How to avoid the victim role and enjoy better relations

Karpman drama triangle

Steven B. Karpman, M.D. – 

Do you regularly find yourself blaming others for your plot in life? Do you often feel helpless and powerless in your dealings with other people? Do you struggle to make decisions and enjoy pleasurable experiences in life? If these questions resonate with you then you may be triggering the victim mentality when dealing with other people.

The “Karpman drama triangle” is a useful tool in bringing awareness to how humans relate to each other and can be attributed to Dr Stephen Karpman, a student of Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis. Berne was a Canadian psychiatrist and was the author of The Games People Play. Karpman borrowed heavily from Berne and used triangles to map conflicted or drama-intense relationships and involves three people unconsciously playing out three roles that mirror their attitudes and behaviour. Whereas Berne used the parent/adult/child triangle Karpman used persecutor/victim/rescuer. Karpman referred to them as being the three aspects, or faces of drama.

Rescuers tend to find victims, as victims are seeking saviours. Co-dependent relationships involve one person enabling another’s laziness, addiction, recklessness, emotional immaturity or irresponsibility. Persecutors will blame the victims and criticise the enabling behaviour of rescuers.

A way of seeking to “escape” the Drama Triangle is to firstly bringing more awareness to how you operate in the world. The target is to function as an “adult” and not participate in the game. Once you gain greater  insight into the way you operate in the world you can free up negative psychic energy. There is a fresh flow of vitality and positive energy when you realise that that there are other, more positive, ways of behaving. The dynamic of your relationships can change for the better.

For more information see my article:  How to avoid the victim role and enjoy better relations

What is Existential Psychotherapy?

Exitential Psychotherapy

For the past two weeks we have had lectures on Existential Psychotherapy. This is a philosophical method of therapy that operates on the belief that inner conflict within a person is due to that individual’s confrontation with the givens of existence. However, there is no such uniform body of therapy known as existential psychotherapy. Rather there are many existential therapists who practice many forms of therapy. I will though use the term existential psychotherapy, in this post, for ease of reference.

Our lecturer encouraged us to see these lectures as a bridge between psychoanalysis and the transpersonal (which is the core focus of the third year).

The givens of life in existential psychotherapy are:

1)    Inevitability of death This is one of the certainties in life. Ego does not accept the concept of death, it only wants pleasure in the moment. The ego can play tricks and can seek to alter reality. Clients need to distinguish between normal anxiety (which is good for us) and neurotic anxiety (which is out of proportion).

Woody Allan once said he didn’t mind the idea of death, he just didn’t want to be around when it happened.

2)    Isolation/We’re all alone The belief is that you are born alone and die alone. These issues can be disguised in problems of addiction.  Individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol could be seen as seeking to make a connection. By having clients broaden their level of self-awareness this automatically leads to personal growth. Therapists help clients by offering a listening space.

Certain people can suffer from isolation more than others. Beautiful people can lead lives where nothing seems to go right. We see this every day in beautiful stars of stage and screen. Extremely gifted people can also be more susceptible to isolation as they have a conduit from their unconscious to their conscious and can suffer from isolation.

3)    Freedom/responsibility The more freedom  you have the more responsibility you have. Why do rock stars trash hotel rooms? Too much freedom can lead to anxiety.  Do we all need structure? Elvis Presley had a lot of freedom but struggled with a life of excess.

Clients have the freedom to create their own destiny and are responsible for that destiny which they create. When clients realise this principle, they are empowered to change  the condition which currently afflicts them, and stop being a victim.

4)    Search for meaning It is the job of the therapist to help clients to realise that they need to find meaning and purpose in life by living and confronting challenges in their lives. (The difference with transpersonal psychotherapy is that in existential therapy meaning is given.  In transpersonal the meaning is already there). Sometimes something seemingly adverse happens at one stage of one’s life but with hindsight that adversity can be seen in a different light.

What does existential psychotherapy look like?

