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.
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.”
Maybe you’ve heard that having boundaries in your relationships is really important. While this is good advice, it doesn’t begin to explain exactly what boundaries are, how you can find yours, or communicate them to the people you’re in relationships with.
In my intimacy coaching work, boundaries are often among the first topics I address with my clients, as so many of us didn’t grow up learning how to feel our boundaries – let alone assert them.
In this post I’ll cover what boundaries are, what they’re not, and how to start finding and communicating yours.
Let’s start with the basics.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are limits that anyone can set for themselves to determine what they are and are not comfortable engaging with. They’re a method that we all can use for establishing our identity, preferences, and personal space – physically, emotionally, and energetically.
In relationships, this can mean lots of different things, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
To begin with, the most important things to know are that boundaries are:
- Personal – only you get to decide where your boundaries are.
- Contextual – you may have different boundaries at different times, or with different people.
- Empowering – they allow you to say yes or no, take responsibility for what’s yours, and filter out what isn’t.
Boundaries, Limits, and Barriers
It’s important to understand what boundaries are not, too.
Limits are the places at the edge of our boundaries. While boundaries are contextual and may shift around depending on who we’re with and what we’re doing, our limits are the lines which show us when we are being assaulted.
For example, you may enjoy play-fighting or wrestling with a lover, in a way that you wouldn’t want to do with, say, a platonic friend – you have different boundaries for these two people. However, being punched in the face might be a limit for you; it’s something that would never be welcome, whoever you’re with or whatever mood you’re in.
Barriers are rigid, and are often a response to being unable to assert boundaries in a healthy way. Instead of being able to feel and establish boundaries and say yes or no depending on the situation, some people will put up barriers to prevent contact at all. While this can be a useful protection in some circumstances, the trade-off is all too often the inability to ever let others in.
Putting up barriers can be seen as an opposite behaviour to people-pleasing; instead of saying yes to everything, you’re saying no to everything. Lots of people may notice that both of these show up for them in different circumstances.
Different Types of Boundaries
There are all kinds of different boundaries that come into play in different situations. As an intimacy coach I take care to maintain professional boundaries; in a relationship with a partner these are not relevant.
Understanding the different kinds of boundaries can be really helpful in identifying which come easily to you, and which could benefit from some more awareness.
In your romantic and sexual relationships, there are six categories which are most relevant: physical, social, emotional, sexual, cognitive, and material:
- Physical: how do you like to be touched? Greeted? How much physical personal space do you need when you’re having a conversation or sharing a bed with someone? How much physical time apart do you need from a partner or lover? How much touch do you need? If you live together, do you need a room for yourself?
- Social: how much do you share about your relationship, or each others’ lives, with friends? How much time do you want or need to talk about yourself with your partner? How involved are you in each others’ social lives? How do you feel about meeting each other’s friends and families?
- Emotional: how much emotional support do you need? How do you want to be supported when you’re struggling? How much tolerance do you have for your partner’s emotional states? Do you have requirements for your partner’s abilities to process and manage their own emotional baggage?
- Sexual: what kind of sexual contact (if any) are you comfortable with outside of your relationship? What sexual activities are hard limits for you? Which activities do you need to experience to feel satisfied? What do you need in order for sex to feel pleasurable? How much sexual contact do you want with your partners?
- Cognitive: are there topics that you don’t feel comfortable discussing? Do you have particular beliefs or world views that are not compatible with certain people or situations? Are there specific situations or decisions people may ask of you that are against your ethics?
- Material: do you prefer to combine your finances with your partners, or keep them separate? How do you feel about giving and receiving material gifts? How do you manage joint expenses?
How To Find Healthy Boundaries For You
Now you have some idea of all the different ways that boundaries can be expressed, how do you decide what’s right for you in your relationships?
This can be a difficult task if you’re used to following the many scripts we’re socialised with. To take one example: in the culture I grew up in, it’s a norm that after being in a relationship for a year or two, my partner and I will move in together.
What if my physical and material boundaries aren’t compatible with that expectation? If I live in an expensive city, and my partner and I can’t afford a home big enough for us to have the personal space we need, should I violate my boundaries in order to do the ‘normal’ thing?
Chances are, when you read through the list of categories above, some of them resonated with you more than others. Which provoked a biggest reaction in you? Do you have a sense of which types of boundaries come easily to you (if any), and which you didn’t even realise could exist?
Having awareness of these places is the most important first step. Begin to ask yourself questions about what you really want from the people you’re in relationships with – and what you really want to offer them, too. If you journal or meditate, or have a different self-reflective practice, try introducing some of these themes and see what arises for you.
It can also be helpful to learn to pay more attention to your body’s cues. Your body will have a reaction (a gut feeling, perhaps) when one of your boundaries is violated, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Beginning to listen to these reactions, however subtle, can be a really great way to begin noticing when something isn’t right. This information can help to inform your boundary-setting in the future.
