Perpetrator, Victim or Rescuer:

Old 10-24-2003, 11:03 PM
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Morning Glory
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Perpetrator, Victim or Rescuer:

Which One Are You?

A neuro-linguistic, visual and kinaesthetic exploration of the drama triangle

Dr Peter Davies - BSc., MB ChB (Leeds 1989) MRCGP

Dr Stephen Karpmann first described the drama triangle in the field of transactional analysis in 1968. (1) It has been a great model widely used as a description of problems in many areas of life. In NLP terms it functions as a map and describes a territory. I think this territory will repay further exploration.

It is a surprisingly accurate map for many varied situations. It also works well even if the drama being studied has more than three players. And even in situations where there are less than three players the people involved still tend to generate the three roles!

The model works even when the players already know about the drama triangle. Their responses and action in a given situation are still likely to fall within one of the roles of the triangle. Effectively the triangle describes a three way process, a triple-bind if you like. This means it has a structure of its own that is also applicable to many situations. We can study this structure and see ways of building it well where it is helpful and ways of deconstructing it where it is unhelpful.

If you want examples of common triangular situations consider the following:-

Corpse, murderer and detective
Good cop, bad cop and the suspect
Criminal, victim and the court
Defence, Prosecution and Judgement
Potential, flow and resistance.
Force, movement and mass.
Producers, consumers and regulators
Management, Shop floor workers and the Trades Unions.
Teachers, children and parents.
Father, Son and Holy Ghost
Team A, Team B and the referee
Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer.
The truth, the writer and the reader.
The doctor, the patient and the illness
Surgeons, patients and nurses
Faith, belief and truth.
My truth, your truth, the real truth!
Overdose patient, the family and the doctor.
Magician, mercenary, scapegoat
Hopes, fears and expectations
Two people and any extraneous expectation!
Neuro-linguistic programming!

All of them are intrinsically three tailed situations and so can be described by the drama triangle. In each of them one person is alleged to have started things, another to have been on the receiving end of things and the third sorts out the resulting interaction.

At a more general level:

The perpetrator can be seen as the agonist for change, the attacker, the initiator, the innovator, the doer, the one who disturbs the equilibrium.

The victim can be seen as the recipient of change, the passive one, the damaged one, the one whose equilibrium is disturbed, the reactor, the antagonist to change.

The rescuer is acting as someone who tries to damp down the excesses of the perpetrator and restore the equilibrium of the triangle. The rescuer acts to take care of both victim and perpetrator.

Unfortunately the stabilising forces that the rescuer can bring to bear on the other two forces interact variably with the other forces in motion and so may or may not achieve balance. Indeed a stabilising force applied at the wrong moment can perpetrate another round of imbalance, this time with the would be rescuer being the perpetrator! Karpmann described beautifully the dramatic switches the players in the drama triangle made as they swapped between their apparently allotted roles.

However accurate description and bringing material into awareness is not necessarily therapeutic of itself. Also a swap between roles on the triangle does not necessarily change the triangle itself! As Dr David Ryland, GP educator for Calderdale, UK commented when I used it as a metaphor in a BMJ letter (2) “It’s a great description, but how do you get out of the triangle?” If you are after real change you have to break out of your current triangle.

Getting out of the triangle

How then should you get out of whatever triangle you are currently part of? If the triangle you are currently in is healthy and serving all the players well then it is worth appreciating the checks and balances such a system provides. The US constitution’s separation of lawmaking, law application and the executive is a classic three-cornered split to maintain balance and avoid misuse of power by any one part of the government over the other.

However if you are in a dysfunctional triangle you need a way out of it. First of all you need awareness that you are in it, and then enough sense of dissatisfaction that it is worthwhile riding out the stormy waters of the temporary imbalance that you will cause in your own and the other player’s lives when you decide to change things. You will be helped to make this decision if as well as feeling dissatisfied you have an attractive vision of how things will turn out and be better for you in the future as a result of making the change.

