By Pearl Drego
Most of us are busy playing games, with ourselves and others. Transactional analysis teaches you how to understand these games, leading to more harmonious relationships and a better you
There is this story often heard in transactional analysis (TA) circles: Dr Eric Barn was on a flight from New York to San Francisco. The man sitting next to him said: ‘Hi!’ Dr Barn replied: ‘Hi, I’m Eric Barn’ The other said: ‘I’m Dr Henry Fotheringall. What’s your game?’ ‘I’m a transactional analyst,’ said Dr Barn Dr Fotheringall replied: ‘Oh, ho, I’m OK, You’re OK. Ha, ha!’ ‘You could say that,’ Dr Barn replied. ‘What’s your job?’ Somewhat importantly, Dr Fotheringall answered: ‘I’m an astronomer attached to space research.’ To this, came Dr Berne’s quick reply: ‘You mean, twinkle, twinkle, little star?’
Closer home, Father Oswald Summerton and I had recently visited the Industrial Finance Corporation of India office in New Delhi, India. When the manager heard that both of us were directors at the Transactional Analytic Center for Education, Research & Training (TACET), he promptly said: ‘What is this TA business? Parent, Adult and Child…that’s all?’ To which Father Summerton replied: ‘But then what is a building? Just a couple of bricks after all.’
There is, of course, much more to buildings than bricks and to astronomy than twinkling little stars. And TA is not just an assessment of whether you are ‘OK’ or not. TA was discovered in the 1950s by Dr Barn who called it a theory and method of social psychiatry. According to Dr Barn, we all have three sets of behavior or ego states: Parent, Adult and Child. We can find out the ego state a person is in by studying the way he behaves at a certain moment.
Dr Berne’s definition of these ego states: the Parent is the set of feelings, attitudes and behavior patterns that resemble those of a parental figure; the Adult adapts to the current reality and is not affected by parental prejudices or archaic attitudes left over from childhood; the Child is a relic of the individual’s own childhood.
The analysis of these states helps us understand how people communicate with each other and why they behave the way they do. And that leads to better relationships and a better you. Game analysis is an important part of the TA practice, for studying the games people play is a step towards breaking negative patterns, many of which are unconscious .
Enter Renu’s house, and watch a game called Family Uproar in progress. Eight-year-old Renu comes running out of the bedroom. ‘Where is my pencil box?’ she asks, her bright eyes looking expectantly at her family seated at the breakfast table.
‘How should I know,’ quips her elder brother.
‘I saw it with you yesterday,’ volunteers her mother.
‘Why don’t you get Renu to pack her bag the previous night?’ says her father to her mother.
‘You know what a busy time I had last night with your surprise office guests. How could you expect me to see to the children at the same time, plus visit your mother in hospital, plus see to the plumbers!’ retorts her mother. And that’s how it all started.
For the next 15 minutes, Renu’s parents lash out at each other, while her brother tries to make peace. Renu is completely forgotten. She picks up her pencil box from the top of the television set and bolts out of the door, saying to herself, ‘1 wish this would stop’, quite oblivious of her own part in the fight and her secret enjoyment of her capacity to impact her parents in a powerful way. She has to work hard to get their appreciation, but she has to use very little energy to get them upset.
Family Uproar is usually played at wake-up time, going-to-school time, getting-ready-quickly time, and many other volatile occasions. According to Dr Barn, families play games in order to keep up the pace of those psychodynamic stimuli that are necessary for the energy of living.
Dr Steve Karpman, a San Francisco psychiatrist and colleague of Dr Barn, designed the drama triangle of Rescuer, Persecutor and Victim to unravel the roles that family members occupy when they enter into games. He found that all fairy tales had these three roles and family games were similar to fairy tale scenarios. Dr Karpman gives the example of the Red Riding Hood story, with the roles of little girl victim, farmer rescuer, wolf persecutor and grandmother victim.
Renu’s family had discovered that Renu would present herself as the needy victim, her brother as the marginal persecutor, her father would be the centerstage persecutor, while her mother ends up being the accused victim.
Renu’s family came in for family game analysis and each member took different decisions. Renu decided that she would stop making public announcements of her problems. Her brother said he would stay out of the fray. Her mother decided that she would ask Renu to put her packed school bag on her dining chair before going to sleep. Renu would hence be responsible for finding things the previous night, and her mother could easily check it before she herself turned in for the night. Renu’s father resolved that he would stop blaming his wife whenever he felt guilty and would not hold her responsible for the children’s problems. Family Uproar ended in Family Peace and Happiness, but that is not always the case. Identifying the game is no doubt the first step towards its resolution. If you wish to get in touch with your own games, ask yourself what kind of games you encounter at home and at your workplace.
How are you part of these games? If you perceive someone else playing a game with you, ask yourself which complementary game you could be invited to play. A short reflection using what has come to be known in TA as the Game Plan will help you to generate data to analyze your own games.
There are a few simple questions that open the door to a profound awareness. Sit in a quiet place and make a note of the answers to the following:
• What happens, over and over again, so that you end up feeling…(name the emotion or feeling)?
• Who are the persons involved?
• How does it all start?
• What happens next? And then? And then?
• How does it all end?
• What is everyone feeling? What is everyone doing?
Now look for the events in your life that seem to repeat themselves with different people and at different times, in the most unexpected ways. By taking an honest look at the pattern, you will see your own provocation, blindness, naiveté or ignorance, because of which you ended up in a negative situation.
