Unconscious Roles in the Drama of Life

“… drama roles are made-up strategies that the ego creates to manage its anxiety about what it doesn’t like or want. Many aspects of the roles are useful and help human beings learn to cope and survive. If these drama roles are the only strategy to get through life, however, the roles over time become outdated and limiting.” David Emerald, author of The Power of TED

If You Prefer to Listen

We all play roles unconsciously to manage our anxiety when life gives us “No’s”.  When people treat us in a way we don’t like, when circumstances are not to our liking, when sh*t happens we automatically gravitate to one of more of these unconscious roles.  Stephen Karpman, M.D., developed the “drama triangle” in 1961 which includes these three unconscious roles:  Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor.  He says we learned these roles when we were young to help us cope and survive.  However, as we mature, these roles become outdated and limiting.

While the roles are not “bad,” they limit our creativity and effectiveness in dealing with life’s challenges.  It is pretty clear how the Victim or Persecutor roles can limit us.  I had a hard time seeing how the Rescuer, my go to role, is limiting. But as we discuss it you will see how it limited me.  All three of these roles focus on the problem, not the opportunity or the solution.  When we inhabit these roles, we see others as the problem we need to react to rather than the imperfect human beings that we are.

As we look at each role, think about a situation in your life where you fell into using this role.  How was it helpful?  How was it limiting?  We will begin with the central role, the victim.

 The Victim

When we are talking about the victim, we are talking about a role people unconsciously play, not about being a victim in a particular circumstance.  Warren Zevon’s Song, “Poor, poor pitiful me!” describes the victim well.  They see themselves as helpless, and powerless.  They deny any responsibility for their negative circumstances, and don’t feel they have the power to change the circumstances. Victims have difficulty solving problems and making decisions.  But they resent the rescuer who solves problems or makes decisions for them.  You’ll see why when we talk about the rescuer.

I have taken on the victim role when my rescuer attempts are not appreciated, thus turning the victim into the perpetrator.  We can move from role to role in one conversation.

The Victim can become a creator by changing focus from the problem to possible solutions. Switching focus from what happened in the past to the future they want to create. They can spend time thinking and clearly defining what they want and what they don’t want.

The Persecutor

Persecutors can be either people, conditions (like being unemployed) or situations (like losing a loved one).  As people, they criticize and blame the victim, making them feel oppressed through threats or bullying.  Persecutors are very rigid as they fear becoming the victim themselves. They don’t actually solve any problems; they just use them to attack their victim.

The persecutor carries a lot of shame often from mental and/or physical abuse during their childhood. They are secretly seething inside. Sometimes they emulate their childhood abusers as they see that’s how to have power and strength.  The persecutor overcomes feelings of helplessness and shame by domination. This means they must always be right!

The greatest fear of a Persecutor is powerlessness.  They project their own feelings of inadequacy, fear or vulnerability on their victims. That is why they are so darn good at finding fault.  It’s also why it is difficult for them to take responsibility for the way they hurt others.  Their bullying, threatening and blaming are the way they fight for survival.

When I have fallen into the Persecutor role, I used preaching and lecturing to get my way.

The Persecutor can become a challenger by learning how to ask someone to do something different without criticizing or blaming. By encouraging the victim to step up rather then telling the victim they can’t. They can give up trying to force or manipulate others to do what they want. Instead ask for what they want and clearly state what they don’t want.

The Rescuer

The rescuer needs victims so they can jump in and save the day. They think this will fulfill their need to be appreciated. Sometimes the need to be valued is so strong, the Rescuer will neglect their own needs so they can take care of other people. Sound familiar? They feel like a martyr being overworked and underappreciated. And while rescuing, they are denying their unconscious need for attention.

Rescuers are classically co-dependent and enablers. Taking care of others helps them to feel worthwhile.  Since they need victims to help, they take the power away from the victim to keep the victim dependent. They are proud of being fixers and helpers.  They believe their value comes from helping others. This is a role that I played a lot of.  At work I was the fixer and the helper. Fixing and helping whether people wanted it or not.

According to Lynn Graham, “It is certainly possible to be helpful and supportive without being a rescuer. There is a distinct difference between being truly helpful and rescuing. Authentic helpers act without expectations for reciprocation. They empower rather than disable those they serve.”

The Rescuer seems to want to help the victim but in fact does so in ways that result in the victim having less power, with the rescuer benefiting more than the victim.

I’m a recovering Rescuer.  At work, while I could coach those who reported to me, I would rescue co-workers who did not necessarily want rescuing.  I would see what needed to be done, and if my co-workers did not do it fast enough or to my specifications, I would do it for them.  I never understood why that was not appreciated until I learned about this role. I was basing my worth on what I accomplished. And making my co-workers feel worthless.

The Rescuer can become a coach by asking questions to help the victim problem solve, instead of telling them what to do.  They can face the fact that none of your caretaking methods have worked for more than a few minutes or maybe a few days. Most importantly they can realize that they do not have control over the happiness or suffering or live events of others.

Waking Up

We have years of practice slipping into these roles to meet our personal needs, especially our unconscious ones.  So how do we keep from unconsciously slipping into these roles?  We wake up by shining the light of awareness on our vulnerability.  We listen to the signals our body is sending that something is wrong, those same signals we have been ignoring for years.  Then we look to see what is really happening.  Once we pay attention to the signal, and look at what our unconscious need is, we are no longer hooked. We don’t get on the hamster wheel of reactivity.

When we see we are slipping into one of these roles, we can pause and respond instead of react. Remember we are works in progress, we are not finished, so we can change. We can take responsibility for our emotions; our needs and we can face our fears. One tool to help us take responsibility is RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Non-Identification – See Post Untangle Your Emotional Knots).  But the main tool we will be using is mindfulness.  Being aware of our thoughts and feelings each moment of the day.