Are you the kind of person who always seems to be stuck in some kind of drama? Perhaps you notice that drama seems to follow you around; you’re always attracting misfortune and challenging circumstances. Or maybe you attract the kind of people who bring drama into your life? You feel drawn to people who you’re certain you can help, but you end up feeling drained and exhausted while nothing seems to change for them?
If these are patterns you recognise in your life and relationships, then you might be caught in the drama triangle.
What is the drama triangle?
The drama triangle is a model that we can use to understand how conflict plays out. It often describes a form of codependency: whichever role we’re playing, we’re encouraging the other to stay stuck in their own patterns so that we feel validated, unconsciously getting our psychological needs met.
Crucially, it’s a pattern that can feel addictive and impossible to break out of, because to do so requires confronting some of our deepest vulnerabilities. While drama may sound unwelcome on the surface, it can also feel safe when we’ve been given a blueprint that relationships alway involve some kind of conflict. This typically happens in early childhood, whether we’ve been involved in these codependent patterns ourselves, or witnessed them in our caregivers.
The triangle itself is made up of three different roles: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. It can involve two or more people, with each person playing different roles as the dynamic changes.
Let’s explore each of these places in more detail.
Being in your inner rescuer can look like being drawn to people who have lots of drama in their lives. You feel certain that you’re the person who can fix things for them, but nothing you do seems to help in the long term. Perhaps you’re the person everyone comes to for help – but it’s never reciprocated, and instead you often feel drained and exhausted, as though no-one is taking care of your needs.
If you identify with your inner rescuer, you’re likely to attract people who will drain your energy. These are the kind of people who will always be complaining and needing something, while never taking any steps to help themselves. They’re not actually invested in improving their situation, and so nothing you can do will ever be enough.
But that doesn’t stop you from wanting to help, because you still care about them, and you desperately want their situation to improve. And maybe this time things will be different? Maybe this time they’ll really listen to your advice?
While taking care of people who need help is generous and kind, rescuing is different: it’s a way of taking the focus away from the rescuer’s own challenges by ‘fixing’ someone else’s. This is a really smart strategy for distracting yourself away from your own anxieties!
And here we can begin to see the vulnerability that being in your rescuer protects you from: feeling needed and wanted feels safe. Often, self-worth becomes so entangled with feeling needed that it can feel impossible to let go of wanting to help, even when it’s at the expense of your own wellbeing.
Often, this dynamic ends in a big blowout when all the pent-up resentment finally explodes.
Being in your inner victim can feel like a feeling of stuckness, that nothing will ever improve or change. The victim is a place of, “poor me!”
Perhaps you’ve tried therapy, books, courses… and while your mental health is solid, still nothing ever seems to help. You’re aware that drama often follows you around, and you may even have been told that you’re high maintenance.
While we all need to learn on our support network for help, being caught in a victim mentality is different: it’s a way of keeping yourself small by not facing up to what’s really going on under the surface.
If you identify with your inner victim, you’re likely to often have some kind of drama going on in your life. Maybe it feels like it follows you around – for some reason, you’re just the kind of person to attract misfortune. You likely have lots of people in your life who want to offer their help, but nothing ever seems to really change for you.
You might even find yourself feeling resentful of the people who care the most, or deeply mistrustful that they really want to help. Perhaps you push them away without even realising why.
It can feel super vulnerable to really accept help if you’re caught in a victim mentality, because that means taking responsibility for where you’re at, and making a change. And this is really understandable: you may never have learned to feel safe in relationships that don’t involve drama. It can feel addictive.
People in the victim role will unconsciously seek out someone in one of the other roles: either a rescuer who will try to ‘save’ them, or a persecutor who they can blame. This shifts the responsibility for the victim’s position onto one of these other roles.
The final role in the drama triangle is the persecutor. In a conflict between two people, this is often the role that either the victim or the rescuer will end up in when the original roles inevitably fail to resolve the situation.
A common way that this can go is for someone in their victim to trigger a rescuer response in the other person. The rescuer starts to give their time and energy to fixing the victim’s problem, trying everything they can to help. When the rescuer realises that they are giving more than they have the capacity for, they begin to feel resentful and withdraw from the situation. When the victim notices this, they start to blame the rescuer instead, and the rescuer becomes the perpetrator.
From here, the perpetrator may themselves switch to the victim role and seek out a rescuer.
How to break the pattern
So what can you do if you notice that you’re stuck in this cycle?
If you recognise that you’ve been playing these roles in your relationships, or you’ve been dragged into others’ drama triangles, the first thing to do is to notice it with compassion.
