Breaking the Drama Triangle


By Tolu Taiwo

For the most part, we’ve all heard at least one variation of a fairytale before. Some of us we were a huge fans of Cinderella as a little kid, some of us grew up listening to different fairytales from different cultures, some of us grew out of the stereotypical and problematic ideas fairytales bring to the table, and some of us still secretly want to be a princess (believe it or not, all of these are true for me), Regardless of how we know feel about these stories, however, we at least know the typical premise: someone (usually a “damsel”) is in distress, someone is the persecuting antagonist, and someone is the knight in shining armor, ready to save the day.

We would never think to impose the fairytale life –except that we do, almost all the time. In the workplace, there’s something called the “Drama Triangle” that’s used among workers and supervisors, or students and advisors, or students and student leaders, etc., etc. Basically, there are three points—the “blameless” victim, the “bad” persecutor, and the “justice-seeking” rescuer. These roles can show up in many different ways. For example, Student A could go to an advisor and say that Student B isn’t doing their part on a project. The advisor could then go and scold Student B and tell them to get their work done.

Easy fix, right? The problem, though, is that the roles aren’t real, and these imaginary roles shift all the time. Let’s say that Student B, in that situation, was only “slacking off” because they had personal problems that week. They might vent to the advisor and tell their side of the story, and then the advisor may feel forced to place Student A in the persecutor category. Or, Student B might vent to Student C and say that the advisor sided with Student A and didn’t listen to Student B’s side of the story, so now Student C would be the rescuer, Student B the victim, and the advisor the persecutor. Or… gosh, well. This could go on for days. The point is, the Drama Triangle victimizes and problematizes people—something in student affairs that we work hard against—and it keeps work from getting done.

This is something that I have been guilty of countless amounts of times. Given that my TrueColors color is a “blue,” and that it’s my personal instinct to “mother” people, I unfortunately have a bit of a savior complex. When a student—especially if it’s one of my students—tell me that there’s a problem, my natural reaction is to put on the proverbial White Hat and go attack the persecutor. However, as I said before, the roles aren’t real. Sometimes there’s more to the story, and sometimes it’s not beneficial to go attack the said “persecutor” because that person isn’t an actual persecutor. And of course, it gets even trickier when the “persecutor” is another one of my students.

This is NOT to say that I should just sit back idly and watch all problems occur. There are certain circumstances in which we need to snap to and defend our people (I’m sorry, but I learned that someone was, for example, physically harming one of my students, you’d bet that I’d come in swinging and use all of my savior complex for good). Also, if we generally sat back and let the injustices happen, there’d be no activists and warriors for social justice.

However, in certain situations, I need to learn not to constantly jump in, and instead figure out ways that break this cycle of the Triangle. For example, when a student comes to me with a problem about another student, I could sit both of them down and have them talk through their issues, student-to-student instead of persecutor-to-victim. Or when a student leader has concerns with a way that another office does their business, I could work with them to navigate the system to instead of bad-mouthing the other office. My “blue” side will always come out, but I need to work on being a resource instead of a white in shining armor.
What do you all think of the Drama Triangle? Do you see it played out at work?

Student Affairs - the First Years

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