Karpman’s Drama Triangle

In a recent post from Markus Gartner, Iain McCowatt replied to one of my comments and it sparked the following brief thoughts…

Iains reply – “David, I don’t think you really want to portray yourself as a Rescuer in the Karpman sense. We strive to be driven by the needs of context rather than the needs of our egos – Iain”

Agreed.  Somewhat…

Firstly, I have not studied or researched Karpman in any great detail.  From what I have it seems very interesting so I think I will do more.  Good always comes from reading and replying to posts.  ;0)

So, Karpman’s Drama Triangle:

  • Victim – The person who is treated as, or accepts the role of, a victim
  • Persecutor – The person who pressures, coerces or persecutes the victim
  • Rescuer – The rescuer, who intervenes, seemingly out of a desire to help the situation or the underdog.

Of these, the “rescuer” is the least obvious role. In the terms of the drama triangle, the “rescuer” is not a person helping someone in an emergency. It is someone who has a mixed or covert motive that is actually benefiting egoically in some way from being “the one who rescues”. The rescuer has a surface motive of resolving the problem, and appears to make great efforts to solve it, but also has a hidden motive to not succeed, or to succeed in a way that they benefit. For example, they may feel a sense of self-esteem or status as a “rescuer”, or enjoy having someone dependent or trusting of them – and act in a way that ostensibly seems to be trying to help, but at a deeper level plays upon the victim in order to continue getting their payoff.1

So, after reading this I’m still happy to call myself a rescuer except for one part; the last sentence.  Many ‘consultants’ are known for doing this; but not I.  So in that respect I agree with Iain.  Oh, and this – but also has a hidden motive to not succeed, OR to succeed in a way that they benefit – however is does say OR.

There is however, the rest of it.  Ego will always play a role in the given context.  Everyone has an ego, and everyone is driven by it to a certain extent.  There are extremes of course, but I’m talking extremes.  When I join a project, I do the best I can to help that project.  Why?  I want it to succeed for the customers, for the project team, for the business, AND myself.  I get a great feeling from contributing to project success; it also helps my reputation, which in turn helps many other things that could be closely related to my ego.  After all, a simple pat on the back is an ego boost (and who doesn’t like pats on the back?).

Another note on this is the mention of trust – or enjoy having someone dependent or trusting of them – How long do we spend building up this trust, and how much do we strive for it?  This trust is key to testers, especially in a context-driven world where hiding behind a process is not what we do.  Being trusted has a tester (or rescuer in this case) allows far greater independence and confidence in your work.

Ask yourself why you’re a tester (or anything else for that matter); and I mean REALLY ask.  Delve deep into that question and I bet you find an ego driven aspect somewhere.  No matter if it is big or small, it will be there.

Like I said, I want to look at this further as there is MUCH more to it; but this will do for now.  :0)


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karpman_drama_triangle

8 thoughts on “Karpman’s Drama Triangle

  1. Hi David,

    Interesting post and interesting topic.

    We all know people who are addicted to drama – and if I am being honest, in the past (many years ago now), I found myself playing the role of rescuer pretty much as described.

    What saved me at the time was getting sick, and spending one month flat on my back with glandular fever. Big reality check, and a lot of time to think.

    Long story short, I ended up cutting my hair and spending the next twenty years studying the martial arts.

    The connection might not be obvious, but with me the problem was a need for external validation. As a rescuer, I could get that by being the nice guy in the middle of an intense personal drama – whilst all the time being part of a whole group of people feeding the beast.

    As a martial artist, if I wanted external validation, I had to earn it. And earning it was hard and worthwhile. My motivation was the same, but my behaviours were much more positive.

    I also learnt the importance of validation through self-respect – that took a good dozen years or so though!

    I think as a tester, I have the same personal flaws that I have always had – I want everyone to respect my work, think it is good, and give me heaps of credit.

    I could get that by being the guy that always seems to be working on a project in crisis, who dashes around producing heaps of data and crusades for non value adding “best practices” etc. And I am pretty sure that I could make a living doing that. Rescue mode ahoy!

    I chose not to do that.

    I chose instead to build and earn a reputation as a thoughtful tester, that is a positive and useful part of any team he joins – I will let my actions, and the results that I deliver speak for me. I might give people a nudge now and then to get them to pay attention to the stuff that I am doing, but only when I have something really useful to show them.

    • Thanks Andrew! Love hearing from you. :0)

      So in essence I would still see you as a rescuer. Albeit with more positive bevahiours to go along with it. Maybe that’s a key point to all of this. Being a rescuer with positive behaviours/attitude versus negative behaviours/attitude.

      I understand your point in linking the rescuer mentality to the crusader of “best practice”, but that is only one way to be a rescuer. And are you truly being a rescuer? Possibly when viewing Karpman Triangle and the need for motives. But there is nothing that says those motives /must/ be sinister. They could be very valid motives that don’t hurt anybody.

      So with your martial arts you still wanted that external validation, but you didn’t cheat in order to get it. You worked hard for it, as do I when I train. As you said, your motivation was the same.

      As a tester your motivation to rescue poor products can be driven by many different things. Part of that drive may be to build a reputation for yourself so you can see the world speaking at conferences, and be seen as an ‘expert’. Your ego would drive a great deal of that, but if you are doing a truly wonderful job at the same time (and not cheating so to speak), then does it really matter? I don’t believe so.

      • Hi David,

        I think you have me pegged pretty well with the above – but there is one more thing I would like to bring to the table.

        The truly valuable thing that I got from all those years of practice was another source of validation that was as important to me as the adulation of others. And that was the warm glow that comes from knowing that I am good at something, and whats more that I am using that skill well.

        It might seem like a trivial thing – but for me it was seismic and led to the next (to me) logical step. If I respect myself but still crave the respect of others, the only way to get that respect from others, is to earn it. The only way to earn it, is to be worthy of it.

        I try and apply this lesson in every aspect of my life. Testing included.

  2. Fascinating article. I recently became [re-]acquainted with the drama triangle. I never thought to apply it to professional relationships but I guess it’s just as applicable as to personal relationships. My understanding of the triangle is that it represents dysfunctional relationships, not healthy ones.

    In a healthy relationship, ego plays no role and reputation isn’t something you have to worry about unless, of course, you’re actually bad at your job. In any case, if we recognize that there’s a problem, we can choose not to be a part of it by either contributing in a healthy way or separating ourselves altogether. We have no control over others and their problems, but when it comes to our own, the choice is entirely up to us. Testers can choose not to play the role of rescuer and still have amazing, non-egocentric job satisfaction. Just sayin’

      • Yes, I really believe that. Healthy relationships are built on trust – a trust where we put others before ourselves but that trust must be mutually shared and exercised otherwise it stops being a healthy relationship.

        In my view, self esteem is a spectrum where each end is self-destructive. One one end is humility and the other end ego. Humility is good but not to the point where you allow yourself to be hurt by others taking advantage of you. Ego, too, is good knowing that you have something positive to contribute to this life. But beyond that, it’s trouble because beyond that, one starts to elevate one’s self above others. The healthy place is right in the center.

  3. Thx Trevor.
    So with a healthy balance of both humility and ego… ego is still playing a part. Am I right? It’s a healthy bit of ego, but it’s still ego.

    I think no matter how good the relationship is, there is still ego nestled in there somewhere. I think that’s important, as you have pointed out.

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