People frequently play painful games with one another—and they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. Psychological insight can help avoid such clueless behavior.
One such game involves the readiness to devalue another person—and then to identify with what that person is likely feeling. Behind the impulse to play this game is the unconscious willingness to re-experience old unresolved feelings of being unworthy or unimportant. (Part II is here.)
William and Emily had been friends and regular dance partners for almost three years. The friendship, though not romantic, had been especially meaningful and enjoyable for Emily. They had drifted apart in recent months because William, without explanation, had withdrawn his interest in her. They now felt some awkwardness when they met occasionally at the dance hall.
On such occasions, William would immediately become defensive. “Oh, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t called,” he typically said in a guilty voice. “I’ve been so busy. I’m sorry I didn’t call. Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me.” Typically, they would have a few dances, but soon he was off dancing enthusiastically with other women.
Emily found his comments very self-centered. He didn’t ask her about how she was doing. It was all about him. And he was putting her on the defensive, she felt, getting her to downplay the hurt she was feeling about their estrangement. Following these encounters she would feel anxious and distressed for days.
“It brings up all my old stuff,” she said. “I feel disrespected and unimportant to him. He used to be so enthused about me. Now I feel helpless to interest him in me again. I feel he’s running the show, and that I’m at his mercy. I ask myself, ‘Did I do something wrong? What did I do to deserve this? I really feel like I lost a friend. Maybe he’s preoccupied.’ Now when I see him, I get hit by a barrage of nonsense. Why is he saying this stuff to me? I wish I had some better comebacks. I feel punished by him. I don’t know where my boundaries are.”
Emily was being pulled into a feeling of being devalued. It seemed to her that William was rubbing that feeling in her face. He was experiencing that feeling too, as was obvious from the guilt and defensiveness he displayed when talking to her. What drove him to play this game? He identified with her feeling devalued and unworthy, which were feelings he harbored about himself. Not only did he harbor those negative feelings, but he was also compelled (unconsciously though not necessarily maliciously) to provoke those feelings in Emily and then identify with what she was feeling. Indeed, she was triggered by his behavior, and she tumbled deeply into a feeling of unworthiness and subsequent loneliness.
In another case, Elizabeth, a client of mine, was able to avoid playing a game of this sort. She was selling a small foreign car she had been driving for several years. A fellow came by to look at it, and he kept chuckling at how small it was. He said several times that he probably couldn’t bring himself to drive such a small car.
They were standing in her driveway, and the potential buyer looked around the neighborhood and suddenly laughed out loud at how small he thought Elizabeth’s house was compared to the one next door. She realized in that moment that this fellow likely wasn’t serious about buying her car, and she managed to end the encounter with him as quickly and graciously as possible.
He wanted to play a game of devaluing the other—but she wasn’t interested. It was obvious to her where, psychologically, he was coming from. He was someone who could—in himself—easily feel small, unworthy, unimportant, and disrespected. Elizabeth knew through her experience of depth psychology that he was emotionally attached to that limited, painful sense of himself, and that he was unconsciously willing and even determined to draw others (herself in this case) into that vexation. Through her inner work, though, she was free and clear of her old attachment to such self-doubt.
As part of the game he was playing, he was inclined unconsciously to believe, through projection, that she was the one feeling the unworthiness (not him), especially as he proceeded to provoke (albeit, unsuccessfully) that feeling in her. Still, he managed to get a “hit” on the old sense of unworthiness because that negative emotion was unresolved within himself. He got a “hit” because he believed she was feeling put down, as he would in her shoes.
His laughter at her expense served as a defense that blocked his awareness of the cruel game he was playing. His laughter covered up his secret determination to identify with the sense of unworthiness he believed she was feeling. “Ha,” his laughter proclaimed, “she’s the one who is feeling belittled and put down, not me.”
Much of the time, to their great detriment, unwary individuals get sucked into playing games of this kind. Elizabeth, however, hadn’t gotten triggered. Her inner work paid off. The fellow was just a nuisance, not a catalyst for any emotional aggravation within herself.
All four of the people in these two examples want, on a conscious level, to feel valued and respected. But only Elizabeth was able to avoid reverting to a default position in the psyche having to do with feeling unimportant and unworthy. These negative emotions constitute a powerful draw. It’s so easy to spiral down into these old familiar emotions. To overcome this negativity, we have to see and “own” our unconscious willingness to experience ourselves through the underlying conflict: Wanting to feel good about oneself, but being lured emotionally into self-doubt and an old identification with feelings of unworthiness.
The unconscious willingness or readiness to feel denigrated or belittled is a symptom of inner passivity. Through inner passivity, people feel some disconnect with themselves. They’re not attuned to their goodness and value. Instead, they feel doubt, uncertainty, and a separation from who and what they are.
Because of inner passivity, our aggressive inner critic comes in and lords it over us. It starts to denigrate and belittle us. We get drawn into the game of denigration with others because it’s the inner game we play with ourselves through the conflict in our psyche between inner passivity and inner aggression. When we see the inner conflict, we’re able to resolve it. Now we’re immune to denigration and self-alienation.
When individuals see themselves at this deep level, they’re being honest with themselves, in terms of their willingness to see clearly into this inner conflict or emotional weakness. Seeing ourselves objectively is the royal road to empowerment and freedom from suffering. It’s the path on which we heal the disconnection from ourselves. When we know ourselves at this level, and thereby feel our intrinsic goodness and value, no one is able to denigrate us through sly or crass insinuations because we simply deflect such nonsense.