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Nasty Psychological Games People Play

Social interactions gone unhealthy

“Because there is so little opportunity for intimacy in daily life, and because some forms of intimacy (especially if intense) are psychologically impossible for most people, the bulk of the time in serious social life is taken up with playing games.” — Eric Berne

Sometimes we engage in bad habits that make relationships icky and inauthentic. Here’s a look at three ways we do this.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

This model explains a power game we sometimes play. It’s a power game because when we adopt one of the roles, the other person is usually compelled to adopt one of the two remaining roles. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to not engage.

As an example, next time someone comes to you all worked up with annoyance in their voice and a can-you-believe-this-happened-to-me attitude and starts telling you a story instead of attuning to that annoyance, remain neutral and don’t react, just listen.

The level of self-righteousness in that person will decrease dramatically OR you’ll be put into a position of a persecutor. That’s because when someone’s complaining, they’re in victim mode, unconsciously inviting you to adopt a rescuer position (“yes, omg! what, no, I can’t believe he said that what an ass!!!” aka boohoo poor you yes, you’ve nothing to do with this and other people wrong you all the time — I agree with you, you’re powerless).

The victim role is associated with helplessness and hopelessness. Someone else is always to blame for their circumstances. They can’t make decisions, solve problems and “could” potentially change but it’s outside of their control. Victims gravitate towards Rescuers and blame Persecutors.

The rescuer is a version of saviour aka let me save you from yourself and the baddies of the world. There are always “weaker” people they must protect and they take responsibility for saving others. It looks good because it disguises as good intentions but in a healthy adult interaction that’s very icky (call your therapist and look into your childhood icky 😁).

The persecutor is “the bad guy” from the POV of victims and rescuers. Sometimes they are just a scapegoat for the other two roles but other times they can be harsh, critical, judgemental and place blame without providing guidance or explanation.

We engage in these roles on a day-to-day level (work, home, friendships) as well as a societal level. Consider where in your life you engage in these roles.

P.S. I wrote an ironic post on how to be a victim on Instagram which I thought was funny but I’m biased 😉

Child-Parent-Adult ego states

In the psychoanalytic theory called Transactional Analysis, the communication we engage in comes from three ego states: Child, Parent or Adult.

Healthy interactions are created by Adult to Adult ego states but the Child-Parent or Child-Adult is when the interaction becomes dysfunctional.

It’s worth mentioning that both Child and Parent ego states have positive and negative sides to them. For example, a person in a Child state might try hard to get praise and be liked by others but this state also has a playful, creative and spontaneous side. A negative side to a Parent is becoming patronising, controlling and critical but it can also reveal an understanding, softer and nurturing side of us.

Similar to the dynamics in the Karpman triangle, we get invited (or invite someone) into one of these ego states. It plays off of emotional attunement — our ability to recognise, understand and engage with another’s emotional state.

Let’s say you’re in a meeting where conflict/disagreement arises. You could adopt the Parent role, by being authoritative and judgemental in dealing with conflict or revert to a Child ego state where you blame someone else/circumstances or withdraw from the conversation altogether. A healthy, Adult to Adult interaction would be coming into a meeting with an open mind and interest in finding a mutually acceptable solution.

Another example would be being late for work. I might be afraid to be ‘caught’ by my boss and sneak around to avoid them all day (Child-ego state). When the boss finally ‘finds’ me and I start talking about traffic, I invite them to become a Parent and berate me (“Well, leave the house 10 minutes earlier to avoid the traffic then!”). A person in an Adult ego-state would take responsibility for being late and make agreements to show up on time in the future.

Even though most of these interactions happen unconsciously, it doesn’t relieve us from responsibility. Where in your life do you adopt one of these states? How could you change your response going forward?


It’s a broad topic but manipulation is usually aimed at influencing someone for personal aims. It can be good or bad, for example, marketing is a form of manipulation. Pets manipulate.

Everyone manipulates to some extent but the ‘bad’ kind of manipulation is when someone wants to control or affect you in a way convenient to them without caring about your well-being.

I will share what a nasty form of manipulation looks like:

  • Someone says they don’t want to share/do something. Manipulator: Why won’t you do it? Don’t you trust me?

  • I get a feeling you’re not telling me the truth/withholding information. Manipulator: Trust me, when have I ever lied to you? I think you have some serious trust issues.

  • Someone crosses your boundaries and you let them know. Manipulator: Why so serious? I’m just joking. You’re taking things too seriously.

  • Someone gives unsolicited advice. You: I disagree and didn’t ask for advice. Manipulator: You’re so full of yourself.

  • Someone: This doesn’t feel right to me. Manipulator: Other people appreciate when I do this and something’s wrong with you if you don't.


  • Instead of addressing your claim head-on, they deflect and make you question and doubt yourself and your version of reality.

  • Your boundaries are wrong and therefore constantly crossed.

  • Their behaviour cannot be questioned; if it does, you get blamed for misunderstanding it.

  • If they somewhat admit that they crossed the line, it’ll sound something like: I just wanted what’s best for you (they’re the good guy you can’t appreciate).



The above is extremely oversimplified because some readers complain the newsletter is too long and they lose interest 😁 I could probably write a 1000-word essay on each topic, but I will leave this for you to explore further if you’d like.