The art of existential psychotherapy is to understand the concept of not knowing.  The language is conversational. Existential psychotherapists are well educated in philosophy. Existential therapy starts with the premise that although humans are essentially alone in the world, they long to be connected to others. Anxiety comes from the realisation that our validation must come from within and not from others. There is a huge emphasis on the relationship between client and therapist. Whereas the here and now is important for the analyst in terms of the past, for existentialists the here and now is more about the future.

The techniques of existential psychotherapy can include Freudian, Jungian, Gestalt, cognitive, behavioural or other methods. However, the fundamental technique shared by all existential therapists is phenomenology. Phenomenology is defined as being the philosophical doctrine that advocates that the basis of psychology or psychotherapy is the scientific study of immediate experience.

Existential psychotherapists will talk about great healing that takes place if the client brings warts and all issues to the sessions. But unlike Transactional Analysis there is no concept of a cure, although Yalom hinted at a cure.

Early thinkers

European clinicians like Otto Rank, Karl Jaspers, Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger were among the first to apply existential principles to the practice of psychotherapy in the second half of the 2oth century. These were followed prominently by Frankl (Vienna), R.D. Laing, May and Yalom.

It is a fallacy to see existential therapists as Godless.

The major thinkers in existential philosophy (in addition of course to ancient thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle) are:

Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian and was born in Copenhagen in 1813. He had a deep concern about conformity.Kierkegaard’s central problematic was how to become a Christian in Christendom. For Kierkegaard there is no truth, only relative truth.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher, poet, composer, cultural critic, and classical philologist. Nietzsche’s radical questioning of the value and objectivity of truth has been the focus of much debate, especially in the continental tradition. It was important to tell the absolute truth regardless. There was no moral issue with sleeping with many people at the same time. It was crucial to live passionately. Nietzsche condemned institutionalized Christianity for emphasizing a morality of pity, which assumes an inherent illness in society.

Martin Burber (1878-1965) was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher and was best known for his philosophy of dialogue.  Philosophy of dialogue is a form of existentialism centered on the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship. Among Buber’s early philosophical influences were Kant’s Prolegomena which he read at the age of fourteen, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian and is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. One quote from Tillich Language… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone. How about another one? The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) was a French philosopher as well as being a leading Christian existentialist.  He was also an author of a number of plays. His main philosophical interest entailed focusing on the modern individual’s struggle in a technologically dehumanizing society. He also talked about the importance of hope and the fidelity and openness with others.  For Marcel, hope is the final guarantor of fidelity; it is that which allows one not to despair, that which gives one the strength to continue to create oneself in availability to the other.

Martin Heidegger (1889 –1976) was a German philosopher who was known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the “question of Being” or ontology. Heidegger found resolution in the face of anxiety, guilt and death. However, Heidegger is a controversial figure, essentially for his links with Nazism. Heidegger is known for his post-Kantian philosophy.  Heidegger criticized the tradition of Western philosophy, which he regarded as nihilistic.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was one of the key figures in the philosophy of existentialism and was a French existentialist philosopher as well as being a playwright and biographer.  Sarte was not into God, but advocated the practice of confession. Sartre’s primary idea is that people, as humans, are “condemned to be free”.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961) was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.  He was also influenced by Sartre (who later stated he had been “converted” to Marxism by Merleau-Ponty). At the core of his philosophy is a sustained argument for the foundational role that perception plays in understanding the world as well as engaging with the world.

Albert Camus (1913 –1960) was a French Pied-Noir author, journalist, and philosopher. Camus was not pleased with the continued reference to himself as a “philosopher of the absurd”. Camus had less enthusiasm in the Absurd shortly after publishing Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus). In order to distinguish his ideas, scholars have sometimes referred to the Paradox of the Absurd.

I noticed that one of Camus’s plays Cross Purpose is currently running at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington.

See also

See here for courses in existential psychotherpy.

The Society for Existential Analysis (SEA)


The only theory paper worth writing is how to cure patients

This week’s lecture was the concluding one on Transactional Analysis.

Dr Eric Berne’s seminar group from the 1950s developed the term transactional analysis (TA) which described therapies based upon his work. This expanded into the International Transactional Analysis Association. While still largely ignored by the psychoanalytic community, many therapists have put his ideas into practice and swear by the effectiveness of the ideas and methods.

