The Karpman Drama Triangle in Financial Practice


A psycho-analytic study of the roles of Creator, Challenger and Coach as they pertain to Financial Planning

karpmanAs a Financial Planner I have had to become a student of human behaviour. What follows is a detailed study of the psychology of transactional analysis and the so called Karpman Drama Triangle with specific reference to the ways in which the various roles and interactions play on one another and influence the ways in which we buy, sell and plan for our financial futures. This is a bit of a departure from what I normally publish in this space so please forgive both the length and depth of this post. As a Financial Planner and self-styled financial life-coach I feel it is important for clients to understand the interplay of personal psychology in the work I do here. I will return to a more personal, practical and hopefully shorter post on Saturday.

The drama triangle is a social model of human interaction which maps the type of potentially destructive interaction that can occur between people in conflict. It was originally conceived by psychologist Dr. Steven Karpman and published in 1968. Karpman was a part-time actor and member of the Screen Actors Guild while studying psychology and therapeutic counseling under Dr. Eric Berne, the father of transactional analysis. Legend has it that after reading the novel “Valley of the Dolls” Karpman conceived of the triangle with the role of victim at the bottom point, a persecutor at the top left and a rescuer at the top right.

The novel, written by Jacquelin Susann and published in 1966 tells the story of three relatively unknown actresses who meet and work together in New York City. The story tracks their careers over a 20 year period of highs, and lows fueled by poor choices, toxic relationships and substance abuse. After Karpman explained the story and the triangular interplay of the characters to Berne a whole new school of psycho-therapy, based on human interaction was born.

Simply put the Karpman Drama Triangle theorizes that people in conflict play one of three roles. They are either: the Victim, the Persecutor or the Rescuer. While we all tend to gravitate to one or another of the roles, it is possible for the roles to change depending on the situation. More importantly however, each role needs the others in order to function.

The victim lives by the mantra, “poor me”, and feels oppressed, hopeless, helpless, powerless and ashamed and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems or take any pleasure in life. Most importantly, the victim, if not being actively persecuted will seek out a persecutor in order to justify their feelings of hopelessness and general lethargy and also try to find a rescuer in order to avoid making any positive change on their own.

The rescuer’s mantra is “let me help”. They are the classic enabler. They need the victim just as much as the victim needs them in order to feel self-worth but the real motive of the rescuer is for a feeling of superiority over both the victim and persecutor. “Without me to hold the persecutor in check and helping the victim through their troubles the whole world would go to hell.” Or so they think. The fact is, in most cases at least, the rescuer has defined help incorrectly and given the victim permission to fail through their constant rescuing. In focusing all of their energy on the trials and tribulations of someone else they also tend to avoid their own problems.

persecutorThe persecutor is not evil; controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative and arrogant perhaps, but not evil.   The persecutor is often more fed up with the failings of the victim they are actively pursuing their downfall. Their mantra is; “it’s all your fault”. The persecutor is in many ways the antithesis of the rescuer but these roles are often interchangeable as the rescuer experiences burn out or the persecutor softens his heart when reminded of his own potential to be victimized.

In fact all of the roles are interchangeable and we tend to play each of them in varying measure throughout our lives.

What does all this have to do with financial planning? Stay with me, I’m getting there.

While the Karpman Drama Triangle was originally conceived as a way to analyze interactions in conflict and developed in group and family therapy sessions that centered around issues of codependency and substance abuse, in more recent years it has begun cropping up in the analysis of more co-operative efforts as well. In 1990 Alice Choy published “The Winner’s Triangle” in which the roles were renamed vulnerable (victim),   assertive (persecutor) and caring (rescuer). The thesis of the winner’s triangle being that conflict can be resolved when the actors begin to see their roles and each other’s roles in a more positive light. But the winner’s triangle is still about conflict.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the Karpman Drama Triangle was reconfigured in a completely positive light and turned into a tool for collaboration. The Power of TED (The Empowerment Dynamic) released that year is a self published work by David Emerald. (Not to be confused with the TED conference; which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design) Emerald is an executive coach who has spent his career working with corporate clients developing collaborative teams that have helped thousands of companies achieve stunning success. In The Power of TED, Emerald encourages readers to think of themselves and each other as either: creators (victims), challengers (persecutors) or coaches (rescuers) and in the process shed all the negative drama.

creatorThe creator is encouraged to become outcome oriented as opposed to problem-oriented. The challenger is encouraged to ask questions and push the creator to clarify their needs, focus on resolving tension between current reality and an envisioned goal and take incremental steps toward a desired outcome. The coach is encouraged to ask both the creator a challenger a different type of question intended to help everyone make informed choices. The key difference between the coach and rescuer is that the coach sees the creator as capable of making his own choices and solving his own problems and he sees the challenger as an ally in this process, not an adversary. The coach asks questions that enable the creator to see the possibilities of positive action, to focus on what they want, not on what they don’t want.

So what does all this have to do with financial planning? I’m glad you asked!

Financial planning is a collaborative process.  In my financial practice, Emerald’s Empowerment Dynamic forms the framework of our day to day interaction with all of my clients.

I view my clients as creators – the business plan calls my ideal client a “person with big dreams and an even bigger heart, who may or may not have experienced financial hardship in their past”. It’s easy for people like that to play the role of victim, beaten down by circumstance. “What’s the point of dreaming if we can’t even keep our bills paid?” It’s my job to help you see beyond your present situation, visualize a brighter future and help you find the tools to get there.

If you haven’t already guessed, I view myself as your coach.

Challengers come from every angle. They could be a bill collector, a family member or your boss. They are generally people who just don’t have the tools or the patience to help you out of your financial predicament. They also tend to be people who need something from you, a bill paid, your time or other physical task completed. But challengers don’t always come in the form of human beings; they could also take the form of a medical diagnosis, a lack of available work or any other circumstance that is causing hardship and difficult circumstances.

The client’s role as the creator is to look for and implement solutions to the problems the challenger gives them. My role as the coach is the make suggestions, provide tools and stand on the sidelines giving encouragement. A good coach is at once a devil’s advocate, mentor, personal assistant and cheerleader.

winning coachHave you ever watched the Super Bowl? Who cheers the loudest in the last seconds and leads the charge onto the field in the moment of a victory? That’s the coach! And that’s me when you reach your financial goals. Nobody celebrates like a victorious coach.

In 2005 I filed a consumer proposal in bankruptcy.  It took 4 long years to pay off that debt and get discharged and a few more years to get on a solid financial footing. Now, over a decade later, I have not forgotten the pain, mental anguish and personal shame that come shrouded in debt.

In many ways hiring a financial planner is like finding a coach. Good coaches are the ones who have played the game. The best coaches are the ones who have both won and lost, understand the difference and can see the warning signs well in advance of a spectacular loss.   I’ve been there, I get it, and I can coach you through it.

Contact me for more information on The Karpman Drama Triangle and how my planning approach can help you achieve financial success.

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