Shifting from Violence to Empowerment, Part 2: The Drama Triangle and Why it Doesn’t Work

In the last post, I presented a new model for engaging with violence in the world from the inside out. This model is based on my understanding & application of the Karpman Drama Triangle.

In this post, I want to dive a little bit deeper into what this triangle is, why I see it as the most prevalent cultural meme on the planet today, and why, in my estimation, it only serves to perpetuate the crisis of violence facing our planet.

The Drama Triangle, pictured to the left, has three available roles: persecutor, rescuer, and victim. And it is my assertion that regardless of which role one chooses to step into, one is perpetuating violence.

I know this is an unorthodox claim. At first glance, it seems insane. How is a victim perpetuating violence? How can their rescuer be perpetuating violence? Isn’t the victim innocent, and, well…a victim of violence? And isn’t the rescuer noble? Aren’t they stopping violence?

These are excellent questions, and to really dive into them, we need to define exactly what it is we’re talking about. What is violence? What is power? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the distinction between the two?

Well, let’s start with the dictionary (courtesy of dictionary.com & google’s define feature), where we learn that “power” has myriad definitions, beginning with: “ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something.”

Ok. That seems fairly straightforward. What about “powerful”? The top definition here is “having or exerting great power or force.”

Let’s turn to the other side of things. “Violence” is defined as “swift and intense force” and “violent”, along with a whole host of other definitions, is said to be “very strong or powerful.”

The more definitions I read, the more blurred the distinction gets. How are violence and power related? If to be powerful is to exert force, and violence is swift and intense force, does power = violence? If to be violent is to be very strong or powerful, does violence = power? Or is it possible that we are simply very, very confused?

If we dig a little deeper into the etymology of these words, we find that power is a Middle English descendant of the Latin word “posse”, which means “be able”. Violence emerges from Violent, which is also a Middle English descendant from Latin. The Latin “violent” was understood to mean “vehement”, and when it reached Middle English it was defined as “having a marked or powerful effect.”

So, in terms of language, it is very difficult to tell the difference between power and violence. The more definitions I read, the more etymology I uncover, the more muddled the picture becomes. I believe that this is because we have a deep misunderstanding of what true power is, and that,in reaching for power, we inadvertently perpetuate violence.

 I’ve been working to formulate simple, easy-to-grok definitions for these two concepts as I’ve come to understand them. It’s not easy — they are complex ideas to work with. But what I have so far is this:

“Power” is the experience of life flowing through us, as us, and is governed by love.

“Violence” is the experience of resisting or damming up that flow, and is governed by fear.

Read it again. Take it in for a moment. Take a breath.

I’m going to write more about where I got those definitions in a future post, and unpack what I mean by them and how understanding them can bring big changes to our lives, but for now, I just want you to have them in the back of your mind as we return to the Karpman Drama Triangle.

Persecutor. Victim. Rescuer. Three separate roles in the cycle of violence, each one motivated by fear, and each one either avoiding or clinging to that fear, and so perpetuating violence. There are myriad options and variations that can play out within this cycle, all different combinations of resistance and clinging, but for the sake of clarity for now I’ll illuminate only the most common variation of how this triangle plays out.

The persecutor, not willing to feel the fear, pushes it toward the victim. Often this takes the form of aggression or injurious behavior, but it can also be much more subtle. In order to not be afraid, the persecutor makes up a story where they have power over others. Persecuting in this form says “I don’t want to feel this way. You feel it instead.”

Then, the victim, clinging to the fear, seeks out companionship in the form of a rescuer. Victiming in this form says, “I’m frightened, and this fear makes up part of my identity. In fact, this fear is the only thing that makes sense, and you should feel it, too.”

Finally the rescuer, not wanting to feel the fear, pushes it toward the persecutor. Rescuing in this form says, “I don’t want to feel this way, and it’s your fault. So here’s the fear that originated with you, and I’m going to add my own fear to it, and throw it back at you.” Or, to phrase it another way, “I don’t want to feel this way. You feel it instead.”

Wait — what just happened there? Somehow the rescuer ended up saying the same thing as the persecutor!

This is exactly what plays out in this cycle — no matter which of the many variations of clinging and resisting are at play, the violence only grows. See, as soon as the rescuer steps into the persecuting sentence, the original persecutor feels victimized. And the response is either to continue to persecute the original victim (often more vehemently), or to step into victiming themselves, or to turn on the rescuer, who then feels victimized… and it continues on, and on, and on.

At each step, the fear increases. Because no one is willing to feel it.

Wait a minute, you might ask… isn’t the victim clinging to fear? How can you say they aren’t feeling it? And that’s an excellent question, and a tricky one to answer. The short version is that no, clinging to fear and feeling fear are not the same thing at all. Clinging to fear says “It’s a scary world, and I am not safe in it.” Feeling fear says “I am afraid.” It’s subtle, but it’s there — the first sentence, the clinging sentence, is a distancing of oneself from the actual emotion. It’s projection. It’s blame. It’s story.

See, it all comes down to what the fear is about. As long as the victim is saying “It’s a scary world, therefore I am afraid,” the victim is separating themselves from that which they fear. “It’s in the world, it’s not in me”. The rescuer is playing a similar game — “The persecutor started all of this, the victim is right to be afraid, therefore I will rescue”. Again, the thing to be feared is the “other”; the “not-me”.

Here’s the thing: nobody sees themselves as the persecutor. Everyone sees themselves as either victim or rescuer. Everyone projects “that-which-is-to-be-feared” outside of the self. And everyone is actually afraid of something within.

So what is it inside each of us that has us so afraid that we can’t even admit it to ourselves, let alone feel it?

Believe it or not, we’re actually all terrified of the same thing:

Our Own Power.

More on that next week; in the meantime, your comments and questions keep me thinking and inspired as I work to explore this tricky topic; please keep ’em coming!

(cross-posted on Medium.com)

Leave a Reply