What keeps happening to you over and over?

An understanding of recurrent patterns using the concept of games and symbiosis
-By Abhijeet Punde

February 8, 2023

In the TA 101, I recognised that I am likely to develop some patterns as a child that may be outside my consciousness, but continue to influence how I make sense of reality in adult life. Some of these patterns can be entrenched and show up repeatedly. The Transactional Analysis concepts of games, discounting and symbiosis helped me recognise these patterns and step out of them.

My Recurrent Pattern

The recurrent pattern that I wanted to explore was the conflict I experienced with my father. I have historically been unable to express my needs to him. He also openly discounted my needs. Whenever he discounted my needs, I experienced hurt. I felt justified in feeling hurt. Learning TA helped me understand that I could be unconsciously drawn to feeling hurt. I was collecting ‘stamps’ i.e. collecting racket feelings. Berne suggests that we have psychological book or collection of books. Every time something happens in life that we feel upset by, we repeat the script- associated beliefs to ourselves and collect racket feelings to hold on to like a trading
stamp. We collect these stamps with an intention to encash them for a pay-off. (Berne, 1975, p165-174)

I realized that I was collecting a feelings of hurt reinforcing the belief ‘I am not OK- You’re OK’ and the pay-off that I was working towards was a breakdown in the relationship with my father. I began to analyse the everyday games that were moving me towards this payoff.

My Game

A game is defined as “an ongoing series of complementary ulterior transactions progressing to a well-defined, predictable outcome.” (Berne, 1964, p. 48) John James, in his article, The Game Plan (James, J. 1973, p.14-17), created a set of questions to discover the specific game pattern of an individual. These questions are

  • What keeps happening over and over?
  • How does it start?
  • What happens next?
  • And then what happens?
  • How does it end?
  • How do you feel after it ends?

I explored my own game with my father by answering these questions for myself. I explored pattern of events that took place over a period but ended in a specific manner.

How does it start? And what happens next?

  • I need crutches to walk. My father provides me help even if I don’t want and/or have not asked. For example, every morning father carries my office bags to the car even though I can. He opens the building gate and does not ask the watchman to do it.
  • I don’t reject the help. I feel annoyed, but don’t express it. I also feel guilty at how much he has to do for me.
  • I want to return the favour to feel less guilty but he refuses to take any from me. e.g. he choses to stand in a queue for hours in a bank to get the passbook updated and complains about how difficult it is. But he refuses my offer to help
    him get internet banking activated.
  • Response: These moves continue for few days, weeks. My reading of ulterior messages exchanged is
    Father to Me: “You need me. I don’t need you.”
    Me to Father: “I actually don’t need you. But I am forced to be grateful.”
  • Through many events like these I keep accumulating racket anger and the intensity builds up

How does it end?

Typically I find an event where I can be angry with my father. Say, my father criticizes my elder daughter for not taking care of her younger sister’s needs I jump in & rescue her by explaining & justifying her actions. I blame him for being over critical and/or maintaining too high expectations from others My righteous justification for my action is, ‘You cannot do to her what you did to me, I
am not going to let it happen’.

How do I feel?

I feel justified in expressing my anger. It makes me feel equal in a relationship for a while.

But after some time, I feel guilty and keep thinking of what could I have done differently to avoid an argument. My script belief, “I am OK only if I can repay my father for his sacrifices” comes into play and my existential position of ‘I Am Not Ok- You’re Ok’ is reinforced. At a deep level I feel sad at not being loved by him and not being a good enough son. My father feels hurt at being misunderstood.

This pattern repeats itself multiple times.

Stepping out of the game

I became aware of my discounting (Schiff, 1971, p. 73) and identified my passive behaviour as over-adaptation (Schiff, 1971, p. 74). For example, I could refuse help, express how I feel when I am helped without needing it. Effectively, I was discounting my ability to influence the situation by thinking & behaving differently. I understood discounting as a process whereby we ignore information relevant to current situation, redefine it to fit our beliefs and imaginations. Thus, we deny our responsibility to respond appropriately to current situation. This discounting supported external passivity.

According to Schiff, the source of passivity is an unresolved dependency, a dysfunctional symbiosis. (Schiff, 1971, p74). She defines symbiosis as “a relationship in which two or more individuals behave as if they constitute one whole person” (Schiff et al., 1975, pg5). Schiff considered Games to be “a re-enactment of the symbiotic relationship in an attempt to get taken care of, or reacting to the
symbiotic relationship with anger.” (Schiff, 1971, p72)

How did this symbiotic relationship with father develop?

Through reflection on my childhood, I realized that I had formed a symbiotic relationship with my father. As a child with physical disability, I was largely dependent on someone to carry me almost till age 7. Primarily my father would do it.

One of my earliest childhood memories is my mother’s message to me that my father has struggled & sacrificed a lot to raise me. My duty was to ensure that my achievements were worth his sacrifices. I ought to ensure that he (father) remains happy.
Reflecting upon my mother’s behaviour and decisions, I feel that she herself was in symbiosis with my father and her message to me was her core belief, which I accepted & never questioned.

