Evolving Through The Karpman Drama Triangle
An Audio Podcast reading of the original version of this blog is also available on Youtube (click here) (This article was first published in 2015 and has been re-posted here with some edits for clarity so varies slightly from the video version.)
This is a suggestion for an evolutionary approach to solve, or rather dissolve, the Karpman Drama Power Triangle dynamic of Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer.
The potential for a possible solution is seen by giving the KDT triangle itself two more levels. Levels that exist in a second and third dimension, making in total 3 levels. These levels are ‘Conditional States’ that would need to be reached by a natural evolution and not a forced one, they are: Shame, Empathy & Self-Esteem.The proposed evolution also requires recognising the influence of a fourth, external position, in the area outside the triangle.
The triangle, as we already know, in the first dimension has the positions of Victim, Persecutor and/or Rescuer. The fourth, external position, might be labelled Community, and would exert a negative or positive influence depending on the understanding & support capacity of the evolutionary process outlined here.
NOTE: It was pointed out, after initial publication, that the Karpman Drama Triangle is only really valid while the dynamic is live. It does not truly apply once it has ended, though this article deals with both scenarios. For some, this makes the approach discussed disconnected from the original concept of KDT.
Shame – The first conditional state
We propose here that Shame is the hidden, but fundamental motivation behind each and every triangle position from the outset.
(Examples of this theory can be found in Viktor Frankl’s – Man’s Search for Meaning, and James Gilligan’s essays on the root of violence. These provide, through documented extremes, insight into the proposal that shame is the initial conditional state of the KDT power dynamic, and also of abuse or violence in almost all cases, though this may not be obvious at first. And this is also true for all the positions on the triangle, and likely the same at any level of intensity.)
A response to their sense of Shame is what drives the Persecutor, the Victim and the Rescuer to maintain their position (albeit in a sympathetic role for the Rescuer rather than directly, and this response is also often based in personal agenda and emotional reaction.)
Therefore it is not just the obvious end-result of shame or indignation for the Victim that we need to consider, but actually is the Conditional State of all three positions and what drives them all in the first place. And so Shame could be considered the defining, initial Conditional State of any position on this triangle when in the first dimension.
Thus the healing journey for each position is inexorably linked in Shame. As such it is then surely possible to find grounds for Empathy between the positions, since they are all feeling shame?
Note that if the Rescuer is genuinely empathic, then this capacity for empathy may be the gateway to the next level, and this would then be supported, or hindered, by the influence of an educated, or uneducated, Community. (i.e the fourth position outside the triangle.)
Empathy – The second conditional state
If we can create conditions that allow this triangle to evolve naturally it will come to the next conditional state, that is one of genuine Empathy. We could call this the 2nd dimension in the 3D version of the Karpman Drama Triangle. (see the image further down)
Empathy is where the persecutor is validly seeking to understand the other positions points of view. The victim also validly seeks to understand the persecutors point of view, and the rescuer is recognising that their own agendas are running by being involved, as well as deepening their sense of empathy from the point of view of both the other two positions. There are conditions attached, such as every position must have achieved a real sense of empathy for each opposing position on the triangle, this would be essential for this stage to be fully realized. Not easy, obviously, but the point is that it is possible.
Positional names for the triangle points at this second level have been taken from the Empowerment Dynamic Triangle – Coach, Challenger & Creator. (Though this second level could just as easily use the Acey Choy proposed concept of The Winners Triangle which offers Assertive, Caring and Vulnerable to replace Persecutor, Rescuer and Victim respectively.)
The role of influence of the fourth position, The Community, again will be either hinder or help support the evolution, depending on its own level of education in understanding this evolutionary process and what is required to achieve it, and why.
In most instances the real challenge to achieve this 2nd Conditional State, will be in convincing each of the 4 positions involved as to why they would bother.
Restored Self-Esteem – The third conditional state
The third and final stage of the evolutionary process, through the 3D triangle, is Self-Esteem. One method that seems to have considered an approach similar to this is the Restorative Justice methodology
This would require action such as the persecutor making genuine, empathic offerings to amend the harm done to the victim, the victim’s acceptance and even forgiveness of the persecutor, the persecutor forgiving themselves, the community forgiving the persecutor, and the rescuer letting go of their need to be further involved in trying to influence the dynamic, or be affected by it.
This, on first read, would be considered a dubious potential end result. Humans invariably want justice, vengeance and recompense, and perpetrators are often willing to lie to get away with their crimes, but these are often what stands in the way of true healing to some degree. The point at this stage is to consider the possible solution, not assume it can or cannot happen.
When the stage of Restored Self-Esteem is reached, for each position on the triangle the puzzle becomes solved. The triangle would literally dissipate, dissolve and disappear because the power tension between the three positions (or four) would no longer have potential, or relevance, to be able to influence the other positions. This is the theory, the act of putting it into practice will of course be the challenge.
Diagram below showing the Evolved Karpman Drama Triangle with 3 dimensions, levels, or ‘Conditional States’. A fourth position is recognised as the ‘Community at Large’. It proposes a natural evolution through levels 1-3 ultimately leading towards a potential resolution.
Using a 3D template with ‘Conditional States’ representing the levels or dimensions, it is possible to suggest there is a natural evolution to escape the Karpman Drama Triangle and its dynamic. First through Shame, via Empathy, and then on to Self-Esteem.
This is an attempt to bring evolution and freedom, to an otherwise inescapable cycle. Recognising how each point on the triangle can evolve through this process in theory at least, and in doing so this would then allow the other two positions to also evolve/ Interestingly from looking at the dynamic in this way, it is possible that only together can they support one another to achieve individual freedom from the influencing dynamic. This adds another aspect to the dynamic, suggesting that each position needs the other in order to escape their own.
