Games People Play

I used to have a secretary who was given to being late. This was a nuisance for me because I needed to review the post before my first meetings. Admittedly she had a tricky journey, but on three days out of five she never quite made it. And I noticed that she was inclined to miss office deadlines – there was always some problem which held her up at the last moment. Never her fault. Had I known her later in life – when I had had the experience of being a marriage counsellor – I would have quickly realised that this was a pattern. Something in her character or circumstances was causing her to behave in this way.

Or as the psychiatrist, the late Eric Berne, would have said, she was playing a game. That sounds callous but he wasn’t talking about deliberately inappropriate behaviour – rather, that she was satisfying some unconscious need. One client of mine had just such a pattern. Her early relationships, I learnt, had usually been with people who had disabilities of one kind or another. Her troubled marriage was with an alcoholic husband, and her current occupation was assisting in a mental home. You will not be surprised that I concluded that she had a deep need for “lame dogs” for whom she could care.

Those clear-cut examples would be misleading if we thought that such games were confined to damaged personalities. Unfortunately, at some level between the trivial and disastrous, they occur all the time, and to most of us. And they tend to have a negative effect on our relationships. Let’s take a straightforward example. It’s called “Yes But”.

John has problems with insomnia. One day – when he is complaining that he doesn’t know how to solve the problem – Mary makes some suggestions. “Why don’t you try going to bed earlier?” she says. And John replies: “Yes, but if I do, you’ll wake me when you come up.” An unlimited number of other suggestions are then made, and to each the response is “Yes but…” Eventually Mary runs out of ideas, and is silent. John has won the game – no one can help him.

“Yes But” can apply to the widest range of circumstances. Finding a job, mowing the lawn, buying a new bra – you name it. In each case an apparent request for help is used to establish that no help is possible. But the game is usually less damaging than another: “See What You Made Me Do”. This comes in two versions.

John is putting a fiddly screw into a light plug. Mary pops in and asks: “Does my skirt look right from the back?” The screwdriver slips, the screw jumps and disappears into a floorboard crack. “See what you made me do!” The second version (sometimes known as “If It Weren’t For You”) is more dangerous. The couple are worried about the expense of education. Eventually Mary says: “Of course, if you hadn’t persuaded me not to go back to work, it wouldn’t have been a problem.” And it is now no longer a problem for her; she has transferred it neatly to John.

With increasing age I am looking forward to playing “Wooden Leg” more frequently. This requires a disability, either physical or mental. What do you expect of a man with a wooden leg, or in my case, a man of my age? I am glad to see that my children collude. If anything, they seem rather too anxious to see me becoming too old to be competent. My wife, who is phobic about putting anyone to trouble in helping her, is just the opposite. The only time I thought she might be playing “See What You Made Me Do” she won the game with several weeks in an emergency ward. The counter to “what do you expect of a man with a wooden leg” is, Berne tells us, “what do you expect of yourself?”

Berne was best known in his profession for the concept of Transactional Analysis. This remains a useful key to understanding how we relate to each other, and, in a variety of forms, is used to assist in the therapy of both individuals and organisations. It is based on the concept of ego states – parent, adult and child – which we adopt in any given social transaction. The games I have described are illustrations of what may happen when two people interact, using inappropriate ego states. Thus in “Yes But” (above) the couple pretends that they are acting as adult to adult, but psychologically they are acting as parent to child. When they realise and re-adjust, the transaction is abandoned or becomes potentially fruitful.

In the counselling room I saw many games being played before my eyes. But the most valuable clues lay in games, of all sorts and sizes, which occurred again and again over time. Sometimes analysis was not required and drawing attention to a pattern was enough for the client to recognise it, and to set about correction.

