Karpman’s Drama Triangle in Real Life

When my friend Odette (Odette Hoffman, psychotherapist) told me about the Drama Triangle it took a while for the real-life implications to really sink into my brain. Finally, when I did read the Drama Triangle information here I loved how it tied in with all the other reading I’d done (plus real life).  Marrying Karpman’s information with my idea of Mindful Disconnection with children, certainly has helped us a lot in our parenting (you can read about that here:  When Nurturing becomes Rescuing – Mindful Disconnection – Pt Five)   and then I had a real life adult experience of it, which I want to share, because I think it could also be helpful to others.

(I *know* I kept calling it a Power Triangle in the previous post – I got that into my head and it wouldn’t leave, I’ve edited it now. It is called a Drama Triangle, but it sure feels like a Power Triangle when you’re in it!)

The person with whom I had this conversation is someone who has been in my life for a while, and not someone I can cut out of my life. I think many of us find ourselves in this position whether dealing with family members, work associates or neighbours. It is best to cut toxic people from our lives. (Something I was so relieved to learn – having been raised to ‘make an effort’ and ‘be polite’ to everyone.) However, it is not always possible to cut toxic people from our lives.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the conversation. I should have Mindfully Disconnected earlier, but it’s damned hard to when you’re in the pattern of response that I’m in. Now I *am* disconnecting and it’s empowering!

Me: ” I’m saving a little bit of money each payday so that I can buy new tops in the spring. I should be able to fit my old size 10 (US size 8) pants by then so it’ll be like having a whole new wardrobe.”

Other Person: *looks me up and down and sneers* “Do you think you’ll ever get down to size 10 again?” (persecutor)

Me: “Yes, I’m back on the diet I was on last year, and it’s going well.” (Last year I lost 10kg – 44 pounds – and gained loads of energy by using a system that keeps my insulin levels as even as possible. I have another 10kg to go to get down to the ideal body fat ratio of 24.5% for my age, which given that I have 20+ weeks to lose it, it is absolutely do-able.)

Other Person: “Well, you know I’m walking for half an hour a day and I’ve lost two inches from my waist without changing how I eat.” (rescuer, here’s ‘better’ information)

Me: “I like what I’m doing and want to do things my way.”

Other Person: “Aren’t I allowed to have an opinion, then?” (victim)

Me: “Hmmmm. Oh, is that the time. Must go.” (Mindfully Disconnecting)

You can see how this kind of thing can completely mess with your head! By swinging from role to role in the Drama Triangle this person keeps kept me second guessing my own views/opinions/values. I’ve done this a lot I realise particularly with this person, but with others too.

I would offer information, as you do, to share something that’s going on in my life. It would be implied that I had got it wrong. Then alternative information given (often incorrect as it turns out). Then, if I did make a stand of any kind, the victim role was played. How could I ever learn to trust my own instincts or try things out for myself with this kind of thing going on? I never knew if I was coming or going!

Now when I have to speak to this person. I am a lot more aware of the psychological games going on. Mostly, I can listen to their drama without becoming involved myself. I emotionally detach and don’t offer as much personal information. If I need to, I become distracted by the children or the weather or whatever. Otherwise I just let their words wash over me, without taking it all personally. I’ve known for a while that I needed to keep their problems with them – but I couldn’t for the life of me work out how. Now that I can recognise their position in Karpman’s Drama Triangle, at any given time, I am more likely to Mindfully Disconnect and leave my sense of self intact. It’s not a perfect art for me yet, but it certainly is wonderfully empowering to experience my progress in this area. 

Incidentally, I have no doubt that this person means well and has no idea that their behaviour is so psychologically destructive. This person is not malicious, just incredibly unaware.

So there you go. I’d love to hear if you have had similar experiences and, if you do  Mindfully Disconnect, how that goes for you. I love, love, love it when people comment!

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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33 Responses to Karpman’s Drama Triangle in Real Life

  1. Oh Karyn, this is fantastic! I’ve never been able to identify what does not feel good about an interaction but I knew it wasn’t right. I’ve had to walk away from toxic friends in the past. Now I just disconnect without ending the friend connection. It’s a kinder way to live and happier way to be…. Drama doesn’t affect me the way it used to. I avoid it but sometimes you just can’t avoid it by your physical location. I’m really starting to understand your idea of mindfully disconnecting. Yes, we can mentally avoid it. At first I couldn’t wrap my mind away on it. I think the conversation examples are helping my thick skull. lol I must be wired for conversation vs. descriptions. Hmm. That applies to my marriage too. 🙂

    • Hi Cori,
      Yes, I’ve walked away happily from toxic friends in the past too, but sometimes people are in your life you just can’t walk away from. It is marvellous now I’ ve realised that not only I don’t always have to buy into other people’s ‘stuff’, but can also make sense of what’s going on. BTW I think most of us are wired more for conversations than descriptions…I’ll remember this for future posts! 🙂