Unlike other therapies Berne was not interested in merely listening.  Carl Rogers, for instance, is best known for his contribution to client centred counselling and ‘non directive’ therapy.  This is very different to what Berne advocated as he was interested in psychological cure and wanted to affect change in the client. For Berne the cures will be noticed in the following ways:

1. Symptomatic: I was depressed, now I am not.
2. Societal: Those who know you say you are looking and sounding better.
3. Transference: Introject the therapist in the client.
4. Rewrite the script:  Ultimately the aim of the therapy sessions for Berne is to make conscious the script and then to rewrite it.

From a trans-personal perspective the therapy is about developing the good qualities in oneself.

Some interesting quotes from Dr Eric Berne:

The task of the therapist is to perform as rapidly as possible whatever operation is necessary to cure the patient. Otherwise the term therapist is a misnomer.”

The only theory paper worth writing is how to cure patients. That’s the only paper worth writing if you’re doing your job properly.”

There are two kinds of therapeutic goals. The first tries for something that is getting better or showing progress, which in effect is making more comfortable frogs out of people.  The second aim of getting well is to cast off the frog skin and take up the interrupted development of the prince or princess“.

For Berne, the most effective way of dealing with grievance:

1). When you do xyz (You are stating facts of what was said or done by the offender)
2). I feel this (No one can argue with how you feel)
3). I want you to do this instead. (This is where you are asking for changed behaviour from others).

Case study: A man in a position of authority (the boss) pokes fun at and is demeaning to another employee in front of co-workers in a team meeting. The employee would address a grievance with the boss by stating that when the boss pokes fun and acts in a demeaning way to the employee it makes them feel embarrassed and demotivated in the workplace.  In the first instance, you are stating fact, and in the second instance you are stating how it makes you feel which no-one can argue with. The third aspect of dealing with the grievance would be to say what you want instead i.e to be treated with respect. This is the bit where you are not dealing with the facts about what was said and how you felt but with your stated requirements for changed behaviour. There are power hungry bullies who would resent such a tactic and might seek to dismiss any approach so perhaps you need to pick your battles accordingly.   But at least you know where you stand when the offender continues to behave in a certain way knowing that it causes offence.

The question then is why is TA not the norm if it is so successful? Therapists who use TA talk highly of knowing where you are yourself and where you are with the client. TA provides a model to demonstrate where somebody is going wrong in their life and in their relationships. However, perhaps the success of any therapy depends on (a) the skills and knowledge of the therapist and (b) the nature of the relationship between client and therapist. It could certainly be a component of any basic toolkit carried by the therapist but it is important to remember that people enter therapy for all sorts of reasons and some do not wish to change.

Related post

Transactional Analysis – Born to win

Transactional Analysis: I’m ok you’re ok

This week’s very interesting lecture was on Transactional Analysis (TA). When it comes to TA we have a lot to thank Eric Berne. TA is observational and is to do with time structuring. How do clients spend their time? What script are clients using? Berne believed that our script personality was established by age 7. TA is most researched and discussed, more so than psychoanalysis.

I have been reading Adler in the past few days and am trying to digest where his pre-occupation with the need to co-operate fits in with TA but more of that digression at another time.

What is the personality theory for Berne?

1. I’m okay, you’re okay:  This was after all the 1960s, flower power and the Beatles.
2. I’m okay, you’re not okay: This is the paranoid position.
3. I’m not okay but you’re okay: This is the classic victim position.
4. I’m not okay and you’re not okay: This is the borderline psychotic position and what Berne says gets you in jail.

Its worth taking a moment  to assess where you are in relation to these theories.

Ego states

As outlined in the previous post, the initial meeting with the client could comprise of the following questions:

1. What do they want from the sessions that would really change their lives?
2. What changes were needed to be made in order to accomplish this?
3. If they agree to change, what would they will be willing to do?
4. How much do they sabotage themselves?
5. How would the counsellor know if they were getting better?

TA is an analysis of transactions. How does the client deal with the therapist? How does the client deal with all other relationships in their lives?

