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The Trauma Triangle: How Fostering Awareness of Reenactments Builds Resilience

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

The basic concept surrounding trauma-informed care is this:

We all have trauma. Some of us are at a higher risk of experiencing trauma. We carry this trauma with us, and if we do not address it, we will not heal from it.

Understanding reenactments is one way that we can continue healing from trauma. Our healing helps us make sure that we don’t traumatize or re-traumatize others due to our own inability to emotionally regulate.

In the context of trauma healing, there are three main things we seek to accomplish when considering reenactments:

  1. Learning the language and concepts of reenactments.

  2. Identifying reenactments in our own life, in retrospect and as they unfold in real-time.

  3. Breaking out of reenactments as we step into healing, empowerment, and positive change.

In this article, we’ll cover all these bases. As you explore reenactments, be kind to yourself. These are not “three simple steps” to healing. Take your time with these new concepts, and consider coming back to this resource when you need a refresher.

The Reenactment Triangle, Drama Triangle, and Trauma Triangle

Don’t worry. There’s only one triangle you need to know for now (later, we’ll introduce you to the empowerment triangle). The reenactment triangle is also known as the drama triangle or the trauma triangle. We’ll use these terms interchangeably. While the language varies slightly across different models, the concept is the same.

Dr. Stephen Karpman developed the original drama triangle, which identifies the three major roles people take on during a reenactment: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer.

In a drama triangle, the participants’ mindsets are marked by blaming, entitlement, and helplessness (this applies to the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer). Common thoughts might include:

  • “This is all their/my fault.”

  • “They owe me...”

  • “They/I shouldn’t have done/said that.”

  • “They/I didn’t mean to!”

  • “There’s nothing they/I can do.”

  • “It will always be this way/Things will never change.”

Most of the time, the trauma triangle plays out in our relationships. These various roles bleed into our everyday lives unconsciously or mindlessly. We might argue or engage in negative cycles that harm our relationships or our sense of self.

Let’s explore the three roles. As you read, consider how you might relate to each role. Try to avoid blaming yourself for falling into these pitfalls: rather, consider them as logical responses to the trauma you have endured.

It’s most common for a person to take on more than one of these roles during a trauma response. Within one conversation, you might bounce from victim to persecutor to rescuer.

The Victim: “There’s nothing I can do”

The victim sees themselves as a powerless entity subject to outside forces, even when they find themselves in situations completely under their control. They are blind to the influence they have on any given situation and may resign themselves to suffering because “there’s nothing they can do.”

A victim’s attitude is marked by dejection and shame, and they will persistently deny their ability to affect change. They tend to struggle with decision-making, problem-solving, experiencing pleasure, and understanding how their behaviors impact their lives.

More often than not, a victim relies on a rescuer or savior in times of need. The removal of this rescuer or enabler is not a catalyst for self-sufficiency. Instead, without a rescuer, a victim turns to self-pity.

The Rescuer: “I’m the only one who can help”

The rescuer requires a caretaking role to feel good about themselves. That doesn’t sound too bad—until you realize just how intensely rescuers neglect their own needs in favor of caring for others.

People who fall into the role of the rescuer tend to become overworked and burnt out. In this state, they also become resentful of those who accept their help. The strange duality is that a rescuer may help others without being asked (and still be resentful).

Despite their ill will towards the victims who drain their energy, a rescuer may actively prevent a victim from escaping the trauma triangle. They may accomplish this by enabling the victim to continue their dependence or actively manipulating the victim with guilt tactics.

Rescuers often struggle to take responsibility for their own needs and grapple with guilt when there is no one who needs saving.

The Persecutor: “This is all your fault”

The persecutor is a strict extremist who is quick to place blame on others. They are often overly critical and controlling. They can be rigid, angry, and even threatening at times. Persecutors are also highly judgmental and quick to point out perceived flaws, and their criticism is rarely constructive.

Just as the rescuer requires a victim, the persecutor requires a scapegoat: their scapegoat may be a victim or a rescuer.

