There’s a dynamic so common in our lives that we barely notice it. It forms the basis of most of our stories in movies, books, songs, and in the tales we tell when we get home from work.

It’s called the Drama Triangle.

As the name implies, there are three roles in the Drama Triangle: The Villain/Persecutor, The Victim (Poor Thing), and the Rescuer/Hero.

The persecutor, of course, is the bully and bad person. A villain is portrayed as mean and uncaring, with the worst of intentions. The victims are at the receiving end of the villain’s dastardly deeds. The poor things are down-trodden and helpless. The Hero rushes in to rescue the defenseless victim(s) from the nasty villain, who is utterly vanquished, and the victims are endlessly grateful to the hero for saving them.

Sound familiar?

It makes a great story, but causes endless problems when we see events in our own lives this way. The triangle is very appealing and magnetic. Not surprisingly, the Hero/Rescuer role is the most inviting spot on the triangle. After all, doesn’t it sound great to be the one who comes into a situation and saves the poor thing(s) from one or more nasties? It can be a big boost to our self-esteem.

Troubles arise because none of us is completely good or completely bad. The story is simple, while life is complex. Our intentions are seldom to harm others, we’re just trying to navigate a complex world, and that usually means trade-offs. (Of course, there are some situations, such as domestic violence, where the abused person must be protected immediately from the abuser, and there is some necessary drama involved in that. Most situations in our lives, however, are not that stark.)

An unfortunate and surprising aspect of this dynamic is that once we enter the triangle, regardless of which role, we can slide into the other roles in the blink of an eye. “I was just trying to help!” cries the would-be rescuer, now claiming to be an injured victim, after having been told what they can do with their well-intentioned fix. A victim can easily turn on the hero when the latter’s fix made things worse.

How do we get out of this story? As usual, awareness of the dynamic is the first step. Stand back and look at the situation from an outsider’s perspective – is there someone playing the victim, persecutor, and/or rescuer? Which role are we playing?

A really good way to break the hold of the victim/villain/hero story is to focus on the problem, not on the people. Instead of blaming a perceived villain or trying to be the knight in shining armor, assume the problem is more complex. See if everyone is willing to step off the triangle to consider together all the messy complications and competing desires.

Also, if the victims are adults in a non-life-threatening situation, assume they are able to help themselves, to ask for and accept help, and to be able to survive the current crisis. Otherwise, we can create dependency on the rescuer(s) and more feelings of powerlessness in the victims. If we think we have some aid to offer those who seem to be suffering, it’s best to ask them whether they would like help, how we can help, and when. Most of us are stronger than we may seem when we’re caught off-guard by a crisis. The best way we can help each other is to lend a hand, rather than take the lead in someone else’s life.

Once we become aware of the drama triangle, we can see it at all levels – at work, in our families, in our communities, in our government, and in the world. We can feel helpless and out of control by telling ourselves this three-actor story about issues. But if we take time to consider, together, alternative ways of seeing the situation, we can end up with a solution that can work for everyone.