Imagine being an ant that lives in a child’s plastic ant farm. You might live out your entire life with every intention to live fully, but the result is that you fail to have many truly interesting options and you have no idea why not. The barrier that stands between you and the world is invisible to you because you are an ant and therefore do not have the capacity to understand the concept “acrylic plastic” or “ant farm.” Lucky for us, you are not actually an ant! You do have the capacity to imagine an “ant farm.” The concept of “ant farm” can be equated to an invisible barrier that captures the minds and hearts of most twenty-first-century human beings for their entire lives. That invisible barrier is “Low Drama.” Low Drama is any interaction designed to avoid responsibility. If we do not learn to detect and avoid Low Drama interactions, then we will live within an invisible “ant farm” that minimizes the quality of our relationships and we will have no idea why.
Dr. Stephen Karpman, a student of Dr. Eric Berne and Transactional Analysis, invented the model for Low Drama in San Francisco in 1965 and described it in an article in 1968. As the story goes, Dr. Karpman loved to diagram the action plays made during American football games. One Sunday afternoon he was watching a game on TV and his wife invited him to keep his promise of taking her to the movies. At the cinema Dr. Karpman still had his pencil and pad in hand. As the film began playing Dr. Karpman automatically started noting the interactions. In the first dramatic scene there was a bad guy persecuting a poor victim, and then along came a good guy for the rescue. Next scene there was a helpless victim being rescued and along comes a bad guy. Next scene there was a hero attacked by a villain and then rescued by his kids. On page after page Dr. Karpman diagrammed dramatic interactions and to his great surprise in each drama the roles being played out were identical. After thirty pages of diagrams, Dr. Karpman had created his remarkable map that he named the “Drama Triangle.”
Dr. Karpman’s Drama Triangle reveals that many of our day-to-day human interactions are simply unconscious role-playing in one of three strategic characters, the victim, the persecutor or the rescuer. In this book I have renamed the Drama Triangle as “Low Drama” so as to incorporate it into a bigger map called the Map of Possibility which we will explore in depth much later.
Of the three roles, the victim is the most powerful. This is because a skilled victim can make a persecutor out of anyone. All the victim needs is one tiny shred of evidence to prove that “the persecutor is hurting me,” and then the victim has the right to switch roles with the persecutor and go for revenge! Another way that the victim is the most powerful character in a Low Drama is that, if there is no victim, there can be no Low Drama.
When we first hear about victims and Low Drama we might be thinking, “Oh, those poor people who get caught in Low Dramas! I would not want to be one of them!” Hey, baby! Wake up and smell the donuts. Them is us. Low Drama is the most popular game played on Earth! You do it. I do it. We all do it. The only question is about details: When? Where? With whom? How often? And why?
Low Drama is a survival game based on the perspective that there are not enough resources. Resources include such commodities as position, power, work time, space, energy, money, attention, love, fun, dessert, intimacy, and leisure. If there are not enough resources and the other person gets to have them, then we don’t. They win and we lose. Low Drama is played to win.
Low Drama is very exciting: there are good guys, bad guys, even a poor damsel in distress. The good guy rides up on his white horse and says, “I’ll pay the rent! I’ll save the day!” (At least we are hoping some good guy comes to save us.) If a good guy comes and does a bad job of rescuing us, we spin the Low Drama around, shift from victim to persecutor, and we persecute the rescuer. If no good guy comes at all then we have to rescue ourselves. We prove that the persecutor is hurting us in some way, and then we are perfectly justified to persecute the persecutor! Revenge at last. All this is very exciting. If we run out of Low Dramas in our own life then we can turn on the television, open a newspaper or go to a movie. Low Drama is so exciting it is almost like life. But Low Drama is not life. Low Drama is only Low Drama. If we assume Low Drama is life we lock ourselves into the ant farm and throw away the key.
In trying to understand Low Drama as being a subset of life it is the rescuer who is most difficult to vilify. After all, the rescuer is trying to rescue somebody who needs their help, right? How could rescuing be bad?
Firstly, nothing about Low Drama is bad. Nothing is good either, but also nothing is bad. Low Drama is action designed to avoid responsibility and these actions create certain results. It is easy to detect Low Drama by detecting the associated Low Drama behaviors: If there is blaming, resentment, justification, complaining, gossiping, being right, or making wrong, it is Low Drama. What Low Drama is, is ordinary. Very ordinary. Once we have clarity about what Low Drama is and how to detect Low Drama, then we have a choice. We can decide whether or not we want to continue creating Low Drama in our relationships.
Secondly, rescuing comes from the same emotionally charged position as persecuting. With arrogance and disrespect the persecutor says, “I’m okay. You are not okay. I must get rid of you.” (Think of Adolf Hitler and the story of the “superior” Aryan race.) The rescuer says, “I’m okay. You are not okay. You are not good enough to do it yourself so I must do it for you.” (Think of a mother who takes over her child’s activity even if the child did not ask for help. This too is superior and disrespectful.) Notice how both the persecutor and the rescuer maintain the same viewpoint, that the victim is not okay. Rescuing is defined as offering help that is not wanted or asked for. Rescuing is just as much Low Drama as persecuting.
One particularly clever swindle is victims who act as if they are being responsible. They take out the garbage, vacuum the floor, take the kids to school, wash the dishes, go to work, all like a responsible person might. But they do it all as a victim, not really wanting to do it, not truly choosing to do it, and not fully committing to do it. They do it because no one else wants to do it, or because it should be done, or because it is the right or proper thing to do. They do it as a burden. They do it out of guilt or obligation rather than out of responsibility. Such a person is not being responsible. They are being a “responsible victim.” The responsible victim is a Low Drama theatrical role with a very big payoff. After all, your complaints get to be truly righteous. Your woes are justified. When I first realized that I had been playing the responsible victim game for most of my adult life I sat through an entire Thai dinner crying into my pineapple shrimp curry while the rest of the people in the training went on happily eating. It was a dinner to remember.
The delusion of Low Drama is that by playing victim or by persecuting or rescuing something will change. This is a very expensive delusion. Low Drama changes nothing. No matter how resentful we are, how perfectly justified we are, or how right we are, no matter how strongly we complain or attack with blame, nothing changes. The only thing that happens in Low Drama is that we get older. Change happens through responsibility, and Low Drama is about avoiding responsibility. Low Drama is expensive because the time and energy we spend dramatically avoiding responsibility in Low Drama is time and energy that we will never get back.
Unfortunately, having intellectual clarity about Low Drama will not alter behavior. Behavior change occurs through responsibly experiencing what you are creating in each moment. The clarity in previous paragraphs about Low Drama may seem interesting, but don’t kid yourself. You will change no words or actions until it gets too painful for you to keep doing what you do now. The purpose behind the following handbook is to increase the pain of your moment-to-moment awareness.