Photo by Quin Dombrowski licensed under Creative Commons

The unhelpfulness of helping.

Max St John
Published in
6 min readJul 9, 2020


There’s a model in psychology called ‘The Drama Triangle’, created by someone called Dr Stephen Karpman in the 1960s. It gives us a way of understanding patterns and roles within relationships.

In it we learn about three archetypes that all of us slip into at some point: the victim, the persecutor and the rescuer.

The ones we tend to focus our attention on most are the first two.

The victim is not an actual victim — it’s that person within us that sometimes feels helpless and blameless in a cruel world where others have the power. We deflate and give up, unable to make decisions for ourselves and become reliant on outside help.

The persecutor is the one that finds these victims super annoying. If only they’d pull themselves out of their hole, take control, get a grip. We see the victim as weak or useless, unwilling to take control over their situation.

Through Karpman’s work we see how both of these roles are part of a common pattern we fall into when triggered. Sometimes we’re one, sometimes we’re the other.

The common thread between the two is that they are both giving away responsibility — the victim gives over responsibility for their feelings and needs to another person or a world that’s in control of them, the persecutor gives it to the victim for making them feel this way — rather than focus on their own needs, they become focused on the irritating and frustrating victim.

But there’s a third role that’s just as important: the rescuer. The rescuer is the character that just can’t stand by and watch. It’s just too painful to see another person suffering and we can’t help ourselves from offering our advice.

It usually masquerades as ‘I’m being good’ syndrome — a kind of blindness to your own lack of boundaries, because you feel you’re being of service in some way.

But the key thing here is this lack of boundaries — the ‘help’ is rarely consensual. In fact, often the rescuer within us will do things they think will ‘help’ the other without even checking that these are the things that will actually help.

I know, messed up, right? But we all do it.

I know this role very well myself. In a professional capacity I used to be one of *those* leaders — I’d spot someone I thought wasn’t getting on — perhaps they looked unhappy or stressed, or perhaps it was clear from the quality of their work that something was off.

I would find a way to ‘help’. Any way I could. I wasn’t aware I was doing it, but I would make sure that I could offer them my advice and share my ever-so-wise solutions.

It’s such a blindspot for those of us who love fixing and strategising. Of course we know the answer — of course we have a clever idea or clear analysis of the situation.

Maybe we’ve done some coaching training, or read a lot of books on psychology. Maybe this person’s situation seems just like one we’ve found ourselves in.

In every single instance, we’ve gone wrong.

Our ‘rescuer’ leads us to believe that a complex, highly personal situation that’s happening for another, can be boiled down into a simple explanation and a clear set of next steps.

We can’t help but offer these answers to the people we want to ‘help’ and we fully expect them to put them into action and find that everything gets better.

Of course what usually happens is that they don’t do what we suggested — or not the way we imagined it — because it’s not their answer and not addressing the problem.

This is typically when the rescuer can become the persecutor: ‘Well, I gave them the answer, they just haven’t taken responsibility and sorted themselves out.’

At home, in a relationship, this goes to new depths for me.

My inner rescuer, cemented through decades of self-conditioning, busies itself around the house with both my children and my partner.

I’ve got so much better than I was, but I can see how many of the wonderful things I do to ‘help’ my family are often unrequested and disempowering.

It’s this disempowering aspect of helping that I think is most interesting and powerful.

When someone else takes control and does things for me, what I notice in myself is a tangible sense of disengagement. It’s not an active choice, but just the natural result of not needing to pay attention or give energy.

I am not really noticing what’s going on and what’s being done — nor am I really aware of how it’s been done or the effort that goes into it.

It’s sort of just happening around me.

If you think back to being a child, then it’s that feeling when your parent takes over the task and a certain limpness comes over you. An internal stepping back.

What typically happens in relationships is that one partner will take this ‘helping’ role, the other disengages or doesn’t notice what’s going on and eventually the rescuer gets very frustrated. “Why don’t they see how much effort I’m going to?”

They become the irritated persecutor and their partner the victim.

In these relationships, it’s not just jobs around the house, the rescuer will also offer solutions all the time. As soon as a problem is shared, they have already dived into offering solutions or taking action, whether it’s been asked for or not.

Because this can be quite a difficult dynamic, it’s easy to paint the rescuer as bad, and this often happens. The ‘helped’ becomes the victim and blames the rescuer for disempowering them.

But disempowering requires two people to give away responsibility — not one taking from the other.

And the rescuer can’t help themselves.

Just like the victim and the persecutor, they lack the boundaries required to just allow things to be as they are.

The idea of not doing or not helping is so uncomfortable for them, that they swing into action unprompted.

For many habitual rescuers, they have become so used to doing and helping that they’re not even aware how uncomfortable it would be if they didn’t.

If you’re like me and this character is readily to hand, there are a few things to practice (here I go, rescuing again — did you ask for help?):

  • When you notice the urge to help or offer a solution just stop. Don’t do anything. Focus on what it would feel like not to offer anything and tend to that feeling.
  • Practice asking for consent before you do anything ‘for others’. Make sure they actually want your help. Try asking: ‘Would it be helpful if I shared some ideas now or would you just like me to listen?’
  • If you find yourself running around after people, ask yourself: who asked me to do this? Am I busy because others are giving me things to do or am I the one who’s decided they need doing?

With this last point, sometimes we can say very clearly who asked us to do something. But because the drama triangle is a set of relationships, we need to ask whether the dynamic is part of the disempowering co-dependency that can build between victim and rescuer.

Both parties can become so dependent on each other for getting their needs met in this way (by giving over responsibility and taking over responsibility) that a consensual relationship can be built on it.

The thing to bear in mind with all of this is that the Drama Triangle is just a lens — one perspective on human behaviour and relationships — it’s not a definitive analysis of you, your partner or colleagues.

Even if you do want to use it as a lens, you must remember that the roles within it are not the same as the people in the game. They are archetypes or characters — a set of feelings and behaviours — that exist within all of us.

It’s so easy to label yourself or your partner as ‘the rescuer’ or ‘the victim’ but it’s not helpful to muddle up complex human beings with reductive stories.

Use these as shortcuts for seeing a set of interdependent behaviours that you might want to shift within yourself. Try not to focus on what others are doing ‘wrong’ or which role they ‘shouldn’t’ be playing, because when you do that you’ve only fallen into one of the roles.



Max St John
How to fight well

I teach people how to navigate conflict and have conversations that matter.