Persecutors avoid reflecting on their own behavior, and they do not take responsibility for their actions. They prefer to escape accountability by placing all blame on the scapegoat. If blame does come their way, they may quickly shift into a victim mindset.

Persecutors tend to struggle with black-and-white thinking and a sense of superiority.

Concrete Examples of Reenactments

Applying the reenactment triangle to everyday life is a skill that we teach trauma-informed leaders. Identifying an issue is the first step toward a remedy

While it is common for one person to take on various roles during a reenactment, we’re going to explore a few scenarios where the victim, rescuer, and persecutor archetypes are more clearly defined.

Example 1: An Unequitable Home

Imagine a couple where one partner tends to take on the majority of the housework and the childcare. This partner is frequently self-sacrificing to meet the needs of their family. Their own life (including their sleep schedule, diet, exercise routines, and self-care regimens) suffers because they spend more time caring for others than themselves.

When confronted about this imbalance, the other partner evades responsibility. Rather than acknowledge how they have contributed to the problem, they might try to convince their partner that there is no problem. They might become annoyed or angry for being “nagged” at and voice their displeasure.

In this scenario, one partner is the rescuer, and one partner is the persecutor. The first partner neglects their own needs and feels resentful, while the second partner evades accountability and blames others.

Example 2: A Fearful Workplace

Now imagine an office. A worker has made a mistake that they know needs correcting. They worry about the consequences intensely, but they cannot think of how they might remedy the situation. So, they avoid this mistake as much as possible. They don’t talk about it, and they try not to think about it. They believe there’s nothing they can do to fix it.

A few weeks pass by, and someone eventually notices the mistake. The manager confronts the worker about it angrily. They blame them for the mistake and shame them for not coming clean.

In this scenario, the manager is the persecutor, and the worker is the victim. The worker believed there was nothing they could do to change the mistake, and instead of working towards solutions, the manager only chastises the worker.

How to Identify Reenactments in Our Own Lives

Now that you understand what reenactments are and how the three roles can help us identify how we participate in reenactments, it’s time to reflect on times when we have experienced reenactments in the past.

Identifying past reenactments is a great way to practice spotting reenactments in our life in a nonjudgmental way. It can also help us become more aware when the same reenactment happens in the future.

Take a moment to consider a specific time when you were engaged in a reenactment. Why do you suspect it was a reenactment? Which role(s) did you take on? Which role(s) did the other person(s) take on?

How to Spot a Reenactment

Reflecting is a great tool to build your skill for identifying reenactments. It’s more challenging to identify a reenactment when you’re in one, but it is possible. With enough practice and the right tools, anyone can identify a reenactment as it’s happening.

Knowing which role(s) you gravitate to the most can help you spot when a reenactment is happening. It can also be beneficial to know when you are more susceptible to trauma responses.

We are more likely to experience reenactments:

  • When we are experiencing a lot of stress.

  • When our window of tolerance is decreased.

  • When our attachment needs are triggered.

  • When we fall into familiar toxic relationship dynamics.

  • When we don’t feel safe.

Reenactments are patterns of social interactions that we tend to repeat. If you ever feel like you're stuck in conflict or conversation with no resolution in sight (or you often have the same interactions over and over again), then you're probably experiencing a reenactment.

How to Stop a Reenactment in its Tracks

Breaking out of a reenactment is all about shifting your perspective. I’ve found that the easiest way to break out of a reenactment is to:

  • Realize a reenactment is happening.

  • Choose to “pause.”

  • Decide how you want to break the reenactment.

Only one person needs to break the pattern to help both people escape the reenactment triangle.

My favorite way to break a reenactment is to name it and tame it.

When you use this method, you put the conversation on pause. You can do this by saying:

  • “Hey. I’m noticing we’re in a reenactment.”

  • “I don’t like this back and forth that’s happening. Can we table this conversation?”

  • “I’m feeling a lot of discomfort. Can we pause this conversation and come back to it later?”