TA is not, however, just aimed at analysis. Wile clarifying the emotional and thought contents of a situation does build inner strength and release your potential, the aim of TA is to empower you with options for changing behaviors, thoughts and feelings.
• Ask yourself what good feelings you wish to cultivate instead of the negative ones you end up with in your game
• Then take a decision to feel these feelings and imagine you will feel them as soon as you start a particular interaction that usually ends up badly
• Decide what you will do differently
• Decide what you will stop saying and what you will say instead
• Compose your own ‘life contract’ in words such as: I will be happy. I will not hurt myself or anyone else. I will not go out of control and I will seek the help I need. I will be aware of my feelings and express them safely
Games provide a pseudo-satisfaction for the human needs of recognition, appreciation and achievement. When these needs are difficult to satisfy directly, games are played, as these provide a stopgap for the pain of isolation and inertia. The pull and tug of feelings, the effervescence of complaining and scolding, the drone of ‘should nots’, the threat of anger, and the smug power in getting others to fight over trivial details-all coalesce into the stream of daily life.
The real trouble starts when the games go to second and third degree levels, involving social failures, slip-ups that rebound into family disasters, damage to the body, and the breakdown of relationships. The third degree of games involves a permanent damage and a loss of reputation. We have examples of third degree games when the neighborhood can hear the screams and shouts coming through the windows at night, when lawyers and courtrooms take over the destiny of a marriage, when repeated accidents result in disabilities.
Games such as If You Weren’t The Terrible Person You Really Are, Then Our Marriage Could Have Had Some Hope puts all the blame on the spouse. As this statement often includes the demand that the accused spouse should change at once, the relationship gets locked in a stalemate, impaled on stifling frustrations and a daily repetition of the same quarrel in different forms.
This does not, however, mean that all blaming is illusory or that a spouse may not be held accountable for abusive behavior. What TA points out is that at times a person can enjoy blaming someone else, sadistically. Such a person can be taught to spend energy in a more productive way, seeking alternative solutions. TA interventions are not aimed at making a victim responsible for his victimization, but rather at stopping the persecutory behavior involved and looking for creative options.
Blaming in such a case serves to cover up your own inadequacy, and entrenches a negative attitude that puts the onus of transformation on another. It fosters an uncompromising stance and justifies the belittling of the other, the denial of the other’s achievements and a refusal to acknowledge the other’s needs.
The game If It Weren’t For You, also called IWFY, is seen as the most common marital blaming game. Surjeet had been an ardent golfer, but since his marriage to Supriya he hardly had any time for golfing and often said to his friends: ‘Sorry, I can’t come. If it weren’t for my wife, I would. She’s jealous of my playing. She just won’t help me get ready on time.’ One week Supriya made a special effort to encourage Surjeet to play golf and even presented him with new golf balls from Australia. It was then that Surjeet confessed that he didn’t really like playing and that he usually ended up feeling unhappy after a game because he wasn’t a good player. He had to stop playing IWFY and confront his own feelings of inadequacy.
In keeping with our policy of indigenizing TA, we have a game at TACET called If It Weren’t For My Mother-in-law. And we will soon introduce The Indian Clerical Game, which is about the typical clerk found in our offices who literally sabotages all the work through his inefficiency.
Games played at work are of a different genre. Passing The Buck is a well-known pattern in organizations with hierarchical structures, where decisions are shunted upwards and participation is overtly intense but actually a sham. Because of the human need for power struggles and the unsavory habit of getting a thrill out of put-downs, the game of Why Don’t You-Yes But is a favorite in the corporate sector.
A boss may call a meeting and ask for suggestions from his team, but as he is given a suggestion such as, ‘Sir, why don’t you do this…’ he parries it with a ‘Yes, that is fine, but it won’t quite work because…’ Each suggestion meets with an elaborate excuse, until the boss brings out his own pet idea and proclaims it as the final decision of the meeting.
His team shrugs indifferently, and he feels that he has done his bit for the ideals of participation and joint action. The priming of his self-importance depends on the inadequacy of his team.
A promise made and unfulfilled is given the name of Rapo, especially when the expectations are of a romantic nature. Building up expectations and then destroying them is seen as a betrayal game called Social Rapo. A young man who, in a binge of false honesty, tells his girlfriend: ‘Oh, you’re so nice; you don’t mind me forgetting appointments. You’re not like my last three girlfriends who would get so offended,’ will surely get a slam coming his way.
Inviting punitive action from friends, authorities or family members, asking for rejections by useless provocation, providing information that could be used against you, trusting unreliable parties, taking up dangerous challenges out of bravado, are regarded as self-defeating games that can be classified under the name of Kick Me games. At a serious level, the Kick Me player can sustain abuse of various kinds for many years before taking steps to get out of a relationship.
The pessimist says: ‘ But isn’t this part of reality, which we need to accept and adjust to?’ The transactional analyst looks more positively at the situation and encourages us to create the happiness we dream of, in spite of our failings and foibles. ‘You can be what you want to be, and you can feel what you want to feel, because you have the power to create your behavior,’ is the belief of the transactional analyst.
In the meantime, we carry on playing games, both solo and in groups. It all begins with wondering what to say after having said hello. And then determining whether I’m OK, You’re OK.
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