When two people sit down to transact there is a minimum of 12 people in the room.  This is comprised of the following:

Parent NP (nurturing parent) and CP (critical parent).

Adult The observing of reality.

Child CC (creative child) AC  (adopted child) RC (rebellious child).

How do we get in touch with the ego states in the client? This comes from watching how the client enters the room, what they say, how they say it, observing body language, the way they sit and so on.  Therefore, in TA the first job for the therapist is to identify which ego state is in play.

Here are 4 ways to help identify and recognise ego states:

A. The therapist can notice the ego state and feedback to the client.
B. Social: what are others saying about the client, such as family, employers. workmates etc. That is the beauty of group work. If everyone in the group says you are a jerk, then perhaps you have been behaving like a jerk.
C. Historical: The client recites the histories of certain ego states in their past.
D. Phenomenological: Re-experiencing the history as if its happening now. Some clients are stuck at a certain age.

To understand people better Berne was interested in time structuring. There were 6 possible ways to spend time in life:

1. Withdrawal: Can be with good reason and this can be in life and in therapy. Indeed a therapy session is often a microcosm of a client’s life.
2. Rituals: Asking people how they are in a ritualistic way.  Have a nice day! See the Truman Show.
3. Past-times: Chit chat in the pub or in other social situations.
4. Activities: Shall we go bowling?
5. Unconscious games playing:  Ain’t it terrible? Colluding with the client following the outline of a terrible back-story. The wooden leg game: don’t expect much from me as my mother had a nervous breakdown.
6. Intimacy: the pathology of the therapy is often in the inventor. Berne met clients in the back of his garden and was not particularly social. Some would say he was quite co-dependent.

Strokes Berne 1971: “A stroke is a unit of recognition”. The foundation for TA therapy and practice.

Berne noticed that people took 4 positions:
i. Good at giving strokes
ii. Good at taking strokes
iii. Good at asking for strokes
iv. Good at refusing (to take) strokes


According to Berne we acquire a script by age 7.  Ask a kid what age they will be when they die and they will give you a definite answer. A script is an unconscious life plan based on the power of parental information.   There are three types of scripts:

A. Winning scripts: these are positive
B. Losing scripts: these do not serve the person well. Jimi Hendrix, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Phil Lynott are examples.
C. Non winning: Not playing to win or to lose.

The factors that influence the scripts: Drivers: these are ‘should do’s‘ Injunctions: ‘shouldn’t do‘. We receive these subconsciously as children from our families and at school.


1. Be perfect: Nothing will do unless I get an A grade. The curse of this driver is that there is no pleasure taken from anything.
2. Be strong: Stop crying. Pull yourself together.
3. Try hard: Rarely achieves. Stop trying and do it.
4. Hurry up: Where’s the dog?  I don’t know. Why don’t you know?
5. Pleasing others: perhaps the psychotherapists disease.


1. Don’t exist: Kids should be seen and not heard. This often comes from parents who never wanted children in the first place. Children who are brought up in this environment can often form a high percentage of attempted suicides. This could mean they are seeking to collude with their (subconscious) wishes of their parents.
2. Don’t be yourself: be like your grandmother. This is a form of brain programming.
3. Don’t be a child: Grow up. Take care of your (drunken) parents or mentally ill parents.
4. Don’t succeed: No-one has ever amounted to anything in this family.
5. Don’t do anything: This can often be part of the benefits culture.
6. Don’t be important: You’re getting too big for your boots sonny.
7. Don’t belong: Better to stay in your room all evening like your brother does.
8. Don’t be close: People can hurt you.  Don’t get close to people.  I know someone whose wife ran off with another man.
9. Don’t be well: Everyone in our family is a drunk or everyone is crazy.
10. Don’t think: Don’t have your own opinions.
11.  Don’t feel: Slapping a crying child in the supermarket.

It could be useful to try to identify which ego state you are most familiar with. Which injunctions and drivers have been prominent in your life and how much do they govern you? How do you structure time in your life?  What about your strokes?

TA works equally well in an organisational setting as well as in one-to-one work.


The Games people play 
The International Transactional Analysis Association
TA Journal