All of the roles in the triangle appear because there is a deeper need that we’re not having met: for validation, for affection, for safety, for peace. We unconsciously try to get these needs met by acting out drama or seeking codependent dynamics, which may work in the short-term, but over time feel draining and inauthentic.
Something I’ve learned on my own journey, and in my intimacy coaching work, is that accessing the deeper needs and fears that motivate each of these roles is the most powerful way to really make changes.
This can be done in a really gentle and safe way, opening a dialogue with the parts of yourself that really need some attention and care, and starting to meet those needs in a healthier way.
If this is something you’re curious to know more about, click here and let’s see if I could be the right person to support you.
Do you battle against parts of yourself that you don’t like very much? Maybe you have some people-pleasing tendencies that you’ve identified as a ‘problem,’ or you hate how emotional you get when you need to assert a boundary.
Do you feel frustrated at how easily you cry when you get upset, or wish those anxious voices asking all the ‘what ifs’ would just go away for good?
It makes a lot of sense that we’d want parts of ourselves that we don’t like to just go away. It can feel as though they’re sabotaging our efforts to have healthy relationships, causing all kinds of behaviour that feels unhelpful.
Where do these parts come from?
I call these different parts of our personalities mini-characters. Mini-characters are often quite young parts of ourselves that have specific needs and fears. They show up to protect us from something that feels vulnerable or scary, in the only way they know how. Your anxious mini-character that always wants to ask ‘what if’ helps to keep you safe by making sure you consider all the possibilities… but when this part becomes overactive and out of balance it can feel draining, difficult, or completely paralysing.
Often, all mini-characters really need is to be heard and felt – not suppressed or fought against. The challenging behaviour they cause happens when they act out because they need our love and attention.
When we slide in and out of mini-characters unconsciously, we have no choice in allowing them to take over our behaviour. When we allow ourselves to get to know all of these parts of ourselves, we can take a step back and have more choice in how we behave.
Integration happens when we can welcome these parts of ourselves, give them permission to be here, and listen to what they need. This doesn’t mean that we’re indulging them, or allowing ourselves to get lost in them – it means that we’re giving them space to express what they need to express. We can acknowledge them as being important parts of ourselves, and we can choose whether to allow them to influence our behaviour or not.
Caring for difficult parts in this way usually allows them to find a better balance, where they act out less to get our attention in challenging ways.
Here is a process for bringing all of these parts back into balance, and finding integration.
Step 1: Recognising
The first step to integrating a mini-character is saying hello to it. We first need to notice that it’s there!
Which parts of your character do you find most frustrating or difficult?
(It’s important to recognise that mini-characters can feel positive and welcome too – which parts of your character do you enjoy and feel proud of? For this process I’d recommend focusing on something you’re feeling challenged by.)
Pick something specific that feels easy to access – perhaps a people-pleasing part, an anxious part, a controlling part, or something else that you can easily identify and name.
Take a moment to flesh out this mini-character in your mind: when do they show up? How does it feel to act as this mini-character? What are their go-to behaviours? What are they most likely to say when they feel challenged?
Give this mini-character a name that feels accurate and right to you. This might simply be “people-pleaser” or it might be something more personal to you.
Step 2: Noticing
Once you have a good idea of this mini-character, the next step is to take this knowledge out into the wild and see how often they become activated.
The aim isn’t to try and change anything here; it’s simply to become more aware of when a mini-character shows up. The practice is to become able to notice in the moment – or as soon afterwards as possible – when a mini-character has become activated.
When you do recognise that a mini-character has appeared, all I recommend doing is noting it to yourself: “My people-pleaser has become activated,” or, “My anxious mini-character has shown up.”
If you have someone in your life who you trust enough to talk about this with, it can be helpful to be able to say this out loud too. You can explain that you’re wanting to become more aware of this particular part of your personality, and let them know that you’d like to name it out loud with them when it shows up. Make sure they understand that you’re not needing them to do anything or change anything – only witness you noticing.
Every time you do this you take a step back from identifying as the mini-character, which is a vital step in introducing more choice in how you then behave. A mini-character can be present without being “I” or “me.” When we can notice mini-characters showing up without identifying with them completely, we can choose how much energy and attention to give them.
Step 3: Accepting
By already recognising and noticing, you’ve done an awful lot of work towards integrating. Accepting happens when we can also find love and compassion for these parts of ourselves.
My favourite way to find acceptance is to open a dialogue with the mini-character and ask it questions: what does it need? What is it afraid of? This is a process I go through often in my one-to-one work, where we interview the mini-character and find out its qualities and gifts.
