Re-enacting Conflict in the Trauma Triangle

Did you know that you can be a victim, a persecutor and a rescuer all within a matter of minutes? It’s true. Any time we enter into conflict, there are three common roles — each with manipulative behaviors — that we often quickly fall into. When practicing trauma-informed care as taught through the Sanctuary Model®, we call these roles in a conflict situation the Trauma Re-enactment Triangle.

The Three Roles: Victim, Persecutor & Rescuer

  • “Poor me!” The Victim often feels oppressed, taken advantage of, completely helpless and hopeless. They think that they have absolutely no control over their situation, and will let the experience define them.
  • “This is all of your fault.” The Persecutor often blames and shames others. They might be overly authoritative, angry and feel superior to others.
  • “Let me help you.” The Rescuer might seem well-intentioned at first, but they are a classic enabler. They feel guilty if they don’t rescue others, but their actions often have negative effects. It encourages the Victim to continue to be dependent on others, and eventually the Rescuer feels resentful.

Think of the last disagreement or fight you had with your significant other. Maybe you had a disagreement about who helps out more around the house. Perhaps it’s because during the week, you take on the role of the Rescuer by doing housework that you feel clearly needs to be addressed. Eventually, you begin to feel taken advantage of, and that evening after dinner you lash out at your partner for “Never helping with anything.” Now, you’ve assumed the role of the Persecutor, and as a result, your partner now feels like they are being victimized until they lash back out about something that has been bothering them, and they then assume the role of the Persecutor, and you as the Victim ... and the cycle continues throughout the lifespan of the conflict. We know that these roles do not provide a healthy and meaningful way to address and work through conflict. So, what can we do about it?

Escaping the Triangle

Being drawn into one or more of the roles in the trauma triangle only creates more drama. That’s why we work every day with youth and families in our community to re-script the trauma triangle in an effort to find a better way of dealing with the manipulative behaviors of the victim, persecutor and rescuer roles. By doing this, it helps us turn conflict into creativity, frustration into curiosity and weakness into strength.

  • The Victim becomes the Driver. As a Driver, you seek to learn and understands when and why to seek help responsibly and appropriately. Drivers understand that the initial conflict might not have been their fault, but that they do have control of what happens next. A Driver might say, “I have been through things like this before …” or “I have support if I need it, and I can ask for help.”
  • The Persecutor becomes the Guide. As a Guide, you seek to empower others to do the right thing. You help to provide reasonable expectations and when needed you can offer alternatives. You often will comment the strength of others. A Guide might say, “Remember, when you succeeded at …” or “What do you need?” and “Who can help you with this?”
  • The Rescuer becomes the Coach. A Coach stands beside as a support for others. They will often express confidence in others and will assist only when necessary. A Coach might say, “I believe you can handle this.” or “What solutions have you considered so far?”

Let’s think back to the same disagreement you had with your partner about helping around the house. Instead of being the Persecutor, you now act as a Guide and you work with your partner in the beginning to ensure that you have the same expectations of what needs done at home. Because you talked about it and set clear expectations, your partner doesn’t end up feeling like a Victim, and instead of the cycle of conflict continuing, it ends.

The next time you find yourself in a conflict, try to be mindful of the role you assume and determine ways you can re-define your role to turn conflict into creativity, frustration into curiosity and weakness into strength. We’d love to hear how it went!

Interested in learning more about incorporating trauma-informed practices into your everyday life? Check out our other trauma-informed related blog posts.