When two friends have a dramatic friendship break up. Sometimes it’s just between the two people involved, other times whole friend groups may be thrown into the mix and before we know it, we’re in the process of culling all the ‘toxic’ people from our lives.
But are we really culling out the right people? In recent years, there’s been an influx of columns and blog posts all about saying adios to toxic people, yet few have stopped to answer the real question behind it all. Where did all these ‘toxic’ people spring up from? Was there a big convention in our cities to educate people to become toxic?
I’m going to guess and say, no… so with that in mind, why has there been a sudden influx of such people in our lives? Which begs to differ, are they really that toxic, or do we just feel insecure because they’re challenging us? In fact, what if these ‘toxic’ friendships weren’t even about the other person, but actually a true reflection back on ourselves?
In 1968, a model was developed by Stephen Karpman to explain how we interact with others when we’re in conflict and how it can escalate to a point of being, as we call it, ‘toxic.’
Looking at the model below, think back to a time when you were in that ‘toxic’ friendship. You might find some of the different places in the triangle will feel all too familiar – and it’s okay, we’ve all been here!
The Persecutor behaves in a way that makes others feel hopeless, like their a nuisance or suffering. It’s common for the persecutor to discount other people’s feelings or the importance of their emotions. At times, it can feel like they are ‘attacking’ the very core of your being by taking digs at some of the most personal things. They certainly find it difficult to hear or accept a ‘No’.
Active Persecutors: use their energy until their own needs are met (eg: Loud, in your face, physically or verbally aggressive).
Retaliatory Persecutors: aim to punish and experience ‘triumph’. They are also likely to believe their actions are justifiable, in order to get their own needs met (eg: getting the neighbours car towed because it is parked in the wrong place, as opposed to actually going over to speak with the neighbour first aka. any kind of ‘getting back at them’ behaviour. Often this can be seen as very passive aggressive).
Passive Persecutors: persecute by default. They’re not always intentionally ‘persecuting, but will often discount others and their situations (eg: a worker that is so caught up in their own personal crisis that they create stress, extra work & anxiety for their workmates).
The Persecutor in Disguise: they are the “terribly nice” people that may genuinely love and care for you, but also covertly seek to control and make you exactly like them, or who they think you should be. This type can be difficult to spot, especially because the victim often feels confused or angry at themselves for being ‘bad’. They see no reason for them being the way they are and view themselves as ‘good’ compared to others.
The Victim behaves in a way that many of us would describe as ‘needy’. They act as though they don’t have the resources to solve their own problems and seek others to resolve it for them. As you can imagine this can feel like the ultimate vacation. Which is where the appeal to remain a victim is. Rather than taking ownership of what has happened, their choices or unexpected circumstances, the victim will commonly justify ‘staying the same’ through excuses that lack them taking action/initiative forward, all while complaining about their unmet needs to anyone who will listen. Sounding familiar?The irony in the victim is they act and believe they don’t have any power, when in actual fact they have all the power. They will commonly manipulate and control others around them to get exactly what they want. Interestingly enough, like any area of power, the victim can be quite an addictive role and one that is not given up lightly or easily.
The Rescuer behaves in a way that can easily be mistaken for being overly ‘nice’. They are often quick to help people, and more often than not, it is out of genuine concern for others. However, rescuers commonly do this in order to meet their own needs. The driving force (usually subconscious) is to feel worthy or superior to others and to convince themselves that they are actually ‘ok’. A rescuer will commonly take over the thinking and problem solving of another person (usually the victim). In the eyes of the rescuer they may think they are being helpful to the victim, but in actual fact, they are enabling the victim, not empowering them. Because of this rescuing becomes an oxymoron, a rescuer intends to be helpful in reflecting someone’s value back to them, but because the rescuer lack’s the self-awareness to recognise their own needs, wants and boundaries, the knowledge that they are optimistic that they are imparting, becomes nothing more than wishful thinking.An easy way to identify rescuing is to look at who they are surrounded by. Rescuers tend to surround themselves with people that are ‘unwell’ or needy. They can have the best of intentions, but their behaviour leads the victim to stay the victim because they become dependent on the rescuer. The rescuer can also shift into the persecutor if they feel tired, overworked and underappreciated.
As you can see each ‘role’ (rescuer, victim, persecutor) all contribute to the conflict. Practically what this could look like in a friendship is:
A ‘rescuer’ befriends a ‘victim’. The ‘victim’ tends to unveil deeply personal, or what you’d think would be reserved for only their nearest and dearest, fairly quickly into the friendship (in some cases, it can even be in their first meeting). The rescuer, being the ‘generous’ person they are, affirm the victim when they put themselves down (eg: the victim may say something like “I’m not pretty enough etc.” and in response a rescuer will tell them otherwise). At first this is great. The rescuer is giving and the victim is receiving. All is well in wonderland.
Fast forward a few months. The rescuer is becoming tired of always giving out, and they begin to feel like they’re always running dry. The rescuer chooses to seek some wise counsel from others (outside of the situation). They suggest the rescuer put some boundaries in place (only spending limited time with the victim etc.) At first the rescuer feels uncertain about being that extreme, besides it’s just a friendship. After mulling it for a while, the rescuer decides to create the boundary choosing to only see the victim on a Thursday night for 2 hours. When the victim contacts the rescuer to catch up, the rescuer mentions they’re not free any night this week other than Thursday from 7-9 pm. For the victim this is a change from seeing one another every day, but shrugs it off.
When the victim calls the following week to catch up again the rescuer says the same thing. At this, the victim gets angry and shifts to the persecutor, flying harsh words through the phone at the rescuer. By the end of the conversation, the rescuer is left feeling wounded and deeply hurt. They begin to doubt the wise counsel, reflecting back on the ‘niceness’ and ‘ease’ of what it was like before when no boundaries were in place. The rescuer decides to go back to the way it was before, and the drama triangle continues.
Looking at this diagram can feel both overwhelming and disheartening because the reality is we’ve all been in one of these positions at some point in our lives. We’ve all slipped into the rescuer, the victim and the persecutor. Fortunately, there is an upside. Like all things, our value, worth and identity is not determined by the labels we have been/are. Growing and understanding how we tick are some of the catalysts to shifting beyond the apparent safety and familiarity of the ‘drama triangle’. A key way to move beyond is to look at the Winner’s/Healthy Triangle.
It can be difficult transitioning from the ‘Drama Triangle’ to the ‘Healthy Triangle’. The first step is being honest with yourself. What roles do you commonly find yourself falling into? You’ll know intuitively. If you are finding it difficult seeking wise counsel from someone like a counsellor, mentor, life coach etc. can be a great place to start. The one key thing to changing old habits: taking responsibility. Even when the circumstance is perfectly justifiable.
Thinking back to friendships, can you see were some of those ‘toxic friendships’ might have fit into the Drama Triangle and how they became ‘toxic’? Some friendships are indeed harmful and abusive and extreme measures do need to be taken, but in other cases simply distancing/removing yourself from the friendship can leave you feeling hurt and seeking closure.
It can feel painful taking a step back and holding a mirror up to ourselves, and honestly seeing where we are contributing to the ‘toxic friendship’ (are we harbouring feelings of resentment toward a friend yet not voicing our emotion, are we playing the victim card etc.)
Fortunately, friendships are ever evolving and go through seasons and stages and the joy is that you & I have the choice about what/when/how those seasons arise.
Our friendships provide the zest in life, infused with joy, comradery and connect. Let’s not throw them away because we’re clothing the authentic (Healthy Triangle) with a counterfeit (Drama Triangle). Our friendships are worth far more than that.
For more about the Drama Triangle check out – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_XSeUYa0-8