Learning to identify these games that have been forced on us can help us never to play them again.
One day when we were six and playing hopscotch two minutes before the end-of-recess bell, my best friend said, "I have to pee. Come to the bathroom with me."
"But the bell's about to ring," I gasped, terrified. "We'll be late to class."
She fixed me with a squinty glare.
"Come to the bathroom with me or I'll never play with you again."
I went. Yes, we were late to class and yes, we got in trouble for it.
Three years later: Our hip, fashionable fourth-grade teacher asked the class a question about wagon trains. I raised my hand. She called on me. Because this was my favorite subject, I lavished my answer with descriptions, details, bits of songs.
"Do you," she boomed, "have diarrhea of the mouth?"
My classmates laughed as if they'd never stop.
You might ask why I still remember those moments so vividly, why I cannot just let them go. It's because I have only recently begun to see them for the games they were: games played on me. With me, as if I was a helpless toy.
I worshiped my best friend too much to understand that her threat was a game, her game, which she knew she would win. My fourth-grade teacher found it fun to make children laugh at a fellow child.
I now realize that being played with—not in the let's-play-together sense but becoming a plaything, utilized to amuse or empower others—shatters self-esteem. Like toys, we were forced into weird positions, made to talk in funny voices, tossed out windows, torn apart or clutched too close.
When this happens enough, we mistake games—which others always started, knowing they would win—for truth. We mistake those weird positions and funny voices for our own.
How could this have been done to us without our knowing it? That's the nature of play: a blend of fantasy and rivalry, imagination and deception, wreathed in innocence and creativity and joy. One of their games was Pretend-This-Is-Not-a-Game.
Here are five all-too-common games mean people play—for fun, for gain, in desperation, by default. For each one of these five that feels familiar, write a list of rules—like those that come with real games—detailing how it was played on you.
If it helps, illustrate your lists with diagrams or drawings. Then re-read them until you see the true nature of what happened to you. Learning to identify these games that have been forced on us can help us never to play them again.
- The Lying Game: It's so easy and, like chess, with practice it becomes a way of life. When she threatened never to play with me again, my little friend knew she was lying. But she'd already learned that lying to gullible, desperate me was ever-effective, convenient and fun.
- The Crying Game: Its main rule is that one player does all the needing and receiving, while the other does all the empathizing, sympathizing, listening, comforting, reassuring, rescuing, praising and supporting. The roles are never switched. And guess who wins.
- The Blame Game: Refusing to take responsibility for whatever goes wrong, scanning the surroundings seeking a perfect target on whom to shift the blame, selecting someone loyal, terrified, obedient: someone like me. This game is a favorite among narcissists.
- The Shame Game: My fourth-grade teacher was a champion player. This game has a side-rule by which, after even just a few losses, the loser is affixed with a sign saying "I AM A LOSER: PLEASE MOCK ME." Detaching or erasing such signs can take years.
- The Invasion Game: Player 1 uses any means possible to trample, bulldoze, burn or otherwise destroy Player 2's inner and outer boundaries. Player 1 gets extra points for laying booby-traps set to explode whenever Player 2 attempts to rebuild those boundaries.
- The Gaslight Game: It's very simple, and consists mainly of Player 1 asserting, "I'm not crazy. You're the one who's crazy" in various situations regardless of facts or evidence until Player 2 believes it, doubting and then disowning his or her own grasp on reality.
What if we started seeing our self-loathing not as justified but simply, sadly, as fraudulent victories in games that others played on us, without our consciousness, will or consent? This realization does not take the pain away, but readjusts reality. Now we don't play.