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Introduction to The Victim Triangle and their Toxic Behaviors in Relationships

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

alt="photo of parents fighting in background with child sitting sadly at table with teddy bear"

If you’re finding that the relationships you are in now are full of conflict and pain, it may be because of what you were taught about relationships as a kid.

Growing up with parents or guardians who were never taught how to take responsibility for their own emotional expression and well-being, leads to their children learning these same isolating behaviors. Children learn that connection happens through dysfunction, or is dangerous altogether. They grow into confused adults who continue the struggle in finding and keeping healthy relationships.

If a parent or guardian did not know how to soothe themselves, how to handle big emotions, or how to reach out to peers instead of relying on their children or substances for emotional support, then they can’t teach their children the necessary behaviors to interact. They can’t pass on the knowledge of how to have functional relationships. What they do pass on is how to continue to repeat the same dysfunctional pattern over and over again.

Our knowledge of relationships and how they work comes through watching the people who raised us, and more importantly, what we learn through instinct of what helps us survive or what would be dangerous. If it was dangerous to express emotion, then we learn to suppress emotion to keep ourselves safe. But in doing that, we also learn to sever ties to connection. You can’t be known if a large part of yourself -your emotional life- is hidden.

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Just think for a minute… because this is very important to what you’re going through today. How did your parents or guardians interact with each other? How did each interact with you? How did each interact with your siblings? Others? How were you expected to interact? What were the rules and roles everyone had to abide by to keep the peace, the stability, the sanity?

If trauma or any dysfunction was a part of your childhood experience, you may have learned that relationships are about distrust, unfairness, danger, fighting, violence, control, power, and confusing displays of love and fear maybe happening simultaneously.

It is not a mystery to why you feel you can’t connect or why relationships don’t seem to work for you when you consider that your early experiences of relationships were so intertwined with many elements that have nothing to do with unconditional love, belonging, or connection.

So today you may be in a spiral of self-blame and panic, terrified that you can not break free from a pattern that keeps showing up in your world. You may be seeing this never-ending pattern at work, or with your friends. Which makes you conclude that there is something wrong with you.

But what if there is a lot more to it than that?

alt="cartoon depiction of the karpman drama triangle"

The Karpman Drama Triangle was developed to explain the conflicts in interactions with others. It has since been adapted as the Victim Triangle to explain the 3 placeholders of victim mentality. There are 3 personalities that may show up in your relationships. These 3 personalities keep everything moving in a constant cycle of pain and confusion.

You have the self-identified Victim, the Persecutor -or the bully in the relationship, and the Rescuer -or the savior. All three of these roles have a victim mentality. Each personality works together to reenact painful themes most likely learned through childhood relationships. These reenactments serve no other purpose than to reinforce devastating core beliefs that keep us repeating the same thing over and over again.

This repetition keeps us stuck reexperiencing our traumatic relationships, as if they are following us through life. The only reality we ever see is the past continuously showing up to sabotage our present and future.

Out of the Victim, the Persecutor, and the Rescuer is the role you most identify with. It is a role that was assigned or learned in childhood and it describes your primary behaviors when things get tense or feel unsafe. It has become how you think about yourself, and it is used to explain your experiences in the world.

How you get trapped in this cycle

Our internal dialogue also includes the Victim, the Persecutor, and the Rescuer. You can hear the Persecutor loud and clear through your inner critic. For example, you may be relentless with yourself for not completing a project perfectly. You might be guilty of procrastinating and accuse yourself of being lazy, inadequate or defective. This will then cause you to spiral into feelings of anger, shame, and worthlessness. Internally, you cower to this bully in your head, fearful that this is the truth about you, thus becoming the Victim.

alt="copper-like painting of three faces from the same head each expressing a different emotion"

But there is only so much of that that you can take. So when it becomes too much, you take yourself off the hook by justifying, minimizing, or indulging in some form of escape. This is how you become the Rescuer.

We can get lost in this process before we come up for air, only to go through another event and another round of Persecutor/Victim/Rescuer. And this is how it plays out in our relationships, too.

So what is it that sucks you in?

Being able to identify what form of victim mentality draws you in is a first step in stopping the cycle from continuing as the never-ending drama that it’s become. The Victim is drawn to a savior. The Rescuer is compelled by the distressed. The Persecutor will find someone to blame. From here, observe how the whole interaction plays out. At what point do you switch to secondary roles, such as going from persecuting to feeling ashamed and dropping to a victim role, or needing to make up for your bullying and coming to the rescue?

Maybe identify what needs are being met that keep you playing this role? Are you getting what you really want, or is it temporary relief in the moment?

While each place falls prey to victimhood, it does not mean you are stuck here. It does not mean you are meant to be a victim. Nor does it mean that feeling really connected and supported by someone isn’t something you will ever experience. It just means you need help getting out of the loop. Anyone can stop this by taking responsibility for their role in it, and more deeply, by challenging those core beliefs that have kept you bound to this way of interacting.

Please read further for more information, the Victim, the Rescuer, the Persecutor.


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