Who should change first: the persecutor, the victim or the rescuer? As far as I can see it does not matter which one of them changes. All three are so tightly bound together that change in one will inevitably have effects on the others. So I suggest that whichever one of them feels dissatisfaction first should make the first move. (And so perpetrate the act of ending the triangle!)

Why not just leave the triangle?
This is one way, but I am going to suggest not necessarily the best way, to get out of the triangle. The chances are that simply leaving will leave behind unfinished and unresolved experiences that are not integrated into part of a better context of understanding. Unfinished business (3) in one place will still affect your future life and relationships in another. As the sayings go,

“You can run, but you cannot hide”
“What you decline to face by choice tends to be experienced again as fate.”

That said cutting and running may be a necessary, valid and sensible step for some people, for example a woman who is experiencing domestic abuse. However the act of escape does not of itself liberate this woman from her past although it gets her out of present danger.

Just leaving breaks many relationships very quickly, and may be un-ecological both for the person leaving and the person left behind. This can have effects later in life if these relationships cannot be reformed and so social networks become less connected. In some circumstances you may need or want to break bad relationships but eventually full resolution and forgiveness are necessary for proper healing of the psychic wound.

A powerful META-NO!
This is a powerful technique for breaking an unsatisfactory situation. The finishing schools that taught young ladies how to say NO in any language were probably the pioneers of this technique, subsequently codified by Michael Hall. (4) At its best it is powerful, assertive, definite and ecological.

However before you can fully give a Meta no you need something else to say yes to. Without this the temptation is to slip back into the old patterns of the drama triangle you were previously playing within.

Getting someone else to help you out of the triangle?

So you have realised that you are in an un-resourceful, unhealthy triple bind and you want someone to help you to get out the bind. You naturally want someone who is kind and wise and with great experience and knowledge. Someone who is empathetic and will help you.

The good news is that there are plenty of wonderful therapists out there all longing to help you with your problems. In fact some of them are so loving and caring that they’ll fall over backwards to help you! They are such good rescuers that they love helping people who have problems. They couldn’t imagine anything they’d rather do. And they know lots of wonderful effective, exciting but safe techniques just to help YOU!

Yes, anyone who wants to help you out of your problems is a certain caretaker or rescuer and if you are not careful you can soon end up playing out a drama triangle dance with them just as much as with the players in the triangle you are escaping from! Beware of the pathological caretaker who will ensnare you into the dead end of co-dependency. If you have to hang at least hang separately!

Some therapists are hyperactive trying all sorts of prescriptions, skills and techniques to try and get victims out of their predicaments. The advantage of this type of therapist is that he or she is actively dong something and if it works the client will be grateful for the relief.

However the commonest reason why any of us ends up in a drama triangle situation is that we are not fully conscious of what we are doing and why we are doing it. In this condition of living unconsciously, of not running our own brains, we are likely to try multiple dance partners in series, get something from each of them but never really integrate their message (however useful or well intentioned) into ourselves. The serial workshop attendee is a well recognised creature. The patterns behind these serial dances are worth noting in themselves and it pays therapists to be aware of this as much as the subject of therapy.

Sometimes the therapist who acts a still, silent reflective mirror can be a very powerful agent in allowing the client to recognise and realise the dysfunctional patterns they have been using that have got them into their predicament. The therapist may have spotted these patterns a long time previously, but the intervention is best made when the client has realised the patterns, not when the therapist has realised them! The fact that the therapist could do something does not of itself mean that the therapist should do anything. Choice, timing and responsibility as always.
Old 10-24-2003, 11:04 PM
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Morning Glory
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The triangle as a matrix

The drama triangle forms a complex web of interlocking relationships. The participants as perpetrator victim and rescuer tend to move rapidly and reactively between roles. The drama in most novels and television series starts when one of the characters makes a change. As the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice (and could those two concepts ever be anything other than linked?) says “At a time when the Napoleonic wars were in full flow Jane Austen writes a novel in which the principal events are that a young man changes his manner and a young lady changes her mind.” Indeed, and therein is the drama.

