VICTIM. RESCUER. PERSECUTOR. That about covers it sometimes, right? Ever feel like you are in some weird play where there are always the same three characters? One person is getting screwed, one person is the hero trying to rescue that person and one person is the villain who is always seen as the bad guy. Which one do you most often get cast as? And how can you get out of that dynamic?
That dynamic is called Karpman's (Drama) Triangle. I would love to say that I invented this dandy little concept. But it's actually been around for a long time. Since 1968 actually. It was invented by Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis, and was called Karpman's Triangle or the "drama triangle". As anyone who has ever been in this dynamic can attest, it is definitely drama-producing! None of the roles are actually healthy and the goal if you find yourself in this situation is to move as much to the middle as possible, not aligning yourself with any of the positions.
Despite what they might say about how they feel in the moment, be aware that the Victim role is not actually a person who is being harmed, it's a person who is emotionally invested in looking like they are being harmed. It is also a person who does not want to have to take responsibility for helping themselves out at all. They want everyone else to come and rescue them. They often complain to others that they are being abused, oppressed or victimized and that they cannot do anything about it. They are likely to block any suggestions that they can change their circumstances by saying things like "that won't work" or "I can't do that because _______". In reality they are invested in not acting as agents of change for themselves. These roles are usually learned in childhood by having them modeled by a parent, so if your mom played the victim role, you may find yourself repeating that pattern. Interestingly people who tend towards the Victim role will seek out Perpetrators if they don't have one in their life currently. Unconsciously they don't feel comfortable not being in that position so they have to create it. Sometimes what is at the bottom of this is a history of having been rewarded for being helpless and small and dependent as a child. This creates a conflict where they feel that in order to get their needs met they cannot actually do things for themselves or "grow up" and act as mature adults. They have to find ways to get a Rescuer to save them from a Perpetrator because they were trained never to "rescue" (or take care of) themselves. Remember that all of this is happening unconsciously so no one is actually "asking" to be victimized while being aware that is what is going on. The Victim thinks that they are just in a bad spot and can't seem to find a way out until they find the magic Rescuer who rushes in to save the day. I am not in any way saying that we cannot be compassionate about someone whose life is not going the way they want it. I am also not saying that whatever is done to someone in the victim role is acceptable. I am not victim-blaming. I am, however, saying that everyone has some power to make some changes in their lives and that victims often have a hard time seeing this.
Rescuers are compulsive helpers. This is the classic Martyr role. Rescuers are so inclined to rescue that if they see a person in need and don't rush to their aid they feel terrible. They feel compelled to help others and don't see that this can deprive the Victim of learning to do for themselves. It also allows the Rescuer to focus on other people, which tends to be much more comfortable for them. They derive a lot of status and satisfaction from taking care of others and they don't have to face any of their own issues. Al-anon was originally developed for Rescuers and one of their mottos is "keep the focus on yourself (not the Victim!)". However just like the Victim, Rescuers are usually totally unaware that their role serves to keep them from dealing with their issues since it is entirely unconscious. They just tend to think of themselves as "good" people in a world where a lot of folks need a lot of help! They were often raised in families with a Victim and they learned early on to care for the Victim, which made them feel better about the situation of the family.
The Persecutor tends to come from families in which one or both parents were bullies. They have seen this behavior modeled and follow along, blaming others, trying to control them, being critical, rigid, angry and often acting (or at least feeling) superior. The Persecutor thinks of themselves as "realistic" and "hard-nosed" but typically not malicious. They feel that the Victim and the Rescuer are naive and don't realize that it's a cold world out there and people are going to take what they can. It's kill or be killed and they plan to be on top. They view Victims as people from whom things can be extracted-- work, love, sex, money, status-- but not in a mutual way that cares for both people. When they have gotten what they need from others they may discard them. This can come in the guise of "realizing it just wasn't working out" because they have detected a "fatal flaw"in the person. As parents they tend to want to "toughen-up" their kids and may make kids feel like no matter what they do it's not good enough. Or they may blow up and rage at the kid(s) and then blame the kid(s) for causing them to get angry. They may have unreasonable rules that must be followed and refuse to allow kids (or partners) to negotiate on their own behalf.
While we often learn one of these roles more deeply than the others in our families of origin we can also switch roles at any given time. A Victim may see an opportunity to retaliate against someone who has been a Perpetrator and take it, often in a passive-aggressive way that is not easy to detect. In this way they temporarily enjoy being a Perpetrator while maintaining the image of the Victim. A Rescuer may get tired of taking care of others and experiment once in a while with throwing up their hands and acting like a Victim. A Perpetrator may find that by occasionally acting like a Victim they can avoid taking responsibility for bullying others. However if we do this "drama triangle" regularly we do tend to gravitate towards one position based on our early experiences.
Again the goal of emotional health is to not enter into any of these roles. Each of us has the capacity to be passive and dependent and wish that some fairy God mother/father would come along and take care of everything for us. And each of us has the fantasy of being the knight in shining armor riding in to save someone. And yes, even if we often don't like to admit it, we can also all be the kill-or-be-killed person who steps on others to get ahead and gets a thrill out of winning, even at any cost.
