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The many games of life

by Bob Docter –

All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players …
(Shakespeare As You Like It)

As actors on life’s stage, we all have our entrances and exits, our loves and losses, our triumphs and tragedies—and each in time plays many parts.

Our roles seem shaped by parents past and with chosen present models adding their bits and pieces of business. We speak our unwritten lines—sometimes whispered in intimacy, sometimes openly expressed with judgmental tones or advice, and sometimes screamed in small rooms in efforts to control, direct, or condemn a cowering immature audience of one.

For the most part, we are untrained in our craft, performing at the mercy of those who showed us how to move about the stage, to strengthen our lines with gestures of approach or rejection—to use humor and gain a laugh or offer it with hostility and earn listening eyes filled with liquid terror.

Although no pages bear our lines, our drama is fully scripted. We perform our own tragedy or comedy of pathos and passion. We achieve this with ignored feelings and actions in the absence of thought. Our script provides some interpersonal consistency as we tend to the usual triggers stimulating our usual responses. We become our own stage director of our own actions, self determined by our hopes and fears, our whims or moods. The cues, provided by those currently present, often live within us as stereotyped images based on distorted perceptions of the past.

Often the tentacles of our drama’s root system stem from decades old parental injunctions echoing unknowingly through the hollow spaces of our mind. Years ago, if these injunctions were positive and unconditional our responses to them brought pleasurable affirmation and we felt both liked and loved. In the back of our minds we created a positive series of labels to describe ourselves. We established a set of positive values paralleling those held by caring parents. We learned how to learn successfully and formed positive social relationships.

Some were conditional—expressed with an “if”—and we understood we would be affirmed only if we behaved a certain way. Now these responses become fixed and form the character within our self-written script in which we ourselves star.

Some of those injunctions may have been negative—even toxic—and we felt disliked and diminished, less willing to face challenges, burdened with dependent neediness and a lack of initiative. They often started with the word don’t.

Mary and Robert Goulding listed a few of these mostly toxic don’ts. They are the kinds of injunctions that often lead to adult difficulties.
Don’t-—often given by frightened parents who fear danger or disaster from ordinary childish activities.
Don’t be—something, often sent without words, but nevertheless clearly communicating an absence of fondness. Children interpret this as “the world would have been better without you.” This is one of the most lethal injunctions.
Don’t be close—a message sent by parents who had received the same message of distance from their own parents. It says—don’t trust—don’t love because people will leave you, and it’s painful.
Don’t be important—sent to protect the child from being too visible, from sticking-out—and thus avoiding the risk of possible humiliation.
Don’t try to succeed—says that the parent who believes the child can’t make it—can’t achieve—is a loser.
Don’t belong—a message sent by a parent who feels excluded, is unconnected to community—who never feels completely at home anywhere.

Children invent some of these injunctions themselves. They infer something from a simple but thoughtless comment or “look” or facial expression or shake of a head in disgust or almost any non-verbal behavior by a parent that can be misinterpreted. Unfortunately, most often, they never check it out at any time in their lives.

Sometimes individuals in close proximity over an extended period of time develop ways of relating to each other—patterns of speech and non-verbal communication that result in a consistent script that Eric Berne called a game.

A “game” is an ongoing series of transactions that supports earlier decisions and that ends with a “bad” feeling for at least one player. I’ve caught myself in the role of “critical parent” in several games. My awareness of this has caused me to abandon that role to instead become “grandpa.” His role is much more fun. Increased awareness of how you are communicating will help you terminate your own role in these games.

Games, sometimes, give the appearance of intimacy while they are actually designed to prevent it Often, they become simply an exercise in power.

Berne has revealed the scripts of many games like “Poor Me,” “Martyr,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” “But If It Weren’t for You,” “Family Uproar,” “Yes But …”

Maybe you see your own scripts in some of those titles.

Steven Karpman has created what he calls a “drama triangle.” It reveals three usual roles by people caught in the trap of an ongoing game. These roles are Persecutor, Victim and Rescuer.

Gerald Corey explains the triangle this way. “The Victim plays the Kick Me game by ‘inviting’ another person to ‘kick’ him or her. Often, the victim plays a Persecutor role until he or she is kicked. The triangle is completed when another family member rushes in to save the poor victim. It is not uncommon for the Victim to then persecute the Rescuer—and around and around we go.

So if you’re in the scriptwriting business or an actor in someone else’s script, stop and ask yourself: “What am I doing?” Increasing your awareness of your actions will help you break the cycle.

How fortunate are we that God is not a part of this triangle of attack. God is omniscient—available to comfort and encourage during the dark times when we feel most alone. We need only pause to reflect on his great gift and allow it to wrap our spirits in a refreshing blanket of love.

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