  • “I’m noticing the urge to play the victim/rescuer/persecutor right now. I don’t want to get wrapped up in a reenactment, so can we shift the conversation?”

Sometimes, pausing the conversation can be powerful enough to break the reenactment. If both people are knowledgeable about reenactments and actively working towards healing, naming it can be a very powerful tool.

Most of the time, though, you’ll need to make another decision about how you want to move out of a mindset of helplessness, entitlement, and blame and towards a mindset of accountability, responsibility, and capability.

Breaking a reenactment can look like this:

  • “I want you to know that I’m not saying this to judge you, and I don’t think you did anything wrong.”

  • “I’m sorry for saying that.”

  • “I completely agree with you. At the same time, I believe…”

  • “Thank you for pointing that out. I’m sorry my feedback came off as blatant criticism. What I meant to say was…”

  • “You’re right. There’s more I can do to change the outcome of my situation.”

  • “This topic is complex, and I think we are both right.”

There are millions of examples we can give of ways that you can break a reenactment. Ultimately, here’s a short list of exactly how you can break a reenactment as it’s happening:

  • Avoid the temptation to place blame.

  • Own your actions and your feelings.

  • Kindly hold yourself and others accountable for their actions.

  • Accept responsibility for creating positive change.

  • Challenge the idea that anyone owes you anything.

  • Acknowledge everyone’s capacity for change.

  • Empower others with support and encouragement.

Moving Out of the Drama Triangle and Into the Empowerment Triangle

In contrast to the reenactment, drama, and trauma triangle, we have the empowerment triangle. You can think of the empowerment triangle like the healthy, trauma-informed reflection of the trauma triangle.

In the empowerment triangle, the rescuer becomes the supporter, the victim becomes the driver, and the persecutor becomes the coach. In this triangle, all parties communicate and create safety.

The Driver (The Former Victim)

The victim becomes the driver when they recognize their own power. Rather than feeling helpless, drivers are empowered to affect change in their own lives and in the lives of others.

Drivers focus on growth through learning and understanding. They reflect on how to seek help in an appropriate way. Drivers also understand that while the problems they’ve experienced are not their fault, they do have control over what happens next.

Drivers tend to initiate positive change.

The Supporter (The Former Rescuer)

The rescuer becomes the supporter when they set clear boundaries and prioritize their own needs. The supporter does not make assumptions about what others need. Instead, they might ask, “Do you need support or solutions right now?” or “What do you need from me?”

Supporters can provide a listening ear or encouraging words, but they will not jump into action without first being asked to. When a supporter feels their energy being drained, they know how to express their own needs clearly and kindly to others.

Supporters tend to focus on active listening and boundary setting.

The Coach (The Former Persecutor)

The persecutor becomes the coach when they break out of black-and-white thinking and acknowledge the complexity of a situation. When they do this, their criticism can transform into motivation. Coaches encourage others to action by asking the right questions.

Coaches are great at empowering others. They provide reasonable expectations, offer alternative ways of looking at things, and comment on the strength of others. They might recall moments that serve as examples of a person’s strength or ask powerful questions to initiate self-reflection in others.

Coaches tend to drive others to action through empowerment.

Final Thoughts on the Reenactment Triangle & The Empowerment Triangle

Breaking reenactments requires self-awareness and support. If you want to be a trauma-informed leader, it’s essential that you acknowledge that this is inside-out work. It happens with you, first. Only then can you teach your team how to achieve the same results.

As we work to reframe the roles we play in a reenactment, remember that only one person needs to break the cycle for the cycle to be broken—and that one person can be you.

How are you going to shift from the victim to the driver, the rescuer to the supporter, or the persecutor to the coach? Get the conversation started in the comments below!

1 Comment

Holly Fullmer
Holly Fullmer
Aug 16, 2023

Thank you for this powerful article Shen! While it is never fun to have a spotlight pointed at our behaviors, I wholeheartedly appreciate the practical tools and phrases you have included. 💯


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