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Personality Disorder and The Drama Triangle

Are you facing conflict in a relationship with a friend or spouse with little resolution? You might be caught up in the Karpman Triangle, also known as a drama triangle.

The Karpman Drama Triangle is a model of social human interaction that maps out destructive patterns of social interactions. In the triangle, there are three recurring and destructive roles: the Persecutor, Rescuer, and Victim. It is common for people with personality disorders to show signs of the Drama Triangle.

The Karpman Drama Triangle helps us understand personality disorders and how to deal with drama.

First, to understand personality disorder, let us first understand a normal functioning personality. A normal personality is flexible, adaptive, and capable of handling unexpected turns when faced with something challenging. A normal personality is capable of problem-solving.

A normal personality is capable of problem-solving because of multiple traits. We will call these traits tool kits with various tools that enable you to handle diverse life demands.

With a personality disorder, however, you have a limited set of functioning traits. You fail in ways to be flexible. You only have one way to be, one way to do, and one tool to do everything. A hammer may be suitable for hammering nails but not for fixing a car engine. People with a personality disorder lack a functioning observing ego, meaning they lack self-awareness, resulting in failure to self-correct. This is how we get to the creation of a DRAMA by definition. (unproductive escalations) instead of problem-solving.

People with personality disorders also lack empathy. That is because to empathize, you must be able to resonate with others. But with only one way to be and one trait, you have no experiential qualities or traits that will help you resonate with others.

Specific criteria has to be met for personality disorders, and some assessments help determine the likelihood of these disorders. Diagnosis, however, requires structured interviews and therapy by someone who is a mental health professional experienced in diagnosing and treating mental health problems.

The Drama Triangle helps me understand if I am dealing with a personality disorder. Think of an inverted triangle with three points, each with a label, rescuer, persecutor, and victim. None of these are real because they are part of the drama. Someone living a drama as a victim is not a real victim. It is a label those with personality disorders have taken on for themselves and others.

Since people with personality disorders only have one way to be, they live out their drama in predictable ways.

Narcissist lives out a demeaning drama.

The validated label for the narcissist is that of a persecutor, “I’m everything, and you’re nothing.”

The drama entry point for a Narcissist is the Rescuer: “Don’t you think well of me?"

The Drama Switch: Rescuer to Persecutor “Too bad you are inferior to me.”

The way this drama gets lived out is that a person sees themself as all important, and they demean and devalue others to protect their ego state. When their ego is damaged, they "become" a victim and switch to a persecutor.

As a therapist, I am also looking out for core traits. What sticks out as most apparent? What is least pronounced? For the narcissist, their Exclusive Trait is Grandiosity: The most deficient trait is Equality.

Fundamental Pattern: Violations

View of Themselves: Superior

View of Others: Suckers

View of the World: Dog-Eat-Dog

Deals with the World by: Opportunism

Typically Comes Across as: Callous

Bottom Line: People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder feel superior to others, think they're better than everyone else, are entitled to special treatment, and are enraged when they don't feel appreciated.

Borderline Personality Disorder, the Drama type is Chaotic.

Core Characteristics Exclusive Trait: Instability

Most Important Deficiency: Proportionality.

The exclusive trait of BPD is instability. The most important deficiency is proportionality.

The identity validation is the Righteous Victim, "There have been awful things done to me by bad people."

The drama entry point is usually a victim or rescuer. "I've been done so badly." or "You were done so poorly."

The Drama Switch: Victim to Persecutor: "Ill upset you for harming me."

Or the Drama Switch: Rescuer to Persecutor; "Ill upset you for hurting them."

The way the drama gets lived out, "feelings of victimization of self and others, to self-righteous retribution."

Fundamental Pattern: Love, then Hate, then Love, then Hate.

View of Themselves: Vulnerable

View of Others: Angels or Devils

View of the World: Hurtful

Deals with the World by: Escalations

Typically Comes Across as: Unstable

The Bottom Line: Borderline Personality Disordered persons view themselves as vulnerable, and their actions and the extreme trait is to protect themselves from the feeling of being vulnerable.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, the most common PD, with a 4.3% prevalence rate, lives out the controlling drama type.

Exclusive Trait: Rigidity

Most Important Deficiency: Flexibility

Identity Validated: Persecutor “You’re not doing it right.”

Drama Entry Point: Rescuer “Let me show you.”

Drama Switch: Rescuer to Persecutor “You’re doing that all wrong.”

The way it gets lived out, the person is first helpful, then they become controlling and hurtful.

Fundamental Pattern: Demanding and controlling

View of Themselves: Righteous

View of Others: Lax

View of the World: Contaminated

Deals with the World by: Control

Typically Comes Across as: Insensitive

The Bottom Line: Someone with Obsessive Personality Disorder is rigid, controlling, emotionally constricted, lacks empathy, and no amount of control, perfection, or precision from themselves or others is sufficient enough.

The point of this isn't for you to point out personality disorders in people you have complicated relationships with but to understand how you may have been caught up in a drama triangle. These are not actual roles, but made-up cast roles people with PD make up of themselves and others. So, most importantly, do not take up any of these roles in reality. Avoid them altogether. If you've been cast as the victim, rescuer, or persecutor (or if you've cast yourself in that role), counter with an action that causes the other person to see their extreme position by backing off and allowing them to take on the responsibilities of their actions even if that means failing. Sing a different tune, problem-solve, and let them deal with the drama.

In my post about happiness, I discuss the failure of finding your happiness in material things and comparing yourself to others.

If all your happiness comes from being the best, where you stand with others, and your achievements, then your future will be filled with shame, loneliness, and despair. Even when you succeed, you will fail to be happy because everyone becomes an instant rival, and you must be on constant guard. No matter where you rank in the comparison game, you lose. You end up alone and empty. I discuss how the only winning move is not to play. Similarly, the only winning move when dealing with people caught up in the drama triangle is not playing.

Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places emphasis on family systems theory and attachment theory working with families and children.

His education and training has qualified him to sit for and pass the state of North Carolina Licensing Examination Board. His training in family systems theory, attachment theory, personality disorders, psychological pathology, and complex trauma gives him the necessary qualifications to assess, diagnose and treat pathology. He also has background and experience in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment pathology in the family courts and high conflict divorce. Odell is happily married for 17 years. He is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.

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