Have you ever wondered – why do I keep meeting the same sort of person in my relationships?

You don’t want to meet the same personality type but this keeps happening and you can’t understand the reason.  You wonder, “How am I here again?”, and you have a familiar, slightly confused feeling that the situation is outside your control.

There are two pieces of good news; you’re not alone and, yes, there is a reason – which is connected with games.

Questions which require answers are:-
1. What is a game?
2. Why do I want to play it? 
3. How do games start?
4. What are the different levels of games? 
5. Finally, how can I stop?

In this, the first of two articles, we will look at the first three questions.

1. What is a game?
When we use the term “games” we are talking about psychological games. What is meant by this?

In psychotherapy a “game” has a fancy definition which to me looked something like an algebraic formula. My simple definition is that it is when we find a situation that repeatedly happens to us and it makes us feel uncomfortable. We feel a “switch”, and we might say “What just happened there?” There is always something that locks us or hooks us into a game and I’ll say more about that hook later.

2. Why play games?

Games are concerned with meeting needs, and we achieve this through “strokes”. A stroke is a compliment, an acknowledgement, a moment where we have recognition for who we are and what we do.

As children we notice which feelings, beliefs and attitudes are “allowed” in our family and accordingly we make decisions about how we need to act to survive. If we grew up in a family that expressed itself by being angry we may decide that the only way we can communicate and receive strokes is by being angry.

Authentic feelings mean the feelings we experienced when we were young – our true feelings which have not been influenced by others.

The anger may be a substitute feeling for the authentic feeling which wasn’t allowed in our family. Perhaps sadness was not allowed in the family but anger was.
Often the need for strokes is intensified owing to the inner turmoil from having a feeling that is not an authentic feeling. There is a need for reassurance that all feelings are “okay”.

When the young child has had to suppress feelings she will compensate by over exaggerating the “permitted” feelings. She is able to have some feelings but they are not authentic. However, these become repeated in a vain attempt to experience the real feeling. If, for example, feelings were discouraged while growing up, such a feeling – perhaps sadness showing itself as anger – might reveal itself in an inappropriate situation(see anger management).

If the need or want is met it feels resolved and no more needs to happen.  However, if this does not happen a decision is made about that – a decision which decrees that for my needs to be met, I need to play a game.  If the need is confronted it can be met. However, without confrontation the game continues. We feel our needs have not been met, and the process starts again the next time a similar situation occurs.

3. How do the games start?

You want your boss to know you are unhappy with the way he/she treats you.
If you discuss with your boss what is making you unhappy and ways you can move forward, progress is made and the game ends there.

If, however, you start to come in late and complain about how “they” are treating you, then your need has not been met. Something needs to change.
You then start to stomp about and whinge to your colleagues about how you need to” get out of this place”.

There is still no progress with your boss.
The game has started, and you may play the game of “kick me”.  Whenever anything – however trivial – happens you say, “look at this, told you it was a rubbish company, and this just proves it.”. You continue to find other reasons to confirm this. It gives us a chance to say, “I told you I never get treated properly.”

You could at this point go and see your boss and say, “I’m unhappy with x, y, z. Can we sort it out, please?”  This would end the game, because you need to let your boss know you’re not happy rather than imagining he/she must know because it’s somehow obvious.

A game can be played in three ways – by speaking, feeling or acting. It always involves at least two people, and there are three levels to the intensity of games.  The games involve something you want to say but are frightened of saying.
In the next article on psychological games we will look at the different levels of games with examples.

What are the different levels of psychological games in relationships?

This is the second of two articles on psychological games. In the previous article we looked at what a game is, why it is played and how a game starts.

First level psychological games

First level games are the sort that you might hear being played in an office.  A good example would be when someone is complaining about the air conditioning (yes, I’ve worked in an office!) and saying “they” never get it right, or generally moaning about the tea or coffee – or the boss!  That’s the sort of game that people join in quite readily – they have a bit of a moan and that’s that.  The “moaners” don’t mind other people overhearing them and they regard the rant as little more than social conversation.

