The Drama Triangle
Transactional Analysis (TA) offers a useful concept for helping us recognize how we deceive ourselves (and how we can become more honest). The Drama Triangle (Figure 1) has three corners: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. Developed by Dr. Stephen Karpman, the triangle is also described in the Wellness Workbook.
Burnout is a manifestation of the Victim position. Since Rescuers always become Victims, and most helping professionals have strong Rescuing scripts, our approach is to uncover Rescuing tendencies. Though detecting Rescuing behaviors in yourself is more difficult, self-awareness of these patterns is the key to preventing getting to the burned-out (Victim) position.
Psychological games, as Eric Berne described in Games People Play, involve one person starting communications from one position on the triangle, with another person taking a different corner. Eventually there is a shift in which at least two players switch to a different position, or role. These switches make the drama interesting and provide the players with something to occupy their time. "Poor Me," "See What You Made Me Do," "Kick Me," "I Was Only Trying To Help You," or "Harried" are typical games played by helping professionals.
Television soap operas provide blatant examples of these dynamics. In all cases, games are covert ways of getting attention, albeit negative attention. Because we've made a computation that we cannot ask for the kind of attention we really need and want, we will settle for negative strokes rather than none at all. On the social level, games appear to be acceptable, but underneath, at the psychological level, an undercurrent of deception is always present.
All of us can play the Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer roles with great skill, though we may do it so subtly that neither we nor our partners recognize that the game is in motion. As we become more conscious of these three roles, we can see how deeply and subtly they pervade our life. They begin even before we are a year old, with attempts to control or manipulate mother (or her substitute).