  2. Fiona says:

    Love this – I need to practice this ‘mindful disconnection’. I get myself so worked up over situations with toxic people and your example perfectly illustrated your point. It makes it so clear now – thanks

    • It is hard not to get worked up over situations when they involve toxic people, Fi. I have found Mindful Disconnection such a helpful way to protect my own inner core -when I am ‘conscious’ of course. Let me know how you get on with it. 🙂

  3. BinoandFino says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of Karpman’s Drama Triangle. I’ll admit I’m not the most well read person in the world at the moment. 🙂 I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or reunning a business or living in a challenging country (at times) but I’m getting good at mindfully disconnecting as you put it. Otherwise my BP would got throught the roof. I’m not as good as I’d like but I can usually catch myself mid conversation (or triangle) and disengage. But of course sometimes you just get caught unawares, especially by those close to you.

    • Pleased you’re keeping your blood pressure down, Adamu!
      It’s getting caught unawares that does it for me every time. I tend to take people at face value and am a bit shocked every time someone turns out to be toxic. Great that you can catch yourself mid-triangle and disengage – I’m still working on that one!

      • BinoandFino says:

        Don’t get me wrong. I still take people at face value because that’s how I want to live my life but now I now have a ‘protection clause’ kicked in. I now expect everyone to be toxic because I’m sure I’ve been that way to people. We’re human and not perfect after all. So that way I’m kind of prepared for 70% of what comes my way. 🙂

        • Completely agree. I always take people at face value until they prove that I need to rethink (one big event or loads of small ones). I’m certain I’ve been toxic to others too, and I don’t think it happens too often now I’m older and well, older. I just love having permission (through knowledge) to disconnect if someone is really bringing me down: either temporarily or in really serious situations for good. The idea of a ‘protection clause’ is a great way of putting it.

          • BinoandFino says:

            It’s a cliche but getting older does help in certain things if you are conscious of them. You just have more confidence and experience. Of course it’s possible that the older one gets you actually find it hard to break out of certain bad habits. Like eating cheesecake covered in cream. I just don’t seem to be able to shake that one.

            • Nor should you… especially if said cheesecake is covered in passionfruit pulp (I sure hope you know what that is, otherwise that sounds other than it should LOL).
              I have often wondered if there is a point in time or our personal development that we do stop moving. I feel like I’m peeling an onion with the changes I’ve made or had foisted upon me. Consciousness about my triggers and patterns has certainly increased with experience. Now I’d like a little rest.

              • BinoandFino says:

                Well I think my personal development happens in spurts. I have periods in my life where I rest (if life lets me) and almost work on auto pilot and let things flow. Other’s when I’m more conscious and analytical. As for the cheesecake I like it simple with no fruit complicating issues. I’m a Vanilla ice cream type of guy. 🙂 people say I’m boring but I don’t care! 🙂

  4. Marcy says:

    I understand this on one level, and would like to practice it, and yet I have a hard time feeling okay about it — I feel like I should never give up on anyone, and shouldn’t have thick walls between me and people I’m “supposed” to be close to. Maybe it’s possible to take it interaction by interaction, and not make blanket decisions about whole relationships…

    I think, how would I feel if someone else considered ME a toxic person? How would I want them to treat me?

    • Hi Marcy,
      Yes I think it certainly is a good approach to take things interaction by interaction with people with whom we are ‘supposed’ to be close to.I do know of people who have completely cut toxic family members out of their lives, and it is incredibly hard on the toxic person – largely because they tend not to understand why it’s happened. Sadly, sometimes this is the only way the ‘victim’ in the triangle can protect their inner-self. It was difficult for me to feel OK about it too and then I gave it a go and eventually realised how much better I felt about myself and how much more competent I felt about managing my life.

  5. To my sensibilities, placing others in categories by their responses (victim, rescuer, etc.) is a lotta mind spin and psychobabble but if it helps you assert your autonomy, go for it.

  6. Marcy says:

    Granted that it is difficult to know everything significant from a text conversation, so please correct if I’m misreading… but it occurred to me on re-reading this, that perhaps the rescuer part wasn’t intended as better information, but sharing their own process and progress, in which case a “glad to hear it” might have been warranted?

  7. Kristanne says:

    Karyn, I’ve been thinking about this toxic person idea over night. Yesterday someone who I respected said something that was very hurtful and made me feel like she was attacking my parenting. After reading your post, I was quick to label her as a toxic person and mindfully disconnect. But everyone says hurtful things sometimes. And if I mindfully disconnect from those people who I have labelled as toxic, I turn into the lonely one. Really lonely. Perhaps instead I should have empathy for her own reasons for saying what she said. She isn’t toxic. She’s been hurt, and she’s showing her own defenses.

    I want emotional attachment. I want to feel close to people. I want to come to deeper understandings with those around me. Mindful disconnection may just move me in the opposite direction.

