Helping leaders emerge

The Drama Triangle is a normal human dynamic where we triangulate among three different mindsets or roles: the victim, persecutor, or rescuer. These roles are a fear–based effort to meet our needs, regain a sense of control and avoid feelings of uncertainty, vulnerability, and powerlessness. While we may have a preferred role that we play or evoke from others, we can also shift among the three different mind states.

The Drama Triangle is a useful model for understanding, taking ownership of, and reducing negative drama in our lives because it helps us become aware of what role we (and others) may be stuck in and how to extricate ourselves.

The model, based on teachings of Fleet Maull, PhD (and his book Radical Responsibility) and Vita Pires-Crisp, E.D. from Engaged Mindfulness Institute and Stephen Karpman’s drama model, reflects normal adult human behavior and are not relevant for children or someone who is truly victimized.

The Three Mindsets: Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer


  • A role where the person is unhappy with the way their life is going and believes the cause of their unhappiness lives somewhere outside of themselves – another person or situation.
  • For example, I will be happy or unhappy until that external circumstances (the person or situation that I have no control over) changes.
  • This is a mindset of limitations, feeling powerless and helpless, one of problems and can be used to control or manipulate others.
  • Context: “poor me”
  • Actions: complaining, blaming, attention seeking, tantrum throwing, manipulating
  • Orientation: problems, complaints
  • Mode: reactive, blaming
  • Feelings: helpless, powerless, anxious, afraid, hurt, hopeless, depressed


  • Like the victim, the persecutor attributes the causation of what they are feeling to an external circumstance.
  • This role is triggered by a fear–based strategy where the person feels out of control and powerless so they put themselves in charge to gain some control.
  • Context: “I’m right”
  • Actions: criticizing, judging, blaming, controlling, dominating, attacking, abusing
  • Orientation: problems, complaints
  • Mode: reactive, attacking
  • Feelings: anxious, fearful, angry, superior, righteous, defensive
  • Underlying position: victim


  • A role where the person is playing the expert, hero, and fixer, going around saving people from themselves. The rescuer needs a victim.
  • This is not a genuine role of helping but rather the person moves into the rescuer role to meet one’s own ego needs in order to feel needed or powerful.
  • Can treat the others as childlike and unable to take care of themselves.
  • Context: “I know”
  • Actions: rescuing, saving, fixing, enabling, colluding, disempowering
  • Orientation: problems and fixes, savior–martyr
  • Mode: reactive, fixing
  • Feelings: smug, superior, self–righteous, heroic, unappreciated, overwhelmed
  • Underlying position: victim

How do I get out of or off the drama triangle?

  • Step One: Recognize that you are in a drama triangle. Recognize the physiological signs of drama activation, become mindful of your emotional reactions and triggers, and identify what role you could become or are already caught in. For the victim role, warning signs include upset emotions (hurt, anxiety, anger, etc.), physical sensations (shallow breathing, constricted chest, sweaty palms, tension in the neck and shoulders), and thoughts (captivating stories of powerlessness, injustice, etc.). For persecutor and rescuer roles, signs of drama activation may manifest in language, tone of voice, posture, and actions towards others.
  • Step Two: Don’t Act When Triggered. Your primary job is to self-regulate and not make the situation any worse. Make a commitment to yourself to not act when triggered. There’s a saying, “The blood has left your brain, now is not a good time to make a decision!”
  • Step Three: Take Space and Shift Your State. The next step is to state shift and engage in a self–management strategy to consciously release yourself from the trigger (fight or flight response) so that you can gain access to the rational decision–making capacity of your brain’s executive function. Self-management strategies include taking deep breaths to the count of ten, straw breathing, meditation, taking a walk, listening to soothing music, going for a walk or run, doing yoga or other movement exercise, speaking with a friend, getting out in nature, or journaling.
  • Step Four: Own Your Feelings. This means getting in touch with your own emotional state and rather than using blaming, projective language, choose “empowering, reflective I” statements, like, “I’m angry, hurt, or sad” (versus “You’re always doing this to me.”)
  • Step Five: Identify Your Needs and Communicate Them Clearly (When Appropriate). Take some time to reflect on what underlying needs you perceive aren’t being met and if it’s appropriate, communicate them to the other person as information or as a request, but not a demand. Some examples of needs include love, respect, trusting relationship, autonomy, self–worth, creative expression, security, sense of purpose, and a connection to something larger than self.
  • Step Six: Make A Boundary When Necessary. By establishing proper boundaries, we reduce chaos and suffering for ourselves and others. Boundaries about knowing when to say yes and when to say no, both to ourselves and others. Boundaries generate a type of presence and protective energy. When you have clear boundaries, people sense it, and anyone looking to create drama will typically steer clear of you and go elsewhere.