With this early influence, though I slowly became independent physically, my father’s appreciation of me and my achievements became a barometer of my self-esteem. My father continued to criticize amply and appreciate rarely. I never expressed my need for appreciation. Nor did I express anger directly for not receiving it. Rather I continued to collect stamps of shame for not being able to be the son that my mother thought I should be.

Feeling one down or ‘I am Not Ok’ in the relationship with my father was over- bearing. I dealt with it by keeping minimal contact with him & not expressing my needs fearing he would jump-in to help. For this I stayed separate, though in same city. After my mother’s death, my father started staying with me and I struggled to come up with any other effective strategy. The result was more frequent game

Reflecting on father’s behavioural pattern I became aware that he was always ready to take over others’ problems and solve them. He refused help even if he struggled.

For example, my mother was terminally ill and was going through chemotherapy. My father readily took entire responsibility of her care, discussed medication with doctors and took decisions, even though I was a 30-year old adult capable of supporting him. Multiple times I expressed my wish to be involved in the discussions with doctors or in other manner help him out but he turned me down. In spite of being aware, he did not tell me that mother was not to recover, but rather mentioned that she was improving and would recover fully. Only by chance I became aware of it, that too from the doctor. When asked, his response was “I did not want your lives to get
affected.” I felt sad and criticized myself for not being good enough to be trusted by him.

Why did I maintain symbiosis that left me with a “Not OK’ feeling?

Having learnt from my mother, I unconsciously believed that the only way in which I could maintain a relationship with my father was by being grateful to him and not confronting him. I was to make him feel valuable and never unhappy. However, the second order structure of the symbiosis educated me on how by accepting his help, I was actually Rescuing him.

My father’s ulterior message was “I need to help you to feel Ok about myself. Also, that is the only way I know to stay connected with you”.

My ulterior message was “I will let you feel OK, that way I can have you with me” This was unhealthy symbiosis, as it involved discounting my abilities/needs viz. (i) taking care of myself, (ii) protecting my right to seek help only if I wished and (iii) expressing my anger about his behaviour.

From symbiosis to differentiation

Awareness brought out through application of TA concepts and tools offered multiple levels of intervention in the typical pattern that I was living. The central objective of these interventions was to break the symbiotic relationship and create well-differentiated me.

Some of the key changes I carried out were

  • I stopped making father’s views grandiose. I reminded myself that my father’s views were based on his script beliefs. They are not the ‘truth’.
  • I disputed my previously held irrational belief that my happiness and sense of worth is based on father’s validation of my achievements. I replaced it with rational belief that being an independent human being, I have a right to define happiness and sense of worth from my perspective.
  • I started remaining more conscious of event-to-event conclusions I was drawing and stamps I was collecting,
  • I replaced my passive behaviour of sulking, self-criticism by Adult actions of expressing my needs. For example, I expressed my relational need for appreciation to my father. I felt disappointed, but I also recognised that I had acted to take responsibility for my needs. I could find alternate ways to get my stroke needs met.
  • Became conscious of discounting of my views & abilities especially situations in which I and/or others were emotionally-charged. For example, recently in an argument my father questioned my views & certain abilities, I assertively
    expressed my disagreement. After which, I neither felt victorious nor guilty. I did not ruminate over the situation and resumed my calm quite immediately.
  • Stopped interpreting father’s ‘offer to help’ as indication of my inability and learnt to refuse help when not needed.). Everyday father used to carry my bags from car park to home, even if I could manage it myself. I told father that I wish to do it
    myself. He did not say anything and sulked. I trusted that he would return to normal and he did. He stopped carrying my bags after that.
  • I stopped taking responsibility of my father’s emotions even though I remained aware and empathetic. This way I was able to remain in Adult ego state (both functionally and structurally). I responded to his threat of abandonment: “I will leave home and stay in old-age home” by mentioning: “If you believe it is THE SOLUTION, then it can be worked out. I would like you to have life of your
    choice and would not like to impose my views about it on you. However, if there is anything that I can do to make your life better here, then we can discuss that”

Where do I stand today?

It has been two years since my introduction to Transactional Analysis concepts with the TA 101. The advanced training that followed gave me a deep understanding of my own patterns and also offered me a way out. Today I can differentiate between healthy and unhealthy symbiosis, and know how to access my Adult resources. I am more at peace in the relationship with my father.

About the author:

Abhijeet Punde is a therapist in private practice. He works with individuals using Transactional Analysis, in which he is in training for last 2 years.

Previously he was associated with an NGO ‘Mentor Together’ as a mentor to provide life skills training to young adults (18-22 yrs) from low income group.

Abhijeet has completed the Diploma in Transactional Analysis. He is certified to carry personality assessment using MBTI psychometric test, has completed basic training in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and Non Violent Communication. He holds Masters in Management from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies (University of Mumbai).

Abhijeet is in a leadership position with a large international bank and lives in Mumbai with his Wife, 2 daughters and a father.

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