When I was training to be a therapist, we did a lot of role-playing, enacting out different roles that were typical in a family drama. Generally, it was easy to play these roles, because we are all familiar with them, and we often ended in uncomfortable laughter partly because our acting was terrible, but more so because our reactions were so predictable that it was funny. It’s one of those sad, but funny (tragicomedy?) experiences, similar to how one might feel reading the comments on social media.
Role-playing isn’t so necessary anymore because we can witness these dramas playing out online, in real-time, anytime. It’s all there. Start paying attention; witnessing these conflicts can teach you a lot about yourself, and give you the awareness to step out of drama when you find yourself in the middle of it.
Sometimes the roles that are being played in front of us are so shockingly obvious that no role-playing exercise could even come close to capturing them. If you can wade through the social media swamp without getting hooked by drama, you will find that what goes down in that space can be a useful tool to increase your own self-awareness.
Start with an Easy One: The Drama Triangle.
Conceived by Stephen Karpman MD, some 50 years ago, the Drama Triangle highlights the roles that often get played by people in conflict, and it is evident everywhere! I’m betting the 3 roles conceptualized by the model will sound very familiar to you:
1) The Victim Not always an actual victim, but someone who feels or acts like a victim. This player feels helpless, hopeless, powerless, oppressed, and unable to take action.
2) The Persecutor This is the role of the person who places blame. They can be controlling, critical, superior, rigid, and self-righteous.
3) The Rescuer This player is an enabler. They help the victim to play his role, and they focus their energy on others’ problems instead of their own.
The Drama Triangle is formed when 2 or 3 people come together in a conflict and take a seat in the triangle. Usually, the choice of role is subconscious, and often we have a pattern of choosing the same role over and over. The triangle endures because each participant is getting some type of psychological need met by being in that role, and often they feel justified in playing that part, unaware of the futility of it.
It Gets More Complicated
It is rare to always play one role. Often inside one situation, the players shift roles repeatedly. It can be hard to see this in real life, but it is obvious on social media!
Person A makes a comment that offends Person B. B expresses their offended feelings, placing themselves in the role of the victim. Person A states that they never meant to be offensive and they feel misunderstood. Now A feels like a victim of B, who in their eyes is the Persecutor because they placed blame. Then in comes person C, who tries to mediate and explain to A why B was rightly hurt. C is now the Rescuer. B backs C up and makes statements that call attention to the harms that their group regularly endures from offensive comments. B is now the victim and the rescuer and persecutor all at once.
Those who witness the drama might have their own rescuer, victim or persecutor parts ignited, which causes them to jump in and play that role. On and on and the triangles grow, each one turning and shifting and throwing their participants back and forth.
No One Comes out a Winner
This is not to say that no one should express offense, but when you express it from the stance of the victim, you willingly enter the triangle and your chances of being heard are slim. None of the participants in this drama are getting what they really need. They are taking turns feeling superior or inferior, driving the conflict forward to a point where there is no resolving it.
Usually, everyone in the triangle takes a turn feeling like the victim, which makes their actions feel justified, and keeps the cycle rolling. You’ve seen it online, no doubt. Now think about who in your life plays these roles. How about you?
What is beyond funny-sad, and is just straight-up sad, is that many of us live our lives in one of these roles most of the time and then we wonder why we can’t resolve any conflicts. I bet you can think of someone who is often the “poor me” victim and feels like they have little control over what happens to them. I’m guessing you also know a “rescuer” who puts everyone else’s needs above theirs and has co-dependent relationships. Maybe your boss or parent is the “persecutor” often criticizing others and going through their days with a superior and self-righteous attitude. So what to do about it?
Opt-out of the Triangle
Once you are aware of these roles, it becomes easier to catch yourself playing them. Online conversations are a great place to stop yourself from jumping on the drama train because you have time to think before responding. When you read something and feel compelled to reply, think first about the place you are responding from. Can you relate to one of the roles? If so, you might not want to get involved because it’s likely you will end up in a triangle where no one comes out a winner.
Now that you have a new awareness of the roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer, you need to take new action to change old habits. These habitual roles are sometimes really hard to break. They are comfortable, and we’ve gotten good at playing them. They usually fill some kind of need, or protect us from something we want to avoid feeling or changing.
If you are often the “Victim” you might need to get help with problem-solving so that you can begin to feel more empowered and gain a sense of control over your life.
If you are often the “Persecutor” you might need to work on setting healthier boundaries and becoming compassionate.
If you are often the “Rescuer” you might need to work on learning to say no and discovering your own feelings of worthiness.
If You find yourself in the Triangle…
You can start to make your way out of the triangle by refusing to put yourself in an inferior or superior position. All 3 roles need another person to take the opposite stance in order for the drama to occur. Rejecting stance-taking requires that you try to view the perspectives of the others involved, see them as equals, and have compassion and empathy for their situation and what might have brought them to the drama triangle. All of this is easier to do once we understand that we ALL play these roles. When you feel superior, it’s likely that someone else has placed you in the inferior position or vice versa, and you don’t have to stay there.
The dramatics of this model will continue to play out as long as someone is putting themselves in the role of the victim. This is not to say that no one is ever a victim, surely people are victimized. But particularly in online spaces, people are willingly jumping into the role of victim for many reasons. Maybe they crave a drama fix, or they are so comfortable playing that role that they don’t know how to communicate otherwise. Playing that role can help a person to justify the feelings of powerlessness that they already have, which just perpetuates those feelings.
Start looking at Twitter comments and see who is “right,” who is “blameless,” and who is “good.” You’ve played all those roles, too. We are all none of those, and all of those, at any given moment.