The changes between roles may be misinterpreted as real change but actually they usually are not. The alcoholic who suddenly stops drinking and becomes a prophet of abstention may simply be swapping between extremes, not learning moderate and ecological behaviour.

There are specific mental matrices to the roles of perpetrator victim and rescuer and most of us have all three roles already installed into our neurology as archetypes. The context usually determines which of these roles we choose whether consciously or unconsciously to activate.

A New NLP technique that can help escape from the triangle.

As we have all experienced some variety of drama triangle in our lives anyone acting as a therapist in this scenario has to be very clear on boundaries and be able to dissociate from the situation. Likewise the client will need to be able dissociate and rise above the immediate detail of their predicament.

To start with the client needs to make an accurate description of the problem with identification of the perpetrator, the victim and the rescuer. Each of these aspects should be identified for each of the players in the drama, as it is unlikely that any one player has always played within one role. Victims often perpetrate subtle attacks on others and this needs to be acknowledged.

(Chunking point. If there are more than three players the chances are that the three basic roles are intact and that the extra people around function as an ally to one of the three main roles, and so can probably be chunked in with perpetrator, victim or rescuer.)

So stage one map the territory physically on the floor. Describe each aspect of PVC in each actor in the drama, walking around between the marked roles as they are described. The therapist may have to be firmly directive to help the client appreciate all the roles they are in or have been in! Also describe an observer space (distant and dissociated for safety) and a benevolent observer space (for additional resources).

Stage two Using the presupposition that behind every behaviour there is a positive intention discover exactly what this positive intention is for every player in each role within the triangle. Reach the highest positive intention you can. Written notes will be needed here.

Stage three Chunk up these positive intentions to the point where all three roles begin to agree. Acknowledge and thank them for their positive intentions.

Stage four Withdraw to observer position whilst client stays in role of person whose map is being explored. A summary here from the therapist can help focus the client’s thinking. Revisit triangle if necessary for more information. Pause and have a breather.

Stage five Repeat stages one to four for each player involved in the triangle. As with all perceptual positions work clean exit and entry into the minds of significant others is vital to success.

Stage six. Having visited all three roles in all three players in the drama observe and summarise the learning so far. What commonalities have arisen? Can these positive intentions overcome present strife? Do they appeal to higher values and beliefs that can transcend the initial difficulty? If yes then map over the positive intentions to the other people in the triangle. See what effect it has on all aspects of them. Ecology check.

Stage seven Invoke resources from the benevolent observer as and when needed. (e.g. love, forgiveness, acceptance etc)

Stage eight Integrate all the learning and other qualities into the client’s neurology and physiology either in a dissociated observer role, or fully associated into the present. Check ecology.

Stage eight Intensify this state to desired degree. “And how does it feel to realise all this/that?”

Stage nine Anchor this new resourceful state

Stage ten Future pace if necessary

Effectively this is a three way parts integration exercise. The aim is to achieve greater integration of apparently opposing forces within the client.
Old 10-24-2003, 11:04 PM
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Morning Glory
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Technique 2

“And when did you last see your map?"

The map is not the territory. (5,6) We are all familiar with this statement as it is one of the key presuppositions of NLP but so far as I know it has never been transformed into a technique within NLP, although I have used it when working with a Jungian therapist on my own map. What I describe here is a way in which NLP techniques and specifically awareness of the structures of representations can enrich the work In this technique I propose a variation on the social panorama (7) as a means of exploring a problem and possibly solving it before needing any flashy NLP techniques. It effectively brings a person’s map of the world into the open and allows it to be resurveyed to check it is still up to date. I doubt this is entirely new but I have not seen it described within NLP or in NLP terms.

