I was mesmerised by the highly theatrical but toxic drama of the Nick Kyrgios and Stephano Tsitsipas game that unfolded on Wimbledon’s centre court, both as a tennis fan and as a psychotherapist. It was an extraordinary demonstration of the power and danger of the Karpman Drama Triangle – a scenario that percolates through many human interactions.
At each corner of the Karpman Drama Triangle is a role that we can unknowingly be pulled into when conflict arises – the persecutor, victim and rescuer which can be highly destructive and emotionally takes its toll. It is a model I often use with clients as it can revolutionise the way we navigate conflict and relationships.
In the Wimbledon example, Nick Kyrgios took on the persecutor role after losing the first set; he began aggressively lambasting the Umpire and the line judges accusing them of making mistakes and being ‘unfair’. While we can’t know exactly what was going through his mind, the model explains that when we are victims, feeling bullied, abused, or powerless, we try and manage these emotions by moving into the persecutory position, making others experience what we are undergoing. It makes sense of why immigrants sometimes metaphorically pull up the ladder for other immigrants, or why those who have been abused can go on to abuse others.
During the game Tsitsipas moves from feeling irritated and annoyed by Kyrios’highly manipulative behaviour to then taking up the persecutory role himself, slamming a ball into the audience, complaining to the Umpire and consequently losing the game by making more unforced errors than is usual. As a tennis fan – I am not condoning either player’s behaviour, but as a psychotherapist I know how easy it is to flip from victim to persecutor and how hard it is to remain unaffected by persecutory behaviour. This is because when we feel in the victim position, we become physically triggered – our alarm bell system gets activated sending us into fight flight physical responses. When this happens, it is difficult to not become the persecutor and takes much mental work to not respond as if we are under actual attack.
The Wimbledon crowd seemed to join in infused with the persecutory behaviours of the players as they cheered, laughed, and booed. If tennis organisations, and other sporting bodies want to create safe environments for participants and employees then they must set clear boundaries that this behaviour is not acceptable. Dramatic, entertaining but not our best selves or as Tsitsipas astutely commented, “We are here to play tennis”.
Director at HealthyMinds@Work