The Games People Play

The central game at the heart of human behaviour is the game of acceptance and rejection. We’re very, very deeply wired for that, so let’s talk about where that game comes from.

The games people play is a book written in 1964 by Eric Berne, MD. Eric Berne is known as the father of Transactional Analysis. If you hear a reference to Parent Adult Child or TA, that’s what we’re talking about. The central game at the heart of human behaviour is the game of acceptance and rejection. We’re very, very deeply wired for that, so let’s talk about where that game comes from.

Let’s imagine we’re back in the stone age—we’re still actually in Africa at this point in our evolution— and if I’m on my own and I’m approaching a settlement, the number one thing I want from those people is to be accepted. Because if that group or tribe rejects me then chances are when I fall asleep, I’ll be eaten by a predator or I won’t find water or I won’t find food and I’ll starve to death. Either way, the prognosis is not good if I’m rejected.

The consequence of this survival need is that we’re very very deeply wired to seek acceptance and avoid any chance of rejection. The games Eric Berne writes about in his book are all about acceptance and rejection. Now before we go into that, let’s just go to the other side, to the people at the settlement. As I’m approaching the settlement, those people are trying to make a judgement about me.

It takes a fortieth of a second for an image we see to reach our retina. So, in literally the blink of an eye, we’re deciding whether that person is a friend or are they a foe. Within that friend or foe judgment, there are two distinctions that are important: one, is this person trustworthy—in other words, if I let this person into our settlement, will I wake up in the morning to find that our food has been stolen? Will they kill me in the night?

Then the second judgment I’m trying to make is one of competency, because I can’t afford to take someone in who’s going to be a burden. So if they haven’t got a useful competency, they will just be another mouth to feed which puts our group at risk. I’m looking to see if they have flints in a pouch. Do they have pelts that they’re carrying? What kind of spear have they got? How can I determine whether this person has a value that they’re going to bring to the community?

So those two judgments, trustworthiness and competence, are still judgments we make today in the blink of an eye.  It’s worth bearing in mind the first impression you give to others. Are you competent? Are you perceived as needy? Are you trustworthy or are you untrustworthy? What’s the impression that you give? Do you tend to emphasize your trustworthiness to gain acceptance, or your competency? How’s that working for you?

Tall Poppy Syndrome

One of the popular games that I come across is the Tall Poppy Syndrome. This is a game typically played by a number of people, against a single person or a smaller group. The idea being to somehow cut them down to size. When they no longer stand out for being better than anyone else, the attacks will stop. This bullying can do great psychological harm to the victim and the game doesn’t really benefit the perpetrators. Typically these games happen at school where the bright kid, who may not be particularly confident, might be seen as a bit nerdy, gets picked on by kids who feel that they’re shown up by this brighter person. The brighter person may not have done anything wrong, but the gang attacks them for being different.

They’re trying to cut you down to force you to fit in or so they feel better about themselves. A reason for that could be the teacher may be giving more attention to the brightest child. It may not be done overtly, but other kids will feel it or one kid always gets better marks and the others don’t get such good marks. Some bright people learned early in life to hide their achievements and interests so as to avoid unpleasant attention. You might say all this is stupid childish stuff, but it carries on into adult life as well.

If we go back to the trust competency dynamic, we realise that the tall poppy is perceived as being more competent and therefore more likely to be accepted. In turn, this means we are more likely to be rejected, so we seek to redress the balance.

So not surprisingly, we find people who are very bright with a high degree of intelligence, maybe a lot of qualifications, actually lack confidence because all they got — through no fault of their own— was attacks by others during their school years. Maybe as well within their family, where if one sibling is bright academically, and the other one isn’t and then depending on how the parents react, you get a reaction between the siblings. Sometimes parents too put down the bright child. “No one in our house goes to university!” As if that will somehow excuse them for not making the best of their own talents, or excuse them for a lack of talent.

So it’s really mportant to understand the dynamics, particularly in your own family, obviously, and not to favour one person over another. In my own experience at school, I know of a lad who very seriously tried to commit suicide because his older brother was a real scholar and was going to go to Oxford or Cambridge university. He was under so much pressure from his mother to be the same. He just happened to be the best athlete the school had ever seen. But that wasn’t enough for Mummy. She wanted him to be an academic scholar, which he was never going to be in a million years.

