One of the more helpful psychological models on my journey was that of The Victim Triangle. In other forms it is also called The Drama Triangle or Karpman’s Drama Triangle, based on the initial description/realizations by transactional therapist Stephen Karpman.
Initially it was used to describe how unhappy or dysfunctional families interact. In the triangle there are three roles: victim, enabler, and persecutor, (or in the initial model victim, rescuer, and persecutor). Without going into the whole theory (which you may already know or can google) the idea is that in a family, or relationship, we typically have one person that takes on one of these roles, and in reaction the other person becomes another. For example, if the wife is taking on the victim role, the husband will take on the role of rescuer.
But this can get complicated, as we are typically not just one-sided. The husband may be sick of rescuing and move into a persecutor role, where he explodes and tells his wife to get over something. The wife may be tired of being a victim, or perceived as one, and move into the persecutor role.
In this model, even dysfunctional relationships between partners and families are shown as fluid– moving from one role to the next in the triangle. There are tendencies (of one person being the enabler or rescuer in the relationship, for example) but the model shows each of us as complex individuals that are multi-faceted and who will shift roles, basically creating drama in our familial relationships.
As a funny side note, this is a model that is taught in many Psych 101 type classes. Recently I was listening to a podcast where the “shaman” referred to this as the “shamanic triangle of empowerment” or something like that. It made me giggle, as it was yet another model that was created by psychotherapeutic constructs and then placed over something “shamanic” as if it were an ancient thought, not something created in the 1960’s, and the basic tool of transactional analysis taught to most first year undergrad students.
And it really doesn’t have much to do with anything spiritual. It is a solidly helpful, I would say essential for many of us, model in which we can examine our reactions, emotions, and relationships with others. By looking at this model we can understand who people are and the roles they are placing us in. If we do not reconcile our emotions, our thoughts, and our relationships, we cannot fully allow ourselves to be immersed or see with clarity anything beyond that. Like doing spiritual work. I will get into the different “layers” at some point, but the spiritual is generally our outer layer (this is very simplistic) and then we have emotional and mental layers, energetic layers, and then our physical body. If we have unclear or lingering emotions, stagnant thought processes, etc. we cannot see or work with the spiritual layers clearly. They are covered and filtered through all of the emotional and mental “gunk” we have left.
As a spiritual practitioner, and as a person navigating the world I have found this model to be really helpful.
What this model has helped me do is to truly understand where people are coming from, to stop reacting to the roles they want to place me in, and more importantly, to have boundaries based on clarity. We tend to react to most things in this world emotionally, and really understanding this model simply stops it.
Although this model looks at dysfunctional familial relationships, I have found it helpful for pretty much any interaction that I have, or have had.
For example, I get a lot of emails from people. At this point probably around 200-300 a week. 95 percent of these are respectful, professional, interesting, lovely, etc. Then some of these emails are from people who will send me a three page single spaced email about their difficulties and then say that they need work done, that they have no money, and want it done today. They will then try to manipulate me into feeling sorry for them based on comparisons (see below) and do everything they can to try to control me or break down or test my boundaries- everything from trying to create a different type of appointment for them, to telling me that I should help them because they need or are entitled to help and are suffering, and I clearly am not, so I should do what they want. If I do work with them, even if their entire situation has changed, they will still write me back and tell me how much they are a victim of their own lives. They could have 100 percent turnaround, and still say that nothing worked. We will go into why this is. I used to, at the beginning of my career, get grouchy about this. Now, I simply understand where they are coming from and erect the appropriate boundaries.
Once you have the skills to realize that this issue has very little to do with you, and to fully recognize it, you no longer react to it, and no longer give this type of person the energy, role-casting, or emotional response they want.
For clarity, I love my clients, and wish them all well (even the ones attempting to manipulate or control me), but anyone healthy would see that this is not the way to go about life, and can likely imagine how destructive it must be in their day-to-day reality to act like they do. And for further clarity, a lot of people contact me when they are at their worst, and I feel so much compassion for people who have likely gone to ten other spiritual practitioners by the time they found me and are still dealing with something (likely because the other spiritual practitioners are actually doing psychological/mental/thoughtform work and not spiritual work, but I digress).
So let us talk about some brutal realities here. This victim triangle refers to the victim, and essentially to the reactions the rest of us have to said victim. I do not find this model as fluid as is suggested. I find that victims solidly place themselves in the victim role in order to manipulate their reality.
And when you are not their rescuer or enabler they will either put you in the role of persecutor (very common) or they will stop enacting this triangle with you.
What does this mean? We all have difficulties in our lives, but some of us have fully taken on the mantle of victimhood. No matter what happens to them they are the victim in the situation.
