Transactional Analysis – Part 2 – The Games We Play

In Transactional Analysis – Part 1 – Laymans Introduction we covered the social and ego / psychological states – those of child, parent and adult, and Child, Parent and Adult – that we learn through observation and which then become hardwired into our brains. The interplay between these social and psychological states occurs during social interactions (transactions) involves the currency of strokes. The end goal of TA therapy is to coach the client into engaging others and themselves with their Adult psychological and social states.

Stable interaction occur when all parties are interacting in complementary states e.g. one is Parent, the other is child, both are Adult, or both are Child in a state of play. Unstable interactions occur when both parties are NOT transacting in complementary states – one is Parent and the other is Adult – or when the social and psychological states do not match.

Now the most important part of it from an analysis / therapeutic point of view, the games we play.

In general, games are needed because life is a social thing. Most of the games don’t really matter as they are just ways of filling time. Many men and some women will play the game “the sports” were they interact with each other taking turns taking about their team, their QB, their whatever. No one lives or dies because of these transactions and nothing really happens. It’s a bit of fun allowing for some chirping, trash talk and a general discourse about something that doesn’t have much impact on the world. The social and ego states of this game tends to be complementary.

A similar game, but one with actual consequences is “politics.” This game is a little more insidious as those who play it tend to hold a particular position of rightness (they judge their opponents) and will usually alter their ego state during the conversation to in an attempt to win or prove a point. The transactions are mixed such that the adult social comment “it is important for the liberals to understand who is paying for everything” is actually a Parent comment directed towards their opponent implying the liberals are not wise enough to realize the money comes from all the tax payers. When their debate partner replies with “it seems like conservatives don’t have a very good understanding of how enlightened liberally minded thinkers are” it is presented as Adult, but it’s a Child-like rebuttal of “you’re stupid.”

So those are two simple games that people pay. Not really a big deal given that most people don’t spend a lot of time talking politics with people they are attempting to foster high quality relationships with.

Given that the goal of TA is to help coach the client to engage others as both a social and psychological Adult, knowledge of these games and ones role within them is critical in correcting their maladaptive behavior. And this is where the challenge begins given that the Child and Parent states are biologically hardwired and can be triggered very easily simply by having someone engage you in one of the complementary states. For example, your boss makes the Adult statement “have you completed the report?” and this triggers a latent feeling from your childhood when a teacher asked the same question. Instead of saying “yes” and handing it over, the reply is “why don’t you ever think I’ll anything you ask me to do?” a Child reply. Effective bosses will reply with an Adult statement like “I just need the report so I can secure the funding for the budget” ignoring their Child like reply and not altering their ego state to match the shift that just occurred when their employee reacted like a child.

So that’s how the games work. There’s a formula for which people end-up winning and it’s a pathological mess when the dynamic becomes obvious.

Here are a few of the games that I find to be the most damaging:

“Now I’ve got you, you SOB” – A wants something, to end a relationship with B for example. B wants something, to spend time with A. B asks A to go out somewhere and A agrees. Adult : Adult on a social level, but something else on the psychological level. Upon arrival, A notices a car in the parking lot that looks like one that belongs to a friend of B. A realizes that they now have the evidence they need to “legitimately” end the relationship because B didn’t want to go out, they wanted to hangout with someone else. The switch occurs when A engages B from Parent and B responded as Child. In this case, A says “you weren’t honest with me about why you wanted to go out, just asked me for a ride so you could spend time with someone else” with B replying “no I didn’t.” This cross-up leaves B disoriented because they didn’t anticipate the switch and if they had real feelings towards A, they realize that they have been played. The payoff for A is feeling justified in their actions dumps B and moves forward from a superior position.

This is a very common one in dead relationships or marriages were one party will ask the other questions saying “I won’t be upset, I just need to know what’s going on.” Once B replies, the switch occurs and A attacks B for their lack of morals, lack of character, etc…. B feels stupid because they’ve been had again and A feels justified in their negative feelings. This likely is related to Negative Love Syndrome in that A has created an environment by with compassionate love is used against their partner.

This game is run aggressively and in many cases, the decision to feel a particular way has NOTHING at all to do with B. A just has some reason for not being an Adult and makes the decision to manipulate so they don’t have to be up front about it. In a lot of cases, it has seemingly decent people doing things that are horrible, but the reality is, A isn’t an Adult and is locked in their Child ego state.

“If it wasn’t for you….” Many people seek out of relationships with people who they view as controlling and will facilitate the behaviors by which B will begin to act like a parent or offer coaching as an Adult. Once these behaviors begin to be displayed, A will then feel and claim that B is trying to control them and act like a child and say “if it wasn’t for you I would be doing …..” the notion is that B is preventing A from achieving what they want. The irony is, B is helping A achieve what they want – which is the feeling of being controlled.

This games sucks because A doesn’t have the awareness to see that their actions are creating the response in B. For example, A tells B that they bounced a check or couldn’t buy something that was needed because they didn’t have enough money. B compassionately tries to offer some help – points out ways to save some money, suggests a budget, or something similar. What B didn’t know was that A wanted to bounce the check or not have the money so there could be some social gain; possible a feeling of being unfairly done by or a reason to complain. The switch occurs when A proceeds to tell B that they are trying to control them and that their help is uninvited and unwelcome; possibly going so far as to say that B doesn’t even follow the same advice. The gain for A is the creation of bad feeling towards B, a superior position and likely the end of a relationship / friendship. B just feels stupid for being gamed.

There are many games like this, check out Eric Berne — “The Games People Play – The Psychology Of Human Relationships” for a startling list of the ways people will manipulate others. I regard this book as a user manual for ruining other peoples lives and creating toxic relationships with people who are prone to being worked over. As a general rule however, reading it and noticing the way people engage you, and being aware of how the switching from Adult to parent / child feels will disarm even the most skilled manipulators. Once you feel it happening, point it out to them and watch them squirm.

Let’s be fair though, all of this is possible because people feel compassion, which is a great thing when it isn’t being used as a weapon.