Stage one. Ask client to choose objects (offer a wide variety of objects e.g. pebbles/rocks/sponge/material of various shapes sizes and textures). Ask client to choose these objects and say who and what they represent. Get a rich sensory submodality representation for each significant object/representation. Ask how and why certain objects were chosen for certain people or things. They must include one for themselves as well! They may also include one for the therapist if it is relevant for them to do so. (Remember therapist, no failure only feedback!)

The advantage of using objects is that you have visual, kinaesthetic, and tactile information in each object and the auditory input can come from the client’s own commentary and tonality. Using all these modalities there will be an abundance, possibly an excess of information for both client and therapist.

Stage two. Ask the client to lay out the objects quickly on a wide area e.g. a rug or a large sheet of paper. Ask client to explain reasons for the layout they have chosen. Also note distances they have left between the objects. Relationships are distinctly spatial as Paul Scanlon has described. (8)You now have a representative map of the client’s current perception of his or her world.

Stage three. Notice where they have put themselves, both in relation to the map, and in relation to others. Are they in the centre or are they on the edge of their own lives? Are they the biggest player on the park or are other figures overwhelming them? Are they too close or too distant from significant others?

Stage four. Ask client to survey the map. Is the map really accurate for his current perception? If not what needs to be altered?

Stage five. Mischief. Therapist tries moving some objects round and asks clients lot of “what would happen if this happened?” “What alters if we do this?” “How would it be if we made this change?” At this stage the therapist is really checking the accuracy of the map and seeing if there are avenues open to change. If there are avenues open to change it implies the existing map is not totally accurate.

Stage six. Invite client to move objects round and see effect this has on accuracy of the map. Ask client to move objects round until map feels and looks right for his or her current situation.

Repeat stages 3,4,5,6 often enough to get to an accurate map of the client’s current perception of the world and his relationships within it. When no more changes are necessary the next stage can begin. Ask client to take mental snapshot of this current map.

Stage seven Is this map really as you would like it to be? Are these relationships right for you and for others now and in the future? How would you like them to change? Demonstrate this by moving objects around the map to show both you and me what you would like to achieve. (Desired outcome state)

Stage eight. Ecology check outcome state both for client and significant others.

Stage nine. Allow client to take mental snapshot of current state map and desired outcome state map. The client’s subconscious will already be entranced and working out how to make the desired state come about. Focus client’s mind on achieving the outcome and intensify or anchor results as needed.

Stage ten. Other NLP techniques as appropriate and if needed to enhance the achievement of the desired outcome.

This technique effectively allows the advanced technique of the social panorama to be brought within the ambit of basic NLP practitioner sub-modality work! How would it be to realise that?

I anticipate lots of change would occur just because the map gets to be displayed and straightened out with speed and ease in a game setting between client and therapist. Effectively representations and sub-modalities are being constantly and freely changed. This allows easy, non-threatening and readily reversible conversational reframing in what may have been difficult and poorly mapped territory at the start of the session.

At the end of the game the map really is accurate enough to allow the client to navigate the territory and make changes where necessary.


In this essay I have examined the structure of three-cornered structures as exemplified by the classic perpetrator-victim-rescuer triangle. I have shown how this structure of triple binds can be built and I have suggested two NLP techniques for dealing with the predicaments that arise from playing too long within the drama triangle.

So I am sorry if you still think you are a victim. Your belief is a false complex equivalence and when you explore and map out your life more accurately you will realise just how much more than that you are. And how will it be to realise that?
Old 10-25-2003, 04:20 PM
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MG.. very interesting.. this is usable for me as well!! Thanks.
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Old 10-25-2003, 06:14 PM
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MG, as usual this is great reading. I really need to absorbe it and look deep inside myself and follow the instructions.

Thank you!!

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Old 10-25-2003, 09:25 PM
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Good Stuff. I need to read it a few times to really GET it.

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Old 10-25-2003, 11:03 PM
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Thnaks MG! I love transactional analysis
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