    • Hi Kristanne,
      I think people do say things which are hurtful at times, and that can be confusing. The idea of Mindful Disconnection, for parenting and with other adults, is that it is a temporary state. We’re not buying into their drama and we’re happy to reconnect afterwards. I agree that if we were constantly disconnecting from people we would end up lonely and probably very sad. Sometimes people are so caught up in their own defenses that they do become toxic. It is those people with whom it is healthy to completely disconnect. Mindful Disconnection is really for people with whom we have a constant relationship and either wish to or have to keep that relationship going. The disconnection is meant to be both considered and temporary. Thanks for raising this point, it’s always hard to know how other people read my information. I hope this clarifies things for you and anyone else who thought the same thing. 🙂

    • Marcy says:

      I agree that the toxic label can be problematic for those so labelled; it does seem that thinking of it as temporary and remaining open for reconnection would help, at least in those relationships we desire to maintain and develop, or that we cannot get away from.

      This whole thing is reminding me of the “interpersonal effectiveness” segment of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Some of the bits: 1) distinguish between giving and receiving information vs. giving and receiving demands and expectations, 2) when deciding whether to ask for something, or to say no to something, consider your goal, your self-respect, and the likely effect on the relationship — i.e. sometimes giving in for the sake of peace is appropriate, sometimes standing up for yourself is appropriate, sometimes pursuing what you need matters most — it’s just a helpful way to evaluate the risks and benefits all around.

  8. adhdwith3 says:

    You’ve obviously hit a chord with a lot of us. What’s hard for me is that I’m caught off guard–I need to be prepared. I have become a lot better with this person–I’m not afraid to assert myself anymore.

    • I get caught off guard too. I think it’s because I do tend to expect people to behave with at least some level of kindness towards others including myself and I get a shock when it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it takes half of a conversation before I wake up and realise what’s going on. I’m just trying to disengage earlier, when I need to.

  9. Great post! I have had some drama recently in various places, and it’s ridiculous. I found myself…..for the first time in my life NOT CARING. My husband even got worked up about a couple of situations, I simply told him– WHO CARES! Let it go! THIS is when I knew I was getting old (in a good way). Some of us are lucky enough to mindfully disconnect (even though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing), because we have lived through enough of life to realize that we cannot *change people *cannot be responsible for other people’s problems/misconceptions/opinions/etc. Life is simply too short. We have all heard that, but as long as you’re doing your best in this world, you cannot own anything but your actions. Thanks Mum!

    • You’re welcome. I agree – trying to change people who aren’t interested in change or ready for it, is a pointless exercise. Great that you feel confident MDing when you need to.I think it only gets really tricky when you can’t identify that you need to disconnect and then walk away from someone feeling bad about yourself – but not knowing why. MD is great to use when we want to keep the relationship going (or have to with workmates etc) and the other person is having a bit of a over the top mememememe day – considered and temporary. 🙂

  10. QueenArtLady says:

    I re-read this post tonight. I kept wondering how often I have been the one that have been he toxic person in the relationship. I agree with age comes a lot more awareness, understanding. At least being more aware of Karpman’s Drama Traingle I will not only be able to MD but also check my input in the relationship.

    • I am sure I’ve been toxic to people too. It isn’t a pleasant realisation! You’re right though, now that I am more aware I can at least stop myself from being the persecutor (or even the rescuer when not warranted) and MD when things get rough. 🙂

  11. Kirsty says:

    Really enjoy Karen’s website. Lots of great information on children and she has a sound opinion that i trust!! would recommend to anyone wanting parenting information to visit her web site. Karen came and did parenting sessions at our Kindergarten and was enjoyed so much she came back time and again to share her ideas and research. I to have found myself being all 3 also. Its websites like Karen’s that’s takes a look at the interactions between people and how we can better manage situations. Labels such as Toxic are just terms in which we describe situations (people). I think that what Karen is suggesting not only helps keep ourselves safe when we are feeling vulnerable or attacked but may make the other person look closely at what they have said. Being shut down buy another person stops you in your tracks. This may encourage this toxic person to think about how negative they are being at the time. As if we do nothing ,it is telling the other person its ok to act the way they are. When really its not.
    Kirsty xx

  12. Lil Z-Bear says:

    Before I became a mom, I read somewhere that once you are parent you will lose touch with people that you should have cut out of your life a long time ago. I didn’t quite understand that until I discovered how negative some people who came to visit us were. It was then that I discovered that I am loyal to my friends til the very end, whether they deserve it or not. But I realized that although I was more than willing to tolerate being ‘persecuted’ myself, I would not have it for my son. And slowly those ties that I had held on to for so long just dwindled away, and it was liberating. I like the concept of Mindfully Disconnecting for the relations we can’t sever (ie my mother in law!) although I do wonder whether the intentions are malicious or simply because the person is unaware as you say.
    I am reading Mindful Disconnection series now…great stuff! Although I realize I am reading it in reverse chronological order :).

    • I hope it makes sense reading it backwards!
      I agree it’s difficult to know sometimes if people are being intentionally malicious, unaware or intrusive (when they mean to be helpful). MD is a great way to keep ourselves safe and maintain those relationships we have to/want to maintain. 🙂

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