So, each position begins by functioning from a place of Shame, evolves first by engaging a sense of Empathy for all the other positions, and ends by developing Self-Esteem. This sense of Self Esteem, by nature of its self-driven empowerment, is what frees us from the inescapable cycle. By removing the meaning, and therefore the influence that the other positions have on us, we become free of our relative position, i.e. they no longer have relevance, or power, to influence us further with shame from that moment on. The triangle then literally dissolves.
A fourth position: Community
The importance of a fourth position and its power to influence the evolutionary process, needs to be acknowledged in the KDT.
This position includes everything outside the triangle, and we could label it in a number of ways. It could be labelled Community, Society, Family, Friends, Group Mindset, or even a Restorative Justice Courtroom. The importance of this position needs to be recognized because without understanding the overall impact of the Community at large (i.e. all the external influences effecting the triangle at any given moment.) then it will likely be influence the triangle adversely without our awareness, and as such be forcing at least one position to remain inert, and therefore collapse the evolutionary process. The fourth position, Community, is immensely powerful as it indirectly will like be what dictates the mindset of those inside the KDT.
There is then, an inherent reliance of the triangle upon the wisdom of the Community outside it, and for it to be able to offer reference, give support, provide nurturing, and even at times be there to prod the triangle to action. By nature of its external position, it has the power to aid the evolutionary process towards each positions ultimate potential, or work against it. Without this fourth positions support, it is likely each position will be unwilling or unable to evolve. The importance of this fourth position should not be under-estimated.
A question remains whether there is a way that one position can evolve, without the relevant evolution of each other position, and what impact that might have on the KDT if it could.
It is likely that each position needs the other two to evolve in order to truly escape returning to the KDT in an endless cycle. This then poses an interesting new dimension to the power that each position actually has in the evolutionary cycle of this process. e.g. a victim could easily remain belligerent in order to exert punishment on the persecutor, though immediately we see their positions would then switch places in that case and it might be up to the third position (or the fourth position, the external Community) to highlight that truth, possibly at an emotional risk, or cost to their status. i.e. further shame, be it individual or collective. A key issue around the KDT is that it is fluid and can switch in an instant, for instance through punishment, a perpetrator can quickly become the victim, and vice versa.
Punishment of the persecutor generally is intended to create shame in the persecutor, and may often also create shame in the victim too. So, it is very possible that punishment will actually stop the process of evolution for all in the KDT triangle. James Gilligan proposed ‘quarantine’ rather than imprisonment, as a way to look at negating the re-shaming that occurs to inmates and those being ‘punished by the law’. Vengeance, masked as Justice, will create shame & guilt and it may fester for some period of time before becoming manifesting in realisation as such. It is a consideration then, if punishment of the persecutor actually adversely affects the other positions and stops them evolving, is it worth the apparent sense of ‘he got his just rewards’, or ‘justice has seen to be served‘ that we assume it to be for the victim? Punishment is then false solution, and a dead end for the Victim too though it satisfies something else, often less healthy, in the Community at large and this needs to be considered.
Recognising and then understanding that shame has two forms, individual & collective, really is key to this power puzzle and the evolution of not just individuals and community, but the human race to some extent. History is built on the Karpman Drama Triangle and its dynamic, and it’s inescapable influence has been applied to people, groups, communities and countries. The KDT has been exercising itself in communities throughout the human species since time immemorial.
There is also a question of how to persuade each position to evolve when large emotional investment or deep damage has been made to the relevant position. A possible leverage might be to show how the only possible freedom from the tension & conflict created by the dynamic, is through these evolutionary levels in order to achieve that freedom. i.e. if you stay here you will hurt forever, if you evolve you may become free. Though really the biggest influence, will likely come from influencers within the fourth position, the Community.
If this education uses the ‘stick and the carrot ‘ approach, then there is risk it is felt as reward and punishment, and then the cycle starts again. Maybe something more along the lines of Aikido methods might be employed to invite this education and gentle navigate a person towards it, rather than to exert it upon them, and that would benefit from further consideration.
It would be common for the Persecutor to refuse to consider empathy of the Victim or to lie, and this is a huge area to consider further, and an obvious sticking point on the road to a successful process. This article aimed only to present a way to resolve the puzzle in theory, and not determine how to get there.
It should also be noted that any position refusing to evolve, actually immediately becomes the Persecutor in a new dynamic triangle whether they recognise it or not. It would take delicate wisdom to deliver a truth of that nature to say, a murder enquiry, where the victims may be deeply wounded and shamed against ever seeing reason or sense in forgiving the persecutor, and that might be understandable but the question remains, what would bring solution in the long term?
The difficulty for any emotional human being (or community) to achieve this evolution is obvious, especially in cases of extreme power dynamics such as violence, cyclic abuse, DV, enslavement, or murder, but the point here is to highlight a potential solution pathway with which to look deeper at ways it might be achieved.
The ‘The Language of I’ method discussed elsewhere on www.TheTempleSpace.com , lends itself well to developing empathy between willing parties involved in a dynamic of this nature.
Also for further reading any articles on BDSM and Sub/Dom dynamics may shed light on how to manage or understand aspects for the dynamics present between the various positions within and without the Karpman Drama Triangle.
Facilitator and founder at The Temple Space. As well as working on The Temple Space projects, Mark has authored books and composed music, some of which can be found on The Temple Space website, through the links below, or via www.mdkberry.com