Berne’s book, Games People Play, describing a whole range of games, is still available at a modest price for those who would like to explore further. But I hope that no one who has read this far will not have recognised some of the games, and indeed have begun to think of other games which they have encountered. I am not going to tell you which out of the samples I have described I am best at playing myself. Be content with the fact that, whenever I explore this territory, I come away a wiser man.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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22 Responses to Games People Play

  1. Very interesting and informative.

  2. milliganp says:

    Many years ago I read part of ‘what do you say after you say hello’. I noticed my personal tendency to play the child to my wife’s parent to avoid playing an adult role in raising our children. But I also started noticing that many adults avoid mature engagement by playing parent-parent rather than adult-adult. This is particularly relevant In the Catholic community we avoid adult engagement in faith by only playing adult or child.

  3. Vincent says:

    I once worked for a boss who never made a decision without checking with his finance officer. Once I had mastered the pattern, I simply switched to getting to the finance officer before I put the idea forward. I would ask his advice on how best to present it to the boss. Worked like a charm!

    And I had a friend who was rather old fashioned and “correct” about words. So I would deliberately slip in a word he wouldn’t like — and he simply loved putting me right. It greatly helped our friendship. Using Quentin’s language, I suppose that I allowed him to play parent to my child.

    Does the Church have any patterns or play any games?

  4. Ignatius says:

    “Does the Church have any patterns or play any games?”
    .”….no guv, none at all, honest………….” ho ho ho!

  5. milliganp says:

    The whole thrust of clericalism is that is parent-child and not adult-adult. The first time I went to a Deanery meeting (all the clergy in a particular area) it was like returning to lower sixth in a minor grammar school – near zero maturity.

    • Vincent says:

      I find this interesting. Is it possible that the parent-child relationship was set up at a time when the bulk of the faithful were ill educated, and the bible translated into the vernacular was verboten? if so, the pattern stuck.

      One might hope that this would be transformed in modern time into mutual respect for each others’ knowledge and experience. But what I see nowadays is alienation on the lay side and timidity on the clerical side.

  6. johnbunting says:

    One aspect of clericalism seems to be that any hot topic which is a matter of concern to most Catholics must never be mentioned from the pulpit.

    • milliganp says:

      Is that a conspiracy of silence, hopelessness or implied consent to views contradictory to official teaching.

      • RAHNER says:

        The reality is that most Catholics are unaware that they have been infantalised by Church authorities….

      • Quentin says:

        That may well be so – but there are two sorts of infantilisation. One is the obedient Child who simply, and dumbly accepts. The other is the “uproar” Child, who lives in a satisfying state of mutiny. The Adult position differs from both.

      • Singalong says:

        I suppose I could admit to a certain amount of bargaining, on the lines of “If I get on with sorting out these papers for you, today, then perhaps you will be able to write your letters tomorrow, while I have a day in London”, a little balancing of togetherness and independence being sometimes required for retired folk, but not always easy to achieve!

        Regarding infantilisation in the Church, did you intend to write `humbly?`

  7. Singalong says:

    The role of “consumer” is very important in today`s society. We are all consumers of goods or services, and we are all made to feel of value and importance, as soon as we start to enquire about buying a washing machine, a new carpet, a book, moving house, usually nothing is too much trouble. We must have our wits about us not to let this turn our heads. I remember an occasion about a year after we were married. We were about to move house, and I went into a local shop for a few things, and mentioned our plans. The shop keeper was very interested and friendly, until he realised that we were about to move away from the area, rather than into it.

  8. Iona says:

    Singalong – He was only “pretending” to be interested? – I no longer have my copy of Eric Berne, but I think he classifies this sort of thing as a “pastime” rather than a “game” (Quentin may be able to confirm / disconfirm). As far as I remember, “Pollyanna” is another pastime, and “Ain’t it awful” is another.

    It seems relatively easy to catch oneself playing games on a minor level, such as Quentin’s “see what you made me do” when interrupted in the middle of a tricky DIY project. Games which dominate one’s whole life are probably harder to detect, such as a major “See what you made me do” in which the final move, after the game has gone on for years and years, is suicide.

    • Quentin says:

      Berne describes pastimes as collusive. So we might all play “look at rising property values”, with the opportunity to just mention how rich we now are.

