The Karpman drama triangle is one of those mental models that is so intuitive and yet so useful to understand you’ll immediately start seeing it everywhere.
In any conflict, there are three roles to be filled, with each role also playing a part in creating the others (a subtle but critical point). I’ll list the roles first and then we’ll look at how to use the model:
Victim: the person who something is happening to. Their role is created by demonstrating their inferiority in the situation by being persecuted and rescued.
Persecutor: the person who is going after the victim. Their role is created by demonstrating their superiority in the situation by dominating the victim.
Rescuer: the person who is intervening to save the victim. Their role is created by demonstrating their superiority over the victim by protecting the victim from the persecutor.
Let’s say Sue is complaining about John to her boss Meg. Sue’s act of playing the victim might trigger Meg into rescuer mode. This puts John in the persecutor position.
Conversely, if Meg doesn’t believe Sue’s argument, she could flip to persecutor and push John into the victim role. Now the role for rescuer is open for Sue to step into (and yes, she can try to rescue herself by forcing John back into the persecutor role), OR Meg might whine “why do you always come to me this suuuuuucks” claiming the victim role for herself.
We’re always looking for the push and pull of superiority and inferiority between the relationships. It’s a form of the status seesaw too.
The point of the Karpman drama triangle as a mental model is to show us how relational roles exist in conflict. Once these roles are established, behavioral patterns emerge. At times, when roles are re-established (it happens!), behavioral patterns shift.
Using the same example, if you’re Meg and in a leadership role, you’ll likely want to get Sue out of the victim mindset and break the triangle before handling the actual problem. Superiority and inferiority are just roles, but self-awareness and self-empowerment are key to escaping the patterns of drama and actually resolving the conflict.
Bonus: watch this classic scene from Pulp Fiction with the Karpman drama triangle in mind. Send me a message and let me know how you interpret it: