Look closely at any conflict with a critical partner, and you’ll usually see certain roles being played out. When we’re at odds with others it’s usually because we’re identifying with one of three typically recurring characters: Rescuer, Victim, or Persecutor–all potentially found in the compulsive personality. While we might imagine ourselves in just one of these roles, we often end up taking on each of them at some point in the drama…whether we admit it or not.
Archetypal Potentials and Pitfalls With A Critical Partner
In what has become known as Karpman’s Drama Triangle, Stephen Karpman, M.D., drew from fairy tales to describe the character roles that cause relationships to go awry. Carl Jung described these as archetypal, universal roles that we can all get dragged along by when we don’t have a conscious relationship with them.
Homer illustrated these roles almost 3000 years ago when he told the story of Achilles in The Illiad. An extraordinarily talented warrior, Achilles goes off to war as the hero that will Rescue the Greeks from being defeated by the Trojans. After years of battle King Agamemnon takes a woman from Achilles, leaving Achilles feeling profoundly disrespected.
In reaction he adopts a Victim stance, passive-aggressively withdrawing from the war. Once beloved by all, his pride destroys his relationships with his comrades.
Then, once his best friend Patroclus is killed, he becomes the Persecutor, abandons all integrity and takes vengeance on the Trojans in a revolting way. He drags Hector’s dead body behind his chariot and eventually tosses it in a garbage heap.
Similarly, our good intentions can go awry when things don’t go the way we feel they should, destroying our sense of well-being and our relationships.
Rescuer, Victim, & Persecutor in the Compulsive Personality
This sequence sequence often plays out with people who have a Driven personality: they are determined to fix things (Rescuer), they get resentful that no-one cooperates (Victim), and then become angry at people who get in their way (Persecutor).
People on the unhealthy end of the end of the compulsive spectrum (those with full blown Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, OCPD) tend to see themselves as Victims of other people not playing by the rules, but they are experienced by others as Persecutors that tyrannize them with rules and control. Ironically, they had originally hoped to be Rescuers by doing things the “right” way.
Healthy and Unhealthy Versions of Rescuer, Victim, and Persecutor
These roles are often seen as pathological, but, as with any archetype, at their roots there are energies and motivations that are indispensable and potentially positive:
- Helping others compassionately is a natural part of being human. (Rescuer)
- When we are hurt we do need to nurse our wounds and reach out for help. (Victim)
- Life does require us to be assertive at times and fight for ourselves and what is right. (positive origins of the Persecutor)
But we can occupy any of these three roles in unhealthy ways when there is a critical partner involved:
- Rescuers are not helpful to Victims when they shield them from responsibility, and they avoid their own issues by focusing on others and deriving too much of their self-esteem by identifying with that limited role.
- Victims may look to others to take care of them and abandon personal responsibility.
- Persecutors may become oblivious to the suffering they cause others, and in doing so become oblivious to how insensitive they have become to themselves.
None of these characters should be taking the reins. The key is to see what role they do need to play in our lives, and not allow them to take over. We need to have a more Adult part in charge….which is not always so easy.
Getting Out of the Drama
First we need to become aware of when we inhabit each of these roles. Take a moment to see if you can feel each of these parts within you. Try to think of times when you were possessed by them.
Then we need to acknowledge the payoff we get for each one. Each of them can feel gratifying in its own way. But a common motivation, especially seductive for anyone with a compulsive personality, is to feel that we are right, good, and virtuous. Even the Persecutor is motivated by a feeling that they’re doing the right thing, justifying treating other people badly with that rationalization.
Beneath this motivation we usually feel the need to compensate for some insecurity, a sense of shame, or a fear of being judged.
Once we are aware of these parts of ourselves, we need to extract the healthy aspect of each of these characters:
- to help others–when it is healthy for ourselves and the other person (Rescuer),
- to take care of ourselves and reach out for help (Victim),
- to stand up and fight for what is right (a positive version of the Persecutor).
Each role needs to be lived consciously, not out of habit, fear, or vengeance. This requires using a healthy Ego (the executive function, not conceit), or, in the terms of Transactional Analysis, the Adult, to find the best way to express each part.
Take a moment to see if you can feel this Adult part of you, the part that can observe the feelings of each of these characters. Then ask what each of the other three parts need to have, and ask what’s the most effective route to make it happen.
This kind of change won’t take place overnight. But becoming aware of these parts of ourselves, engaging them as parts that can have a positive role in our life are steps we can take to feel better and have better relationships.
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