By Erinn Everhart,
Marriage and Family Therapist
May 9, 2022
The Drama Triangle:
The Story Of The Damsel, Hero, And Villain
Power has always been a human pre-occupation. Power gives us autonomy, freedom, and control. It may also entitle us to respect, admiration and support from others. From infancy into toddlerhood, we engage in power struggles to test our boundaries and learn independence. We seek to feel safe and form close bonds with protective people in our lives.
When we are young, we are relatively powerless, as we are often reliant on parental or authority figures to get our needs met. Authority figures who are caring and wield power in nurturing and supportive ways can help us grow into strong, confident, and capable adults. However, there are times when power is misused or abused.
We may encounter individuals in our lives with less than honorable intentions who gain influence through exploiting or harming others. We may also encounter imbalances in power dynamics in our close friend and family relationships. As a therapist working with many pre-teen and teen clients, I often find myself in the position of helping them untangle themselves from power struggles with their peers.
Many of my teen clients describe themselves entwined with their friend groups in a structured power play. The scenario generally consists of 3 character types, although the roles may interchange.
This role-play can be identified as a
When viewing the Drama from the outside, clients are able to identify their parts:
Player #1: The Victim (aka the Damsel)
This role is often undertaken by a group leader or other influential person. The role of Victim can also be recognized as the crafty and talented Damsel-in-Distress, who gathers admirers through appealing to their hearts with stories of tragedy and apparent vulnerability. They may portray themselves as stuck in a helpless situation, and they seek to garner support from ordained individuals within the group.
The Damsel searches for someone who is especially empathic and caring. Someone who will serve them completely, and help them escape from their tragic existence. Enter the Rescuer, or the Hero or Heroine of our tale.
Player #2: The Rescuer (aka the Heroine)
This Big-Hearted individual becomes enamored with the Damsel. The Damsel may treat this individual as a close confidant, and will often flatter them, bestow special privileges, or make promises in attempt to secure a close bond. However, this bond is typically one-sided, and our Heroine grows frustrated when they discover that their needs are being sacrificed to the Damsel.
The Heroine will attempt to assert herself, and re-establish boundaries in the relationship with the Damsel. “My needs matter too!” They complain. The Damsel becomes fearful at this shift in power dynamics, for they cannot lose their position as Queen. They abruptly reject the Heroine and assign them a new role, the Villain.
Player #3: The Aggressor (aka the Villain)
As the fallen Heroine continues to assert themselves, the Damsel grows fearful that they are losing the game, and retaliates. The Damsel begins to attack, criticize, shame and blame, attempting to humiliate their former Heroine. The Heroine, if not savvy to the power dynamics at play, may become depressed and confused. They have now been ousted, shunned, villainized, and relegated as the “Aggressive One.” They no longer feel important or needed by this person who was once so benevolent to them and may begin to blame themselves. Where did I go wrong? They wonder. Doubts begin to creep in and they may start to question the legitimacy of their close relationships.
When my teen clients share their experiences of these challenging friendship situations, I spend time with them in session examining the Drama Triangle, identifying the players and patterns. I explain to them that the Drama is not about them or anything they did wrong. It is merely about power dynamics, serving to elevate a certain individual and their position within the group. When one of my clients has dared to alter these dynamics, they have unbalanced the power in the relationship. And when their friend begins to mistreat them, we identify that the friend is not respecting them as an individual with their own needs and wants. Their former friend is merely viewing them through the lens of their role.
I also explain that a true friendship will survive this shift. If an individual wants to be in a genuine, caring relationship with another person, the friend will respect their boundaries, and value their assertive qualities. They will want to be in an equal partnership, and will not attempt to control the other person. Oftentimes, these power imbalances are the result of emotional immaturity, where one party may be lacking empathy and self-awareness due to impaired emotional or neurological development. However, I also explain that it is up to this individual to recognize their own shortcomings, and that we cannot change the other person or force them to want to make this shift.
My clients will ask what they can do to untangle themselves from these roles. The first step is to recognize these patterns and the function of the parts within the power play. And second, to learn assertive communication. When my clients can articulate their needs in a firm and respectful manner, healthier boundaries will develop, and the power play will naturally dissolve. Remember those who bully others are often fearful about confronting their own vulnerabilities, and may not be accustomed to self-reflecting on their own weaknesses. And often, they are afraid of conflict. In fact, they will do just about anything to avoid it. Thereby, assertive communication serves a purpose that is two-fold for my clients: to acknowledge that they are uncomfortable with this person’s behavior, and to extricate themselves from their designated “role.”
I discuss some ways for my clients to untangle themselves in a careful manner so they do not get hooked in the game through retaliation. They can do this through a gentle but firm communication style. The use of I statements is particularly effective way to demonstrate accountability for their own feelings and actions, while highlighting the effects of the other person’s behavior on their mood. If the other party
becomes defensive, or is unwilling to hear their side, I caution them to gracefully exit, and revisit the conversation at a later time.
It is true that these power plays do not merely exist within pre-teen and teen relationships. They may also be present in our adult lives, and can interfere in our relationships with colleagues, supervisors, and family members.
As adults, it is our responsibility to re-balance the power dynamics in our relationships and to strive to make them on equal footing. We may seek to do this through healthy and impactful communications, assertiveness, and gentle but firm confrontation. And if the other party is unwilling to see our side or change their behavior, we may have to question the health of the relationship.
About the Author
Erinn Everhart, LMFT is the founder of Every Heart Dreams Counseling, a private counseling practice in Folsom, CA. We work with individual adults, pre-teens and teens, and their family members. We have a special focus in DBT and Trauma Therapy. Please visit our website to learn more about us at everyheartdreamscounseling.com.