Ultimately, mini-characters are important parts of ourselves that we simply wouldn’t be the same without. They bring challenges, but they also bring benefits.
A process you could try yourself is to open a dialogue with the mini-character you’ve identified by journaling.
Let’s use the example of a people-pleasing mini-character:
Find a quiet place where you can take some time to yourself, and bring to mind a moment when your people-pleaser becomes activated. Allow yourself to pick up a flavour of this mini-character so that you can access it easily, without becoming overwhelmed by it. Give yourself time to feel what it’s like to act as this mini-character, knowing you can step back out again when you need to.
Then, speaking as this mini-character, take some time to journal in response to these questions:
What do you really want?
If you got that desire, what deeper need would be met?
What are you most afraid of?
How do you limit [your real name]?
What gift do you bring?
What do you need most right now?
Once you’re feeling that this process is complete, take a moment to thank this mini-character for sharing their insights, and do whatever feels most helpful to say goodbye to them for the moment. Perhaps having a shake, taking a shower, or something else that feels nourishing to you.
Reflect back on the answers you wrote down: are there are needs this mini-character has that your whole, adult self can provide? Can you meet these needs yourself?
This is a process, and you may like to revisit this exercise multiple times. Don’t worry if you weren’t able to answer all the questions this time around; allow more insights to come later, or the next time you decide to give this mini-character some space.
You can use these three steps of recognising, noticing, and accepting any time you find there’s a part of yourself that you feel resistance to, that you simply don’t like, or that you feel you’d be better off without. It may feel counterintuitive to learn to love and accept a part of you that feels difficult or challenging, but it can be an incredibly powerful way to connect more deeply with yourself and bring all the parts of your character back into balance.
Finally, if you feel that this is too big a process to go through alone and you’d like some support, you can read more about how I work here.
Ok, so you’ve identified that you’re a people-pleaser. You’ve noticed a pattern of feeling frustrated in your relationships (whether romantic or platonic – it can show up everywhere) because you fail to communicate your wants and needs early on. You go along with it, telling yourself it’s not so bad, until you reach breaking point… which usually ends in an emotional blowout or simply giving up and cutting the other person out entirely.
Either way, there’s a lot of resentment that slowly builds and it’s really, really draining.
It feels impossible to put yourself first – what if your requests are too much? What if you hear a “no?”
It feels so much easier to simply go along with what the other person wants, tolerating that small, niggling discomfort, than it does to ask for what you really need. Doesn’t it?
I have some good news for you – it’s possible to change this pattern and start advocating for yourself. Here are some ways to start that process.
Make Peace With Your Inner People-Pleaser
This part of you – the part that wants to accommodate, that wants to put others first, the part that wants to keep everyone happy – this is an important part of you. It may feel like something that you want to change, get rid of, even something you’re ashamed of, but I’d like to start by encouraging you to welcome it and give it permission to be a part of your character.
A good way in can be through journaling. Here are some prompts that might help:
“My people-pleaser gets most activated when…”
“I first learned how to take care of others when…”
“My people-pleasing part protects me from…”
“My people-pleasing part benefits my relationships by…”
People-pleasing is a response that you likely learned at a young age, in response to something that felt overwhelming. Really common experiences where this happens include parents being emotionally (or physically) unavailable: as a young child this can be felt as an abandonment, and by learning to please and accommodate we are ensuring that we won’t be abandoned again. After all, if we keep everyone happy, and don’t upset anyone, they are less likely to leave us!
It can be really helpful to make friends with your inner people-pleaser by acknowledging that it serves a really useful purpose. It has gifts for you: perhaps you’re a really loyal and caring friend, or you feel a lot of motivation to do work that makes a really positive impact on the world. Maybe you work in healthcare or another profession where putting others first is part of your job.
These are really beneficial and wonderful things – your inner people-pleaser is important, even if it becomes a over-active in some situations.
Learn to Identify Your Own Wants and Needs
While your inner people-pleaser is an important part of who you are, it’s still possible to balance it a little better so that it doesn’t show up in ways that sabotage your relationships.
How do you start doing this?
It’s possible that you’ve been suppressing your own needs for a really long time. Maybe you don’t even know how to think about yourself at all!
In my experience, the body knows what the body wants. It’s the mind that starts chattering over the top, overriding what we feel, telling us that our needs are not as important. So I like to start with the body.
This involves gently starting to increase awareness for what you can feel – not what you think. Can you give yourself some space and time to pause, slow down, check in with your body, and ask what you really need in this moment? Maybe it starts with small enquiries – how you want to spend the next ten minutes, or what type of tea you want to drink.