If you suspect that you came from a dysfunctional family you may want to spend some time honestly asking yourself whether or not your parents show up in this triangle. If they do then you can ask yourself do YOU show up? And where? And what work do you need to do in order to move more to the middle? Victims need to learn to do for themselves and to feel pride and competence by growing up and owning their own power rather than wanting others to fix things. Rescuers need to ask themselves how they are avoiding their own pain, anxiety, sadness, grief, etc. by focusing on others all the time. And Perpetrators need to learn to be vulnerable and realize and express their own desires to be dependent sometimes rather than to only feel safe when they are lording themselves over others.
Therapy can be a great way to learn about the Karpman triangle and other dysfunctional dynamics. It is also one of the best ways to change those dynamics. You don't have to stay stuck in the Drama Triangle forever.
Wishing you health, happiness and balance in all of your roles in life,
For anyone who has wondered how Dr. Tatkin came to develop his theories this is an old interview on Shrinkrap Radio from 2008 in which he talks at some length about his early training experiences. As always Dr. Tatkin is clear, coherent and incredibly articulate. He explains his circuitous route to becoming a relationship expert, starting as a professional musician (drummer!) and weaving through inpatient psychiatric hospitals with John Bradshaw where he learned Gestalt therapy and psychodrama, to working in addiction treatment, on to studying American Object Relations with Dr. James Masterson, to training in the Adult Attachment Interview with Drs. Mary Main and Erik Hesse and finally to studying infant brain development with Dr. Alan Schore. Once in private practice Dr. Tatkin realized a strong interest in working with some of the more severe personality disorders such as narcissism which lead to his epiphany that prevention was where he wanted to put his focus. This lead him into looking at infant attachment and eventually to adult attachment in romantic relationships. In working with couples we not only help the adult dyad we also increase the security of the system in which any children are reared. This pays forward in building more relational security in the children as well.
For anyone wanting a brief and very understandable explanation of the Avoidant attachment style he does so right around minute 40. And of course if you want to get the major download of all of Dr. Tatkin's wisdom I recommend Your Brain on Love, his audio program in which he explains to lay people how his theories explain why relationships go awry in the short and long term.
In this interview Dr. Tatkin also references a film about infant attachment called When the Bow Breaks which drew him in to the field of infant attachment and lead him to the work of Dr. Allan Schore. He also mentions several of Dr. Schore's books, including Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self if you want to get deeper into some of his "source" material. All in all it's a great 50-minute interview with someone who I feel is at the leading edge of relationship science.
Wishing you the best in your relationships and connections,
PS If you have enjoyed this blog/link to Dr.Tatkin's interview please consider "liking" it on fb and/or tweeting this post. That helps other people find my blog and connect to these topics. Thanks!
What do we require of our mothers? Certainly not perfection. All mothers would fail at that. Dr. Donald Winnicott, a well-known psychoanalyst from decades past, used to say what we need from mothers is for them to be "good enough". What does "good enough" mean? Attachment researchers look for 3 qualities in "good enough" mothers: sensitivity -- being able to notice that an infant is distressed, responding quickly to the infant's signs of distress, and responding well enough that most of the time the infants get relief.
Keeping that in mind we could hardly find a worse type of mother than someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5the Edition (used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental illnesses) defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal
may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in
order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to
reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little
genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
1. Antagonism, characterized by:
a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is
better than others; condescending toward others.
b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
**Please remember that this blog is not intended to diagnose anyone. If you have questions about diagnosis seek the counsel of a licensed mental health professional**
Now, given those criteria, you may be saying to yourself "wow, a lot of that sounds familiar!". Mothers who are highly narcissistic tend to see their children not as independent little people but rather as extensions of themselves. For this reason they are often very preoccupied with how the child looks, dresses, is seen by others, etc. Narcissistic mothers get upset if they feel that their child is in any way "reflecting badly" upon them, precisely because they do not differentiate between themselves and their children. They often use the talents, successes or qualities of their children for self-aggrandizement. Or sometimes the inverse-- they refuse to share the spotlight with their own child and will put them down or undermine them to ensure that they are the only "star" in the family.
Narcissists, underneath all of their inflation and grandiosity, are terribly insecure. If they ever feel devalued, belittled or exposed they may fly into a narcissistic rage, attacking anyone and everyone who does not support the version of themselves that the narcissist wants everyone to see.
Narcissistic mothers are incapable of helping children cultivate their authentic selves. If your authentic self loves playing in the mud your narcissistic mother may forbid you do do so but rather dress you in pretentious clothing and parade you around like a prize dog. If your authentic self wants to grow up and be a writer your narcissistic mother may chastise you and shame you into deciding you want to be a doctor or a lawyer (or whatever she thinks is appropriate). Children of narcissistic parents often have trouble finding their authentic selves even in adulthood because they learned long ago not to listen to what they really wanted or felt inside and rather learned to perform a role to keep their mother happy and engaged.
Narcissistic mothers may shun the less glamorous and more private aspects of parenting like bathing, cuddling, feeding or simply spending time with their children. They may use nannies, babysitters or other types of childcare so that they do not have to "waste their time" with these daily acts of devotion and nurturance. On the other hand the narcissistic mother may take extensive interest in things like dance classes, music lessons, athletic competitions or academic endeavors as they bring her a sense of self-aggrandizement by identification with the child's successes.
The important thing to know if you grew up with a narcissistic mother is that you CAN heal from this. Therapists are excellent at providing the type of attunement and nurturing that was missed by having this type of mother.
You may find this list of qualities of narcissistic mothers helpful:
21 signs of a narcissistic mother taken from Alexander Burgermeester's website
References for more information about Narcissism:
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.