Dr Stephen Karpman’s 1968 idea, was that conflict needs players and players need roles. The consequential objective of each role is just to have its own needs met – even if temporarily – in order to feel justified in its rationale/behaviour/feeling.
Karpman suggests that in each conflict there are three main roles:
- The Persecutor: happy to allocate blame and to ensure that other players know they are in the wrong. They are probably angry, accusative, inflexible and feeling very righteous. In order to have their needs met, they require The Victim; someone onto whom they can project their irritation.
- The Victim: The Victim takes the brunt of The Persecutor’s wrath. The Victim feels hard-done-by, got-at, powerless, ashamed, unable to do anything. This is obviously a position of anxiety for most, but psychologically it can actually often bring some comfort. You know where you are when you are The Victim, and it’s easy to seek the pity of others. If The Victim role feels natural to you, then you need to seek out The Persecutor (if you haven’t already got one) but also The Rescuer.
- The Rescuer: a big ball of guilt, who needs someone to help, because when you’re the hero to others then you don’t have to deal with your own feelings of anxiety or displacement. The Rescuer appears to be The Victim’s saviour from The Persecutor, but actually cements the others in their negative behaviours – almost giving them permission to stay as the bully or the bullied as it makes everyone feel that they have a purpose.
The important things about these roles, is that they are not fixed to an individual. In the course of a conflict, the players will move around the three corners of the triangle – first shouting the odds, then feeling got-at when they are challenged, and then rescuing their former adversaries when they then go on to feel vulnerable. It is a rotating pattern of behaviours that, ultimately, serves no-one. Even when the conflict is finished, everyone of those players is likely to harbour some resentment – even if their short-term emotional needs feel sated.
This theory has been around for nearly 50 years and is used daily in the fields of ‘transactional analysis’, and the study and understanding of social and professional behaviours. But, it is one of the simple ideas that I think makes a lot of sense, and to understand where you are on in the cycle during any given ‘drama’ enables you to get yourself out of it.
Is there an answer? Well, self-awareness can bring some different ways of looking at things.
The idea is then that the energy given out in perpetuating the drama could actually be used for the long-game, reframing the action towards problem-solving behaviours rather than the emotional quick-wins. Of course, much easier said than done, but that’s where some outside perspective can often help.
If it works, then The Persecutors become Challengers. They might still have a bee in their bonnet, and they might have a thing or two to say – but it moves from bullying to a more collaborative approach that relies on accountability and transparency. Most importantly, they are clear about what behaviours from others will enable them to feel less angry or critical – and to have realistic expectations about how these can be achieved.
The Victims become Survivors, understanding that purely to seek the validation of feeling vulnerable means it can never move beyond that point. The key is to identify, and then take, some action – still often with the help of others, but without the co-dependency. This may mean letting go of some strings.
The Rescuers become Coaches. Having some synergy with the Challengers, this role helps others to identify the behaviours they need to exhibit in order to get themselves out of their rut. The better the coach, the less direct rescuing they need to do.