The Alcoholic Life Game

Counselling, Weymouth, Alcoholic, Depression, Juniper

Dr Eric Berne (1910-1970) was a psychiatrist who developed a new theory in 1968 called Transactional Analysis and subsequently published a book called ‘Games People Play (the psychology of human relationships)’ which became a classic and world wide best seller. Games are classified into Life, Marital, Party, Sexual, Underworld, Consulting and Good.

Why do we play games?

In his book Berne explains that from birth we need physical intimacy for our well-being on all levels (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) and there are many examples of how damaging it can be if we do not receive ‘good enough’ intimacy from our primary care giver/s. When we grow older, we find the infant intimacy chapter is over and some part of us still seeks out this kind of intimacy for our well-being. There becomes few opportunities for this kind of intimacy in daily life, and when they appear they are sometimes so intense they can be psychologically too hard to cope with, so instead we play games to get this need met (which Berne calls a ‘stroke’). Therefore the primary function of any psychological game, is the payoff (the stroke).  As we are all diverse, some of us need many strokes in one day, whilst others only require a limited amount a month – but we all need strokes. One of the worst punishments for us is solitary confinement, which again has been well documented as to the negative impact this has on our bodies.

So we need to play games for our health and well-being?

We could conclude, games become necessary for people’s health and well-being. As you may have gathered there are good and bad games. Good games such as ‘happy to help’, ‘the good sage’ and ‘busman’s holiday’ are considered ‘good’ when the contribution to society outweighs the motivations of the person. Particularly if the person has become aware of their game playing and accepted their own motivations. Bad games as the name suggests are usually destructive in some capacity.

So more of a case of stop playing ‘bad’ games?

Deprivation of games, even destructive ones, may lead to psychological damage and psychosis without adequate caution and preparation. Furthermore, this caution extends to other people involved in the same game. For example, the healing of one person in a game then leads to the deterioration of another invested in their game.  However, the benefits of living a human life with game-free intimacy however brings a greater pay off than being stuck in a game.

Can we discuss an example of a life game?

In the game of the Alcoholic, interestingly there is no such thing as an alcoholic, but there is a role called the Alcoholic. To remind you, the game is not exploring the biochemical aspect, but the psychological one and who is involved in the game.

This game only needs two players: The Alcoholic and The Rescuer/Persecutor. This game has a familiar feel if you have come across the well-documented ‘drama triangle’. Sadly not as well-documented is the ‘winners triangle’ as a way of stepping out of the drama into a healthier way of being.

The Alcoholic game can involve more players:

  • The Dummy: who is not a rescuer or persecutor, but provides resources and sympathy. This role is attractive to those who are lonely and have something to gain from being nice to the Alcoholic.
  • The Good Guy: similar to the above, but provides resources without being asked
  • The Connexion/Professional: who provides the alcohol, but being professional knows when to stop the supply (e.g. bar tender) unlike the above ‘amateurs’.

In the later stages of the Alcoholic game, the rescuer and persecutor are not needed as much as the supply due to the deterioration of the person.

The pay off for the Alcoholic is not so much in the drinking of drinks; although in certain societies, such as ours in the UK, a person able to drink large volumes of alcohol has an admirable quality, and the sub-game ‘how much did we drink‘ can have a number of strokes.

There is such a role of the ‘Dry Alcoholic’ so drink is not required; the main pay off for the Alcoholic is in the hangover – a hard round of ‘the morning after’ which is basically indulging in self punishment.

Talking in Ego States for a moment, the Alcoholic’s Adapted Child is abused by their Critical Parent. Self worth is low, the childhood belief is they deserve punishment, and it may be so familiar that they seek out strokes of punishment from others. The thesis, if analysing the game, would be ‘see how bad I have been, see if you can stop me‘.

Many ideas to help the Alcoholic were based on changing the role from Victim (Alcoholic) to Rescuer. Berne suggested the psychological cure of an alcoholic lies in stopping the game altogether. The former Alcoholic should then be able to drink socially without putting themselves in danger.  But this game is played hard and therefore difficult to stop but can happen with the right preparation and noone willing to play any of the other roles in the game.

Interestingly those playing this game in the ‘Rescuer’ position found Berne’s rational approach more alarming than the ‘Alcoholic’ did. There is a tendency of the Rescuer in this game to play ‘I’m only trying to help you’. Incidentally, the Persecutor plays ‘Look what you have done to my life’. 

Is game playing innate or do we learn games?

We are born autonomous and game free. Games are passed down from previous generations. Raising children becomes a matter of teaching children which games to play; being candid or honest is usually frowned upon in society. There are a lot of things frowned upon in society so the learning of games is essential to fitting in and being accepted in at least the first two decades of our lives. As you may expect different cultures and social classes have favoured games. We actually befriend those people who play similar games to us. Any group member who doesn’t know how to play or even attempts to change the game will be excluded.

So the children of alcoholics learn how to play that game?

Interestingly children, of alcoholics in particular, tend to use a characteristic of the Alcoholic game called ‘See if you can stop me‘, which manifests as lying, hiding things, seeking negative comments, looking for helpful people, seeking out allies and so on.

The self punishment aspect if the game generally comes into play when those children become older.

How do I step out of the destructive games I play?

Berne suggests three things are needed:

  • Awareness – being in the here and now (this is the Adult Ego State)
  • Spontaneity – the freedom to choose and express feelings (from Parent, Adult and Child Ego States)
  • Intimacy – candidness, liberation (basically our Free Child Ego State).

We all had to adapt to our parents/primary care givers so none of us grow up with a true ‘Free Child Ego State’, however as we are born autonomous and game free, we can choose to return to this state. The more we can engage in the here and now (Adult Ego State) and not allow the mind to take us into the past or the future, the more we are able to step out of the damaging/unhealthy Ego States of the Critical Parent (constant criticism which leads to depression) and Nurturing Parent (constant worrying which leads to anxiety). This allows space to express feelings from the Inner Child that are trapped in the body, things such as journalling, sounding, movement, body work and so on are helpful. As we begin to release blocked emotions/energy, we begin to re-write our negative self-beliefs, relinquish the need for self punishment and we can switch from Adapted Child Ego State to the Free and enjoy things like creativity, imagination, spontaneity and so on. Our Parent Ego States become healthier, instead of criticism there is self-development and instead of over worrying there is self-care. Inner work is hard work, but Berne believed everyone capable of autonomy.

Further Reading:

Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships – Eric Berne

The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle

TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis – Ian Stewart and Vann Joines


Featured Image: George Becker

One Comment on “The Alcoholic Life Game

  1. Still awakens me now. So powerful and true!!! …………….🎈……………..


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