I’ve written more about this in a blog post titled, Learning How to Feel More. There are a several practices and ideas there if you’d like some more inspiration.
Ask for Help from People you Trust
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that your inner people-pleaser developed in the context of a relationship (perhaps with family at a young age, or in early sexual relationships). As an adult, this part of you becomes activated within the context of a relationship. This means that the most effective change will happen – yes – within the context of a relationship.
This could look like speaking with someone you trust about this part of yourself, and asking for their support. Perhaps this is a close friend, or family member, or something you could do with a partner.
This is a great thing to work through within a coaching relationship too, for the same reasons.
How might it be to ask them to check in with you? To ask you directly what you want more often? Or simply to share an intention with them, that you’d like to prioritise your own needs more, to give yourself permission to start practicing saying “I want…” with them?
Having someone on your side to ask for reassurance can be really powerful too – being able to share a desire or need with them, knowing you can ask them to reassure you that you haven’t asked for “too much.”
Psychosexual Somatics Therapy (PST) is a gentle, trauma-aware method of moving through intimacy challenges – sexual, relational, or emotional. It emphasises nervous system regulation while addressing childhood attachment issues, by combining a cognitive understanding of the emotional root causes underneath the presenting issue, alongside embodied practices and somatic awareness.
So many of us are in our heads most of the time. Our minds are useful for thinking about the future or the past, but they’re not so great at being present. Being present in the here and now requires us to bring our awareness more into our whole body, but this can often feel scary, impossible, or frustrating.
If you can’t access how you’re feeling right now in your body, then it becomes hard to know where your boundaries are, what you want, and what you need. This is often a trauma response, based on ways of surviving that many of us developed in our earliest years. PST works to gradually bring awareness to the feelings and emotions you might be avoiding, why you’re avoiding them, and how.
What does a PST coaching session look like?
PST is influenced by psychotherapy, counselling, neuroscience, clinical sexology, and body-based modalities such as Somatic Experiencing. As such, sessions can be a combination of different approaches depending on what may serve the client best.
The journey will always start with an assessment session, which will mainly involve talking through your challenges, goals, and patterns. We’ll explore the strategies you’ve developed to keep yourself safe, including where they may have originated from, to understand how they may be keeping you in disconnection now.
Subsequent sessions are informed by the assessment, and the pace you want to work at. They may include:
- Body tracking and somatic awareness: guiding you through noticing sensation in the body, and giving time and space to feel it
- Embodiment exercises: using posture, movement, and sound to allow expressions that may be habitually suppressed
- Cognitive understanding: keeping the mind happy with an intellectual context and framework for the work we’re doing
- Movement exercises: using gentle movement as an effective way to down-regulate the nervous system
- Guided meditations: slowing everything right down, and giving you space to allow whatever is in your experience
- Playing with space and proximity in the room to explore your relationship with different parts of yourself, and with others
Whichever specific exercises we use, the emphasis is always on going slowly, and introducing plenty of tools and resources to help you down-regulate your nervous system. This means that we can come up against edges and explore them carefully, gently challenging them in a way that allows for integration afterwards.
What can PST coaching help with?
Because the PST approach involves going all the way back to our earliest experiences of attachment, embodiment, and relational dynamics, it’s a modality which can be used to help with all sorts of challenges with intimacy.
These may include:
- Feeling stuck in destructive or unhelpful relationship patterns
- Challenges with identifying wants or needs in relationship
- Sexual challenges with libido, discomfort, pain, or orgasm
- Difficulty managing and expressing emotional responses
- Not knowing where your boundaries are or how to express them
- Feeling unable to identify what you want, or ask for it
The way we show up everywhere – in therapy, coaching, relationships, or sex – is a reflection of the strategies we learned as we were growing up. In a safe container, these strategies can be explored to teach you more about yourself. Bringing awareness to your patterns, and involving the whole body, is the fastest and gentlest way to integrate the parts of yourself that are getting in the way of having the relationships you want.
Short term thinking is a trap. The long term approach to healing and growth identifies that change happens slowly over a period of months, years, decades… A sensible mindset that doesn’t dwell on failure and instead acknowledges that the process often isn’t linear.
In these terms, short term thinking is unhelpful because it focuses on the everyday fluctuations that are inevitable, even when over a longer period you might be making huge progress. Zooming out, in this context, provides motivation in the form of comparing yourself to, say, two years ago: perhaps you’ve had a difficult week, but unless you’re only thinking short-term then this isn’t a reason to worry.
