The Drama Triangle – How we play psychological games


The drama triangle helps us to conceptualise how we play psychological games with each other.

The game roles are:

• Persecutor
• Rescuer
• Victim

We play games in order to protect ourselves. Taking any one of the three roles means that we are being defensive. Sometimes this is the most helpful course of action, sometimes it isn’t. Typically, games result in people feeling ‘bad’, ‘guilty’, ‘sad’ or ‘blaming’. They often result in lowered self-esteem and they can cause anxiety, depression and other problems.

If you are being honest (intimate) instead of playing a game, you would be:

Assertive instead of a Persecutor
Compassionate instead of a Rescuer
Vulnerable instead of a Victim

People play games because games:
• provide excitement
• provide a way of structuring time
• provide a way of interacting with other people
• promote our belief system (they help us to prove ourselves right e.g. “I am unlikeable”)
• provide predictability and this familiarity can feel safe (even if it is not pleasant)
• are less intimate and therefore less high risk than intimacy

While people are on the drama triangle:
• Honest communication is blocked
• Problems are not solved, they escalate
• Needs are not met directly
• Present time experiences are mixed with old experiences and decisions

A person who stays in any of the positions will:
• Stop themselves from making decisions
• Won’t solve problems
• Won’t feel pleasure
• Will stop themselves from becoming self-aware
• Will end up with lowered self-esteem


The Drama Triangle Victim differs from the real-life victim because the real-life victim lacks choices, the Drama Triangle Victim refuses to recognise and act on their choices.

Psychological Slogan: “Poor Me”

Act as if: I am not OK, you are OK

Feels and acts: Helpless, victimized, oppressed, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, put down, worthless, inadequate

They feel good to be around to start with: they’re compliant; you feel you can help them.
They don’t appear powerful, but get power through manipulating – by trying to get the other person to feel like they owe them something.

There are 2 types of Victim: the “Moaning Type” (who moan about their situation without making changes) and the “Stoic Type” (they don’t moan to other people but they put themselves in unpleasant / dangerous situations).

Victims often:
• Do less than 50%
• Won’t respond
• Won’t reach out
• Won’t take a stand
• Look like they’re doing what the other person wants
• Use guilt to emotionally black-mail other people
• Make other people out to be the ‘bad guy’
• Seem over-sensitive/fragile and want people to tip-toe around them
• Act as if they are owed something by the world
• Quit on you
• Are late
• Have a dejected stance
• Choose to stay stuck rather than solve problems
• Look for a rescuer who will try to help (and usually fail)
• Expect to fail
• Are whiney

Underlying or covert messages:
• “I can’t”
• “What am I going to do now?”
• “How do I do that”
• “It’s all my fault”.
• “Poor Me.”
• “This always happens to me”
• “No one understands my pain”



The Drama Triangle Persecutor is concerned with making the other person “feel bad” rather than solving the problem.

Psychological Slogan: “It’s all your fault”

Act as if: I am OK, You are Not OK

Feels and acts: Persecutors are mobilized by fear masked as anger. They feel powerful and superior while intimidating others, but this is a defence against their deeper feelings of inadequacy.

Persecutors often:
• Set strict limits unnecessarily
• Have a rigid authoritative stance
• Blame other people
• Put others down
• Are sarcastic
• Moan
• Are bossy
• Ridicule
• Laughs at others
• Criticise
• Find fault
• Are unpleasant
• Control
• Attain leadership by threats, orders, and rigidity
• Can be loud or quiet in style
• Bully
• Try to shame other people
• May be violent



The Drama Triangle Rescuer differs from real-life helpers because the real-life helper contributes to the solution of the problem – the Drama Triangle Rescuer contributes to the perpetuation of the Victim’s position. Their actions are not ‘kind’ – they are manipulative: the rescuer is meeting their own need to feel better than the person they are supposedly trying to help.

Psychological Slogan: “Let me help you”

Act as if: I am OK, you are not OK

Feels: that they are always working hard to help other people. Rescuers often feel harried and tired. They often have physical complaints. They are angry underneath. Rescuers are often lonely. They typically feel like they do not have a life of their own.

• Act like martyrs
• Use guilt, shame and blame
• May be subtle or obvious
• Rescue when they do and when they don’t want to
• Feel guilty if they don’t rescue
• Invite the victim to stay dependent
• Give permission to fail
• Expect to fail in their rescue attempts
• Help too much and/or for too long
• Help in the wrong way
• Help when not invited to assist
• Does things the victim has not asked for, does not need, or can do for themselves
• Controls
• Thinks for the victim
• Enables and marshmallows others supposedly to protect them from failing, but really it prevents them from growing
• Has difficulty saying ‘no’
• “Helps” others to the detriment of their own emotional and physical health
• Feels overtly responsible

Underlying messages:
• “Let me help you”
• “Do it my way”.



On the winner’s triangle, people are being intimate rather than playing a game when trying to solve a problem. They are aware of the various ways of reacting that are open to them and use the one that is most appropriate and likely to solve the problem. The three ways of reacting to a problem can be described as being:


This is when someone acts in their own interest.

Characteristics of Assertive People:
• They ask for what they want
• They say no to what they don’t want
• They give feedback
• They initiate negotiation
• They make changes in order to get their needs met
• They do not punish other people

• Assertiveness skills


This is when someone feels genuine concern for the vulnerable person and acts from a place of compassion.

Characteristics of Caring People:
• They do not take over unless asked to (and they want to)
• They do not do more than their share
• They do not do things they do not want to do
• They recognise that they are helping because they choose to – not because they have to

• Listening skills
• Self-awareness


Vulnerable people are people who are suffering or potentially suffering and want to solve the problem completely or to the greatest degree possible

Characteristics of Vulnerable People:
• They use their adult ego state for thinking and problem solving
• Awareness – they use their feelings as data for problem solving
• They ask for the help they need, without using guilt or blame

• Problem solving
• Self-awareness


In a tutorial, Michael gets asked a question by his tutor. He doesn’t know the answer. Instead of saying this, he starts fidgeting uncomfortably. His classmate, Claire, then answers for him. The teacher then feels understandably irritated with Michael.

In this example, Michael is in the Victim position because he is not solving the problem. Claire is in the rescuer role – she gives Michael an escape hatch, that means he does not have to take responsibility for himself by saying he doesn’t know the answer. A block has now been created between the teacher and Michael, that Michael initiated, and Claire facilitated.

If Claire and Michael were to be intimate rather than playing a game, Claire would not intervene in this example, she would let the teacher and Michael work it out between them. Michael would have told the tutor that he did not know the answer.



Based on the work of Steven Karpman and Acey Choy.