Ultimately, healthy boundaries are the places where you can give another person your love and support without compromising yourself and your needs. Boundaries are vital for our mental health: if you’re often feeling drained, tired, or resentful with your partner, then this could mean that you’re violating your own boundaries in your relationship. Noticing if and when these feelings come up can be helpful clues to point you towards where your boundaries are.
Allowing someone to violate your boundaries is also an act of you violating your own boundaries. Whenever someone behaves in a way that isn’t aligned with your wants and needs, you have the responsibility to communicate that with them and ask for something different, or remove yourself from the situation.
Which bring us to…
How To Communicate Personal Boundaries
Communicating boundaries can feel really edgy and vulnerable because it’s a skill many of us haven’t learned. To give a couple of examples, many young children are tickled by their parents despite being asked to stop. Or they are told they must hug or kiss relatives, even if they don’t want to. This teaches children that their boundaries will not be respected, and – worse – their ‘no’ may result in punishment or withdrawal of affection.
So, how do we learn as adults?
First of all, it’s important to get clear not only on what your boundaries are, but also on how you will behave if your boundaries are not respected. This isn’t about punishing the other person – it’s about knowing how you’ll remove yourself from a situation where your boundaries are being violated. Hopefully you won’t need to communicate this, but it’s important that you’re clear on it so that you can if you need to.
When discussing boundary issues, talk only about your own experience and your own needs, and take responsibility for yourself. Be clear in your language. Non-Violent Communication has a helpful structure which we can borrow here:
State a fact that you’ve noticed, using “I” sentences. Avoid accusing the other person of anything, voicing an opinion, or mentioning any emotions at this stage. The aim is to state something as neutrally as possible that the other person can agree with.
“I notice that I initiate most of our plans for seeing each other.”
How does this make you feel? Try to stick only to emotions here, rather than getting caught in stories, and again focus on your own experience only.
“I feel insecure and sad about this.”
State the need you have in this situation. What’s your boundary?
“I have a need for reciprocity and reassurance that you want to see me as much as I want to see you.”
Ask the other person for what you need in this situation. Be as specific as possible; avoid asking them to make you feel a particular emotion, and instead ask them to take specific actions that would have the same effect.
“I’d like to request that you take the lead in organising more of our dates, and ask me more often when we can see each other next.”
5: Check in
Finally, ask how this landed for them. Give them your full attention as they respond to your request.
“How does that sound to you?”
When discussing boundary issues it can also be helpful to focus on the positive result of having your boundaries respected. Hopefully, both you and your partner want the same thing: perhaps it’s a close, intimate relationship built on love and trust. Framing the discussion with this perspective can help to remind you both that you’re on the same side, and avoid the conversation becoming an argument.
In the “need” section of the framework above, you could include this by saying something like,
“An important part of intimacy for me is to feel reciprocity and reassurance. I love the intimacy that we have together, and hearing that you want to see me as much as I want to see you would help me to feel much more secure in our relationship.”
Hopefully this will start a productive conversation with your loved one and result in a change in behaviour that helps you to get your needs met.
It’s important to note that if your needs are opposed to the other person’s boundaries or desires, you may have to consider what this means for your relationship. There may be a compromise you’re willing to make, or it may mean that you need to change the amount or type of intimacy you can enjoy with that person. For example, if I find out that one of my friends can’t keep secrets, I may not necessarily feel I need to end our friendship – but I may decide to no longer talk with them about deeply personal topics.
If this seemed like a lot, I’d encourage you to take everything slowly. Learning how to be better with your boundaries can be a lifelong journey, and it’ll likely feel easier in some situations than in others. It’s an extremely useful enquiry to make though, and very worth it – when you get clearer on your wants and needs, and better at communicating them, all of your relationships will benefit.
If we take it as a given that we will tend to be attracted to people who allow us to act out childhood experiences of love and affection, meaning that we play out similar patterns in our relationships, for better or worse…
And if we accept that in order to find these people requires us to experience their body language, actions, words, and tone of voice…
Does this mean that meeting someone on Tinder and getting to know them a little over text could function as something of a pattern interrupt?
That through the screen, we miss so many vital clues about another’s behaviour that we could end up becoming invested in someone who we get along with, but who doesn’t quite fit into those patterns?
This could explain the often-repeated advice to “meet them as quickly as possible.” After all, had we met them at an event then we may instantly, unconsciously, realise that they don’t quite appeal to the parts of us that keep our patterns going, and decided we weren’t interested. Perhaps meeting online and spending some time chatting opens us up to people we may otherwise feel are not for us, which in turn allows us to question the scripts that fuel our relationships.