But thinking short-term can have its place, sometimes. There’s space to celebrate the small victories. Visualising where you want to be in a year or two, while a helpful practice to create focus and intention, can also feel overwhelming. It’s here that bringing things back to the everyday can help with motivation, whatever that looks like for you: maybe today you meditated for ten minutes in the morning, or you had a weekend without alcohol, or you were able to ask for something you need.
On the one hand, our big visions for the future help to keep us on track, but on the other it’s the everyday decisions and achievements that get us there at all. In this context, we can even celebrate the failures as a necessary part of the journey too. And above all of this, it’s valid to rest for a while too.
Setting an intention is a simple practice, for me mainly associated with a meditation or yoga session. It’s a conscious decision to gently direct my energy towards something specific, without holding too tightly onto reaching a particular goal: making an intention conscious and then letting go of it allows it to still be present, ideally without introducing attachment to an outcome.
It changes the flavour of whatever it is I’m about to do, into an activity that I am doing with a clear idea of why I want to do it, and what its benefits could be.
Something I am learning to do more often is to use intention in other areas of my life. Setting an intention for a day, a relationship, or a conversation perhaps. Considering what’s important to me about whatever I’m about to engage in doesn’t have to be limited to sitting on a cushion or yoga mat.
Removing this limitation is helpful for a few reasons. Firstly, it encourages the habit of asking myself why I do what I do; what is it that I want? What does my body need? As someone who has, historically, found identifying what I want hard, this is good practice.
It also helps to make the implicit explicit, at least to ourselves. If we go into a potentially challenging situation without first taking a minute to find clarity on where our focus is, we leave ourselves susceptible to playing out unhelpful scripts. When we can’t identify and own what we want, we allow our unconscious to run the show.
Entering into a conversation on a sensitive topic with someone we care about could easily turn nasty. Bringing an intention, if only kept to ourselves, to find compassion or to deepen our connection can help to keep us present with what’s most important.
Finally, using intentions in day to day life is a step towards more conscious action. While the point of setting an intention is to direct ourselves in a helpful way, rather than become attached to achieving anything in particular, it’s a practice that can help to steer us towards the life we want for ourselves.
If I were to step into a bath of water that was far too hot, I’d immediately know from the uncomfortable feeling against my skin. After stepping out and deciding to add some cold water to make it a better temperature, I might notice that I begin to rationalise or explain what had happened: I had gotten distracted and forgotten to check the temperature, or maybe I’d tell myself that I can never get the temperature right. Perhaps this leads to frustration.
But the feeling, when I first stepped in the bath and noticed that it hurt my feet, has passed. The feeling was unavoidable and unpleasant, but short-lived; the emotional component of frustration came afterwards, caused by the conscious process of telling myself a story about the feeling.
Painful feelings can be caused by other people too, but these still pass quickly if recognised without bringing history and future into the mix, turning a feeling such as anger into sticky emotional response based on a “you always do this,” or “you never seem to care.”
A very helpful thing to be able to do is to notice when we’re turning a feeling into an emotion, so that we can acknowledge the feeling and allow it to move past instead of attaching narratives to it. While feelings are caused by things outside of us, our emotions are our responsibility.
If we can separate the two and acknowledge our feelings without attachment, then we can avoid getting stuck with unhelpful emotions. We can also begin to own our emotional responses instead of blaming another for making us feel a certain way.
It can be so easy to minimise what we want, think, or need. “I just feel that…” or “I think I’d like to…” instead of “I think” or “I want.” Not wanting to admit or commit means our words come out fuzzy, and we have a get-out clause; we were never that bothered anyway, we weren’t completely sure.
We fail to find the confidence to say what’s really going on, to be direct in saying what’s really true in a way that shows we also know ourselves.
This lack of confidence shows up in other forms too.
“This always happens,” or “I never do that” seem like the opposite on the surface, an over-confident sureness in our conclusion. But this is coming from a similar place: wanting to find a way out, an excuse or reason not to be who we truly are. Not to be occasionally wrong or inconsistent.
In both cases we’re lazily using language to hide behind, as way to cover our tracks and avoid being caught out. Either by never fully committing to a position in the first place, or by preventing us from seeing alternatives: only ever allowing one possibility, in case different outcomes mean failure or change.
Noticing both of these habits – and especially if they’re habits – can be a first step towards finding the places where we don’t feel confident in showing ourselves.
Beginning to change these language patterns can have a real impact on our thoughts and perceptions, and allow us to communicate with more confidence – both in our convictions and our fallibility.