031 – Dealing with Your Own Emotions – Karpman’s Drama Triangle – Managing Your Time as a Trainee Counsellor

031 – Dealing with Your Own Emotions – Karpman’s Drama Triangle – Managing Your Time as a Trainee Counsellor

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In episode 31 of the Counselling Tutor Podcast, Rory Lees-Oakes and Ken Kelly talk about how to deal with your own emotions when counselling clients bring up intense emotions during the session. ‘Theory with Rory’ takes a look at Dr Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle. Finally, the presenters offer tips on managing your time as a trainee counsellor.

Dealing with Your Own Emotions

Our clients may well bring heavy material when they come to us for counselling, and it is natural for us – in standing with them in this – to experience intense emotions too. Empathy is very important for counsellors, so it is good to feel these emotions (and to complete the empathy circle by communicating that empathy), but it is important to maintain the ability to manage the session as the counsellor. How do we do this if the feelings become overwhelming for us? Ken and Rory offer the following tips:

  • It is fine to get a tear in your eye and to have to reach for a tissue yourself. Clients will benefit from your empathy.
  • However, always remember that the heavy material is not your own.
  • Watch for parallel process – when the material a client brings parallels something you are struggling with yourself.
  • Be aware too of the possibility of countertransference, where the client reminds you of someone from your past.
  • If your self-awareness leads you to realise that parallel process or transference is occurring, discuss this with your clinical supervisor.
  • If you keep struggling with a particular type of material, consider personal therapy to explore the reasons for this in greater depth.


Karpman’s Drama Triangle

This is a social model of communication, developed by American psychiatrist Dr Stephen Karpman. He was a student of Eric Berne, who founded Transactional Analysis. The concept was first described in a 1968 journal article.

The Drama Triangle explains how we sometimes take on unhelpful roles subconsciously. The three corners of the triangle represent roles – Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor. The Victim, who feels helpless, looks for a Persecutor to add to their feeling of oppression, and a Rescuer to save them. The Persecutor is happy to blame the Victim, while the Rescuer experiences guilt if they do not help the Victim (who thus remains helpless). The three roles can be quite fluid, with people moving between them.

Although it is often not taught on person-centred courses, the Drama Triangle is a useful model to apply both to everyday life and to counselling. Rory provides an example observed in real life, of a beggar (the Victim) asking passers-by for money to enable him to buy a train ticket back to his hometown. A woman (the Rescuer) stops and gives him £20 for this purpose. The following day, she passes the same way and is surprised and horrified to see him there, still begging. At this point, she becomes angry with him and accuses him of duping her (so transforming into the Perpetrator).

So how can we avoid getting drawn into the Drama Triangle? Self-awareness is key here. For example, those who are motivated to become counsellors tend to have a strong desire to help, but if this is simply a form of psychological medicine for us, we are likely to disempower the people we are trying to help. Personal development (gained through self-reflection, group work, personal therapy and clinical supervision) is vital.



Managing Your Time as a Trainee Counsellor

In the UK, there is only around five months left now until courses finish for the summer, given that there are often also half-term breaks and an Easter holiday. It can feel rather daunting for counselling students to think how much they have to fit in between now and then – for example, exams to revise for, and external portfolios to get together.

Rory and Ken offer tips on how to reduce your stress levels during this busy time:

  • Remember that you are not the only one feeling this way – Many counselling students feel stressed at this time of year about all there is to get done.
  • Listen back to Counselling Tutor Podcast 6, where we give you ideas on tackling assignments.
  • Break down what you need to do into manageable chunks. Remember: the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time!
  • Bear in mind that leaving things until the last minute reduces your options for getting support.
  • Try to put together a plan for the rest of the academic year – putting aside even a small amount of time each day makes a massive difference.
  • If you feel you’ve not got the time to do this, think about how you’re currently spending your time.
  • For example, could you cut out some TV watching? BingeClock allows you to enter the name of your favourite TV show, and then tells you how much time you could have saved if you’d not watched it: the results can be scary!
  • Ensure you use any resources and support available to you through your learning institution.
  • If in your final year, check early when your clinical and managerial supervisors are going to be on holiday, so you can get them to sign off any documentation before they leave.
  • If you’re struggling with a deadline, talk to your tutor as soon as you realise, rather than rushing it and risking not passing.
  • Try to practise good self-care, taking some time for yourself when you can.


Links and Resources

‘Fairy tales and script drama analysis’ by Stephen Karpman, published in the Transactional Analysis Bulletin in 1968

Counselling Tutor Facebook group