See what you've made me do (Jan/Feb 09)

Friday, 01 April 2011 08:04

Dorothy Rowe on the comforts of being a victim

BBC Radio 4 programme You and Yoursis aimed at helping people with the practical problems that can arise in their lives. Not surprisingly, at present the programme is examining the financial problems besetting many people. Amongst those being interviewed the other day was a man in danger of being made bankrupt by his council for non-payment of council tax. This is a terrible situation to be in and the presenter was very sympathetic, but she had to ask the question that everybody listening was asking, ‘Did you talk to the council about the financial difficulties you were in?’ He said that he hadn’t because he had other matters to attend to. But surely he knew that, when you can’t meet your payments, the first thing you should do is talk to your creditors to see if your payments can be adjusted so that you pay whatever you can manage to pay. Some creditors can be ruthless and hard-hearted, but councils have a policy of trying to help people well before the council resorts to bankruptcy, but they can’t do anything if people don’t get in touch with them as soon as they have money problems.

The presenter explained this but the man rejected it. As far as he was concerned, it was the council’s fault. He said, ‘No one knocked on my door and asked if I was in a bit of bother. They’re just sitting up there, drinking cups of tea, and doing nothing.’

If you were listening to this and had read Eric Berne’s wonderful book Games People Playyou’d have recognised immediately that what was being played out here was the game Berne called ‘See what you’ve made me do.’

Bernehad recognised that in our relationships we often play games. What we do might look as if it’s an ordinary interaction between two or more people but actually we’re playing a game where we try to score points or justify what we do. We learn these games in childhood when we’re trying to survive the hazards of family life, but, if we are unwise, we continue to play them in adult life. Then they become the total pattern of our life, always with disastrous results, perhaps the loss of our home, or a lifetime as a psychiatric patient who played the game, ‘See what you’ve driven me to, Mother!’

As children we’re at the mercy of those adults- parents, teachers, older siblings – who should be looking after us but often they fail to do so. To complain would provoke punishment, so why not punish the adults by becoming a very visible victim of something the adult has done. For instance, you’re not hungry but your mother insists that you eat what’s on your plate. You obey, and then you throw up, messily and publicly. See what you made me do, Ma.

There are an infinite number of scenarios where this game can be played, but the payoff is always the same. You want to punish the person who has failed to treat you with the respect you know you deserve, but you don’t want to risk suffering a painful retaliation. By becoming a victim of the negligence committed by the person you want to punish, that person is humiliated by having to apologise for what he had done, or failed to do. As a victim, you aren’t responsible for what has happened, and, even more, onlookers will take notice of you and try to help you. This is very comforting if you’ve been feeling helpless, ignored and friendless.

From an early age children have a keen sense of justice. Most children acquire the belief that we live in a Just World where good people are rewarded and bad people punished. As a child you can feel aggrieved because you’ve been good and you haven’t been rewarded. You want to draw attention to the fact that this wrong must be righted. If this game works when you’re a child, you might resist learning that we don’t live in a Just World but a world where things happen by chance.

The best measure of maturity is the degree to which we accept the uncertainty of life. The world isn’t governed by a Grand Design where rewards and punishments follow what we do as night follows day. Being good doesn’t ensure that you will be looked after, or that those who have failed you will be punished. If we ask people for help, some people will refuse us while others will do what they can. No other person is able to meet all our needs and wishes. The only person who will look after us is ourselves. The council isn’t going to come to you: you have to go to them.

Published in openmind 155 January/February 2009