer for millions of Americans who either felt, or came to be persuaded, that they were victims. And when the mainstream media began “persecuting” him, those supporters found their agency, not to alleviate their own situation, but to rescue Trump, and to begin persecuting in turn those who would attack him.
Their victimhood was his ticket to power, and his, their call to arms.
We can see the same patterns whenever we turn on our phones to discover who is being cancelled, boycotted, or generally piled-on this week, and by whom. Everyone involved thinks they’re rescuing someone from something, and they’re all trying to go “one-up” on those they’re putting, or keeping, down.
Indeed, in the drama triangle, both rescuer and persecutor are literally described in the model as being “one-up”, as they both get to feel superior to the victim, who is, and remains “one-down”.
In Transactional Analysis terms, persecutor and rescuer both get to play the parent – one critical, one nurturing – while the victim is forever the child, with no agency to resolve the situation themselves. And consciously or unconsciously, the rescuer’s self-image depends on that remaining the case, which is ultimately why the rescuer is every bit as complicit in sustaining the cycle.
How does this relate to the charity sector? I suspect you’re already drawing the parallels. Like I said, it’s a surprisingly thought-provoking model.
Acey Choy gave, in my view, probably the best approach to breaking out of the drama triangle with his Winners Triangle (1990), which was built on and popularised by David Emerald in 2016 in his book The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic).
In both models, the three-way parent-child dynamics move to a much more adult-level of conversation. Persecutor becomes an assertive challenger; Victim becomes an active party, aware of their vulnerabilities but responsible, resourceful, and solution-focused; and Rescuer becomes a coach, enabling both to become more self-aware, and to make better, more informed choices, without trying to solve their problems for them.
So, how do we apply this to the charity sector? Is this what a grown-up charity looks like?
It’s already there in co-creation. It’s increasingly present in the best front-line services both domestically and overseas. But away from the front line it still feels like there’s a long way to go – in leadership and in governance, in the language we use, of benefactors and beneficiaries, and in the default beliefs both within and of the charity sector.
“The acid question is,” as one Operations Director voiced at a recent strategy Board, “Are we willing to empower people to make mistakes; to screw up their lives if that’s what they want to do?”
Perhaps one day the sector will be grown-up enough to say yes.