Ten myths about playing mind games
Games are fun but psychological games are a drag. You have probably heard people decry the mind game playing habit. “I’m not into mind games!” or “I hate people who play mind games.” Maybe you decry it too.
But what exactly are mind games and why do we play them? Here are a few misconceptions about mind gaames:
1. Hating mind games means you know what they are: A lot of people who claim to hate and never play mind games haven’t given much thought to what playing mind games really is. Paying mind games means keeping other people in the dark about our motives. Or at least it’s keeping them in the dim, expressing things on the fine line between just over and just under their radar, subtly drawing their attention to things on our minds, but not acting as though we are, and denying that those things are on our minds when asked. It’s the opposite of communicating clearly and directly what’s on our minds. Or it’s claiming to be un-ambivalent when we’re in fact ambivalent. Playing mind games people around, leaving them guessing what’s really going on with us.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Who me? No of course not! Why would I be mad at you?…sigh…”
“Well then are you disappointed in me?”
“No. Wow you’re paranoid…sigh….”
“Well then what’s wrong?!”
2. Hating mind games means you don’t play them: To be subjected to mind games is decidedly frustrating. But hating a behavior doesn’t mean we don’t engage in it. Hypocrisy comes easy and must be overcome by deliberate effort. First we have to drop a stance that I call exempt by contempt: the assumption that the more you hate a behavior; the more you’re automatically exempt from engaging in it. Second we have to define the behavior and understand the natural and even good reasons any of us might engage in it.
3. Playing mind games is totally avoidable: When we’re frustrated with mind games, we might wish for an ideal world in which no one ever played mind games, where people were just straight with each other, free, honest and clear about what they felt and want, and totally accepting of whatever anyone else felt and wanted. In this ideal world, sharing our feelings and desires would be as simple as sharing a bus schedule, as easy as the communication between your computer’s internal parts. And as logical. Feelings and desires would be entirely rational. Symptomatic of our yearning for that ideal, we hear people say things like, “Mad at you? Why should I be? I have no reason to feel angry” as though anger is only felt when it’s reasonable. The problem with this ideal of course is that it wouldn’t include any of us sensitive, touchy humans. It would be a robo-world.
4. Playing mind games is rare: The folks who decry playing mind games tend to treat it like a rare disease. It isn’t. Since we’re all a little sensitive, people around us will find themselves on the fence about when to open our mouths and when to zip it, when to speak their minds even though it might cause us trouble and when to accommodate us by biting their tongues. In intimacy, we can hear that fence creaking as they sit on it. The fence-sitters may not mean to express ambivalence for effect, but they’ll express it nonetheless.
5. Playing mind games is easy to diagnose: So maybe playing mind games is only a problem when it’s done for effect. If someone is ambivalent but trying not to be, and you notice their ambivalence, that’s not playing mind games. That’s just them trying to be clear when they’re not. Trouble is, how can you tell who is innocently leaking their ambivalence and who is doing it for effect? You can’t tell by asking “are you doing this for effect?” Few if any of us will say “Yeah I’m doing it for effect,” since admitting weakens the effect. No, we have to guess who is expressing ambivalence for effect. Playing mind games is not easy to diagnose.
6. People who play mind games are hysterical: Playing mind games has things in common with being a “drama queen.” Drama queen implies a feminine trait, like “crying like a little girl.” A lot of guys say they want “no drama,” in partnership. Add this up and it suggests that quieter types aren’t mind game players or drama queens. People who play mid games are hysterical (a mythical feminine disease–same root as hysterectomy). Men can play mind games too of course, but only when they’re feminine and expressing a lot of emotions. But here’s the thing about self-expression: You can’t not do it. Imagine sitting on a plane next to someone who wants to interact with you. Is there anything you can do that isn’t some kind of self-expression? Wouldn’t your silence speak volumes too? As the sighs above suggests, one can play mind games subtly. The tiniest twitch of the brow is good enough for playing mind games. Playing mind games doesn’t have to be loud or emotional sounding. Strong silent types can play mind games too.
7. Men play mind games: The opposite stereotype has its advocates. Men are manipulative mind game players. Women are just looking for an honest guy. Pop versions of evolutionary psychology support this view. Men are promiscuous; women are faithful. Men want as many mates as possible and they’re just looking for good genes and a good short time. Women are looking for good genes too, but also a longer time, male parental investment. So men are bound to play mind games to trick women into thinking they’re devoted when they’re actually promiscuous. Scientifically, the story is more complicated than that, not that there isn’t some truth to it. But are women just looking for an honest guy? Are women ready for that ideal world where people just were straight with each other? Perhaps at one time they were because they lived such restricted lives that they couldn’t afford to ever express their feelings and desires (which no doubt led to some game playing too). Summarizing these two gendered myths it’s unlikely that either gender has the corner on the game playing market.
8. People who play mind games are always to blame: Before we leave genders, think a moment about stereotypical patterns for blocking communication. We all have our Noping strategies, our coping ways of saying “don’t go there, keep it to yourself, I’m not listening, I don’t want to deal.” You can nope by shaming, sighing, barking, moralizing, acting wounded, getting fierce or threatening to, getting offended or threatening to, or just going silent and leaving the room. When we nope someone, we contribute to their ambivalence about expressing our feelings and desires. The fence begins to creak loudly. Picture the little kid who needs to go to the bathroom but is forbidden for some reason. He sits on it, he wiggles, he wiggles louder. It’s a little like that. Is the kid to blame or is it the one who forbids him from going? Of course, bathroom trips are mandatory; expressing feelings and desires is not. The metaphor isn’t perfect. Still, there will be times when the one who expresses just above/below the radar is not at fault. The fault lies with the noper who won’t tolerate the feelings the game player wishes he or she could express.
9. Mind game players are passive aggressive: Mind game playing often feels passive aggressive, a term with strong pejorative connotations. Passive aggressive is another one of those terms we employ without defining it or understanding what drives people to it, a term we use as if diagnosing a rare psychological disorder. What makes people passive aggressive, really? Often it’s a news blackout imposed by people they have to deal with. If you’re dealing with people whose noping strategy is in full force, a boss for example who won’t tolerate insubordination which he defines as any self-expression, or a spouse who though claiming to be open-minded makes you feel bad whenever you express your feelings and desires, what other option do you have but to leak your feelings just over/under the radar passive aggressively?
10. Not playing mind games is just a simple moral choice: If these arguments make sense to you, you can see that, though none of us like being played with, stopping or even curbing mind game playing isn’t just some simple moral choice. None of us like being disappointed either, but that doesn’t mean we could all just make a simple moral choice not to disappoint each other. Indeed not wanting to be disappointed or played with are complements to each other. Don’t want to be played with? Don’t be so easily disappointed that you make it impossible for people to speak their minds directly. Don’t want to be forced to play mind games? Associate as much as possible with people who aren’t easily disappointed.