Second level psychological games

Second level games are more intense and serious and you may feel you do not want to discuss these games with your friends.  The following scenario would be a good example of a second level game.

You are told by a well meaning friend that you are being talked about by a best friend, who we’ll call Sally. You start to tell all your friends about Sally and what she’s said, adding a few “extras”.  You do this because you’re feeling put out, but this gets back to Sally and more rumours continue to flow.  This situation is self perpetuating, and it gathers a momentum all of its own.

Someone suffering domestic abuse might be involved in the type of second level game I am now about to describe.

Penny and her boyfriend Malcolm have a three year old son, Philip.  Penny receives constant verbal abuse from Malcolm.  He puts her down by telling her that she should stop the baby crying, that she is a rubbish mother and so on.  She tells a friend all this, and her friend says, “Why are you putting up with this?”  Penny says, “Because he loves the baby.”  “But why is he shouting at you?” is the reply.

Penny explains that Malcolm’s just tired because he doesn’t sleep well, especially when the baby cries in the night and Penny disturbs him when she has to get up. “Why is it always you who has to get up?” asks Penny’s friend.  “I don’t mind,” replies Penny, “because Malcolm does love us and he takes care of us.”
Her friend suggests Penny tells Malcolm it’s his turn for a change, but Penny’s response is that Malcolm says it’s Penny’s job as the mother.

And so the conversation ends with the friend feeling very frustrated with Penny.

Third level psychological games

Third level games often have serious consequences.  High drama is involved. Perhaps the hairdryer is always blowing up with near fatal consequences, or that person has had several near misses in the car. Another example of a third degree game might be where  a woman keeps meeting violent boyfriends and putting up with it until one day she turns  on her current boyfriend( whether he is violent or not) and, using all her pent up rage, she stabs him.

Games are nearly always played out of awareness, and at the start of the game something will hook us into it. We play them to have our needs met.

Why wouldn’t we simply ask for what we need?  This may be because this was something we didn’t learn to do when growing up, so we simply don’t know how to.  It may be that we are frightened of confrontation, or we may be frightened of rejection.

When asked “what’s wrong?”, rather than say “I need a hug”, we may say “nothing”, expecting the other person to know somehow what the problem is.  When they don’t know, we get cross, thus enabling us to say, “Told you didn’t really care!”

So how can you stop the psychological games?

If someone is playing a game he/she is almost always unaware that a game is taking place. The first step is therefore to become aware of what is hooking you in.  It may be, for example, that you don’t like to say ”no” to friends who ask you a favour and so you end up doing things you don’t want to do.  At the point you say “yes”, notice what is happening in your body.  Notice what you are really thinking.

If a game is already under way, you can stop it by simply completely changing the subject to something unrelated. If someone is moaning about a friend and you’re feeling uncomfortable, you could say, “I like your shoes.”

You could even fall back on the old British favourite – the weather.  The key is to say something that will cause the other person to stop!

Games are not a conscious attempt to make someone else do or say something ; rather, they are the way –  sometimes the only way  – the person knows to have his or her needs met. Learning how to have needs met in a straightforward adult way can seem quite daunting if you’ve constantly been playing games. When there is an understanding of the dynamics of a relationship it’s easy to be clear about what you need, and how to attain it in a healthy adult way.

Another way to describe games is that they bring the past into the present. It is often more a replay of old feelings than feelings that are significant to the current moment

People seek therapy because they don’t want to play games and they don’t know how to stop. Often this will have been highlighted in relationships. Games are way to get at least some needs met, but they are a substitute for what we really need and they are invariably exhausting and time consuming.

Games are a way to receive the strokes they are looking for while blocking any intimacy.

I spend a great deal of time in my practice helping people to understand why they are playing psychological games, how it is affecting their relationships and, most importantly, how to stop.