It was just by chance someone wondered why the bathroom was occupied for so long, looked through the keyhole and the white walls of the bathroom were red with his blood. Very fortunately the ambulance came in time and they saved his life. That’s the extreme, but it’s the same dynamic. It’s about acceptance and rejection, so whatever you do, do not reject your own children; they’re doing the best they can with the resources that they have.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of that, recognise that the game that you’re playing is hurting yourself. You don’t need to have your life defined by the perceptions of others. And if you’re one of these people trying to cut down the tall poppy just ask yourself,  what on earth are you doing? Why do you need to do that? Wouldn’t it be better to focus your energy on improving yourself?

There can be lots of dynamics that make human life a little bit more complicated than it needs to be. But if you’ve been on the rough end of that, we’d love to help you let that stuff go. That’s the stuff that I help clients with. Some of these people are surprisingly senior, surprisingly wealthy, qualified in all kinds of things, but in their past there’s something which is bugging them and stopping them from feeling as free and as happy as they deserve.

Snow White Syndrome

Another popular game, which Steve Peters talks about in his book, the Chimp Paradox, is Snow White Syndrome. It’s quite an interesting game. Snow white tends to be played by girls, but I imagine it can be played by boys too. The role this person is playing is that of the family martyr. They always have to be busy and there’s lots of sighs, huffing and puffing, tiredness because this poor martyr is unappreciated, despite all their hard work.

Now, where this comes from is originally seeking approval from one parent or other, never getting it because, guess what, the parents probably weren’t approved of themselves. So it becomes a pointless game and then into adulthood and all this person ends up doing is wearing themselves out, and everybody else will find them hard work and a bit too dramatic so keep their distance. Then this martyr will wonder why they’re not as loved as they should be for the contribution that they’re making. So you see how some of these games are really counterproductive and have their roots somewhere else.

So if you’re one of those people striving for mother’s or father’s approval perhaps you won’t be surprised to know that these games continue long after the death of the parents. Just ask yourself how much is this really serving you? If you’re a house proud person and you want to live in a nice clean shiny place that’s cool, but at what expense is it to yourself and everybody around you? If Dad or Mum isn’t going to approve of you or hasn’t approved of you so far, are they actually going to approve of you now? In fact, have you ever asked them? Is their approval just your perception or is it that you haven’t actually had approval in a way that means something to you?

So much of the time this can be solved by just having that conversation with the parents and to figure out where their heads were at and where yours was at, and why there seems to be some kind of mismatch. If they’ve already gone, the best thing is to do, is just let it go, just release it. If you need help to do that, then give me a call. Not only can I help you do that, it’s also relatively straightforward.

Note that this game has both a competency element and a trustworthy element.

The Alpha Wolf

Let’s talk about the Alpha wolf—one of the destructive men’s games. It is very much an ego game. They’re the best and they won’t let you forget it. Where the tall poppy is attacked, the Alpha Wolf does the attacking. These are the types of men who intimidate their own children. I’ve seen plenty of people who want to spoil the boy because he is their son, but also they need to dominate the boy because they’re the top dog. You end up with a very confused and spoiled boy who really doesn’t know one end from the other.

Some of these spoiled children I’ve even met in their 50s because the inconsistency of the father as the dominant figure has left them totally confused about their own identity and their own capability. So, Alpha Wolf can be very destructive in the home. On the opposite end of the scale, you get kids who then mimic the father— that’s called modelling—and end up with the same destructive behaviour against others that the father had. Most of the time in terms of the experience that I’ve had dealing with people, the kids tend to be more hurt by that kind of behaviour than they benefit from that kind of behaviour.

In the workplace, the Alpha Wolves are the ones that the HR department are clutching their foreheads about because this is the guy that’s the liability in the organization. Now. If you’ve got those kinds of people in your organization, they will be running your organization at your expense for their benefit. So they tend to be more psychopathic, so when their personal interests are aligned with the interest of the organization then they will be pushing forward and if there’s collateral damage on the way, well, those people were in the way and they weren’t aligned with us.

When that person doesn’t have the answer, that’s when the real problem starts. In a static market and markets used to be more static in the old days, you could have some of these people seen as being great CEOs, but actually, they were what I call one-man companies. So everybody jumped when they said jump and that worked for a while, but now it definitely doesn’t work. One person cannot possibly know all the answers. Today you need to be a collaborator rather than an Alpha wolf.

If you’ve got those people in your organization fighting amongst themselves, trying to boss everybody around, telling them what to do, you better be sure that they actually do seriously know what they’re doing or they’ll be taking the business to an early grave.

Those are just 3 games people play. There are many others, but the underlying dynamic of acceptance and rejection is there in all of them.

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