When I first learned about the Karpman Drama Triangle (where people fall into three roles, Victim, Villain and Hero)*, I had two clear blasts of energy.
First I felt a euphoric moment of clarity and possibility, an opening in my chest as fog cleared. “Oh, so THAT’S what’s been going on in my relationships all of these years!! I’ve been totally power struggling!!”
What quickly followed on the heels of that opening, however, was this terrifying thought: “If I’m not in the triangle, what will I DO with my TIME??!!”
As a Gemini, being bored is one of my worst fears.
Looking back, I was apparently willing to trade peace, calm, and connection for the thrills and chills of being in the Victim, the Hero, or yes, the Villain position in an interaction.
It was second nature. Along with the constant fighting in my household, we actually dramatized classic melodrama roles. “I can’t pay the rent!,” one of us would shriek, forming a pretty bow over our head with our hands, acting out Little Nell, the damsel in distress. “You must pay the rent!” would answer our resident Snidely Whiplash, a finger over the lip becoming Snidely’s mustache. “I’ll pay the rent!” would chime in Dudley Do-right, hands becoming his bowtie. “My hero!” would sigh Little Nell gratefully. “Curses, foiled again!” snarled Snidely, as he turned away in temporary defeat. I had no idea that we were broadcasting to ourselves exactly the dynamic that would pull us into such intense conflict with each other.
Once I learned about Stephen Karpman’s brilliant formulation from 1968, I could watch any adventure movie, book or play and see the sorting into the Victim, Villain, and Hero roles. I’d overhear conversations in coffee shops and mentally ascribe folks into each position. Over time, I understood the strong human draw to the each, and became fascinated by the vast seduction of victim consciousness and its power to cast a gloomy pall over our lives. I saw how our stories of being “at the effect” of life seem to enchant us into giving up our very life-energy for the righteousness of being wronged.
Katie Hendricks has described the process of developing the Hendricks body of work on conscious living with her husband, Gay.
“We had to come up with something even more compelling than adrenaline,” she said. “We found it. It’s creativity.”
As someone who saw themselves as lacking in the creativity gene, this was bad news for me. I didn’t draw or paint or sculpt. Clearly I was doomed, my life a choice between the intoxicating struggles of the drama triangle, or deadly boredom.
Fortunately (ha! I’m hearing the cavalry trumpets of Dudley Do-Right play in my brain right now) I stayed with it, got curious about this new landscape. Katie called it “Creative Open Space,” all of life that exists outside of the Drama Triangle. These days I view it as “Creative Brain,” our natural state when we’re not in reactivity. As I got to know this whole other, power-struggle free zone, I realized that, actually, everything I did was creative (as I was creating, not just unconsciously and automatically reacting). When I’m in the flow state of Creative Brain, I’m following my next impulse, be it to write or sing or take a walk or chat with my dogs. Or sit somewhere, doing nothing but being a “Still Life Sitting in the Sun”. I remembered how good I was at playing as a kid, where answering the question “what do you want to do now?” was our main objective.
These days, the belly-clutching fear engendered by power struggle has little attraction for me. Adrenaline isn’t so enjoyable; I realize I mostly feel sick when it blasts through my veins. The real fun happens when I ask my partner “what do you want to do now?” and we co-create, following our flow together by imagining post-pandemic trips or learning to draw together (which it turns out, I actually can do, with some guidance) or wandering through Costco. I can walk through the world in a day, co-creating playful experiences on work calls, with baristas, with neighbors passing by. I still do appreciate a good finger-costume, but the delight of laughing hysterically at all of us doing that in a group on Zoom is keeping this Gemini fully engaged with the wonder-filled flow of life. I can choose drama, but I prefer to co-create.
*Karpman’s original words were Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.
(Thanks to Cynthia Hildner for her graphic eye and design for this post.)
Want to know more about these tools? Check out the Evolutionary Power Institute at evolutionarypower.org.