Kafka and Karpman — the Drama Triangle

by Susan Holland

Anatomy of an Endless Cycle

Why Kafka? Why Karpman? Well, I have been reading Kafka and studying the Karpman Victim/ Drama triangle all in the same stretch of time. They go hand and glove together.

It’s such a familiar place!

It hooks into everything you ever knew about conflict and before you know it you are there, in a maddeningly crazy war of words that is so familiar to almost anyone who has lived in a world with other people. Like a family. Or a marriage. And oddly, even in a two person marriage a third person steps automatically into the pattern from an invisible place! Count on it! It starts in the original family setting where a person learns all his moves.

Lynne Forrest writes a book called The Three Faces of Victim — An overview of the Drama Triangle — that begins like this:

“ Whether we know it , or not, most of us react to life as victims. Whenever we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves, we are unconsciously choosing to react as victim. This inevitably creates feelings of anger, fear, guilt or inadequacy and leaves us feeling betrayed, or taken advantage of by others.”

She refers to this triangle as the “shame generator.” It’s a game!

Michael Zaccardi, LCSW, writes in 2009: “…A game has roles, and rules, and players play to have fun, amusement, entertainment, win prizes and/or pass time. Games have winners and losers. And, most importantly, people CHOOSE whether to play a game or not. “ He goes on to say that the roles are as follows [emphasis in bold mine]:


The Rules are as follows:

“You play each role and move from one role to another, quickly or slowly.

And while the game is possibly entertaining at times, the ’prizes’… for playing this game are STRESS, UPSET, PAIN, and so on. Everybody loses in this game.”

Another point Zaccardi thinks really worth mentioning, (for my sake, and for Kafka’s sake and even his father’s sake,) is this:

“…if we are engaged in this pattern, even knowingly, we are not bad people. We may do or say controlling or mean things, which are not OK or even wrong, but we could still be good people caught in a primitive, childish pattern.”

In Kafka’s situation, it was between Kafka, his father, and his mother. Basically it began with Kafka as the victim, his father as the meanie, and his mother as the rescuer. But in the letter Kafka has become the Meanie (writing these things to his father — who as recipient of a mean letter becomes a victim.) Kafka also becomes the rescuer, frequently explaining to his father that he knows that the accusations will bring the father pain and making sure his father knows that he feels terrible about having to inflict this pain on his father, who after all didn’t realize what damage he had done to K, his son!

The whole book goes on like this, with K’s mother becoming K’s go-to comforter and peace-maker type soothing both father and son, and hiding a lot of things in order to keep order in the household. (in this role she has become the victim, and the father the scary Meanie who must be kept calm. She is also the rescuer in that she is protecting her son. It’s painful to read and goes on for fifty pages if you only read the English translation in this little book. It’s translated into German also in my copy.

So, I am reading Kafka’s pitiful, pitiless story , wincing when he decides to give it to his mother to give to his father. Of course his mother never does give it to his father. And so the end of the story begins when Kafka’s father dies and it’s too late to work out this vicious nightmare.

It’s eye-opening reading on the subject of this Victim game. I see it all over the place, and particularly in the political realm just now. We are becoming divided and weakened by allowing it to make us crazy. And it’s a trap. Sometimes I think the times of upheaval nationally are a big, loud, object lesson for us — something to get our attention to the domestic turmoil we find with families and business relationships.

References for the books below in case anyone wants to read from experts’ writings.

Susan G Holland 
2nd draft March 1 2017



Illustration: Anatomy of a Endless Argument derived from an original study of two people arguing, a gouache on paper by SGHolland, and digitally adapted by the artist as a heading image for this, her essay.

Photo: by SGHolland ©2017