      We have just seen a splendid example of “Now I’ve got you, you son of a bitch” with Jeremy Clarkson and the n-word. This is Daily Mail territory. People like me play “Ain’t it awful” This is competition as to how many arteries were involved in a coronary bypass. I was used to winning with five, but eventually trumped by a full heart implant. Some small recovery with a friend of mine – my winning line was “Lucky you only needed stents.”

      I think people have been rather coy with their own games and patterns. Let me confess to one. At a key point in a discussion/argument I say “I’ve just read a study which…” Of course I have, I only joined the conversation with that in mind.

    • Singalong says:

      Iona, do you mean that “games” are always dysfunctional roles? Perhaps they are, but this is not always a bad thing is it, isn`t it sometimes the only way of dealing with a difficult or imperfect relationship?

  9. Ignatius says:

    I would think the standard tools of managerialism: repetition, detachment from the moment, quiet insistence, excessive politeness, malice disguised as courtesy etc are all tools of power placed on frequent display. However, what else are we to do? bawl at one another like dolts? I think the question is a bit disingenuous to be honest.

    • Quentin says:

      I think you are right here. We cannot usefully include every action in which there is a gap between what is done and the truth. Transactional Analysis is a tool for specifically identifying the inappropriateness of the ego states in the transaction – thus showing a route to correction. It becomes a pattern when a person continues to use an inappropriate ego state. Thus, in my example, the person who continually related to people with disabilities was motivated to be a Parent, gratified by the needs of the child. Not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but recognition of the pattern displays an opportunity to make choices about this. Am I looking after these people for their sake, or for mine?

      • Singalong says:

        “Not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but recognition of the pattern displays an opportunity to make choices about this.”

        That is a very useful explanation, Quentin, and answers my question as well. To see the situation clearly will be helpful in making choices, and also in accepting situations where there is not much choice. I think co dependency can be involved, and people helping can manage their feelings better and in a more healthy way if they recognise their role as you describe.

        “Am I looking after these people for their sake, or for mine?”

        I find that a very deep question. It is often said that helpers gain just as much from their experience as those helped, especially by charities trying to recruit volunteers.

  10. Ignatius says:

    “Am I looking after these people for their sake, or for mine?”

    I find that a very deep question. It is often said that helpers gain just as much from their experience as those helped, especially by charities trying to recruit volunteers…”

    Really fascinates me this. I train Osteopaths and so frequently hear students banging on about how they are afraid of the patients ‘becoming dependent’ It takes about 20 years or so in practice to realise that pain and anguish are complex issues and that individuals do sometimes need a shoulder to lean on for a lot longer than those involved in their health might like. Also that the individual seeking help is, if adequately informed, quite capable of making their own decisions. There seems to be an underlying ideology here that on the one hand disdains weakness and on the other hand encourages it by having decisions made FOR individuals rather than BY them (for the persons ‘best’ of course).

    As to charity work I’ve been a volunteer in a variety of roles and I do it probably because it makes me feel good….of course it does!!! I’m hardly likely to use up my time on something that makes me feel bad!! I think the attitude that disdains the complexity of the human heart and seeks only ‘objective and neutral assistance’ is profoundly ignorant of the human need to belong…..

    ” I’m Ignatius, I need to help others”

    • milliganp says:

      Ignatius, a very sensitive post on the need to see patients as more than a bag of symptoms. I suspect priests need to see beyond sin and social workers need to see beyond case notes as well.
      In transactional analysis terms for the need to help to be adult, we also need to be willing to recognise and accept our own need for help.
      In my case I quite enjoy helping others but find being helped incredibly difficult.

  11. ignatius says:

    Yes, weird that isn’t it and disappointing too when it comes…. we like to ramble on about being there for each other but then it turns out that the process is contingent on ‘you’ being wounded and ‘me’ tipping up with the bandages; the real learning comes when we discover that actually, ‘my’ ankle is just as twisted as ‘yours’!

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