This person will try to manipulate. They will use language, mannerisms, and ways of being to engage you into rescuing them, into enabling them. This may be a retelling of all of their misery in order to “hook” you in. It may be a comparison, saying that you “have it better” or that “you don’t know how it feels”. What the victim says and does is manipulate. They do this to reel you in, and to get you to engage in this triangle of victimhood.
This may also be purely energetic. It is likely the “victim” doesn’t realize that they are in this role, and that they do not realize that in their despair and illusion they are casting out energetic tethers to connect to anyone or anything that is willing to show them compassion or to assist them in their perceived victimhood. They do this to literally “suck” energy from the people around them.
Many of us are sensitive enough to feel this– the feelings of fatigue or being drained after interacting with someone in this role.
But if you have strong boundaries or are aware of what they are doing, the “victim” will react. If they are not able to emotionally, energetically, or physically manipulate you to do what they want… or to drain your energy they are going to do one of two things.
1. Place you in the role of persecutor. Suddenly, it is all your fault. Everything you have done for them is not enough. They are the same, nothing has changed, they are still the victim in need of rescue. You are even the cause of all of their misery, or some of it. You are a horrible, awful person for not doing or being what they want.
Simply, the victim will lash out in hopes of engaging you through their rage, through their misery, through their perceived victimhood. It is much easier for things to be someone else’s’ fault.
2. They will stop this triangle interaction. Some people, when you put up strong boundaries, when you do not allow for them to suck you dry energetically or emotionally, and when you refuse to take on the role of persecutor or enabler/rescuer will simply stop this interaction. They will begin to listen to you, interact with you in a healthier way, and may even become healthier themselves.
Or, they will simply realize you will not participate in this any more, and will move on to someone who will.
When someone is the eternal victim they refuse to take any sort of responsibility for their actions or their lives. It is just too painful for them. They are like a massive black hole inside, desperately trying to suck in other people.
While I do suggest compassion for them (as I do with pretty much everyone) there is a difference between compassion and allowing yourself to be manipulated by these people. There is a difference between allowing someone to take your energy, or cause you to feel bad, or cause you to go into rescue or enable mode.
By recognizing this model and by recognizing how a victim acts, you can simply stop this cycle. For total clarity, I am not suggesting that you dismiss people who have been victimized. If someone gets mugged, raped, harmed, or is having a difficult time in their lives you can, and should, depending on your own energy and abilities, help them. We all need help sometimes, and offering a helping hand is wonderful.
This is different. The eternal victim, no matter what happens in their lives, will always be a victim. They could win a million dollars and will call you up to complain about how the government is victimizing them by taking away 250,000 (or whatever) for taxes. They are the people constantly in this mode, swimming around like sharks, looking for how they can manipulate others to get what they want.
After you recognize that they are in this mode, set boundaries. Tell yourself that you are not stepping into any of these modes. Check yourself energetically– are they trying to stick an energetic cord or tether onto you? This may sound strange, but we all have had the experience of coming away from people exhausted. If you catch this and simply say “no” and picture yourself flicking away or in some way removing their tether to you, you can stop this. Chances are they will move on to someone else that they can drain.
Most of all, realize that you are not the persecutor. Even if they try to make you feel bad. This is simply what they do to try to reel you in. Realize that people like this, in permanent victim mode, are unable to look at their own lives and take personal responsibility. Realize that they are like empty space or black holes, looking for anything or anyone to fill them up. They will blame you, may even hate you, for creating boundaries with them. Some may in fact get healthier because you acknowledge and are unwilling to participate in this triangle with them.
When we realize that they are creating this role, this illusion of victimhood to try to manipulate you, it is easy to have compassion for them. With boundaries. Meaning that realizing how difficult it must be for them to always be a victim. It must be incredibly difficult for them to cast themselves in that role, and to have the whole world be either out to get them, or to be simply people to be manipulated to get what they want.
When you realize this, you can stop reacting emotionally to them. You can stop stepping into the roles that they want you to. You can recognize the manipulation, the anger, the black hole inside of them as simply something they are dealing with. Hopefully some day they will turn inward and recognize that they are not, in fact, the victim, and you can be there as a support. But until then, you can stop this cycle, and stop the entirety of the drama, the plays that this person/”victim” is trying to create to show again and again how much, indeed, they are a victim.
The world is truly a stage, and some people, like the eternal victim, create a lot of chaos out of their illusions, fears, and anger. They cast the play based off of who gives them what they want– sympathy, energy, drama, chaos, and the chance again and again to show that they are, indeed, the tragic victim. You do not need to sign up for a leading role in their play.
Mary Mueller Shutan is a spiritual healer, teacher, and author. You can learn more about setting healthy boundaries in her book, Managing Psychic Abilities: A Real World Guide for the Highly Sensitive Person, or in her other books, all available on Amazon here.